Spencer Safety Hammerless Revolver
©Paul M. Alvarez 2003
It is interesting how some of us are so
sure of ourselves, to the point where we reject even the remotest of
possibilities. As a young man I was an avid reader of gun magazines as well as
detective novels and mysteries. I recall reading on more than one occasion one
of our erstwhile gun experts lambasting a fiction writer for having a character
in a book remove the safety on a revolver before using it. After all,
“everyone knows that revolvers don’t have safeties"! Agatha
Christie wrote the phrase "he released the safety-catch of his
revolver" in more than one of her books and Alan Furst in his book Red
Gold, as well as others, have used similar phrases.
In actual point of fact there have been several revolvers with safeties. The Webley-Fosberry had one, and this is the one with which Christie would have been most familiar as it was British Army issue. Some would argue that it wasn’t really a revolver, it was an autoloader with a cylindrical magazine and that it was an aberration. However, on the “Continent” the Imperial-German Commission Revolver Models of 1879 and 1883 had safeties, as did some versions of the Belgian and French “Apache” and “Bulldog” type pinfire revolvers.
On this side of the Atlantic we have eschewed that device on cylinder guns. That is, with the exception of this rather interesting and novel piece that belies the entire premise of revolvers and safeties. The Spencer Safety Hammerless Revolver as manufactured by Maltry and Henley in the 1890s and is, in most respects, typical of the era, it is a solid steel frame revolver, chambered for a .32 caliber center-fire cartridge with fancy hard-rubber grips to round out the package. But, it has some very interesting features, beginning with that very device! Mounted at the rear of the frame, at the "hump" is a thumb activated safety.
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The safety consists of a knurled wheel which when rotated forward interposes a block so that the hammer cannot travel rearward to fire the pistol. Rotating it rearward removes the block so that the hammer is free to move and strike the frame mounted firing pin. While innovative and unobtrusive, the safety is small and difficult to manipulate. A bit of sweat or blood on your hands and it becomes almost impossible to deactivate it in a hurry. I cannot imagine why anyone would carry this piece for self-defense with the safety on. The rebounding firing pin and long double-action-only trigger make it as safe as any modern revolver without the need of the safety. I suppose that it might have had some merit as a bedside weapon where a child might inadvertently find it. An un-knowledgeable person would not easily determine how to deactivate the safety and fire the piece.
This revolver has patent dates of January 24th 1888 and October 29th 1889 and is marked "Spencer Safety Hammerless" on the barrel rib. My edition of Flayderman's Guide estimates that approximately two thousand were made and that they had a solid brass barrel/frame and a steel cylinder. This particular piece has an obviously steel barrel/frame and a serial number of 25,xxx. This could very well just have been wishful thinking on the part of the makers. It seems to me that a firearm with more than 25,000 production would have been better known.
The Spencer has other unusual features as well. As stated before, the barrel and frame are machined from a single piece of steel. There is a detachable sub-frame that holds most of the action parts and is held in the frame by three screws. This makes it easy to dismantle for cleaning and repair.
The cylinder bolt is at the top of the frame much like very early Smith & Wesson tip-up revolvers rather than at the bottom like most modern revolvers. This piece has a checkered extension that can be pressed with the thumb to free the cylinder for loading and unloading from the right side of the pistol. The top of the cylinder stop is grooved and doubles as the rear sight. There is also a spring-loaded cylinder pin retaining latch at the front of the frame
The combination of these features certainly classifies the Spencer as a true oddity and the only American revolver manufactured with a thumb safety. It achieved only moderate success in spite of its attributes, or perhaps because of them. It also suffered from being ahead of its time. In today's litigious society, perhaps another revolver with a safety might be in our future.