Colt replicas produced by such Italian firms as Armi San Marco, Pietta, and Uberti, are available from such distributors as Cimarron, EMF, Navy Arms and Taylor’s and Co. In addition, for a time Colt Blackpowder Arms under license from Colt, produced both 2nd and 3rd Generation percussion sixguns by importing parts, then assembling and finishing them in this country. The fit and finish of these “Colts” was normally of higher quality than standard replicas from Italy, however they are definitely not real Colts. Percussion revolvers have come a long way since the 1960s and today's cap and ball sixguns are well made, well finished, with a great improvement found in the case colors, and with well above average accuracy. In fact, with the right load they often rival modern revolvers when it comes to the latter. Colt-style cap and ball sixgun replica sixguns inclue the 1836 Paterson, 1847 Walker, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Dragoons, both the 1851 and 1861 Navy, and the 1860 Army.
Sam Colt was born in 1814 and at the age of sixteen found himself on board ship bound from Boston to Calcutta. It is said that he got the idea for a revolving pistol by watching the ship’s wheel. He was not the first to come up with the idea but his 1836 Paterson was the first practical pistol using a revolving cylinder as well as percussion ignition. Sam Colt received a Paterson patent at the same time that Santa Ana was over-running the defenders at the Alamo.
The Paterson was a five-shot .40 caliber revolver with a folding trigger and no trigger guard. It was so much more efficient than the single shot pistols they had been using the Texas Rangers took to the long-barreled Texas Paterson immediately. In 1844 Texas Rangers Jack Hays, Sam Walker, and fourteen others all armed with Texas Patersons, fought more than eighty Comanches killing thirty-three of them.
Today’s replica Paterson can be had with or without a loading lever and in .36 caliber only. Due to the lack of a trigger guard and the fragile folding trigger, it feels quite strange at first but consider it took the place of a single-shot pistol greatly increasing firepower. It was the high capacity pistol of its day.
By 1845, Congress had annexed the Republic of Texas making war with Mexico a foregone conclusion. Four years earlier, Colt had gone bankrupt and the needed supply of arms had dried up. As the Texas Rangers joined the regular Army in 1846, Sam Walker went East looking for volunteers and Colt revolvers. The two Sams, Colt and Walker, put their heads together and vastly improved the Paterson design.
Gone was the fragile folding trigger replaced by a stationary trigger surrounded by a trigger guard. The cylinder was enlarged to hold six .44 caliber chambers all of which would accept up to 60 grains of black powder. However, there was a major problem. Colt had the design, but no money and no manufacturing facilities. The U.S. Government provided the funds with their orders for a thousand Walkers, and Eli Whitney Jr. provided the manufacturing facility, and thus this transitional model from the Paterson to the Dragoons is also known as the Whitneyville Walker Dragoon.
Sam Walker considered the sixgun that bore his name good for use on man or beast and effective as a common rifle at 200 yards. The Walkers were issued in pairs and Col. Walker received his pair four days before being killed as 250 Texicans battled 1600 Mexicans. The War was over in early 1848, leaving Sam Colt solidly entrenched as a firearms maker. The Walker had performed well, however it was a huge sixgun with a 9” barrel weighing four and one-half pounds plus, and it would soon be replaced by the Dragoons.
Walkers were tested with Goex FFFg and Pyrodex P with all loads measured by volume not by weight. Walkers did their best work with 55 grains of Goex FFFg and a Speer .454 round ball lubed with a Thompson wad for a muzzle velocity of 1224 fps or 60 grains of Pyrodex P lubed with Crisco for 1109 fps. The Mighty Walker remained the most powerful sixgun for almost 90 years, until 1935 and the arrival of the .357 Magnum dethroned it. Walkers are so heavy that they are very difficult to use one-handed and I would be willing to bet the first two-handed shooting with a sixgun was done by the first man to shoot a Walker. The replicas share the malady of the originals in that the loading lever often drops upon recoil.
In 1848 Colt began replacing the Walker with the Dragoon series. The loading lever latch was improved, the barrel was shortened by one and one-half inches, the cylinder by one-fourth inch, the grip shape improved, all resulting in the four pound 1st Model Dragoon in 1848. One year later, the cylinder locking bolt and slots were changed from oval shape to rectangular shape and the 2nd Model Dragoon appeared. By 1851, the square-backed trigger guard, still found on the Ruger Super Blackhawk today, was dropped in favor of a rounded trigger guard and the 3rd Model Dragoon had arrived. A few of the original 3rd Models were made with an adjustable leaf rear sight as are a few of the replicas. They seem almost impossible to find.
The 3rd Model Dragoon, even at four pounds, is much easier to handle than the Walker, but is about at the limit for both a holster pistol and a one-handed sixgun. The test model came from the Uberti factory and carries a brass backstrap and trigger guard with a case colored frame, hammer, and trigger, and the stocks of one-piece walnut, are well fitted and comfortably shaped. The action is very smooth and tight. As with the Walker, a pin protrudes from the back of the cylinder between chambers, and a hole in the face of the hammer accepts this pin allowing the hammer to be let down between chambers and the carrying of six shots safely. It shot exceptionally well with the best loads being a full 50 grains of Goex FFFg or the same volume of Pyrodex P under a Speer .454 round ball ignited by Speer #11 percussion caps. Muzzle velocities run 950 and 990 fps respectively.
Both the Walker and the various Dragoons were all deemed more than a little heavy for fast work from a holster but the advent of the 1851 Navy .36 changed all that. With the advent of this miniature Dragoon, a man was as dangerous with his sixgun in a properly designed holster, as he was with the sixgun in his hand. Perhaps even more so as any practiced sixgunner can draw and fire a single action sixgun faster than the average person can react. For the first time real speed from leather was possible. The age of the gunfighter had arrived. The 1851 Navy has a 7 1/2” barrel, either round or octagonal, and is a very well balanced sixgun with one piece walnut grips, and case coloring on frame, hammer, and loading lever. Examples can be found with either a brass back strap and trigger guard and shotgun style gold bead front sight, or a silver plated back strap and trigger guard and a front sight that fits into a dovetail sight. These are mildly recoiling weapons with an 86 grain round ball at 950 fps using 25 grains of Goex FFFg black Powder. All charges mentioned are, of course, by volume not by weight using a black powder measure. Quick to get into action, mild recoil, and good accuracy made them a natural gunfighter’s weapon and they were used to perfection by Wild Bill Hickok.
In 1860, on the eve of the War Between the States, Colt came forth with his crowning glory, his finest percussion sixgun. The 1851 Navy was perfect for holster use but was rather small in caliber; with improved metallurgy would it be possible to place the power of the Dragoon in the sixgun the size of the 1851 Navy? Colt engineers went to work and the result was a sixgun only slightly larger than the 1851 Navy and slightly less powerful than the Dragoon. Basically, the Colt 1860 Army .44 carries a Dragoon sized grip frame on a Navy main frame with a rebated cylinder larger at the front to be able to hold a full 40 grains of black powder under a .44 caliber ball. Barrel length is 8” and the highest velocity I have recorded with the 1860 Army is only 35 fps slower than the Dragoon and this was accomplished with 15 grains less powder.
The 1860 Army was extremely popular with both the military and civilian population. During the Civil War, the United States Army ordered 130,000 1860s at $17.69 per unit. This would be the last full-sized big bore percussion revolver offered by Colt as the cartridge era was about to dawn. Smith & Wesson brought forth the first cartridge revolver in the 1850s firing the .22 Rimfire and then went big bore with the .44 American arriving in 1869. When the patent ran out for bored through cylinders with cartridge ammunition, Colt added an ejector rod to their 1860, fitted it with a bored through cylinder, and offered both the Richards, and Richards-Mason Conversions on both the 1851 Navy and 1860 Army. In 1871 Colt’s first big bore cartridge firing sixgun arrived as the 1871-1872 Open-Top. The .45 caliber Colt Single Action Army arrived in 1873 and the cap-n-ball era was pretty much over as far as manufacturing was concerned.
In 1861 Colt brought forth their final six-shot, medium-bore, full-sized sixgun blending the size and .36 caliber of the 1851 Navy with the round barrel and streamlined loading lever of the 1860 Army. The result, the 1861 Navy, is probably the slickest looking and easiest handling of all the sixguns to come forth during the cap-n-ball era. During the period from 1848 to 1862, Colt developed several five-shot pocket pistols. The best of these, at least to my way of thinking, is the last cap-n-ball from the Colt factory, the 1862 .36 caliber New Model Police, the Colt Detective Special of the 19th Century. This trim little five-shooter was very popular as a concealment handgun. Grips on replicas are one piece walnut, the frame, hammer, and loading lever are all case colored, and the action is tight with a somewhat heavy mainspring. The front sight is a very tiny shotgun style gold bead that allows this little gun to shoot eighteen inches high at fifty feet, however it was designed for very close quarter work and does fine across card table distances.
Colt’s1847 Walker and First Model Dragoon had been a success; so he looked to providing easily carried, easily concealed revolvers. The first ones off the line were versions of the 1848 Colt Pocket Model .31, the Baby Dragoon. These were five-shot, .31 caliber revolvers with four barrel lengths offered of 3”, 4”, 5”, and 6”. The first Pocket Models did not have a loading lever as these were guns to be loaded at convenience by removing the cylinder, placing a powder charge and then either tapping a round ball into the chamber on top of the powder charge by using a rod of the proper size and a lightweight mallet, or by simply pushing the ball home by using the cylinder pin on the frame. This may sound to be very slow reloading, however, they replaced the one-shot derringers giving five times the firepower. The replica 1848 has a 3” octagon barrel. Using a volume of 10 grains of powder allows one to shoot 700 rounds through one of these little guns with each pound of powder. All mid-19th Century replica Pocket Pistols tested exhibited the same problem.
One year after introducing the Baby Dragoon, Colt brought forth the improved 1849 Pocket Model, also a five-shot .31 caliber revolver. This new sixgun had a round instead of a square backed trigger guard and a loading lever was attached under the barrel thus allowing the cylinder to be charged without being removed from the revolver itself. Originally, the factory referred to this revolver as the Improved Model Pocket Pistol, however collectors now refer to it as the Model 1849. Several hundred thousand Pocket Pistols were made by Colt, and the holding of one of the replicas in hand certainly provides a great reason for their popularity. These little revolvers weighed around one and one-half pounds compared to the four and one-half pounds of a Walker or four pounds of the Dragoon.
Remington’s excellent line-up of full size Top-Strap pistols was covered in Chapter 4, however, prior to the Civil War, Remington had a whole line of both single action and double action pocket revolvers. With the end of hostilities Remington introduced the New Model Pocket revolver. As with the above-mentioned Colt Pocket Models, this was also a five-shot .31 caliber revolver made for easy carry and concealment. It actually is smaller than the Colt Pocket Models, in fact about the size of a Ruger Bearcat. The solid, one-piece frame of the Remington New Model Pocket .31 is brass, while the cylinder and 3” barrel are blued. As tiny as this little revolver is, it still has a loading lever so it may be loaded without removing the cylinder.
The first high-capacity handgun goes all the way back to the Civil War with a revolver made for the Confederacy. In fact quite a few famous Confederate officers preferred the high-capacity sixgun known as the LeMat. Francois LeMat was born in France in 1821 which makes him a contemporary of Samuel Colt. He started out studying for the priesthood, however changed his path and became a doctor arriving in the United States in 1843. Medicine to theology to firearms tells LeMat was a most talented and diverse individual. He held patents in several countries on such things as ships salvage, harbor improvements, cannon ammunition, and revolvers. On a more peaceful note Dr. LeMat also held several patents on medical instruments.
In 1856 LeMat first patented his Grapeshot Revolver. Just prior to the Civil War LeMat's revolver was ready for production and the governor of Louisiana made LeMat a colonel. LeMat had formed a partnership with his cousin by marriage U.S. Army Major Beauregard. The partnership did not last very long but Beauregard would carry the LeMat revolver as a general in the Confederate Army. Somewhere around 3,000 LeMat revolvers were produced in Paris during the Civil War.
As one would expect with its ten-shot capacity the LeMat is a large revolver with a weight of 3 ½ pounds, heavier than the Colt 1860 but lighter than the Colt Dragoon and Walker, and made in several variations such as a rimfire and a Baby model. Today if one is in search of a shootable LeMat in good condition a price tag in the $10,000 range could be expected. Pristine examples, of course will bring much higher prices. Thanks to Navy Arms, modern examples of the LeMat revolver are available for today’s shooters.
Navy Arms offers three modern percussion revolvers on the LeMat pattern, a Cavalry, an Army, and a Navy Model. All three are nine-plus-one shooters with the Cavalry Model having a spur trigger guard and swiveling lanyard ring, the Army Model with a round trigger guard and solid lanyard in the butt, and the Navy Model with the center lever on the back of the hammer to allow firing of the center barrel. The sixgun pictured is a LeMat Navy Model.
The Navy Arms LeMat revolver loads like any other percussion revolver. First, a measured amount of powder is poured in the front of the cylinder chamber, a round ball is placed on top of the powder charge and rammed home with the loading lever found on the left-hand side of the barrel. This is a very short stroke lever so round balls cannot be seated very deeply. Once the powder charge and round balls were placed in each cylinder appropriate grease, I used that age old black powder wonder Crisco, is then placed over the front of the ball and filling out the cylinder chamber. I used .451” round balls from Buffalo Bullet Company for the main part of the cylinder and a .65 caliber round ball in the center barrel. This center barrel may also be used as a shotgun. Only after all chambers were loaded and greased were the percussion caps, CCI #10, placed on the nipples.
For a powder charge I use a 30 grain volume powder measure, and the use of Swiss 3F results in a muzzle velocity of 900 fps for the .45 caliber round balls. For me the LeMat is a two-handed proposition, as the angle of the grip frame is quite different from the standard Colt Single Action revolvers coming back rather than down from the mainframe. The hammer is easy to reach and the hammer spur is wide and flat making it easy to cock. If you are old enough to remember the heyday of TV westerns in the late 1950s you should remember one series in which the hero carried a LeMat. Don Durant as Johnny Ringo was able to fast draw the LeMat from a special, low-riding spring clip holster.
The Rogers & Spencer .44 was first known as the Freeman as it was the result of an 1862 patent by one Austin Freeman and the first revolvers were manufactured by C.B. Hoard in Watertown New York. At the same time, the company of Rogers & Spencer was manufacturing a revolver known as the Pettingill. This was a double action hammerless revolver, something neither the shooting public nor the government was ready to accept. Hoping for a government contract, Rogers & Spencer acquired the right to produce the Freeman under their name. From a double action hammerless revolver they went to a traditional single-action, six-shot revolver bearing some little resemblance to the Remington. The Navy Arms Rogers & Spencer is a solid frame revolver with a somewhat boxier appearance than the Remington.
The grip frame of the Rogers & Spencer is much larger at the bottom then either the Remington or the Colt, and the hammer is higher to reach suggesting that this revolver was intended more for target shooting than for combat. The replica Rogers & Spencer has an 8” octagon barrel, a rear sight channel cut in the top of the frame, and a front sight that is a brass inverted cone.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, the South found itself basically without arms manufacturers. Both the Colt and Remington factories were in the North and all of their revolvers went to the northern forces. The only way Johnny Reb could acquire a Colt or Remington was to capture one, so the South was forced to open new manufacturing plants, and since they were not concerned with infringing on existing patents they freely borrowed the existing designs. The Spiller & Burr is a copy of the Whitney revolver looking much like the Remington .36 Navy Model. In addition to having to start from scratch in building manufacturing facilities, the South also had a problem with material acquisition. Anything and everything was melted down to be made into firearms. Because of a shortage of steel, the frame of the Spiller & Burr is made of brass. Who knows how many church bells became revolver frames?
The Spiller & Burr differs from the Remington in that the loading lever and cylinder pin are connected and the simple turning of a lever at the front of the frame allows both to be extracted from the frame allowing the removal of the cylinder for cleaning. The Navy Arms replica of the Spiller & Burr has the requisite one-piece main frame/grip frame of brass. The removable trigger guard is also brass, while the rest of this well-made sixgun, including the octagon barrel is blue. Sights are the traditional single action style cut in the top of the mainframe matched up with a inverted brass cone as the front sight.
Once again thanks to the manufacturers of replicas we not only have copies of most cartridge firing sixguns of the 19th Century, but percussion sixguns as well. It doesn’t take much imagination fueled with black powder smoke to be transported back 150 years of more in spirit.