AN OUTLINE HISTORY OF COLT PERCUSSION REVOLVERS
Dave Markowitz

This is a very brief outline history of the various models of percussion revolvers manufactured by Colt during the 19th century. I'm going to concentrate on the major variants, not the many subtypes made during the percussion period.

1. The Early Models

From 1836 to 1842, the "Patent Arms Manufacturing Company" of Paterson, New Jersey made Samuel Colt's revolvers, hence the general term "Paterson Colt." These were both rifles and handguns. Handgun calibers included .36, .40, and .47. They were made both with and without loading rods. Although Colts were highly thought of by frontiersmen, including Kit Carson, and saw service with the Texas Rangers on the frontier, and the U.S. Army in the Seminole War, the firm went bankrupt in 1842.

2. The "Army" Models

The Colt firm was revived with the introduction in 1847 of the "Walker" model "Walker" model in (nominally) .44 caliber, which saw use in the Mexican War of 1848. These were namedd after Captain Samuel Walker of the United States Mounted Rifles, who had used Paterson models, and contacted Colt with suggestions for improving the arm. The resulting behemoth had an overall length of 15.5", a 9" barrel and weighed approximately 4.75 lbs. It could be loaded with a .45 caliber round ball, or a conical weighing 220 grains. Powder charge was 50 to 60 grains. The ballistics were superior to any cartridge arm until the introduction of the .357 Magnum in 1935. By comparison, the original .45 Colt cartridge was loaded with a 250 grain bullet and 40 grains of powder.

The Walker had several flaws which needed to be fixed. Most seriously, there were metallurgical problems which led to a number of the guns exploding when they were fired. This contributed to the very low survival rate of this model, of which only about 1000 were made. The loading lever was held up by a spring latch, which unfortunately would often release the lever under the influence of recoil, causing the cylinder to bind. The sheer size of the piece made handling cumbersome. Despite these drawbacks, the Colt Walker was superior to the single shot muzzle loading pistols of the era, as well as the relatively few competing repeaters. It was enough to keep Colt's in business.

business.

The Walker was replaced by the .44 caliber Model of 1848 Holster Pistol, A/K/A the "First Model Dragoon." This was slightly smaller than the Walker, at about 4.5 lbs, and was provided with a positive latch for the loading lever. A key identifying feature is the oval-shaped cylinder stops.

The cylinder engravings on the Dragoons depicts a battle between Indians and the U.S. Mounted Rifles (A/K/A Dragoons).

The Second Model Dragoon came next, and differed in details like the square cylinder stops and loading lever latch.

The Third Model Dragoon, produced 1858 - 1861, is relatively rare. The main identifying feature is the leaf rear sight mounted on the barrel. These pieces were cut for a shoulder stock, which when fitted turned the revolver into a carbine.

In 1860 Colt introduced the ultimate single-action percussion combat handgun, the New Army Model in .44 caliber. This is a noticeably smaller arm than the Walkers and Dragoons, though still a big piece. The size reduction was accomplished by mating a rebated cylinder to the 1851 Navy Model's frame. The 1860 Army also features a streamlined profile and a new, ratcheting or "creeping" loading lever. It's a very sleek and well-balanced arm.

The 1860 Army can take up to 35 grains of powder and a .45 caliber ball or bullet,er ball or bullet, producing energy levels on par with .38 Special +P loading.

3. The "Navy" Models

The first of the post-Paterson Colts suitable for use as a service arm yet small enough to be carried in a belt holster was the Model of 1851. This is my favorite. The common names for this model are the "Colt Navy" or "1851 Colt." It was a great favorite on the frontier before, during, and after the Civil War/War of Northern Aggression. This is in spite of ballistics which by today's standards are pretty wimpy - a .375 to .380 ball/bullet ahead of 28 grains of powder. (I guess this says something about our preoccupation with "stopping power.") James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickcock is said to have favored the Navy Colt, although he is also known to have used the M1860 Army.

The Colt Navy can be identified by the 7.5" octagonal barrel and the scene engraved on the cylinder. (Navies with barrels shorter than 7.5" from the factory are extremely rare.) It depicts a battle between the Texas and Mexican Navies on May 16, 1843.

The first 2500 or so Navy Colts had squareback triggerguards, and some Navies were cut for shoulder stocks. One interesting accessory produced for this model is a shoulder stock which was hollowed out to serve as a canteen.

as a canteen.

In 1861 Colt introduced a new Navy model incorporating the streamlined round barrel contour and creeping loading lever of the M1860 Army, but retaining the .36 caliber of the M1851. This is one of the rarer Colts. Relatively few were made and it was produced alongside the old favorite, the M1851 Navy.

4. Pocket Models

While Colt's belt and holster pistols have attracted most of the attention of shooters and collectors, in terms of sheer numbers produced, Colonel Colt's "pocket" revolvers stand out. There were some very compact guns produced in the Paterson factory, but the first truly successful Colt hideout gun was the Model 1848 "Baby Dragoon" in .31 caliber.

The gun held 5 shots in its cylinder, and easily recognizable by its lack of a loading lever. Balls were forced into the chambers by dismounting the barrel and cylinder, then using the cylinder base pin as a ramrod.

In 1849 the Baby Dragoon was further refined with the addition of a loading lever, similar to those found on the Dragoon and Navy models. The M1849 could be had with barrels of 4", 5" or 6".

The "New Model Pocket Pistol of Navy Caliber," or "Pocket Navy" is, in essence, a Baby Dragoon modified with a .36 caliber barrel and rebated cylinder on theed cylinder on the .31-size frame.

In 1862, Colt introduced the "Pocket Police," again on the Baby Dragoon sized frame, but fitted with a fluted, rebated cylinder chambered in .36 caliber. It also has the sleek round barrel and creeping loader of the 1860 Army. It was made until 1872.

5. The Model of 1855 Revolvers

I have separated the M1855 pattern Colts because of their dissimilarity to the other percussion Colt arms. They are distinguished by a solid frame with top strap, spur trigger and the hammer which is mounted on the right side of the frame. These models are relatively rare and no one makes reproduction, so you are unlike to see one outside of a book or a very complete museum collection. They were small and bored in .265 and .36 calibers.

The 1855 Colt's were based on the patent of E.K. Root, Colt's factory foreman, and are often called "Root Revolvers."

The Root models were also made as shotguns and .56 rifle muskets. The latter saw service during the Civil War as the first issue arm of Berdan's Sharpshooters. The Colt rifles did not stand up well in this role; ironically it may have been the case that Berdan's men, being true shooting enthusiasts, took too much care of their rifles, of their rifles, thus causing accelerated wear. The Sharpshooters soon turned in their Colt's for Sharps single shot breechloaders.

Conclusion

The essay above represents a sketch of the different models revolvers which the Colt company produced during the percussion era. It doesn't touch upon many of the details separating different variants. Doing that requires a book. For those interested in learning more about these arms, I can recommend reading A History of the Colt Revolver and the Other Arms Made by Colt's Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company From 1836 to 1940, by Charles T. Haven and Frank A. Belden, Bonanza Books, NY 1940.


Copyright 1997-2000, David S. Markowitz.  Please feel free to quote or reproduce this article in its entirety, with this attribution, and for noncommercial purposes only. 


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