Parts 12 and 13 looked at the evidence, released by the authorities, about where the gun was found and how it got there.
In Part 14 we saw how the Crown office contradicted itself over the number of bullets recovered from Macrae during his post mortem.
Today in Parts 15 and 16 we look at what else the released documents have to say about the gun itself, the bullets and spent cartridges.
Part 15 dealt with one key point in particular but also raised other points of interest (to me at least).
Here Part 16 will deal with physical aspects of the gun, the post being split into four sections,
- what gun is it?
- how this gun works
- the gun worked but ….
- implications for Macrae case
What Gun Is It?
In their 1990 book published 15 years before Northern Constabulary released photographs of the gun and details of the firearms testing, Scott and Macleay claimed that the revolver was from 1948 or earlier. [Tartan Terrorism and the Anglo-American State ’ by Andrew Murray Scott and Iain MacLeay, Mainstream Publishing (1990); the relevant chapter is available here],
They were correct that it was earlier than 1948 but were much further out than they could ever have imagined.
The gun was at least 117 years old when it was used to kill Willie Macrae.
I am utterly confident that the revolver found was a Smith & Wesson Model 1 2nd issue produced no later than 1868 [between 1860 and 1868].
I’ll explain soon why I am so confident but I am not alone. In early January this year, and totally independently, Robert Lewis blogged about Macrae and came to a very similar conclusion. He wrote,
The pistol MacRae is alleged to have owned, and shot himself with, turns out to be a Smith and Wesson Model 1, of the first or second run. That means it was at least 117 years old.I believe we can rule out the 1st issue of the Model 1.
What Led Me to this Model?
Strathclyde Police’s firearms report was critical. They described the gun as,
A 7 chamber, top hinged, external hammer, single action revolver of American manufacture (Smith & Wesson) designed to chamber .22 short rim fire cartridges. It bore the serial number 90686 and was in fair outward condition.A Google search for
Smith and Wesson 7 chamber .22 top hinged single actiongave me the Wikipedia’s page on the Model 1 as the top hit. When I saw photos I knew I had found the gun. Had I searched with ‘Smith & Wesson’ I would have taken longer to get home.
The next image – of an Model 1 2nd issue - was on that page and below that pic 6, from above, tweaked to show just the revolver.
Other than the engraving and the handle in the Macrae gun they look identical.
On the next two images I have highlighted 7 small features which are identical.
Don’t be put off by the engraving on the Macrae gun. Smith & Wesson made specials. For every two hundred or so standard Model 1 revolvers, one or two were factory original full silver plated finish and/or ivory grips.
Beyond this too were some which were factory engraved. Many photos of such are around, for example,
this gun which is engraved and has a pearl handle.
Welsh described the Macrae gun as
His partner Welsh was aware that Macrae possessed a small calibre, possibly .22 revolver, which was chrome, silver finish with a pearl handle. [Macrae A syn]Unfortunately, the Macrae photo quality is so poor that we cannot tell if the handle is light wood, ivory or pearl.
But handle apart I hope you’ll agree that the Macrae gun is matches those displayed here.
The Model 1 was manufactured between 1857 and 1882, there being three variants - 1st, 2nd and 3rd issues.
The 1st issue can be ruled out for two reasons. Firstly the hammer, in the 1st issue, was of two part construction whereas the 2nd issue was a one-piece hammer
1st issue 2nd issue
and secondly on the basis of serial number.
Only about 12,000 1st issues were made (between 1857 and 1860, serial numbers 1 to abt 12,000) and the 2nd issue serial numbers followed on from those used for the 1st issue (between 1860 and 1868, about 12,000 to about 120,000).
The Macrae gun’s serial number, 90686, falls outwith the 1st issue and towards the top of the 2nd issue production.
But the serial numbers for the 3rd issue were reset and they ran from 1 to about 131,000. The Macrae gun’s number would fit within this range too.
Fortunately the 3rd issue incorporated a design change which rules this out as an option. The grip design was more curved as shown below.
2nd issue 3rd issue
Therefore, I am convinced that the gun which killed Willie Macrae was a Smith & Wesson Model 1 2nd Issue 7 shot, top hinged, external hammer, single action revolver designed to fire 0.22 rim fire cartridges made between 1860 and 1868.
These guns were not the first but were early adopters of self-contained cartridges i.e. where all the components necessary to fire the projectile were contained within one package.
How This Gun Works
The Macrae gun is a single action revolver which, possibly counter-intuitively, requires two actions to fire whereas a dual action revolver requires only one action to fire!
The two actions for the Smith & Wesson Model 1 are ,
- pull back the hammer which rotates the cylinder and puts the next bullet to be fired in the correct position (i.e lined up with the barrel
- squeeze the trigger which releases the hammer which initiates the series of actions which result in the bullet being expelled from the cylinder and barrel
In this type of the gun the trigger has only one action, hence single action.
With a dual action gun, squeezing the trigger pulls the hammer back, rotates the cylinder into position and initiates the firing sequence. Therefore, the trigger alone does the two actions listed above for Macrae’s gun. Hence dual action.
Macrae’s gun uses .22 ammunition. The ’.22’ refers to the maximum diameter of the cartridge in inches. Therefore, Macrae’s gun uses cartridges which are .22 inch in diameter (i.e. 0.22 x 25.4mm = 5.6mm)
The gun worked but ….
That the gun worked is obvious unfortunately but one part was so worn that it didn’t function correctly.
I mentioned in the previous section that pulling back on the hammer should rotate the cylinder and put the next bullet in line with the barrel but that did not work in Macrae’s gun.
[Source]Therefore, the killing gun required three actions to fire:
- pull back hammerNow this extra step is clearly no show-stopper. Whoever pulled the trigger went through this process. The gun works.
- rotate the cylinder
- pull trigger
But there might be another complication. From the admittedly small amount of reading on revolvers I think there are two aspects of cylinder rotation to consider. The first I have already described: the cylinder did not move on its own and so had to be manually placed in position. The second is that there is a mechanical stop which maintains the cylinder in the correct position. I don’t know if this was part of the Smith & Wesson Model 1 2nd issue and, if it was, I don’t know if it was working.
Why is this important?
Well, if it worked then once the cylinder was rotated into position it would be held there and the alignment of cartridge and barrel would be maintained. If not present, or present and not working, would mean that there was no fool-proof way of aligning the cylinder correctly and no way of keeping it in that position until fired.
The diagrams below show the three possibilities proper alignment, large misalignment, and slight mis-alignment.
With proper alignment the orange cartridge is symmetrically aligned with the green barrel and the hammer’s pin (black spot) strikes the cartridge on the rim (hence rim fire cartridges) and detonation and firing occur properly.
When the cartridge and barrel are badly misaligned the pin misses the rim of the cartridge and, clearly, no detonation can occur.
With partial misalignment the rim can be struck with the possibility of detonation and firing. What happens then, I don’t know.
Implications for the Macrae Case
There is nothing about the gun, its age, type, mechanism or flaws which favour suicide over murder or the reverse. I’ve researched it out of interest rather than with any hope or expectation that I would uncover an important fact.
The gun killed Macrae.
There are many unanswered questions though:
- why did he have a gun?
- why such an old gun?
- why such a small and low-powered gun?
- where did he get it?
- when did he get it?
- where did he get the ammunition
If you have thoughts, or more, feel free to:
email me at calumsblogATgmailDOTcom or
tweet me at @calumcarr
© CalumCarr 2015
Copyright over this article is retained by me, CalumCarr.
Please feel free to reproduce extracts and provided you attribute the words and images to me taking into account the provisos below.
If you wish to use more than one quarter of the article then contact me for permission at calumsblogATgmailDOTcom.
I, CalumCarr retain the rights to the three diagrams of cartridge and barrel
The rights to the other images used remain with Police Scotland (Macrae gun and documents), Mike Helms (where shown) and other unknown.