Beware of pump ‘n dumps! That was my approach when I learned about Colt 1860 Army revolvers made in Belgium. They are called by the manufacturer name sometimes, “Fabriques d’Armes Unies des Liège (F.A.U.L.)”. And sometimes you see them called Centennials, because that is what they say on them. That also reflects when they were released. In 1960, the 1860 Army was 100 years old, and that is from then that the “Centaure,” which is its most common name, originates. But they all say Made in Belgium, which makes them different from every other replica Colt percussion revolver.
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I had never heard of these guns until a few years ago, then I saw a ton of people talking about them on my Civil War and black powder boards. Then I found a convoluted website that seems to be the source from which all the hubub has originated. Historical provenance is a constant source of fraud in the gun world, and that is why you will never see me pitching the ideal of buying original antiques. I do have some, but I do not suggest that you go down that road. Replicas are much more fun. One of our most prominent authors and appraisers from the 1980s actually went to jail for defrauding collectors with fakes (R.L. Wilson), and people are still buying his books today.
The story of the Centaure has it that Sam Colt visited Belgium in 1853 and licensed some Belgian gun makers to build his famous line of revolvers. This part of the story is true. The guns are called the Colt Brevete, and it was an 1851 Navy copy. There are also rifle versions, all in 36 caliber.
That is where things get hinky. Because we are then asked to believe that almost a decade later, this same group of guys built an 1860 Army. Yet there are not even enough Brevetes to warrant their own Wikipedia page, even though a hardcover book was released in 2012 about them. This book claims that Colt used a licensing scheme to bring some money in against the numerous bootleg copies being made in Europe at the time. Until that book, the Colt Brevette was synonymous with period manufactured “Colt Fake”.
They are called Centaure because Centennial, the parent company, copied the the idea of the Colt horse logo with a similar looking image of a mythical centaure creature. it has the torso of a man and the body of a horse from the waist down.
I love silly stuff. But this clearly silly logo, to me, indicates that these guns had zero historical relevance at the time, and that the chance they were made with any machinery from Colt is about zero. All of the percussion replicas, to this day, have been made by true enthusiasts, with a reverence for the heritage of these guns. If there was any true historical significance those machines would have been auctioned to collectors long before 1960. To me that silly logo just screams, “enjoy these guns but do not take them seriously.”
But if you look around the internet, including right here on GunsAmerica, you will find that the Centaure commands a very high price. I have seen them listed for upwards of $1,000, even though I paid $500 each for the two that I own. Even $500 is high for a “nothing special” replica percussion revolver, but I wanted to dig into this saga myself. Most of the Centaures that you find on the market have a good deal of wear, but my mine are pretty clean and tight. And after shooting one of them for the video, I would say both have been worked on by a gunsmith at some point, probably a SASS guy.
Are the Guns all that Special?
Shooting one of my two guns for performance, head to head with a brand new Pietta 1860 Army, I do see why the guns were considered desirable by shooters. I don’t know if this gun was tuned up by a gunsmith, and I suspect that it was, but I can see that with a good, tuned, mouse fart load that is made just for target shooting, the Centaure is going to be a rock solid performer. I have shot the other gun, as soon as I got it out of curiosity, and it was nothing special. But sitting down with this one head to head, i do see it.
For the average hobby shooter, or even a casual SASS shooter, as you can see from the video, the Pietta is no slouch either, right out of the box. Both guns group into about a 4-5″ circle with fairly hot loads from a plastic table at 10 yards. This is several times the distance of your average SASS target, so if you back down your powder to just within the velocity rules, I’m sure that the gun will perform just as well. If you care about performance and winning, send it out to one of the SASS gunsmiths and they will tune it up and bring it to shoot to point of aim.
In the video I mentioned the issue of shooting to point of aim. Most of the Colt replicas, going back to my first 36 caliber 1851 Navy, shoot high, often as much as a foot. to fix this you can either file the notch in the hammer back, or replace the front sight with a higher pin. Most people choose the former, and good gunsmiths can do it very discretely. The Centaure shot to point of aim “right out of the box,” but the box was the shipping box from a GunsAmerica seller after the gun had been through its paces for over 50 years. I would take the performance example as a best case scenario should you up to find one of these guns.
In part iI do think the hype can be somewhat attributable to word of mouth among shooters. When I was shooting SASS matches in the early 90s, I remember a guy who always won the category for those of us who were shooting percussion revolvers. I was shooting Colt Patterson replicas at the time (before they banned them, and not cuz a me!), and I consistently finished last because the guns are quirky and you can’t shoot them fast. I never really investigated what made that guy so successful. But he was for sure shooting 1860 Armies, and I suspect they were Centaures.
A Brief (ahum) “History” of the Centaure
The Centenial project was created by a couple of guys who were not part of Navy Arms at the time. Some websites claim that they were originally involved with the negotiations in Italy involving Aldo Uberti, and the first generation of awesome Italian replicas of Civil War guns. But good luck trying to verify anyone’s claim, as all of these guys are long gone.
Apparently the company was started by William B. Edwards, a gun historian, and it was financed by Sigmund Shore. If you want to read up on what is out there, the site with the most random facts is FROCS, in their “Book of the Centaure.” I find the site difficult to figure out when you are looking for the real story, but that could be because the real story does not exist. I have no idea what FROCS means, and I honestly don’t care.
The hype, I think, was created to show off an elaborate collection of these guns, owned by the descendants and friends of the original principles. I will not come out and say it is an intentional pump ‘n dump. You be the judge.
Because what for sure does exist is a ginornormous collection of Centaures that were engraved, plated, and otherwise adorned with some of the most tasteful artwork I have ever seen on a Colt. The battle scene on the cylinder of the original Centaures is rudimentary, and does not exist on the two that I own. But the elaborate work done on these guns is itself very collectible, regardless of what you think of the verifiable history of the underlying guns. There are claims that famous engravers did some of the work, but I don’t know enough about researching engravers to even ascertain if these claims are true.
My issue is that the primary source of information on these guns claims that it came about in apparently 2020, based on the notes at the bottom of the pages. But the Wayback machine has no record of the site before Dec. 3rd, 2021. I also saw people talking about them for quite a while before finally seeing that link posted in a forum. And the page source on the site does not have a timestamp in the META tags.
This shouts “caveat emptor” pretty loudly to me. I had never heard of the guns prior to 2019 myself. And those that have come for sale on the major gun selling platforms online have not been from this elaborately engraved collection. They have generally been guns with a lot of wear, all listed for sale after repeated postings on the black powder discussion boards by a select few people.
My suspicion is that someone thought to prep the market for a large estate sale of these guns at some point in the future. And I am sure many people have contacted the people because of that website to try to front run such a sale and make offers on the guns. I would love to have a few of them myself. It is also no surprise that resourceful long time shooters of these guns gamed up the prices online while people were talking about them.
No doubt there will be a cadre of defenders in the comments who paid big bucks for one more of these guns recently. But to them I (always) say, there is a quote by Samuel Langhorne Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain, who was a brief contemporary of Sam Colt (he was 27 when the latter died).
“It is easier to fool people than it is to convince them that they have been fooled. “
So How Do You Figure All The Expensive Engraving?
There is no mystery as to why such elaborate work would be put into replica Colts. Because unlike true period guns, the brand new in the box Centaures had little intrinsic collectible value themselves, similar to a Pietta today. Navy Arms never came out with an 1860 Army, so the majority of the people who love this model had no way to even own one, let alone a fancy one. The Centaure is clearly more elegantly made than an 1851 Navys of the time as well. And unlike the the ’51 Navy, and also the Remington New Model Army, there are curved surfaces on the ’60 Army that make it much harder to manufacture.
Navy Arms was doing fine with what they had, and though Italy would eventually produce a lot of what most people consider the most elegant Colt, at the time production would have been way too expensive for what these otherwise “cheap guns” commanded. I paid $75 for my original brass frame 36 caliber 1851 Navy.
At the time, engraving a Civil War era Colt would have been considered blasphemy, but by golly those of us who love these guns love love love them would have no problem spending our money on a fancy copy. So when the Centaure became available, I am sure that those of means took advantage of the well made replicas to build their dream Colts. My father spent tens of thousands of dollars on an engraving an Italian shotgun few people had ever heard of at the time, (Bertuzzi), just so he could immortalize the bird dogs that he hunted beside during his tenure. Gun people like what we like.
As you can see in the video, I did have to happily eat a little crow on how well the Centaure shot. I came into the review of one of these guns with an attitude. Pump ‘n dump is one of things i just can tolerate in the historical gun world, and I knew from what I saw that the historical significance of these guns was a joke.
I have to also note that Pietta admittedly does not make their normal production guns for competitive shooters. In the ’58 Remington they even build a “Shooters Revolver” model, with a trademark silver trigger guard. It features progressive rifling and cylinder holes all bored by the same cutter. Shot to shot they are very consistent. I have two of those also and will cover them at a later time. They are $1,100 at Dixie Gunworks. Both of mine came from GunsAmerica, and were in the $800 range used.
I couldn’t find my second Centaure on this trip to the range, so I may return to this subject later. I have to get stuff done when things line up “good enough,” and this was good enough. If this Centaure is not representative of the one you guy, this would be understandable. I found a lot of them that were so loose they were barely together, all north of $500 in 2021.
My feeling is that there is no reason to seek out one or more of these Belgian Colts. Clearly when the fancy ones come into the market they are not going to sell for utility prices. One article is not going to break the Mark Twain rule, and I don’t think I will return to this subject.
Roundball Paper Cartridges
For this test I tried to focus on how I would envision most people shooting these guns. The 1860 Army is the best of the BP revolvers for shooting conicals. It was shipped at the time with the Colt 44H bullet mold, which included a conical and a roundball for every cast. But despite the availability of the very good Johnson & Dow bullet historical conical mold from Eras Gone Bullets, most people shoot roundballs, usually in the .451 swaged size.
I didn’t have any of those around, so I brought my .457 hand cast roundballs, loaded into paper cartridges made from cigarette rolling papers. They system is available at cartridgekits.com. I used the standard 44 kit, and with roundballs, you can fill the dipper right up for the Colts. If you want to make conical rounds, be sure to test your first one for height before making a lot. If you can’t seat it all the way, don’t force it. Take a knife and scrape away the top of the bullet until it clears the cylinder gap. Then reduce the powder charge by how much you had to scrape.
These days I use Hodgdon Triple Se7en for all but my flintlock shootin