Rollin White

Rollin White
Born Rollin White
(1817-06-06)June 6, 1817
Williamstown, Vermont, United States
Died March 22, 1892(1892-03-22) (aged 74)
Lowell, Massachusetts
Occupation Inventor, gunsmith

Rollin White (June 6, 1817 – March 22, 1892) was an American gunsmith who invented a bored-through revolver cylinder that allowed metallic cartridges to be loaded from the rear of a revolver's cylinder.

Early life

White was born in Williamstown, Vermont in 1818. He learned gunsmithing from his older brother, J. D. White in 1837 and would later claim that the idea for a "rear-loading" Pepper-box revolver came to him while working in his brother's shop in 1839. In 1849 he went to work for Colt's Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company as a gunsmith under contract, turning revolver barrels on a lathe. During this time he procured two "junk" or scrapped revolver cylinders from Colt and placed them in his barrel lathe, cutting the front off one and the rear off the other. He assembled these parts into a single bored-through cylinder that would fit in a Colt revolver.[1]

Rollin White patent

Smith & Wesson .32 rimfire 'model 1½' pocket pistol manufactured 1865-1868 under Rollin White's patent
Remington Conversion
Remington Conversion, Rollin White Patent April 3. 1855 inscribed on cylinder
Rollin White Revolver
Rollin White Revolver barrel, Lowell Arms Co. inscription

Up until that time, revolvers were black-powder percussion arms. The shooter had to pour powder into each of the six cylinder mouths, push a bullet over the powder, and load a percussion cap on the rear of the cylinder, making the reloading process cumbersome.

While the cartridge revolver was known in Europe, Rollin White's famous patent combined a cylinder and a box magazine. It was a completely unworkable design which never went into production (only one sample was built which malfunctioned dramatically), [2] Yet it was the first US patent to include a cylinder bored through, so that a revolver could be loaded from the breech. White's original solution for the misfires that plagued early revolvers was to plug the rear of the chambers with pieces of leather. The patent drawings imply that a percussion cap would have had to be applied to the single nipple for each shot, so it would have been far slower than the existing cap-&-ball revolvers.[3]

For the next three years, White worked on his idea while working at Colt's, during which Colt granted White a contract to manufacture the lockwork of revolvers.[3] White was granted a patent in 1855: "Improvement in Repeating Fire-arms".[4][5] The next year, White signed an agreement granting Smith & Wesson the exclusive use of his patent, at a royalty rate of 25 cents for every revolver.[6]

After the Smith & Wesson Model 1 revolver came on the market, White began production of a revolver of his own in 1861 in a factory in Lowell, Massachusetts called "Rollin White Arms Company". Approximately 4300 revolvers were made under Rollin White Arms, most of which were sold to Smith & Wesson to keep up with demand. White liquidated the company in 1864 and the assets were bought by Lowell Arms Company, which began manufacturing revolvers directly infringing on White's patent. White sued them, but not until after they had made 7500 revolvers.[7]

White and S&W brought infringement cases against Manhattan Firearms Company, Allen & Wheelock, Merwin & Bray, National Arms Company and others. The courts mostly sided with White, but allowed these manufacturers to continue production runs, with a royalty paid to White. In some cases, Smith & Wesson bought the guns back to remark and sell; such guns are marked "APRIL 3 1855" as a patent date.[8] Eventually, the matter was litigated as White, et al. v. Allen in the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Massachusetts; Allen acknowledged his gun infringed on the patent, but challenged the patent itself. The court sided with White.[9]

In 1867 White offered to sell the patent to Colt's for $1 million, which Colt's declined.

Rollin White Relief Act

After being denied a patent extension, White lobbied Congress for relief in 1870, urging Congress to consider that he had not been fairly compensated for his invention; making only $71,000 while Smith & Wesson earned over $1 million for his idea. Furthermore White pointed out that the bulk of his earnings was spent on litigation as others infringed on his idea.[10] Congress passed a bill granting White a rehearing. The act was styled: An act for the relief of Rollin White (S.273.

The bill passed both houses of congress with no debate, but was vetoed by President Ulysses S. Grant, citing objections from Chief of Ordnance Alexander Brydie Dyer.[11] Dyer claimed that White's patent litigation during the American Civil War served as "an inconvenience and embarrassment" to Union forces for the "inability of manufacturers to use this patent". Dyer went on to write that "its further extension will operate prejudicially to its interests by compelling it to pay to parties already well paid a large royalty for altering its revolvers to use metallic cartridges."[11] No further votes were held and the bill died. Rollin White continued his efforts with Congress, and by 1877 he finally gave up any possibility of extension.

Other works

White invented the knife-edge breech block and self-cocking device for the "box-lock" Model 1851 Sharps rifle. These rifles were built by White, Christian Sharps, and Richard Lawrence at Robbins & Laurence in Windsor, Vermont. White later designed a self-cocking mechanism for the 1855 pattern Sharps and built 50 of these rifles for a potential US Navy contract, but the Navy only purchased 12 of them.[12]

Rollin White died in Lowell, Massachusetts on March 22, 1892.[13]


  1. Allen, Ethan (1863). "Deposition of Rollin White". Circuit court of the United States,Massachusetts district: In equity. For complainants: E. W. Stoughton, C. M. Keller, E. F. Hodges. For respondents: B. R. Curtis, Caustin Browne. pp. 187–193.
  2. Winant, Lewis (1959). Early Percussion Firearms. Great Britain: Herbert Jenkins Ltd. pp. 145–146. ISBN 0-600-33015-X.
  3. 1 2 Boorman, Dean K. (2004). Guns of the Old West: An Illustrated History. Lyons Press. p. 36. ISBN 978-1-59228-638-6.
  4. US patent 12648, Rollin White, "Improvement in repeating fire-arms", published 1855-04-03
  5. Ware, Donald L. (2007). Remington army and navy revolvers, 1861–1888. UNM Press. p. 231. ISBN 978-0-8263-4280-5.
  6. Jinks, Roy G.; Sandra C. Krein (2006). Smith & Wesson Images of America. Arcadia Publishing. p. 8. ISBN 978-0-7385-4510-3.
  7. Flayderman, Norm (2001). Flayderman's Guide to Antique American Firearms ... and their values. Iola, WI: Krause Publications. p. 213. ISBN 0-87349-313-3.
  8. Walter (2006)p.108
  9. "WHITE ET AL. V. ALLEN." (PDF). 1863.
  10. Satterlee (1940) p. 151
  11. 1 2 Grant, US (1897). James Daniel Richardson, ed. A compilation of the messages and papers of the presidents, prepared under the Joint Committee on Printing of the House and Senate, pursuant to an act of the Fifty-second Congress of the United States (with additions and encyclopedic index by private enterprise). A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, Prepared Under the Joint Committee on Printing of the House and Senate, Pursuant to an Act of the Fifty-second Congress of the United States. 9. Bureau of National Literature. pp. 4034–4035.
  12. Walter, John (2007). Rifles of the World (3 ed.). Krause Publications. pp. 437–438. ISBN 978-0-89689-241-5.
  13. Satterlee, Leroy De Forest; Arcadi Gluckman (1940). American gun makers. O. Ulbrich. p. 95.
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