Andrew Burgess’ Blow-Forward Pistols

You may recognize Andrew Burgess from guns like the Burgess folding shotgun and the 1883 Colt-Burgess lever action rifle…but you probably don’t know him for his semiauto handgun designs. Until recently, I had not even realized he had designed a self-loading handgun – and then I happened to run into a fellow who owns a whole set of toolroom prototypes and documents from the project.

In the 1890s Burgess turned his attention to handguns, and by 1906 he had acquired no fewer than twelve different patents on his handgun ideas. He had never managed to become wealthy, so he needed a partner to act as a financial backer to the project – for this role he chose Francis Bannerman. Bannerman agreed to pay for the construction of two prototype guns (total cost not to exceed $500), in exchange for options to buy a half interest in the guns and patents for $3000 or full rights to them for $10,000. This agreement was signed on September 28th, 1906, and the guns were to be completed within 23 months. It appears some delays were encountered, because the contract was extended by a year in 1908, by handwritten addendum:

Burgess/Bannerman contract, page 1/2
Burgess/Bannerman contract, page 1/2
Burgess/Bannerman contract, page 2/2
Burgess/Bannerman contract, page 2/2

The pistols were actually manufactured by a machinist named C.H. Messinger. It seems than Messinger also made some improvements to the design, as he signed rights to these improvements over to Bannerman:

Itemized bill for labor making Burgess prototype pistols
Itemized bill for labor making Burgess prototype pistols
Messinger relinquishes rights to his work to Bannerman and Burgess
Messinger relinquishes rights to his work to Bannerman and Burgess

As a side note, isn’t it quaint and refreshing to see contracts that are so free of legalese fine print? But I digress…

It appears that rather than two guns, at least 5 were actually made, each of them clearly done by hand. The earliest artifact of the process is this wooden model made by Burgess:

Burgess wood model
Burgess wood model

Mechanically, the gun is a blow-forward design, and as you look at the photosets below you can see common elements in each of the pistols based on this mechanism. The muzzle extends past the end of the frame in each one, and the ends of the barrels are textured. These guns would have operated like the contemporary Japanese Hino-Komuro – the barrel is manually pulled forward until it locks in place to cock the action. Pulling the trigger releases the barrel which accelerates rearward under spring pressure, chambers a round as it goes, and then slams it into a fixed firing pin mounted in the rear of the frame. Recoil energy and friction of the fired bullet then throw the barrel forward again. As it moves forward the empty case it held onto the breechface by an extractor and ejected while the barrel locks into its forward position, ready for another shot.

There is a grip safety in the design, which operates in a very straightforward manner: it is directly connected to the firing pin (with the exception of one example which has a transfer linkage between them). If the grip safety it not depressed, the firing pin is recessed in the frame and the gun cannot fire.

Two of the guns, however, use a separate hammer instead of the slam-fire method. This is a detail described in Burgess’ patents #663,956 and #822,851. The patent mentions several other details, such as features to slow the return travel of the barrel to ensure reliable feeding and the possibility of actually tapering the bore to increase friction on the projectile and thus increase the amount of force pulling the barrel forward. I was unable to determine which, if any, of these features were incorporated into the toolroom guns.

The toolroom prototypes include models made for several different calibers and magazines. One is chambered for 7.65mm Parabellum and uses a Luger magazine, one is in .38 ACP and uses a Colt magazine, and one is (probably) in .32 ACP and uses a fixed internal tubular magazine (much like the 1887 Schulhof manual repeater). The two other examples are an all-brass model missing its magazine and what seems to be a very early experiment about which we don’t know much (it’s slide is held on by a piece of string in the photos).

Gun #1: Rough Proof of Concept

Gun #2: Fixed Internal Magazine

Gun #3: Colt Magazine

Gun #4: Luger Magazine

Gun #5: All-Brass Example Missing Magazine