Welcome back to another edition of The Rimfire Report. This ongoing series is all about the rimfire firearm world. In this series, we often look at the various firearms, ammunition, and practices observed within this small corner of the firearms world and I absolutely love everything about it. This week I had my attention brought to a long-forgotten handgun from the mid-twentieth century – the Whitney Wolverine. Made by the Whitney Firearms company in New Haven Connecticut, the pistol was a short-lived but unique entry into the semi-automatic .22LR pistol category, and to this day, I’ve really never seen anything quite like it on the market. Today we’ll go over the history and features of the Whitney Wolverine as well as what you can expect to pay for one these days if you’re looking to pick up this rare .22LR pistol that looks like it came straight out of a Buck Rogers episode.
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The Rimfire Report: The Space Age Whitney Wolverine 22LR Pistol
Whitney Wolverine Specifications
- Desinger: Robert Hilberg
- Designed: 1953
- First Production: 1956
- Manufacturer: Whitney Firearms Inc, subsidiary of Bellmore Johnson Tool Co.
- Number Built: 13,371 (Approx. 500 nickel-plated models produced)
- Frame Material: Investment cast aluminum (By Alcoa)
- Weight: 23-ounces (unloaded)
- Barrel Length: 4.625-inches
- Overall Length: 9-inches
- Sights, Fixed front sight with drift adjustable rear
- Trigger: Single Action only with an external hammer surrounded by a shroud
- Action: Blowback
- Magazine: 10-round detachable box magazine
- MSRP circa 1956: $39.95 (blued) or $44.95 (nickel-plated)
Robert Hillberg was an Iowan-born firearms designer who grew up around firearms. Frequently going on hunting trips with his father Carl, Robert grew up to have a good appreciation for firearms. Robert would eventually go on to work for the High Standard Manufacturing Company after working for Bell Aircraft’s ordinance division, as well as Republic Aviation’s armament division. It is during this time that Robert cut his teeth working on several different firearms prototypes for aircraft as well as some semi-automatic pistol designs.
While at High Standard in 1951, Robert was assigned the job of head of research and development where he spearheaded the development of new versions of the Browning .30 caliber machinegun which eventually was produced and adopted as the M37 machinegun. Robert Hillberg had an influence on many other weapons prototypes including the M3 Browning machine gun, the M24 20mm cannon, and the M3 20mm cannon, all of which were used during the dawn of America’s venture into jet-powered fighters.
After working for High Standard, Hillberg wanted to develop his own semi-automatic pistol and one that would evoke visions of the future. In 1954 he co-founded the Whitney Firearms company along with Howard Johnson. The company was based in North Haven Connecticut and named after the Eli Whitney factory site where the company’s factory was located. It was here that the Whitney Wolverine was born and put into production but sadly, less than 15,000 units were produced and sold. The Whitney Wolverine was named after the University of Michigan Wolverines.
Short-Lived Space Pistol
No doubt inspired by the recent introduction of jet-powered fighters and probably spurred on even further by the years leading up to the beginning of the space age, Robert Hillberg and Howard Johnson set to work on their Whitney Wolverine pistol. It was around this time that both Ruger and Colt were bringing their own semi-automatic .22LR pistols to the market and thus, the Whitney Firearms company already had a great amount of competition from two established firearms manufacturers.
The Whitney Wolverine was sold in two variants including a blued version and a nickel-plated version and both pistols could be had with either black, white, or dark brown plastic grips (most of the time the white grips were reserved for the nickel-plated versions). Swooped lines, all-aluminum manufacturing, and a gear-like muzzle, the Whitney Wolverine evoked everything we remember about the 1950’s space-age aesthetic. At their peak, the Whitney Firearms company was producing a little over 300 guns per week, but unfortunately, the company was not making enough money off of the pistol to remain in business.
In reaction to this realization, the company attempted to increase production in the hopes that the increased sales would eventually cover their operating costs and net them a profit. Unfortunately, distributors of the Wolverine were unable to sell the pistols as quickly as Whitney Firearms had hoped and this eventually lead to the company’s bankruptcy. When the last of the pistols were delivered in 1957, Hillberg and Johnson figured they were in a corner and they sold the Whitney Firearms company for $100,000 which was enough to cover the initial loan they had taken out to start the company. However, they were still yoked with an additional $80k in debt from costs they had incurred during the production of the pistol.
Repayment and Revival
Still $80,000in the hole, Howard Johnson and Robert Hillberg went back to work for the Bellmore Johnson Company in Hamden where they were able to eventually pay off their remaining debt (The Bellmore Johnson company had their hands in the Whitney Firearms company name). During this time, the company that had purchased the assets of the Whitney Firearms company attempted to revive the pistol but ended up being tied up in a legal battle that lasted until 1962, and thus the first revival of the Wolverine failed without even beginning.
Years later, after the turn of the millennium, Olympic Arms manufactured and sold a new production version of the Whitney Wolverine made this time from polymer instead of the traditional aluminum frame. Olympic Arms began production on the new Wolverines in 2002 and made the pistol available in a new variety of colors including black, brown, tan, and of course – pink. Once again, the Wolverine would meet its end at the hands of yet another company shut down and in 2017 Olympic Arms and by extension the Whitney Wolverine were both at their ends.
Today, the Whitney Wolverine is still a popular collector’s item and can often fetch nearly $2,000 or more on GunBroker.com. While the blued versions of the pistol can be had at for as “little” as $1,800, the much more rare and coveted nickel-plated white gripped versions are routinely listed for $3,400 or more as a starting price and history shows that they often sell for nearly $4,000.
“The Wreckage of good projects, well-intentioned, that simply didn’t go anywhere successfully”
I think our friend Ian McCollum over at Forgotten Weapons said it best (above). The Whitney Wolverine was ahead of its time and simply the victim of a combination of poor marketing and perhaps an oversaturated market. The Wolverine was released during a time when both Colt and Ruger had cheaper options on the market (about $2 cheaper by 1950’s pricing) and as a result, the space-age design never went anywhere and only modern cheapened versions of it were ever put back into production.
I find it somewhat sad that despite his contributions to the firearms industry, Robert Hillberg is often not remembered for his great works but rather his ill-fated pistol that produced and sold less than 14,000 units. Robert Hillberg is perhaps one of the more underrated and forgotten contributors to the firearms world. Robert Hillberg passed away in 2012 as a retired deputy sheriff where he served his community as not only a law enforcement officer but also as an expert witness being a firearms designer.
Throughout all of his accomplishments, ups, downs, successes, and failures in the firearms world, Hillberg left this world with the sentiment that throughout his entire career of designing cannons, machine guns, shotguns, pistols, and rifles his proudest accomplishment was the Whitney pistol.