Genesis of a Company
Enter Forehand. Hired as an accountant at Allen & Wheelock in 1856 after a stint at Worcester’s Pratt & Inman steelworks, Forehand soon lost his heart to Allen’s daughter Nettie, and they were married in 1859. Wadsworth had already married another of Allen’s daughters, and when Wheelock left Allen & Wheelock in 1863, it seemed like a good time to take another look at the situation.
Allen renamed the company Ethan Allen & Co., the “& Co.” referring to his sons-in-law Forehand and Wadsworth, who became his active partners. When Allen died in January 1871, the firm was renamed Forehand & Wadsworth in honor of the two new principals.
The first guns bearing the Forehand & Wadsworth name understandably resembled the guns of the former Ethan Allen & Co. They included a .22-caliber single-shot derringer, a .41-caliber version of same and an elegant single-action .22-caliber sidehammer revolver.
The sidehammer incorporated what would become an F&W trademark of sorts; an oddly pinched-up lug at the rear of the topstrap. This lug, into which was milled the rear sight notch, became more apparent on the F&W Center Hammer Revolver, which bore the names Terror, Bulldozer or Swamp Angel. (The last was named after an enormous Union cannon that did its best to level Charleston, S.C., in 1863 and then exploded.)
In the early 1870s the Center Hammer morphed into what would become the flagship of the F&W line: the rimfire .32-caliber or .38-caliber Forehand & Wadsworth Double Action.
Some modern collectors lump the F&W Double Action — and almost all F&W handguns — into the category of “suicide specials,” but I’m not one of them. My F&W Double Action, which my grandfather carried regularly in his days as a banker in the heart of Dillinger country, still shoots fine, though its anemic .32 rimfire round won’t strike terror into many hearts.
I’ve always thought that F&W’s revolvers were a cut above those offered by most of the company’s contemporaries, though admittedly not up to the standard set by Colt and Smith & Wesson.
Being no dummies, Forehand and Wadsworth also pursued the military market, no doubt inspired by the lucrative government procurements that became routine during the Civil War. This resulted in what enthusiasts consider the Holy Grail of F&W collecting: the .44-caliber Old Model Army and New Model Army.
These large, solid-frame single-action revolvers are scarce; fewer than 2,000 were made. By all accounts, they were serviceable. Unfortunately, however, with their 1873 patent date, they encountered stiff competition from the 1873 Colt Single Action Army .45 and, later, the Smith & Wesson No. 3.
By 1880, under Forehand’s leadership, Forehand & Wadsworth was offering several single- and double-barreled shotguns in addition to its revolvers. The double, known as the Breech-Loading Shot Gun, was an attractive rabbit-ear model available in 12- and 10-gauge. With its single side-mounted hammer, the Single Barrel Breech-Loading Shot Gun resembled in its general lines the Morse percussion rifle. Forehand and Wadsworth must have been satisfied enough with the gun to beat the competition over the head with it.
“Several have attempted to imitate it,” the company’s 1880 catalog said, “but they make miserable failures.”
And F&W’s New Hammerless Single Barrel Breech Loading Shot Gun was a surprisingly streamlined top-lever 12-gauge available with a 30-, 32- or 36-inch barrel and automatic extractors.
About the Author: The late Dan Shideler was a senior editor for Gun Digest Books from 2004 until 2011, best known for his entertaining prose and knowledge and insight into firearms history, trends and pricing. He served as editor of two of the industry's most respected annuals: Standard Catalog of Firearms and Gun Digest. Dan passed away in April 2011.
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