Forehand & Wadsworth: The Forgotten Revolver Maker

A New Generation of Firearms for A New Market It is said that the Civil War played an instrumental role in America becoming a nation of people who conceal-carry. The battles that were carried out oh-so-close to every American’s home have re-framed the way American people thought about carrying – in a good way! Every American wanted to carry, so a new market was born (or at least, expanded overnight): concealable firearms started selling like bread. As a result, inexpensive pocket firearms flooded the market; every entrepreneur tried to milk the market’s demand for concealable firearms – very much like in our days, I would say. These manufacturers (like Avenger, Tramp’s Terror and Bang Up, etc.) proved not to be particularly notable, so their legacy didn’t last. But this new market demand was also a great opportunity to establish a profitable source of income. Some gunmakers – like Smith & Wesson – were able to become reputable enough to endure for decades. Other gunmakers – like Forehand & Wadsworth – made it to success for only a brief period of time, although they produced firearms that had great potential. Eventually, their name got lost in the pages of history.

Forehand & Wadsworth was, for a time, one of the nation’s best known manufacturers of small, concealable revolvers. Today, they are largely forgotten. By the third generation of owners, the company declined enough not to be notable. It is a shame, because Forehand & Wadsworth had all the potential it needed in order to become another one of the all-American legacy names in the firearms industry. Forehand & Wadsworth firearms were quite smart (although sometimes *too inspired* from the S&W designs…), they owned an impressive factory, they passed on the trade for a few generations in the family, and their name sounded British enough to be snazzy and trendy. (As we know, branding always works). The Story of Forehand & Wadsworth As the story goes, Ethan Allen, the father of Forehand & Wadsworth, began his career as a cutlery maker in Milford, Massachusetts, in 1831. He gained the knowledge of metalworking and manufacturing processes by producing knives and small shoemaking tools before moving his business to Grafton and shifting the trajectory of his career. Soon after beginning his career as a cutlery maker, while working on a cane gun for a doctor, Allen came up with the idea for an underhammer pocket revolver. He designed it and patented it, and it seems like it was a truly successful endeavour.

He opened his first gun making shop in Grafton, Connecticut, in 1832. Around 1942, after a decade of building a strong reputation, Allen entered a partnership with Charles Thurber (one of his brothers in law) and relocated five years later to Worcester, Massachusetts, a small metallurgical city at the time. Thurber retired in 1856, making room for another one of Allen’s brothers in law, T.P. Wheelock, to join the company that was rebranded as Allen & Wheelock. Ethan Allen married his daughters to Sullivan Forehand (who apparently was a prolific bookkeeper with a truly entrepreneurial spirit) and Henry C. Wadsworth (a former officer in the Union army, a steady and solid man). Forehand was originally hired as an accountant at Allen & Wheelock in 1856 and married Allen’s daughter Nettie, in 1859. By then, Wadsworth had already married another of Allen’s daughters. When Wheelock left Allen & Wheelock in 1863, Wadsworth reconsidered joining the family business. Thus, the two entrepreneurs followed in the footsteps of their father in law. In order to accommodate his sons in law, Allen renamed the company (yet again!) Ethan Allen & Co., the “& Co.” referring to his sons-in-law. But when Allen died in January 1871, the firm was renamed Forehand & Wadsworth, after the two new principals. Allen seemed to have a strong generational thinking, as his efforts focused on keeping the gunmaking business in the family. He invested and partnered with family members in what would become almost a dynasty of American gunmaking. This might be why Forehand & Wadsworth is one of the gunmaking companies that had their name changed very often – no one wanted another member of the family to feel less important when joining in. During the existence of the company (71 years), Forehand & Wadsworth changed names 8 times. It is hard to speculate if the two sons in law would have otherwise been attracted to the firearms industry, had the business not been established by their father in law. But it seems like they were qualified and interested enough in running the family company after Mr. Allen’s death. At the same time, it is said that Forehand is the one who de facto ran Forehand & Wadsworth – more like an alcoholic who runs a one-man show. There isn’t a lot of information available about Wadsworth’s activities prior or after his retirement. Forehand & Wadsworth flourished under Forehand’s leadership. The company manufactured a variety of black powder and cartridge revolvers, including several versions of the British Bull Dog revolver. By 1880, Forehand & Wadsworth was offering several single and double barrelled shotguns, in addition to their revolvers. The double barrel shotgun (named Breech-Loading Shot Gun), was available in 12- and 10-gauge, and it seemed to gain popularity very fast. The Single Barrel Breech-Loading Shot Gun featured a side-mounted hammer, and resembled in its general lines the Morse percussion rifle. The New Hammerless Single Barrel Breech Loading Shot Gun was quite a surprisingly well designed top-lever 12-gauge, and it was made available on the market with a 30-, 32- or 36-inch barrel and automatic extractors. Other offerings included derringers, rifles and shotguns.

In spite developing these new designs, Forehand & Wadsworth was a company made famous by revolvers, and they never ceased working on improving their designs, partnering with different companies and retailers (sometimes at the cost of not branding their revolvers), and sometimes borrowing firearm designs from S&W – like everyone else did at the time. Their records seem not to have survived to this day, but there are rumours that they have sold a tremendous amount of S&W clones.

Wadsworth sold his share of the company to Forehand in 1890 in order to retire, and the company was rebranded as Forehand Arms Co.. After only 9 years, Forehand died at the early age of 66 by natural causes but nevertheless, unexpectedly, leaving Forehand Arms Co. to his sons, Frederick and Charles. For about four years after their father’s death, Frederick and Charles ran Forehand Arms Co. – not very successfully. The company was then sold to one of their competitors and sub-contractors, Hopkins & Allen (unrelated to Ethan Allen). The F&W Revolvers, From a Gunsmith’s Perspective: Working on a Forehand & Wadsworth In order to restore this little guy, we spent quite a bit of time looking up any kind of technical information that we could find; but there is a very limited amount of information available out there. This is why we made a quick assembly video while working on this small .38 revolver:

It comes as no surprise that there are no parts available on the market for this revolver. For our restoration project, we actually purchased another identical revolver in order to source the parts. This would probably be the recommended approach when it comes to restoring a revolver like this or a firearm similar in value to the Forehand & Wadsworth revolvers: purchase a second identical firearm for parts. Having said this, bear in mind that most antique firearms were only roughly machined and then manually fitted, as our ancestors have not been exposed to the joy and horror of AI and CNCs. What this means in practical gunsmithing, is that when you purchase a second firearm for parts, even if it is an identical model, the parts will not be inter-changeable without manual re-fitting. The parts have originally been fitted to the firearm you purchase, so when you use them as replacements, they will need to be re-fitted manually. A good armorer should be able to do this, but it is best to work with a gunsmith who has experience with antique firearms. The fitting needs to be done in such a way that it renders the firearm functional, not only assembled. Is a functional Forehand & Wadsworth more valuable than a non-functional one? In general, yes – except for very specific cases; but like in all firearms restoration projects, you should always consult with your gunsmith regarding the market value of your firearm in pre-restored condition vs. post-restored condition, if the market value is of interest to you. However, some of these inexpensive firearms are fun to own as conversation ice breakers and collectibles of little value; most of the times, curio collectors don’t particularly care about the market value of inexpensive fun little firearms. The Forehand & Wadsworth revolvers are definitely part of this “fun-to-have curios and antiques” category, without representing a substantial value.

When it comes to working on these revolvers, there is a lot of manual fitting – more so because of the age of the gun rather than the brand. The quality of their design versus another manufacturer's design is relatively au pair. The assembly and disassembly level of difficulty is equivalent to a Smith & Wesson; in fact, they are very much like S&W, since Smith & Wesson designs were often the starting point for the Forehand & Wadsworth (and other contemporary firearm manufacturer’s) designs. Regarding the quality of the machining work on the Forehand & Wadsworth, these revolvers show an average or slightly better than average quality for the time they were produced in. They can be classified as decent-to-good for their manufacture timeframe; the inside of the frame for the particular Forehand & Wadsworth in the footage was pretty rough, but a lot of the machining of the inside of guns at that time was not great in comparison to what we expect now with the CNC and other technologies. The Forehand & Wadsworth that we restored was chromed so the outside was cleaned up nicely from the factory, as chroming requires good metal preparation. They did decent metal preparation job to the outside of the firearm before chroming it, and that was still visible even though the chrome was quite worn out by the time we restored it. Overall, Forehand & Wadsworth produced good, decent quality revolvers, but not top of the line. They are solid firearms, but not precious in any way. Current Market Value of Forehand & Wadsworth Revolvers F&W revolvers are not particularly valuable, although during certain periods of time they seem to have produced better revolvers than during other periods of time, depending on the leadership and the quality control standards. Depending on the period of time when they were produced and on their condition, a revolver’s value can range from $250 - $600 - but they only go over $300 when they are in a particularly good condition (new / like new / never shot), or restored beyond any reproach. A good example of the market value can be found at this link, at the Rock Island Auction. Fun Fact about Forehand & Wadsworth It is said that Forehand & Wadsworth was the weapon of choice of Elvis Presley. The double-action .38 Forehand & Wadsworth Break Top revolver below was found in Elvis Presley's Palm Springs home after the King moved from the residence, and it is believed it was his. Elvis owned many guns and knives and was usually packing, even on stage, according to his chief of security in the mid-1970s, Richard Grob. The Forehand & Wadsworth left behind by Elvis is in fine to very fine condition with some tarnishing to the finish. He was storing this Forehand & Wadsworth in a wooden Corina cigar box. It was last auctioned by Heritage Auctions in 2011, but it was not sold. So if you are into Forehand & Wadsworth or Elvis or both, this little curio might peak your interest.