Colt Modernizes – Cap and Ball Colts

The Walker Colt

A well-known fan of the Walker.

In 1846, Sam Colt found a young man from Texas knocking at his door.  That young man, Captain Samuel Walker, was on a mission; he wanted Sam Colt to return to the business of making revolvers.

At this time Colonel Colt was engaged, as noted in Part 1, in manufacturing underwater electrical cable, tinfoil and marine mines.  Captain Walker wanted revolvers for the new-born Republic of Texas, but he didn’t want a rebirth of the .36 caliber Paterson.  He wanted a big, heavy, powerful revolver; a revolver for horsemen.  He wanted a dragoon pistol.

Sam Colt was apparently interested, because he sat down to create Captain Walker’s desires in steel.  The result of this process was the sidearm that first defined the form of the modern sixgun.  The 1847 Colt Walker held six loads rather than five, and the big cylinder, while described as a .44, was actually a .45, taking a .457 round or conical ball over as much as 60 grains of FFFG black powder.  The gun further had a hinged, attached rammer for reloading and a fixed trigger and trigger guard.  This was not only the first modern-form sixgun but also the first magnum revolver, as the big cylinder and the heavy .457 ball packed quite a wallop.

A few years back I had the pleasure of firing a replica Walker.  It was an interesting piece to handle, but sure as hell not a quick-draw piece.  The Walker Colt is long, heavy and cumbersome, but it’s important to remember what the Walker was designed for; it is a dragoon pistol.  It was designed for horsemen, to be carried my mounted riflemen (dragoons.)  Some Walkers as well as the later dragoon models were adapted to be fitted with shoulder stocks but making the revolver a carbine presents the same problem that led to the demise of revolving rifles in general; the cylinder gap has a distinct tendency to vent hot gases and, if a gun is ill-timed, to spit the occasional lead shaving.  None of this is good for the shooter’s non-firing arm.

The Colt Walker was effective but less than perfect.  Poor metallurgy in the early guns led to problems with ruptured cylinders, and the weak loading lever latch often led to the rammer dropping under recoil, jamming the gun up and preventing a fast follow-up shot.  In the end, this led to only 1,100 Walker revolvers being built.  These problems did, however, led to the next step in Colt sixgun development only a year after the advent of the Walker.

The Dragoons

Unknown Union soldier with a brace of Dragoons.

A martial pistol must be powerful, reliable and tough; the Walker was powerful, but fell a bit short on the other two aspects.  So, what started with the Walker revolver led to several developments and refinements in the basic dragoon pistol.  There were four primary variants of the Dragoon revolvers:

  • The First Model Dragoon, made from 1848 to 1850, with oval cylinder stops, a square-backed trigger guard, and no wheel on the hammer where it rode on the mainspring.
  • The Second Model Dragoon, made from 1850 to 1851, with rectangular cylinder stops and a square-backed trigger guard. The first few hundred Second Models had the old V-type mainspring and no wheel on the hammer; later guns had the flat mainspring that would persist in Colt revolvers for many decades, along with a wheel on the hammer where it rode on the mainspring.
  • The Third Model Dragoon, made from 1851 to 1860, with rectangular cylinder stops and a rounded trigger guard. Colt played around with the Third Model more than the others, producing some with folding leaf sights on the barrel, cuts for shoulder stocks, and so on.
  • The 1848 Baby Dragoon, a small .31 caliber pocket revolver. This was later refined into the 1849 Pocket Revolver, which was popular among gold-seekers, gamblers and outlaws as a hideaway gun.

The various Dragoon pistols were popular but even the Third Model still weighed in at a tad over four pounds.  There was obviously a market for a lighter, handier gun, more along the weight of the old Paterson guns but more modern and reliable.  That led to the development of an icon among cap-and-ball sixguns, the Colt Navy.

The Colt Navy Revolvers

My first sixgun was a replica of the 1851 Navy Colt, which is widely regarded as the best-handling sixgun made.  I see little reason to doubt that assessment based on my own experience.  My Navy had the standard 7 ½” barrel and a brass frame.  Back in my youth in Allamakee County I did a fair amount of fast-draw and reflex shooting practice, drawing and firing from an old drop belt from which the cartridge loops had been removed and a Mexican loop holster.  That Colt was excellent for such things, smooth, light and slick as a snake.  I shot it with .380 round lead balls and 30 grains of FFFG in paper cartridges I made myself.  I got so I could draw and place six rounds in a regular paper plate at 15 yards very quickly, and with the paper cartridges and a brass capper could reload and recap efficiently, usually having the old gun back in action in about a minute.  I carried the capper on a string around my neck, paper cartridges in an old tobacco tin and generally toted the old Navy around with me on many of my adventures in woods and fields.

Colt Navy.

There was a down side that resulted in my eventually discarding that old sixgun, and that was the brass frame.  With every shot that steel cylinder hammered back into that soft brass frame, eventually deforming the frame to the point where I reckoned the old piece unsafe to shoot.  I had a couple of friends who were in a local theater group, so I seated some balls in the empty cylinder, hammered a few balls into the barrel and removed the nipples to render the gun useless, then gave it to them as a prop gun.  I would like to have another of these guns, but when the day comes for me to find another cap and ball gun, it will be a steel frame version.  Brass frame replicas are still common on the gun market as flies in a barn, but I can’t recommend them for the reasons described above.

Back in the day the Navy Colts were very popular.  The well-equipped cowpoke, lawman or gun twist frequently carried a brace of them in saddle holsters in addition to his belt gun; in the famous Charles Portis book True Grit, in that renowned final charge, it was with a brace of Navy Colts from saddle holsters that Marshal Cogburn engaged the four bad men, not the SAA Colt and ‘92 Winchester wielded by John Wayne in the movie.

Ten years after the first Navy Colts were made, the Colt works brought out the ultimate Navy, that being the streamlined 1861 Navy, also in .36 caliber, with an improved “creeping” loading lever and the added loading clearance introduced in the .44 Army Colt of 1860.  There was also a miniature variant, the 1861 Pocket Navy, later refined into the 1862 Pocket Police, both small-framed .31 caliber revolvers.

The Root Sidehammer

Colt Root Sidehammer Patent Drawing

The Root Side-hammer Colt, designed by Colt engineer Elisha K. Root, was in some ways a better design than the traditional versions; its solid frame was stouter, and the rear sight was on the frame rather than on the hammer nose.  The Root revolver, introduced in 1855, was popular among officers on both sides in the Civil War, but it was a real pipsqueak, manufactured only in .28 and .32 calibers

The 1860 Army Colt

What many consider the ultimate expression of the Colt cap and ball revolver was introduced in 1860, just in time for the Civil War or, as Mrs. Animal calls it, the War of the Northern Aggression.

In many ways the 1860 Army combined the best of both worlds.  It was a much lighter and handier arm than the Dragoon pistols, and with it’s .44 caliber loads packed more punch than the Navy guns.  It was a fine, well-crafted, well-balanced piece, handicapped only by it’s open-topped frame and the odd placement of rear sight on the hammer nose.  This was perhaps the ultimate development of the Colt cap-and-ball revolver.  Its grip shape was so admirably suited to being fired accurately one-handed, even from horseback, carried over to the famous Colt Single Action Army and remains in use on the vast majority of single-action sixguns made today.  The use of a rebated cylinder allowed for the use of the same size frame as the Navy revolvers frame and kept the gun’s weight to about two and a half pounds.

The Colt 1860 Army.

As with the Walker and Navy revolvers, it has been my pleasure to handle a few Army Colts, most replicas but notably one original, although we didn’t fire the original.  The Army Colt is a pleasure to handle, heavy by modern standards but the big sixgun points naturally, barrel rise under recoil is controllable, and the rotation of the curved grip in the hand brings the hammer spur nicely under the thumb, allowing for quick follow-up shots.  The .44 round ball or conical bullet in front of 40 grains of FFFG packs a hearty punch.  A few shooting sessions with one will bring home exactly why this was probably the most desired martial sidearm of its era.

And the demand for martial sidearms was about to explode.

And Then This Happened

Colt revolvers, especially the 1860 Army but also the Dragoon and Navy types, were soon in great demand as the War Between the States broke out.  Sam Colt, having foreseen the great increase in demand, had expanded the factory and, when the southern states began to secede, sold at least 2,000 revolvers to Confederate military buyers, an act which nearly killed the company when the war was over.  But what remains inarguable is the reason that the Colt revolvers were in demand by both Union and Confederate armies; they were tough, powerful, reliable sidearms, the state of the art for their day.

Sam Colt passed away in January of 1862, killed of all things by complications of gout.  The appellation of Colonel was real, Sam Colt having received a commission from the state of Connecticut as commander of the 1st Regiment Colts Revolving Rifles of Connecticut.  But that unit never took the field, and Colonel Colt was soon released from service.  But the erstwhile Colonel Colt’s company was building thousands and thousands of Army revolvers and a variety of guns for the civilian market, they didn’t lack for competition.  Plenty of people were getting in on the sixgun action, including America’s oldest surviving gunmaker, Remington, as well as plenty of others.  We’ll talk about them in Part 3.  Meanwhile, bigger things were afoot; about this time two men were set to change the world of sixguns forever.  Those two men were Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson, and they had an idea and a patent.  But that’s a story for Part 4!