Like Rollin White and Lucius Pond and Christian Sharps and just about every other gunmaker in the 1860’s, Merwin & Bray of New York were looking for a way to effectively complete with Smith & Wesson, whose exclusive license to Rollin White’s patent gave them a monopoly on the cartridge-load revolver that everyone was vying for. The front loading revolver was another example of a gun designed to artfully dodge Rollin White’s patent in a manner that wouldn’t result in a costly lawsuit. In this case, the gun actually did work—but the front-loading cartridges proved to be too much of a hassle to make this gun any sort of real threat to Smith & Wesson.
Front loading cartridges actually echo the earlier cap and ball revolvers that loaded from the front. The problem, of course, is that the spent cartridges need to be extracted from the cylinder—unlike a cap and ball revolver, where nothing is left behind in the cylinder bore (except for oil and soot). This revolver shows one solution to this problem—a little lever on the side of the gun that allowed the cartridges to be extracted. It’s an elegant if somewhat impractical solution, since the extractor lever could easily have snagged on clothing.
Despite this, Merwin & Bray did manage to sell about 20,000 of these guns before the Rollin White patent expired and everyone could get in on the action.
As was often the case, the financier of this effort was actually the distributor—Merwin & Bray. Plant’s Manufacturing Co. of New Haven, CT, and the Eagle Arms Co. of New York City did the actual manufacturing of the gun. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that Plant was actually owned by Merwin & Bray.
In terms of the gun itself: it’s surprisingly well done. I’m not sure that it would have been my first choice for a defensive or target shooting arm, but I don’t doubt that it would have fired consistently.