Saturday, August 30, 2014

John Hamish Watson, MD or The Mystery of the Carried Gun

Among readers of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, there has always been speculation about the identity of Dr. Watson’s mentioned but never named “service revolver”[1] and that has dovetailed with my interest in Victorian armament.  So I have put together a list of possible suspects.  Let me say I am by no means a sage on Holmesian literature and the study of British firearms of the Victorian period is a tangled web at best.  Further, the study of British 19th century cartridges and manufactures is even more fraught with confusion.  But first, let me set out some pertinent information about our esteemed Dr. Watson.  Self-depreciating, Watson seldom talked about himself outside of the chronicled adventures with Holmes, so we have do a little detective work ourselves. 

We find out in A Study in Scarlet, by Arthur Conan Doyle (written 1886, pub 1887) that Watson got his medical degree in 1878 and at some point afterward he joined the British army (rank unknown), at some time and then attached to the 66th Berkshire Regiment of Foot (no doubt in the capacity as doctor).  He was wounded during the 2nd Anglo-Afghan War at the Battle of Maiwand (27 July 1880).  Doyle may have also lumped the catastrophic retreat to Kandahar into the action, but probably not the subsequent  Battle of Kandahar and the relief action itself.  Dr. Watson survived the battle and his wound, and he recuperated for a few months (presumably in India or possibly South Africa) before returning from overseas to London and leaving the army.  That would make it at least 1881 or so, (with travel time added) that Watson meets Holmes in London, presuming they met fairly soon after his arrival.  Another indicator of the time frame is that the ever-perceptive Holmes did not comment on Dr. Watson’s wound so it must have fully healed, nor did Watson suggest it slowed him down in the least during A Study in Scarlet, indicating a full recovery.

As a side note, Dr. Watson was not the bungling second-rater or stooge as depicted on the stage and in later films[2], but a battle-hardened veteran and combat doctor, exposed to the grueling life on the frontier as well as having seen (and treated) casualties and a horrific battle, retreat, siege, battle again and relief, not seen since the Sepoy Mutiny (or the earlier 1st Afghan War) just a generation previously.  He survived a wound and was willing to go on to adventures with his new-found friend and later roommate, Sherlock Holmes, about a year after these traumatic events.  Watson’s toughness, resourcefulness, and overall pluck were overshadowed by his reluctance to put himself forward when writing these stories.  Consider that Watson never put himself forward in the Holmsian screeds nor even wrote a memoir about horrific the Battle of Maiwand, so that you never see the real Dr. Watson.  But if you read a bit about the battle and the 66th you might get the idea of the level of carnage and bravery of the action.
Back to our story.  If you presume that Watson carried his standard issue pistol from Afghanistan in at least the first few adventures, then it would probably be the approved and issued Adams Mk III in .450 caliber.  It was a large-framed, bulky military holster revolver and not conducive to concealed carry necessary for a detective, nor would it fit well into all but the largest overcoat pocket.  The Mark III was directly descended from the venerable percussion revolver of Sepoy Mutiny and Crimean War fame, with numerous upgrades such over the years such as the action being modified from double action only to a double action/single action mechanism and to take metallic cartridges.  This much-modified product of years of tinkering and the final product, the Adams Mk III was finally declared obsolete for the British Army in 1882.  The replacing gun was nearly as bulky, the Enfield revolver in 1882, which was replaced again, this time by the Webley Mk I in 1887, a much more compact and modern gun.  The Webley series of revolvers continued to serve Britain for decades. 

However, because many British officers had the option to choose and purchase their own pistols, it might have been another weapon than the official Adams Mk III.  Also, seeing that Watson, having been an ex-military man and a modern detective, he might have just purchased a newer, more state-of-the-art gun every time a useful new model came out to keep up with technology.  So it would not be a single gun, but a suite of revolvers suited to specific purposes (like concealment) used by Dr. Watson over the years, such as the Webley R.I.C or a Webley Bulldog, which were not British military issue service guns, but quite popular officer purchase weapons and for carry with police and private individuals.  The Royal Irish Constabulary (R.I.C.) was a popular British police issue gun and there were and many copies were made on the Continent as well.  Yes, London Police carried guns and they had been armed off and on since 1883, with 821 receiving firearms instruction that year.   Even earlier, police were irregularly armed over the previous decades and even earlier they carried a light sword as well as a brace of flintlock pistols, but that is beyond our story.
I have handled a number of guns listed here over the years such an early Adams models, a number of Bulldogs, both British made and popular Belgian copies as well as the time-honored Webley Mk I through the Mark VI.  Excluding the Adams because of its great size, they all are sturdy and functional, moderately concealable, eminently carryable on the person without a holster and had stout, heavy cartridges for close work and very popular in their day.  The Adams traces its origin back to the muzzle loading, percussion cap era of the early 1850s with constant updates, while retaining the same large frame, with a rather weak cartridge but was the standard service arm of the British army for a long time.

To further muddy the waters, the author himself (Doyle), was apparently not well versed in arms or weapons terminology and made a few errors himself:  Referring to an Eley’s No. 2 (a large bore rifle cartridge) when he might have meant a Webley Revolver No. 2 in .440 rimfire or possibly a Webley R.I.C. No. 2, which would have a variety of loads from .450 to .320  (The Speckled Band, 1892).   The Eley Brothers made and imported cartridges of all types but they never made firearms.  He also mentions Boxer cartridges, which refers to a type of patented cartridge primer system, not to any particular cartridge and certainly not to any specific gun (Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, 1894).  Given number of gun references in Watson’s narratives, apparently firearms were lying all about the apartment and certainly daggers adorned the walls.  I’m sure they shared guns or had a common arsenal. 

The true answer to this gun quandary is that the Ely Number 2 references was probably to a cartridge very similar to a .22 CB cap [7] and fired from a variety of small guns (single shot and revolver) made for indoor target shooting much like a gallery or saloon gun.  The Number No. 2 Ely cartridge had no propellant powder and the bullet was just sent down the barrel by the power of the primer only.  I told you it was confusing and Doyle’s unfamiliarity with firearms and cartridges of the late Victorian  period just muddies already murky waters. The only other alternative is another Eley No. 2 (headstamped such, see illustration) for an express rifle and 4 ½ inches long – clearly not a pistol round and not for shooting indoors, at least I wouldn’t do so.   See footnotes [3] [4] [5] [6]

So what we have here are probably several guns used by the good doctor (and his partner Holmes as well) over a period of years.  The first of the bunch being the pistol that Watson carried in Afghanistan and in the first adventures.  Later he probably procured smaller, more modern pistols as his career continued through the decades.  Some of the best guesses for later guns would be the Webley R.I.C. or Bulldog (and copies) and possibly later than that, the venerable military issue Webley Mk I (adopted 1887 and available as a civilian purchase model).  All of these later guns are somewhat compact and have powerful cartridges.  But ultimately, there is no proof positive of any particular gun being used by Dr. Watson in his adventures beyond the shadow of a doubt.  With this final Holmesian mystery about which gun(s) Watson might have carried, I leave the reader with the admonishment that it is indeed not elementary at all.
I actually originally wrote the bones to this article about three years ago, mostly in response to a Propnomicon post about a cased prop Watson gun, but let the article languish uncompleted.  Once I came back to the subject, I found that a few others had attempted to figure out the Watson gun question, so I decided to polish up the article and publish it finally.  I had intended to also produce a second Holmsean weapons article about the air gun used by Col Moran in the Adventure of the Empty House, but it didn’t go much beyond the outline stage.  Hopefully I’ll get that article put together.

Footnotes (of course)
[1] "I have my old service revolver and a few cartridges."  Dr. John Watson to Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet.

[2] Early depictions of Sherlock Holmes and Watson have actor William Gillette set the stage in his interpretation of Holmes and the associated clichés.  Most notably, Basil Rathbone & Nigel Bruce followed the Gillette formula in film.  Lately some of the caricatures have been rehabilitated and the clichés have finally been retired.   See also

[3] Because of this confusion on gun loadings, many guns had the calibers stamped on the barrel, often with specific manufactures recommended or mandated.  Many novices mistake the cartridge attribution information stamped on the barrel or frame for the model of the gun.  The danger of using the wrong loadings has only increased with time as more powerful smokeless cartridges might be used in more fragile black powder frames with dire consequences.

[4] There was an article published in the magazine Black Mask:  John Stanley attended several gatherings of the Baker Street Irregulars and even authored a monograph on the handguns used by Holmes and Watson that appeared in the July 1948 issue of Black Mask.  Vol 31 No 4.  The cover was by Peter Stevens, "Leave Killing to the Cops" by Curtis Cluff.  I haven’t been able to find a copy, but this might lead somebody to put the article on line. 

[5] In The Hound of the Baskervilles, he has Holmes emptying “five barrels into the creature’s flank,” he undoubtedly meant five chambers as I doubt Holmes was carrying an obsolete pepperbox revolver.  In The Musgrave Ritual (1893) Holmes says, ... ”I have always held, too, that pistol practice should distinctly be an open-air pastime; and when Holmes in one of his queer humours would sit in an armchair, with his hair-trigger and a hundred Boxer cartridges, and proceed to adorn the opposite wall with a patriotic V.R. done in bullet-pocks, I felt strongly that neither the atmosphere nor the appearance of our room was improved by it.”  Again, Boxer is a primer system not a cartridge manufacturer.  Besides it was probably Eley No. 2s he was shooting with a saloon gun shooting CB caps, as anything else would have done more than just pock the wall plaster.

[6] A few additional gun-related quotes written by the good Doctor:
In The Adventure of the Speckled Band, (1892) Holmes suggests, “An Eley's No. 2 is an excellent argument with gentlemen who can twist steel poker's into knots. That and a tooth-brush are, I think, all that we need.”  In The Adventure of the Dying Detective, (1913) Doctor Watson reveals that, “His [Holmes] occasional revolver practice within doors ... made him the very worst tenant in London.”  Apparently he wasn’t evicted for shooting holes in the walls back in The Musgrave Ritual.

[7] CB standing for Conical Bullet and BB for Bulleted Breech, but for our purposes they are about the same.  The term BB bears no relationship to our modern spring guns and airguns firing copper coated iron .177 cal “BBs” we are now familiar (You’ll put your eye out).  The CB cap was developed by Louis-Nicolas Flobert originally in 1845, one of the oldest self contained metallic cartridges, although it contained no powder, it just uses the power of the primer as the propellant.
Links of Interest

Notes on the arming of British police

Notes on saloon, salon, parlor guns and their craze.   
You can also Google the manufacturers Flobert and Remington for examples.



  1. .450 Adams was officially known as .450 Boxer Mk I, so there would have been "Boxer ammunition." You are right that it refers to the priming system.

    1. Victorian arms nomenclature can be confusing at best. Later, some 20th century collectors coined their own terms and references. The two main primer types in cartridges were Boxer and Berdan, but that's out of the scope of the article.

      Doyle may have added some mud to the waters, but they were already quite murky. Thanks for commenting.

  2. In the Jeremy Brett version of Sherlock Holmes he is seen in a number of episodes carrying a Colt Single Action Army with the 7 1/2 inch barrel. Perhaps Holmes recognized the superiority of American firearms and decided to upgrade.

    1. I spotted one of those, but what ammo would he have used in it? The Webley .455 Mk II cartridge?

    2. The SAA Colt (first generation) was in constant production from 1873 to 1940 and the later generations were produced from 1956 up to modern times. Of interest is that the SAAs were produced in some of the calibers preferred by Europeans such as .380 Eley, .44 Russian, .450 Boxer, .450 Eley, .455 Eley, and .476 Eley. Some SAAs made in the US for sale in the UK, would even bear the Pall Mall London address markings on the barrel. For Holmes fans, those calibers were popular outside of the US and a serial numbers under 182,000 would place the item as manufactured before Dec 1899. CCF