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Space gun Redux: return of the Whitney Wolverine.

Opening your mailbox in March, 1958, you would have been greeted with the cover of GUNS magazine illustrating the most futuristic looking handgun on the market, the Whitney Wolverine. The Wolverine appeared to many of us to be across between the exotic Luger and our cherished Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers atomic pistols. The impression it left on me has lingered for 50 years.

No sooner did the Wolverine arrive on the market than it disappeared from the market--the victim of a devastating marketing contract. Now, thanks to the persistence of Bob Schuetz, CEO of Olympic Arms, the Whitney Wolverine has returned. It still gives the impression of being the most rakish, space-age, .22 sporting handgun on the market plus, as I learned, it handles as well as it looks and is a lot of fun to shoot.

The original Wolverine design was the brainchild of a gifted arms designer, Robert L. Hillberg. Over his career, Hillberg worked designing military armaments and sporting guns and was associated with Colt, Pratt & Whitney, Bell Aircraft, Republic Aviation, and High Standard before launching Whitney Firearms, Inc. in 1955. Some of his more familiar sporting designs include the Browning BPS shotgun, the Wildey gas-operated pistol and the first semiautomatic, short stroke, gas shotgun to use a coaxial gas piston around the magazine tube, a revolutionary design marketed by Sears, Roebuck and Co. as the J.C. Higgins Model 60.

The Wolverine design had been rolling around in Hillberg's mind for years. As an arms designer in the 1950s, he was frustrated by the state of the firearms industry. He felt it was in a rut. It wasn't incorporating modern styling into its products, and it was bogged down with outdated manufacturing processes.


As the head of Research and Development at High Standard in the early 1950s,he developed a close working relationship with the Bellmore-Johnson Tool Co., a subcontractor High Standard was using at the time to make the T-152 tank machinegun under a contract with the Springfield Armory.


Joining Bellmore-Johnson in 1954 as its chief engineer, Hillberg was not only to take the T-152 contract with him but was able to convince the officers of Bellmore-Johnson to set up a subsidiary company to manufacture a line of modern sporting arms. The eventual name of the new company was Whitney Firearms, Inc. of New

Haven, Connecticut, named in honor of Eli Whitney of New Haven, who had revolutionized firearms production in 1798 by using patterns, jigs and fixtures to manufacture interchangeable parts.


With the Wolverine, Hillberg achieved what he had been striving for--a modern looking sport pistol manufactured using the latest materials and processes. Its styling was radically modern, quite unlike any other handgun on the market. It fit the hand like a glove and pointed like a laser. In fact, the only design feature Hillberg admitted borrowing from an existing handgun was the round, checkered, cocking ears from the Luger's toggle joint action.

The heart of the original Wolverine was an aluminum frame cast as one piece by Alcoa. By casting the frame, Hillberg was able to achieve an overall style and lines too prohibitive to machine Assembled into the shell of the frame were two sub-assemblies--the barreled action secured to the frame with a futuristic looking barrel nut and the fire control system. There were only three screws used in the gun, two for the grip panels and one for the sideplate, otherwise the Wolverine was designed and assembled so one part held another part in place, much like the Mauser Broomhandle.

Extensive use was made of extrusions for parts like the barrel nut and trigger. The extrusions came in 15' to 17' lengths, and the parts were literally sliced off and finished.

Most parts were subcontracted. The barrels, for example, came from High Standard or the Wilson Company.

The end product was a blowback-operated, semi-automatic with a shrouded external hammer, a 10-shot magazine and magazine disconnector system. The only desirable feature missing was a bolt hold-open device.

As inspired as the engineering and production of the Wolverine were, the weak link was to become marketing. The company signed an exclusive worldwide distribution contract with the well known company, J.L. Galef & Son. Under the terms of the contract, Galef was to move 10,000 Wolverines a year at a wholesale price of $16.53 and a retail price of $39.95.

Full production of the Wolverine began in January, 1956. The company realized immediately it was losing money at a price of $16.53 but couldn't renegotiate the price within a month or two of signing the marketing agreement.

While Galef ran ads in the only national gun magazines at the time, GUNS and the American Rifleman, Galef failed to sell enough guns a month nor would it release Whitney from the "exclusive" terms of the marketing contract. The owners had no choice but to sell the assets of the company by mid-1957.

The new company, set up as the Whitney Firearms Co. of Hartford, Ct., was soon sued by Galef for breach of contract, and it, too, failed over time.

Total production of the Wolverine between the two companies amounted to only 13,371. Originals are a rare bird indeed, but have heart, Olympic Arms, the notable maker of precision AR-15s, has brought the stylish Wolverine back to life.

The new Olympic Wolverine features a modern polymer frame rather than aluminum with enhancements like a ventilated rib and better safety mechanism. Depending on whether it is wearing plastic or wood grip panels, the weight of the new model empty is only 17 to 19 ounces, yet the design of the frame hugs your hand and makes the Wolverine a natural pointer with an almost neutral balance. The double-stage trigger on the unit I tested was outstanding, breaking at 3 pounds, 10 ounces. It felt even lighter.


High Speed Ammo

The Wolverine is designed around high-speed ammunition, and true to the recommendations in the exceptionally clear owner's manual, Winchester Super X was a sterling performer, turning in 1-1/2" to 1-3/4" 10-shot groups at 25 yards. The Wolverine barrel is 4.6" long yielding a sight radius of 5-1/4". The sight picture is bold and well defined. The rear, polymer sight is adjustable for windage. Elevation was smack on at 25 yards.

The 10-shot magazine functioned without a hitch. The Olympic Arms-supplied takedown tool doubles as a tool to depress the follower as you load. The one catch to the magazine is it must be fully seated in the grip with the magazine catch latched. It's an easy slip up on that one, and, no, there's still no hold-open device in play.

In short, the lines, handling and shooting qualities of Olympic Arms' new Whitney Wolverine are as captivating today as they were 50-years ago. Hopefully, this time, in a new century, the Wolverine's time has finally come.

Want to read the original 1958 cover story? Go to www.gunsmagazine. com and click on Web Blast to view the original story.


(800) 228-3471, WWW.OLYARMS.COM

 MECHANISM: Blowback,
 SIGHTS: Blade front,
 adjustable rear
 WEIGHT: 19 ounces
 FINISH: Matte black
 GRIPS: Black
 (wood available)
 RETAIL: $291.20
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Title Annotation:RIMFIRES
Author:Bodinson, Holt
Publication:Guns Magazine
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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