Rollin White Arms Co. Pocket Revolver

The late 1850’s was a wild time for many gunmakers. Smith & Wesson had turned the industry upside down with its Model 1 revolver, and companies were scrambling to come up with a better design. There were also some that chose to flagrantly ignore Smith & Wesson’s patent on the bored-through cylinder, and the aptly-named Rollin White Arms Company was one of them.

The student of early American arms will immediately recognize the name Rollin White. He was the inventor that actually (and somewhat accidentally) patented the bored-through cylinder in 1855. It was part of a much larger patent that was fundamentally unworkable, but that one small design feature proved to be seminally important to Smith & Wesson, whose cartridge-load ammunition required the cylinder to be bored through. Rollin White happily gave Smith & Wesson an exclusive license to use his patent for a fee of 25¢ per revolver. It seemed like such a good idea until the resulting lawsuits (which White was contractually forced to bankroll) nearly destroyed him financially.

While all of this was happening, a curious company popped up on the radar in 1864: the Rollin White Arms Company. One could be forgiven for assuming that this was Rollin White’s company, but there’s considerable debate about whether Rollin White had anything to do with its founding. He is not listed among the company’s first officers in 1864, and it was only in 1865 that his name appears in a shareholder list (with just over 8% of the shares to his name).

Rollin White wasn’t a lily-white operator, and it’s entirely possible that he decided to start a company that would violate the very patent contract he held with Smith & Wesson. Like Lucius Pond, White needed to make money to support his lifestyle (especially after buying this house in Lowell).

While all of this was happening, a curious company popped up on the radar in 1864: the Rollin White Arms Company. One could be forgiven for assuming that this was Rollin White’s company, but there’s considerable debate about whether Rollin White had anything to do with its founding. He is not listed among the company’s first officers in 1864, and it was only in 1865 that his name appears in a shareholder list (with just over 8% of the shares to his name).

Rollin White wasn’t a lily-white operator, and it’s entirely possible that he decided to start a company that would violate the very patent contract he held with Smith & Wesson. Like Lucius Pond, White needed to make money to support his lifestyle (especially after buying this house in Lowell).

All of this context brings us back to this little revolver, which looks remarkably like a Smith & Wesson Model 1. The likeliness cannot be considered a coincidence, but the differences are curious and worth mentioning.

The Smith & Wesson Model 1 has a tip-up barrel, which hinges along the top strap just in front of the cylinder. The Rollin White pistol has no such hinge; the frame and barrel are solid, and the gun is loaded by pulling out the cylinder pin and removing the cylinder entirely. It’s debatable which system is better; the Smith & Wesson design is undoubtedly more elegant, but it’s also a lot more fragile. The S&W would also have cost a lot more money to manufacture.

Even more curious are the barrel markings on the Rollin White gun. Along the left barrel flat is stamped “BY ROLLIN WHITE ARMS CO LOWELL MA.”, which isn’t all that surprising. The top strap has a more curious roll mark: “MADE FOR SMITH & WESSON.”

Smith & Wesson were jealous of their patent, which gave them a monopoly on the cartridge revolver. They promptly sued anyone that was violating the patent, and this included the Rollin White Arms Company. As a result, the Rollin White Arms Company was forced to turn over their stock of revolvers, which Smith & Wesson subsequently marked and sold (and profited handsomely from). This is one of those very guns.

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