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Rise And Fall Of The Whitney Wolverine

The design of the Whitney Wolverine might have some pondering it’s a bit out of place amongst the other collectible and antique firearms that usually grace Rock Island Public sale Company’s catalogs and articles. After all, this isn’t any antique, Western, or army arm made with steel and wooden! It looks like it would be extra at dwelling with Buck Rodgers, the crew of “Misplaced in Area,” or in the pages of an old “Speed Carter” or “Flash Gordon” comic e book. Yes, the Wolverine owes much of its design, methodology of manufacture, and untimely demise to the period in which it discovered itself birthed. That put up-WWII era was what the new York Times and lots of others dubbed, “The Atomic Age.”

In that age was a man named Robert “Bob” L. Hillberg. Bob had an interest in firearms from an stone island pink jumper early age, an curiosity he credit largely to his outdoorsman father and his present of a Browning Auto-5 20 gauge shotgun to the highschool junior that endured countless disassembling and reassembling in his Minneapolis, Minnesota boyhood dwelling. Through the years he bought extra firearms, turned aware of mechanical drawing because of his father’s accomplishments as an artist and draftsman, and obtained early employment in machine operation for large native corporations reminiscent of Ford, Minneapolis Honeywell, some native flour mills, and others. With this basic expertise, Bob started constructing some firearm accessories and nonetheless had a ardour for the inner workings of a firearm. It was always a passion for him, even after he graduated high school and left for the College of Minnesota’s School of Mines as an scholar of mining engineering.

Whereas attending faculty his profession as an engineer, machinist, and gun designer encountered an unexpected and nice opportunity. In 1936-37 Bob had designed and developed a brand new submachine gun that utilized the Colt .38 Super and truly constructed a working model of it on the U.S. Naval Air Station, Wold-Chamberlain Discipline, Minneapolis where his duties as a reserve member gave him entry to the machine shop. Nicely, in 1938 summer season vacation rolled around and with his working prototype and drawings in hand, Bob ventured as much as Connecticut to promote the gun to Colt. The legendary producer, already manufacturing Thompsons (which were promoting poorly), and with no battle occurring, didn’t have a lot need for a brand new SMG design at the moment, but they instantly acknowledged Bob’s capacity and provided him a place.

Snatching this opportunity of a lifetime by the tail, Bob accepted and began working in lots of varied positions for Colt resulting in a large number of abilities and training in many different areas of firearms manufacture. Clearly, this can be an enormous benefit for the younger designer as his career developed. Two years later, in 1940, Hillberg would turn that experience with Colt into a place within the research engineering division at Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Company. In his time there he developed a new 20mm aircraft cannon and began work at home on a private aspect project of a brand new military carbine to enter into the U.S. authorities’s competitors for just such a rifle.

“Reciprocating barrel carbine designed by Bob Hillberg while working on the Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Corp. during World Warfare II. It was never brought into production.” – Taglienti, p. 17

Two years later, and taking the designs for the cannon and the carbine with him, Hillberg left for the Ordnance Department of Bell Aircraft, returning him again to his aspiration of working with firearms. Now he was a undertaking engineer and was as much as his eyeballs in firearms concepts and tasks, which creator Antonio J. Taglienti, who penned the authoritative work on Hillberg & his Wolverine, lists as: “Boeing B-17 turrets, .50 cal machine gun feeding methods, gun mounts, boosters, gun sight techniques, bomb racks, rocket releases, and a 20 mm continuous belt feed mechanism for submarines and ant-aircraft guns.” Hillberg even had a prototype of his carbine made and interests have been piqued in both Canada and Russia, however WWII ended before any additional headway could be made. The truth is, Bell closed their Ordnance Division after the conflict and Hillberg went to work for Republic Aviation again making the feed techniques, gun mounts, and bomb racks that he had familiarized himself with at Bell.

Hillberg’s employment at Republic bears particular mention as a result of although he was once more working within the aviation sphere, his heart still remained true to firearms engineering. At his house, Hillberg realized that the three most popular cartridges at the moment the .22LR, .32 ACP, and .380 ACP have been all .006 inch different in total size. Mixed with his ardour for small arms, Hillberg set about designing a single pistol utilizing replaceable barrels and magazines that can be capable of firing the three distinct cartridges. His new compact pistol was called the “Hillberg Tri-Matic” and it used many characteristics revered by Hillberg: simplicity, effectivity, easy assembly/disassembly, and low value of manufacture. These qualities made Hillberg an excellent designer favored by his employers, but they also would be his calling cards for many of his designs, together with the Whitney pistol.

Hillberg’s 1949 drawing of the Hillberg TRI-MATIC pistol from p.19 of the Taglienti guide.
It wouldn’t take lengthy for the man with firearms design in his blood to return to that business and in 1951, Hillberg went to work for prime Standard with the intention of constructing the Tri-Matic. Nevertheless, High Normal kept him busy with projects starting from gasoline operated sporting shotguns, to the navy purposes corresponding to a .308 NATO tank machine gun and the U.S. navy’s transient flirtation with changing the M1911-A1 with a sidearms capable of firing a 9mm Parabellum utilizing a delayed blowback motion. In his development of those army arms, he turned acquainted with a machining company known as Bellmore-John Instrument Firm, a much smaller organization than the established High Normal, but one which had an excellent repute. Lengthy story quick, working for BJT would give Hillberg way more management over his own path, so he approached the company and began working for them in 1954.

Already having a want to design and make a new .22 caliber pistol, Hillberg’s first order of enterprise after this hire was to begin placing pen to paper and making his long time concepts a reality. Figuring out all of the kinks took Bob into 1955, when the first prototype of the Whitney pistol (nonetheless dubbed a Tri-matic at that time) was made at the BJT facility completely by hand, it functioned flawlessly and was given the serial number one. Hillberg now had full drawings and a functioning prototype with a sleek, area-age appearance. It was time to make some money for all his arduous work and what would occur next would determine the fate of the corporate and the pistol.

Image of Hillberg’s patent from p.A hundred of Taglienti’s guide
BJT being a small company, Hillberg wished to both promote the gun outright to an established producer or “else have it produced and marketed by one of the main gun corporations on a royalty basis” in line with Taglienti. In spite of everything, BJT was just a machinist shop. They made dies, tools, and patterns. They did not have the manufacturing facility, workers, advertising team, etc. essential to efficiently deliver a brand new sporting pistol to the American public. Despite these setbacks, BJT decided to provide the brand new pistol themselves, which meant they have been going to want a whole lot of capital to construct a brand new factory, hire new expert staff, equipment bought, and advertising and marketing to be carried out. The two men had loads of expertise with the engineering portion of firearms, however had been somewhat helpless when it got here to sales and marketing.

To that finish, Hillberg and Howard Johnson, execs at BJT, were referred by a friend to see one Mr. Jacques Galef, a nationally identified firearms distributor who was in a position to help stated buddy when he was in a jam. Galef was instantly impressed with the pistol and even more impressed with its efficiency at a local firing vary where the gun was fired by Hillberg so quickly that Galef swore it was the fastest firing pistol he’d ever seen! By no means mind that Hillberg may make most any semi-auto fire that quickly and tried to tell his potential shopper simply that, Galef was won over. He would market the gun and placed an order for 10,000 pistols.

One of many Whitney pistols to be sold at Rock Island Public sale Company’s 2014 July Regional Public sale in Lot 2384.

Hillberg and Johnson left the demonstration in New York City as elated as any two men ought to be who’ve just accomplished a serious step toward success. Quickly thereafter, April 1955 to be particular, a contract was drawn up and agreed to by both events. In it Galef agreed to buy 10,000 pistols as originally offered and to moreover buy no less than 10,000 in every subsequent calendar 12 months. For his assured repeat enterprise, Galef would maintain exclusive distributorship over the pistol. The males at the newly formed Hillson Firearms (named by combining HILLberg & JohnSON) had also decided a market strategy. Hillson Firearms was meant to manufacture a complete line of sporting arms using this little .22 pistol to get their foot in the door of the firearms industry. That in thoughts, they priced their pistol for wholesale at $16.53/piece. Of their minds, it might realize minimal profit in turn for getting their name on the market at a value attractive to firearms fans. Within the authoritative ebook, “The Whitney Wolverine,” Taglienti states, “It appears somewhat superb in retrospect, that Johnson and Hillberg felt they could produce a pistol and wholesale it to the distributor for $sixteen.53 each, and understand a reasonable revenue from this, even contemplating the relative value of 1955 dollars. Nevertheless, their cost studies had proven this to be fully doable, and they eagerly entered into the agreement.”

Eli Whitney
After securing their financing at the primary Nationwide Bank and Belief Co. of recent Haven with their signed letter from Galef, Hillson Firearms began not solely selecting a location for what was to be their manufacturing facility, but additionally started considering a reputation change. These two birds have been to be taken with a single stone, after they renamed Hillson Firearms to Whitney Firearms, Inc.inspired by historical inventor Eli Whitney. Not only is his name well known to school children in all places for his invention of the cotton gin, however the Whitney name is very well-known to firearms collectors thanks to Whitney’s manufacture of U.S. Mannequin 1785 muskets (amongst others) at the flip of the century in addition to being the innovator behind the interchangeability of gun parts. It didn’t damage that the name was public property, loved rich associations with American history and invention, and was already revered locally. To Hillberg, there was additionally the added symbolism of Eli Whitney’s innovation combined with his desire to provide prime quality guns at a low price, while remaining simply serviceable. The upstart company with its new moniker even sought to acquire the land that the previous Whitney Armory had occupied. However, that land was now owned by the new Haven Water Firm, who had no desire to sell. A brand new property was shortly discovered within a mile, however the location was technically in neighboring North Haven, Connecticut and never the manufacturing center of American firearms, New Haven. It mattered little. The company would nonetheless listing New Haven on most of its materials and even on the side of the pistols. If only the problems to return had been as simple to resolve.

In 1956, production started slowly, as it does for many manufacturers till they get their toes wet. The good news was that it was ever increasing and earnings had been expected to be seen quickly. Only when summer rolled around, so did the grim realization that by promoting the pistols at $16.53 per unit, they were lucky to interrupt even. They changed a couple of issues to chop prices, but the one factor that could have truly saved the fledgling gun maker would have been a +$3.00/unit change to their contract with Galef – not exactly something a savvy businessman would agree to. That summer the manufacturing facility was pumping out around 330 guns per week and with each, the company was dropping money.

The second Whitney Wolverine in RIAC’s July 2014 Regional Firearms Auction showing in Lot 2430
The issue with selling on the cheap and making marginal revenue is that one’s success is based on sheer quantity. The hopes are to supplant the mark up with the sheer number of items offered, even if each one earns a minimal quantity. Undercutting the competition is one factor, promoting for a bargain is another. The situation became even more dire when Galef sent phrase for the company to carry again on their deliveries to him. He already had a warehouse full and so they weren’t exactly selling in addition to anybody had hoped they’d. Taglienti describes it succinctly when he writes, “This was a devastating blow to Whitney. They have been locked into Galef by the exclusive distributorship contract and weren’t permitted to sell to anyone else. But now Galef didn’t need anymore!” Whitney needed to expand their sales and shortly or they’d turn into bankrupt extra shortly than their little pistol could shoot.

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Finding new prospects appeared promising at first with interest coming in from the West Coast and enormous chains reminiscent of Sears and Montgomery Ward. Any new contracts would’ve paid a royalty to Galef and saved the company from going under, but the deal fell by way of. They even had an offer to sell them in Mexico, but poor sales and new import laws squashed the deal. They even tried to redesign the gun, altering the very cosmetics which gave the Whitney its appeal. However, not eager to risk the headache and fund drain of a legal battle with Galef the pair merely determined to promote what they could to repay their debts. They offered to a Charles E. Lowe Sr. in 1957, a fellow machinist who owned a store in neighboring Newington, Connecticut, and who was made fully aware of the present company’s situation. Hillberg and Johnson walked away from the enterprise they had built after constructing only 10,793 pistols of which 10,360 have been delivered to J.F. Galef & Son. It might have been a crushing moment for the lifelong small arms designer who was on the verge of seeing his dreams come true.

Lowe changed the identify from Whitney Firearms, Inc. to Whitney Firearms Co. and was keen on resuming production of the pistol, the design no longer being sure by agreements. Manufacturing started slow, but was slowly gaining momentum as advertisements started appearing in some of the nations most nicely-identified firearms magazines.

Nevertheless, in February of 1958, J.L. Galef & Son introduced go well with to the new firm claiming breech of contract. Whitney claimed they have been in no violation: not only had the prior agreement been glad with the supply of 10,000 pistols, however they weren’t even the identical enterprise. They claimed that Lowe had not purchased the business, but had personally bought solely the bodily belongings and patents after which leased these to the brand new company. The lawsuit threatened to go on for some time and sales have been sluggish for the new company and its proprietor. In addition to, if Galef received the suit, all the earnings from the pistols piling up within the Whitney warehouse can be awarded to him. Manufacturing stopped. The case was finally settled, however all the pleasure and vitality surrounding the pistol had vanished. As an alternative of selecting up manufacture once more, the new Whitney Firearms Co. decided to liquidate and offered the remaining 1,a hundred pistols wholesale to miscellaneous distributors. It was the top of a journey as soon as as promising and brilliant as a capturing star, but that faded simply as quickly.

Why Did It Fail
There are lots of supposed reasons the pistol fell in need of success. Clearly the binding settlement with Galef was an enormous contributing issue for several reasons: nonadjustable worth, little to no revenue, and a factor not yet discussed was that Galef was only selling them through the mail (a legal and customary observe at Stone Island Coats the moment). Whitney had anticipated to see their guns in the windows and circumstances of firearms and sporting items stores throughout the nation, however the younger manufacturer had no thought of Galef’s mail order observe until they began receiving their warranty cards back from their buyers. Whitney had zero enter or information on how Galef was going to conduct sales and marketing of the pistol.

One other subject may have been the lack of a consistent identify. Most guns, or products usually, go by one name throughout their lifespan. The Whitney pistol went by many. It began as a product by Hillson Firearms and was at that time nonetheless identified as the Tri-Matic, even though the design of the original Tri-Matic and the Whitney pistol had little in common and the unique was only ever constructed as a prototype. When the deal was first struck with Galef, the corporate still bore the Hillson identify and briefly an advert appeared for the Hillson-Imperial. Nevermind that the Hillson identify never appeared on one of the Whitney pistols, it is likely the advertising efforts of somebody at Galef.

If you recall from earlier, Galef was extremely impressed at the pistol’s initial demonstration. So impressed, he exclaimed that, “it shoots like lightning!” He all but insisted it should be referred to as the Lightning, so this identify too appeared in promoting positioned by Galef. The identify was never placed on any of the pistols. At long last the identify “Wolverine” was given to the little plinker, but there is no single cause as to why. Some once more give the origin’s credit score to Galef and him wanting the pistol to be associated with wild animals and the outdoors, issues that have been generally used of their marketing. Alliteration is rarely mentioned as a purpose for the identify “Wolverine,” however it is hard to think about it had no bearing on the decision. The opposite risk is that as a result of Bob Hillberg himself was a college soccer fan, specifically that of the university of Michigan Wolverines, he chose the identify in honor of his beloved group. It could be a short-lived tribute as a enterprise only miles away from the original Whitney plant, the Lyman Gunsight Company, had already used the identify for one among their scopes. The owners being associates, Whitney dropped the identify to preserve the friendship and keep away from authorized battles.

Notice the designation as the “Lightning Model” and the J.L Galef title in the bottom right.
Here designated as the “Whitney Wolverine” it still lists J. L Galef as the unique distributor.

The third cause can perhaps be extra typically summed up as, “the market.” The Whitney pistol had some stiff competitors from any number of sources:

– Different more established plinking pistols could possibly be obtained at the same cost or cheaper than the Whitney
– Other handguns were carried in inventory and didn’t need to be ordered just like the Whitney
– A increase of navy surplus rifles and pistols had been available on a budget, giving patrons more selection and bang for his or her buck.

It additionally had a method that the market may not have been able to assist and an aluminum frame that may have felt “low-cost” and light to a market accustomed to heavy steel which was related to sturdiness and high quality.

In the end, the gun and the company tied to it will flounder after less than three full years of on once more off once more production, robbing Hillberg of his much deserved success. In truth, much of his early work would point out the man was to obtain no accolades at all! His work on a number of prototypes all seemed to overlook going to full production. The weapons that he developed designed for insurgencies, such because the Winchester Liberator shotgun, saw no real lifespan and one other compact weapon, the Colt Defender Mark I, an 8 barreled, 20 ga. shotgun designed for law enforcement, was introduced through the nationwide recession and put out to pasture in 1971. Trying again with the COP 357 Derringer, a back-up break motion pistol for legislation enforcement, Hillberg’s design again bit the mud because it was too bulky and had a heavy double action set off pull (a design function that Hillberg thought of important for simplicity in use). Thankfully his work with varied firearms and aeronautic companies throughout the years had earned him many patents akin to a number of pistols, shotgun parts, safeties, early gasoline operated shotguns, barrels, grips, and what appears to be a folding shotgun inventory extraordinarily much like that popularized by the Franchi SPAS-12.

Patent diagram for the Winchester “Liberator” shotgun
Hillberg is an absolutely brilliant engineering thoughts that deserves rather more recognition than he receives. His was a labor of love that never really noticed the success that he desired and a few say deserved. Robert L. Hillberg passed away on August 12, 2012 at the age of 94, but not earlier than he bought to see his Wolverine design reborn in 2005 from black polymer courtesy of the Olympic Arms Firm. To see the rekindled curiosity in his previous pet mission would be a supply of pleasure for any engineer or designer.

Taglienti, Antonio J. The Whitney Wolverine: .22 Caliber Semi-automatic Pistol. Woonsocket, RI: Mowbray, 2008.

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