Prior To The Peacemaker By: Mike "Duke" Venturino


The Beginnings

Here’s a brief synopsis of the progression of Samuel Colt’s cap and ball revolvers (not sixguns because some were five shooters). Mr. Colt was down on his luck because his first attempt at manufacturing revolvers had failed in 1839. That one was called the Patterson
after the town in New Jersey in which it was manufactured. Then in 1847 the US Army represented by a Captain named Sam Walker sought out Sam Colt with an order for 1,000 revolvers; the specifications to be determined by the two Sams together.

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They really didn’t come up with a perfect fighting handgun. Besides the weight, they made the cylinder large enough to hold a full 60 grain powder charge, so it is said that Colt/Walker revolvers were susceptible to burst cylinders. Also the rammer located beneath the barrel didn’t latch so it had the habit of falling down and tying up the works after each firing. Still they were better than single shot muzzle loading pistols and got the “repeating handgun ball” rolling. Since Sam Walker went on to be killed in the Mexican War, Sam Colt designed his own cap and ball revolvers thereafter. As he prospered he had help from other gun designers too.

Colt’s next effort was named the Dragoon because its purpose was to arm the US Army’s mounted Dragoons. Barrel length was reduced to a more manageable 71/2?, weight to “only” four pounds and chamber capacity to about 50 grains of powder. Perhaps most importantly in regards to function, a latch was put near the end of the barrel to secure the ramrod. Collectors have divided the Colt Dragoons into 1st, 2nd and 3rd Models by minor engineering changes which have nothing to do with shooting or performance.

Sam Colt realized not everyone had a horse to pack his handguns for him, so in 1848 he also came out with a revolver called the Baby Dragoon. As opposed to the big .44s this one shot a tiny .31 caliber round ball weighing only about 48 grains. Its maximum powder charge was less than 15 grains. Its intent was to supplement, not replace, a traveling gent’s fighting knife. Baby Dragoons had no ramrod for loading so the little five-shooters had to be dismounted into three pieces so the cylinder’s base pin could be used to press more balls into the chambers.

The next year a Model 1849 came out that was essentially the Baby Dragoon with a ramrod. Whereas the previous models of Colt’s cap and ball revolvers were made in mere thousands — 1,100 for the Colt/Walker and about 20,000 total for the three marks of Dragoons — over 325,000 of the Model 1849s were sold by 1873.

Next came one of the most practical cap & ball handguns ever produced — the Colt Navy (AKA Model 1851). It was a trim, well-balanced revolver weighing 42 ounces, so it was meant specifically for men to wear on their person, yet at .36 caliber it had enough oomph to be considered a man stopper. Its introduction coincided with the great California gold rush and Colt Navy .36s “went west” with thousands of fortune seekers. By 1873 the Colt factory had made 215,000 Navys; plus Sam Colt’s short-lived London factory made another 42,000.

Evidently all this manufacturing kept everybody at Colt busy throughout the 1850s because no new models were introduced until 1860. Then came what collectors call the Model 1860 Army, and if the Colt Navy was one of the most practical handguns ever made, the Colt Army is one of the most attractive. Instead of an octagon barrel as was standard on the Model 1849 and 1851, the new Model 1860 had a round one. In fact most of its edges and corners were rounded. Also, it used the same medium sized frame of the Navy, but was made a
.44 caliber by using a rebated design of cylinder larger on the ball end and smaller on the percussion cap end.

For some reason the Model 1860’s grip frame was extended a quarter-inch, which gives it a most distinctive appearance. The US Cavalry quickly adopted the “Army” and Colt made over 200,000 in only a dozen years. Personally, I think the 1860 Army’s grip frame does nothing to enhance its shoot-ability, which is probably why the later SAA wore a grip more like the 1851 Navy’s.