(This article was originally published in the November/December 1998 issue of "The Backwoodsman.")
 

THE COLT DRAGOON PERCUSSION REVOLVER
David S. Markowitz (C) 1997-2000

    Among the most colorful and historic of all U.S. military firearms is the Colt Model 1848 Percussion Army Revolver, or "Dragoon." Introduced in 1848 after the close of the Mexican War, the Dragoon formed the big bore part of the Colt stable. Initially intended for use by the U.S. Army's Mounted Rifles (U.S.M.R.) or "Dragoons" this model went on to see considerable civilian service during the 1850s and '60s, and was used during the Civil War. Today, replicas of this famous pistol provide the modern black powder shooter with a link to this important period in our country's history.

HISTORIC BACKGROUND:

    The massive Dragoon was introduced to rectify a number of defects found in the even larger Colt Walker revolver which were discovered in active service during the Mexican War. For example, the Walker was so large at four and a half poundsge at four and a half pounds that it was quite unwieldy. Additionally, a number of Walkers exploded when they weree fired, no doubt causing much grief to their users. Features introduced in the Dragoon model include a slightly shorter cylinder, holding up to 50 grains of powder and a round ball (compared with 60 grains in the Walker), a slightly shorter barrel (7.5 inches versus 9 inches for the Walker), and a somewhat more positive loading lever latch designed to keep the lever from dropping down during recoil and jamming the piece. The shorter barrel and cylinder brought weight down to 4 pounds two ounces and thus made the arm slightly easier to handle. The lower powder capacity lowered chamber pressures and made the  gun inherently less likely to blow up when shot. Improvements in Colt's metallurgy also helped in this regard.

    During the turbulent 1850s leading up to the Civil War, Colt Dragoons saw extensive military and civilian service. The Dragoons were originally issued to the U.S.M.R. in pairs which were carried in pommel holsters on their saddles. However, they also gained in popularity among civilians in the Southwest, many of whom had seen recent service in the Mexican War. Some of these men had no doubt seen the Walker Colt in action and wanted to have similar firepower on their side. Others knew a good thing when they saw it, and latched onto the powerful and rapid-firing Dragoons. The American West inAmerican West in the 1850s was a place where a man might need a powerful, rapid-firearm, whether for defending his homestead on the plains of "BleedingKansas" or while fighting Indians and desperados in Texas. The Colt Dragoon, more than any other weapon, fit this description to a "T."

    Amongst the most infamous users of the Colt Dragoon during the 1850s was the bandit army of Joaquin Murietta in the then-new state of California.  According to legend, Murietta, a Mexican who had formerly held the deepest admiration for Americans, finally tired of being treated poorly by the Anglos in California. Murietta reached his breaking point one night in late 1850 when his cabin was broken into by five American miners who raped his wife. Depending on which version of the story you hear, she either survived the attack or died soon afterwards.  Following this, Murietta and his followers went on a rampage of plunder, murder, and destruction which lasted for nearly three years until it was brought to an end in July 1853 by the California Rangers, who had been formed specifically to stop Murietta's depredations. One of the more interesting relics of this story is a Second Model Dragoon which was given by Murietta's lieutenant, Manuel Garcia (AKA "Three-Fingered Jack") to the owner of the Higuerra Ranche Higuerra Ranch near San Jose, in appreciation for the owner's having provided the gang with a place to lay low in June of 1853 when they were being chased by the Rangers. According to the Murietta legend, his bandits sometimes carried up to six of these giant revolvers with them.

    During its production run from 1848 through 1860, when it was superseded by the Colt Model 1860 Army revolver, the Dragoon was produced in three main variations. Naturally, these are referred to as the First Model, Second Model, and Third Model Dragoons. Government orders totaled 8,390 revolvers during this time frame.

    The distinguishing external feature of the First Model Dragoon is the  oval-shaped cylinder notches. Nearly 7,000 First Models were made by Colt from 1848 to 1850.

    The Second Model differed from earlier guns in that the cylinder notches are rectangular, and it could have either a regular leaf mainspring, or the "V" mainspring of the First Model. This is by far the scarcest variation, with only about2,550 being made in 1850 and '51.

    The Third Model Dragoon was produced in greater numbers than the two earlier models, with a little more than 10,000 made from 1851 through 1860. Some were even0. Some were even made at Colt's London armory. There were more variations of this model than earlier types. Features incorporated on some Third Model Dragoons include frame cuts for detachable shoulder  stocks, horizontal "Navy-type" loading lever latches (most Dragoons have a vertical latch), and folding leaf sights. The key external identifying feature of the Third Model is the round trigger guard, instead of the square-back trigger guard of earlier types.

    All three models of the Dragoon revolvers have an unfluted cylinder which bears an engraved scene of a battle between soldiers and Indians.   The cylinder may also bear the inscription "U.S. DRAGOONS" or "MODEL U.S.M.R."  

SHOOTING IMPRESSIONS:

    The first impression most people have when seeing a Colt Dragoon for the first time is something like, "Damn, it's big!" To give you an idea of just how big, let's look at the gun's specifications:

 

    This dwarfs a Ruger Old Army, no lightweight at 3 pounds, or a Colt M1860 Army at 2.75 pounds. It's also considerably more powerful than either of these other two .44s. The Old Army has a maximum powder charge of 40 grains, while the M1860 Colt will hold 35 grains (both when shooting roundballs).  

    An original Colt Dragoon in shootable condition is way out of my price range, and even if it wasn't would be far too valuable to take to the range. (I think that's a shame, since they were made to be shot, not looked at. But that's gun collecting for you.) Therefore, I shot the next-best thing, a replica Second Model Dragoon made by Aldo Uberti in Italy. I have a high opinion of Uberti's repros based on my past experience with them. I also own one each of their repros of the Colt 1851 Navy .36 and the Winchester 1873 carbine .44-40 WCF. The Dragoon is made to the same high standards as these other guns, with a nice, dark walnut stock and well-polished deep bluing. I was a little disappointed in the color case hardening on the frame, which wasn't as bright asn't as bright as that on my Navy repro, although the colors came out very good on the loading lever and rammer.


     After I brought my new Dragoon home, I field stripped it and thoroughly degreased the exterior of the piece, as well as the bore and the chambers. After experimenting with many different lubes during the course of shooting black powder for about twenty years, I've come to the conclusion that the natural lubricants are best. Petroleum-based lubes exacerbate the fouling problem you have when dealing with black powder.   They make the fouling much harder and thicker. By contrast, natural lubricants, such as Ox Yoke's Wonder Lube or even plain old Crisco swiped from the kitchen keep the fouling soft. Therefore, after I removed all the preservative which coated the revolver as it came from the factory, I wiped down the bore, chambers, and outside of the gun with Wonder Lube. Even though Crisco is much cheaper, and works well as a shooting lubricant, it stiffens up too much for use in cold weather, so I used the Ox Yoke product. By so coating the gun I protected it from rusting, and also "seasoned" the bore and chambers, so that the black powder fouling wouldn't build up too badly.  

    In my first outing with my new gun, I fired only three cylindersy three cylinders worth, since it was a bit cold outside. However, it really got me hooked on this revolver. The first two cylinders were loaded with Hornady .457 roundballs on top of 50 grains of 3Fg Goex black powder.  Wonder Lube was used to seal the chamber mouths, both to lubricate the ball's ride down the bore and keep fouling down, but also to prevent chain-firing. I used CCI number 11 percussion caps.

    Shooting at a target placed at 25 yards, I was able to keep my shots within about a six inch group. This may not sound too impressive, but consider that: I was shooting offhand, the rear sight is a notch in the hammer nose which vanishes once you pull the trigger, and it weighs four pounds plus. Besides, I'm not that great a pistolero, anyway. The boom and smoke cloud brought a smile to my face each time I fired the Dragoon. With 50 grains of powder it seemed about as loud as a .50 caliber muzzleloading rifle. According to Sam Fadala in his book The Gun Digest Black Powder Loading Manual (DBI Books, Inc. 1982), this load will push a roundball out the muzzle at about 1100 feet per second, for approximately 400 foot-pounds of energy. This is comparable to a hot .45 ACP load.

 

    My last cylinderful was loaded erful was loaded with 45 grains of powder. I did this because the loading lever came unlatched several times when shooting the 50 grain loads, and I thought the slightly lower recoil might prevent this. This unfortunately wasn't the case. However, I think I may continue to use the lighter load anyway, since it still produces a lot of smoke and noise, but allows me to put more lubricant on top of the balls in the chambers. This ought to help keep the fouling down.  

    In my second trip out to the range I put another four cylinders through the gun. Shooting from about 15 yards this time, the groups could be covered with your hand. I didn?t do any formal benchrest testing, since I figure that the Dragoon was designed as a service arm, and the sights (especially the rear) really won?t allow me to shoot the gun to the limits of its mechanical accuracy, anyway.  Therefore, I shot it offhand, mostly with two hands. I did shoot one group with only one hand, so I could get some decent photos.

    The loads I shot on this outing were 45 grains of 3Fg Goex, topped with the Hornady .457 roundballs and Wonder Lube.  One of the things that I like about shooting cap and ball revolvers is that if anyone else is at the range, they alwaysge, they always come over to see what I'm doing. Even folks who themselves aren't especially interested in black powder are intrigued by the loading and shooting process, especially when they see the smoke clouds I'm making. By virtue of its size and power, the Dragoon is a real crowd-pleaser on the firing line.  

    Upon returning home, I promptly cleaned the revolver using my new favorite black powder cleaning solution -- Windex. Even though I had just put 24 heavy loads through it, the bore came clean with only 3 or 4 patches. If you use this, be careful to get all of the Windex out, since the ammonia it contains could etch the gun's metal if left in contact too long. Once cleaned, I put another protective coating of Wonder Lube on the Dragoon.

CONCLUSION:  

    In the nineteenth century the westward expansion of America's frontier created the need for a powerful, reliable, and fast-shooting weapon.   Samuel Colt started down the road to solving this need with his Paterson models, improved on them with his Walker, and took the next step with his Dragoons. During the 1850s, the Dragoon was probably the finest military arm available, and was only eclipsed when technological developments allowed Colt to bring out the 1860 Army model. Still, themodel. Still, the Dragoon went on to see extensive service on both sides in the Civil War.  

    American shooters today can reach back in time and experience a little of this rich history with one of the replicas of the Colt Dragoon now offered by several manufacturers. In doing so, we help keep alive this important piece of our past.

    Copyright (C) 1997-99 David S. Markowitz (dsmjd@erols.com).  This article may be reposted if kept in its entirety, including this copyright notice, and if the author is informed of where it's being posted. It may NOT be reproduced for profit.

 


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