The Other Percussion Guns
Meanwhile, in Ilion, New York
Sam Colt wasn’t the only one out there designing and building great cap-and-ball six-shooters.
In 1816, the son of a small-town blacksmith had built himself a flintlock rifle, which won such acclaim from his neighbors that soon everyone wanted one. Eliphalet Remington responded by going into the gun business. That business grew quickly, and in 1828 Eliphalet (I had to look up how to pronounce that, so I’m going to make you all look it up, too) opened a plant in Ilion, New York. That plant holds a big chunk of American firearms history, as the Remington Arms Company is the oldest surviving incorporated company in the United States and the Ilion plant, the oldest manufacturing facility in the country that still produces the same type of product it was built for.
But back to sixguns.
In the late 1850s, the aging Remington had working in his plant a gunsmith named Fordyce Beals. (I’m going to make you look up that one, too.) Mr. Beals had in mind a revolver; Remington was agreeable, and the result was the Remington-Beals revolver, commonly known as the 1858 Remington Army revolver. Bear in mind that this was only a few short years after the Remington-Beals revolver hit the market, a group of southern states declared themselves the Confederate States of America and it was Molly-bar-the-door time. Remington began building revolvers in 1862. The Remington revolvers were made in a variety of frame sizes and calibers from .31 to .44, but the most common is the big .44; over 230,000 guns were made.
In 1862, martial sidearms were suddenly in demand, and Remington produced a good one. The Remington Army revolver, in fact, finalized the form of the modern sixgun as it is today, with a solid frame including a stout top strap with the rear sight firmly fixed thereon. It was a tad heavier than the 1860 Colt Army, but the conscientious horse soldier could carry around a couple of extra cylinders and reload the piece quickly. The Remington had another advantage; Beals was savvy enough to mill slots in the rear of the receiver between the nipple recesses, so one could lower the hammer nose safely into one of these and thus carry the piece safely with all six chambers loaded. This was a first for percussion sixguns, and in wartime, quite possibly a lifesaving one.
The legacy of this fine revolver lives on today. In 1972 the folks at Ruger were thinking of brining to market a modern cap and ball revolver, built with modern lockwork and manufacturing standards. The result was the outstanding Ruger Old Army, and you can see a lot of the Remington legacy in that piece. Ruger even offers the gun in stainless steel, which is nice when you consider the mess black-powder guns can be to clean; one writer back in the day experimented with his stainless Old Army by shooting a hundred rounds or so, then sticking the gun in the dishwasher. It came out spotless, requiring only a wipe-down and oiling.
But I digress.
The Remington revolver was manufactured from 1862 to 1875, including some versions converted to fire the newfangled brass cartridges. It was replaced by a gun purpose-built for brass cartridges, but we’ll come back to that later.
With Colt’s patent expiring, more folks wanted to get into the revolver business. European manufacturers even got in on the trend, but I’ll try to limit this to American manufacturers for the moment.
We tend to think of double-action wheelguns as being a more recent thing, usually beginning our mental tabulation with the .38 Colt Lightning and the beefier .41 Colt Thunderer, but at least one double-action sixgun was in use in the Civil War, that being the Starr revolver.
The Starr Arms Company of Yonkers and Binghamton made two variations of their double-action revolver, a .36 caliber piece made in 1859 and 1860 and a .44 caliber gun made in 1862 and 1863. When war broke out, the U.S. government persuaded Starr to produce a cheaper single-action piece, which was made in .44 caliber only from 1863 to 1864, with over 23,000 made and used heavily by Union troops. Plenty of Starrs, especially the earlier double-action models, were used by Confederate officers and cavalrymen as well.
Leech and Rigdon
During the War of the Northern Aggression the Confederates used mostly imported and Union-made revolvers, with the 1860 Colt in particular seeing a lot of use on both sides. The Confederacy hade a few native-built revolvers, but not many. The Leech and Rigdon was one such, and its story is the story of the Confederate armaments industry, which was ended almost before it began.
In 1861 Thomas Leech and Charles Rigdon set up shop in Columbus, Mississippi, to make revolvers. Leech, a cotton factor, provided the capital, while Rigdon, a scale maker with some gunsmithing experience, provided the know-how. The revolver they produced was a near-exact copy of the 1851 Colt Navy, a light, lively .36 caliber piece. They had a contract from Richmond for 1500 revolvers, but it is unclear how many were produced for beginning in late 1862 Leech and Rigdon quite literally produced their revolvers on the run, moving from Columbus first to Selma, Alabama then to Greensboro, Georgia, to evade Federal forces. They gave up on the venture in 1863. Maybe a thousand guns were produced, and they command pretty good prices among Civil War re-enactors and collectors today.
An Oddball – the LeMat
Ever wanted a ten-shooter? If you had such an urge in the late 1850s, the LeMat revolver was your baby. That interesting sidearm had a nine-shot cylinder in either .36 or .42 caliber, with rotated around a 20-gauge shotgun barrel.
Sometimes called the grapeshot revolver, the big piece was originally designed by Jean Alexander Le Mat of New Orleans on or about 1856. A few of these guns, probably less than a hundred, were manufactured in Philadelphia, while the balance, close to 3,000 guns in all, were made in Europe. A fair number were smuggled into the Confederacy during the “Unpleasantness,” where they were much sought-after as cavalry sidearms.
Le Mat had originally hoped to market his revolver to the US Army as a dragoon pistol. A US Army Major named Pierre-Gustave Toutant (P.G.T.) de Beauregard was his advocate to the Ordnance Department (as well as his cousin) but the US Army was not interested. In 1861, after Cousin Pierre-Gustave abandoned the US to serve in the Confederate Army, he secured a contract for 5,000 LeMat revolvers from Richmond. Only about 2,500 made it through Scott’s Anaconda, but the LeMat grapeshot revolver’s place in history was secure; at least one manufacturer makes a replica available today.
The idea of the combination gun in general is still popular, such pieces ranging from high-dollar German Drillings to the old Savage 24 over/under, usually mounting a .22 rimfire barrel over a .410 or 20-gauge shotgun. But the combination of revolver with shotgun barrel belongs solely to the LeMat.
Then There Were These Guys
Meanwhile, Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson weren’t sitting on their hands.
When Sam Colt’s revolver patent expired in 1856, Smith & Wesson were ready, but they had some new ideas. They quickly secured the services of former Colt gunsmith Rollin White, who held the patent on a revolver with bored-through cylinders to take the newfangled brass cartridges. Their first model, called the #1, wasn’t a very effective piece as it was chambered only in .22 short. But it had not only the bored-through cylinder but a hinged frame, with the hinge at the front of the topstrap; this allowed the barrel to swing up and rearward, so the shooter could remove the cylinder to reload.
This was fast and, with the new brass cartridges, handy and clean. The brass cartridges were much less susceptible to moisture and wind than loose powder and ball, and less likely to disintegrate in the pockets or saddlebags than paper cartridges. Smith and Wesson knew they were on to something, and so in 1862 scaled up their revolver into the #2, chambered for the .32 S&W Rimfire Long cartridge.
Now the Union troops had something interesting; a light, handy sidearm that reloaded in a hurry. The black powder cartridge still made a mess, and even in .32 caliber the gun was something of a pipsqueak. But there was a complication; in 1865, peace was breaking out all over, and the market for martial sidearms was about to take a nosedive.
And Then This Happened
But America, now that the “Recent Unpleasantness” had ended, was looking West again, and with that westward movement came the desire for sidearms. Colt was still in the mix, but for the time being could offer only cap-and-ball guns, unlike their esteemed competition.
Speaking of Smith and Wesson: They had been busy improving on their basic sixgun while all this other stuff was going on. When the War of the Northern Aggression ended, they held that patent that said to the nation that they were the only ones that could manufacture revolvers with bored-through cylinders for metallic cartridges, and they were about to take that idea and run with it. Things in the sixgun world were about to leap forward once again, and the Colt folks were about to face some hard times. More on that in Part 4.