The Maltese Falcon is one of America’s greatest film, and probably the most famous Film Noir movie ever made. Sam Spade is not only trying to find the eponymous black bird, but most important to him is finding the person who murdered his private investigator partner Miles Archer. Spade says that Archer’s murderer used a Webley-Fosbery automatic revolver.
So, what the heck is an automatic revolver? It is a revolver that automatically cocks itself for the next shot each time it is fired. A (semi-)automatic pistol has a part that slides back and ejects the spent brass case when it is fired, then that part slides back and loads a new cartridge into the barrel ready to be fired. The Webley-Fosbery’s barrel and cylinder slide back during firing and the rearward motion causes the cylinder to rotate to line up a new cartridge for firing and cocks the hammer. The spent, fired, empty brass case stays in the cylinder like a normal revolver functions. After all the cartridges are fired, you push a lever that makes the barrel and cylinder hinge forward and eject the spent cartridge.
So, what the heck is the point of an automatic revolver? Sometimes you just don’t want a hot brass spent cartridge flying out of a pistol. When? When you are flying a World War I era airplane and need a pistol to shoot at another plane. You really do not want one of those hot brass cartridges going down your flight jacket making you do the pain-filled boogy dance while trying to fly a canvas-covered flying wooden crate.
Well, ol’ Sam Spade got his gun info a little incorrect in the movie. He said the pistol was a .45 caliber, 8-shot revolver. The majority of the 4,750 Webley-Fosbery revolvers made were chambered in .455 Webley cartridge and had a capacity of only 6 rounds. A few Webley-Fosbery revolvers were chambered in .38 ACP (9x23mm Semi-Rimmed. NOT 9x17mm .380 ACP still in use today) and held 8 rounds.
Oh well. We’ll forgive Bogart or whoever wrote the line incorrectly. At least the Maltese Falcon is a million times better that the other movie featuring a Webley-Fosbery: Zardoz with Sean Connery.
There are three of these very interesting automatic revolvers on display at the J.M. Davis Arms and Historical Museum (none of the rare .38s though).