Maltese Falcons And An Old Etonian

My wife and I were thinking about a vacation trip when a flyer came in the mail about a tour to the Mediterranean island nation of Malta. I was a bit familiar with it as it played a vital strategic role in World War II. So much so that it was the most heavily bombed piece of real estate in history. It was a heroic stand and King George VI awarded the island the George Cross with the words, “To honour her brave people I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history.” It was the first of only two times the George Cross has been a collective award. So important is the award to the Maltese that when the nation became independent of Great Britain in 1964 a representation of the medal was given a place of honor on the hoist of the national ensign.   

As a pilot Malta holds a special place as it is famous for three Gloster Sea Gladiator biplanes, named ‘Faith’, ‘Hope,’ and ‘Charity’, who helped defend the island against the Italian ‘Regia Aeronautica’ in 1940. The fuselage of ‘Faith’ is preserved in Malta’s National War Museum. My brother was most insistent that I take the tour to bring him back photos to add to his Brobdingnagian collection of airplane pictures. Not so insistent that he offered to underwrite part of the trip, but that is another story. 

Another aviation connection happened shortly after the three biplanes became famous.  George Frederick “Buzz” Beurling, DSO, DFC, DFM & Bar, Canada’s leading ace of World War II, arrived on the island to claim 27 of his 32 aerial victories over Axis aircraft. It was not without cost; however, he was shot down four times. His reckless aerial derring-do reflected his persona. He was rebellious and distained authority. Therefor he picked up two nicknames “Buzz,” he was in the habit of  beating up airfields, and “Screwball” for his erratic behavior. But he was a skilled fighter pilot in the right place at the right time. He was fast, maneuverable, and preyed on Axis aircraft which reminded the beleaguered citizens of Malta of Falco peregrinus brookei and so he was hailed as “The Falcon of Malta.” 

Then there is The Maltese Falcon. John Huston’s 1941 film noir classic based on a  Dashiell Hammett book. The Maltese Falcon is the tale of San Francisco private detective Sam Spade’s adventures as he deals with three unscrupulous denizens of the underworld who are out to find a golden bejeweled statuette of a falcon. As one might expect, guns play a prominent part in this story.     

A few  minutes into the film Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, is center in the screen when a hand rises and it a revolver A shot follows, and Archer lies dead. Fade to an exchange between Detective Tom Polhaus, played by Ward Bond, who greets Humphrey Bogart’s Spade with:  

“Hello, Sam. I figured you’d want to see it before we took him away.” 

“Thanks, Tom. What happened?” 

“Got him right through the pump with this.” 

“It’s a Webley.” 

“English, ain’t it?” 

A Webley-Fosbery. automatic, six -shot. They don’t  make ’em anymore”  

Most folks in the audience would have questioned Spade’s identification of the pistol in question. It looked like a revolver,  but it was, in fact, an automatic pistol. 

The pistol’s inventor, an Old Etonian named George Vincent Fosbery, was commissioned into the Bengal Army in 1852. Thirteen years later, in a fierce engagement with Pashtuns at a Northwest Frontier outpost called  Crag Picquet he earned a Victoria Cross. Probably armed with what passed as the standard officer sidearm at the time, the cap and ball muzzle loading 0.422 Adams revolver, he must have seen an improvement was needed.  Twenty five years later he retired as a lieutenant colonel and began designing firearms.  

The innovative pistol was based on the Webley Government Mk VI.  The cylinder was modified with engraved zig zag tracks which engaged a stud in the bottom of the frame. When the gun is fired, the upper body recoils advancing the cylinder half way to the next chamber, and cocking the hammer.  When the upper body returns to battery, the cylinder turns the next half turn to line up the next chamber. It was very well made, but the open tracks made it susceptible to dirt and fouling. 

The Webley–Fosbery was never adopted by the British Army as it’s sidearm. Nearly a foot long and weighing in at a whopping 2 ¾ pounds unloaded it was both unwieldy and heavy. Despite its clumsy size it saw limited action in both the Boer Wars and World War I when some British officers privately purchased them. 

Undeterred by the pistol’s lack of commercial success, Fosbery went on to develop what he called the Paradox Gun, It was a side by side shotgun capable of firing both shot and a bullet because it had broad shallow rifling for the last few inches of the length of the barrel. It was capable of accuracy out to about 150 yards.  Manufactured by Holland and Holland in eight, ten, and 12 bore they were very popular with the professional big game hunters who ran safaris in British East Africa during the early  decades of the 20th Century.  

While the Paradox Guns certainly accounted for uncounted buffaloes, hippos, elands, zebras, oryxes, waterbucks Greater and Lesser Kudus,  lions, leopards, elephants, Cape Buffalo, and rhinoceroses but they also had a more sinister prey.  A few dozen were purchased by the Royal Naval Air Service at the onset of World War I. A special incendiary round was designed to ignite the hydrogen cells of German Zeppelins. It is not known if the RNAS ever bagged a hydrogen filled bag with its paradox gun, but, if so, it certainly would  have made an interesting wall mount besides an example of African fauna.  

About Hap Rocketto

Hap Rocketto is a Distinguished Rifleman with service and smallbore rifle, member of The Presidents Hundred, and the National Guard’s Chief’s 50. He is a National Smallbore Record holder, a member of the 1600 Club and the Connecticut Shooters’ Hall Of Fame. He was the 2002 Intermediate Senior Three Position National Smallbore Rifle Champion, the 2012 Senior Three Position National Smallbore Rifle Champion a member of the 2007 and 2012 National Four Position Indoor Championship team, coach and captain of the US Drew Cup Team, and adjutant of the United States 2009 Roberts and 2013 Pershing Teams. Rocketto is very active in coaching juniors. He is, along with his brother Steve, a cofounder of the Corporal Digby Hand Schützenverein. A historian of the shooting sports, his work appears in Shooting Sports USA, the late Precision Shooting Magazine, The Outdoor Message, the American Rifleman, the Civilian Marksmanship Program’s website, and most recently, the apogee of his literary career,
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