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article number 186
article date 11-27-2012
copyright 2012 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Samuel Colt’s Firearms … a Repeating Pistol, 1835
author not stated

From the 1964 book, The Collecting of Guns.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The intent of this article is to enhance our knowledge of history. This article is adapted from a 1964 book on gun collecting … about half is history and the other half is collectors notes. We were going to remove the collector’s notes but instead, kept most of them since they don’t significantly interrupt the historic flow of the article.

HELPFUL TEMINOLOGY to allow all understand this article:
- caliber: diameter of the barrel in hundredths of an inch. .5 caliber would be ½ inch.
- percussion pistol: Uses a “percussion cap”, a copper or brass cylinder containing a material which will explode on the shock produced by the firearm’s hammer. Before percussion pistols, flint was usually used to produce a spark to ignite gun powder. Flint was not reliable in wet conditions.
- Center-fire vs. Rim-fire: Where the percussion cap or full bullet is struck in the firearm … affects reliability of firing.

There are many reasons why Americans show keen interest in Colt firearms.

Samuel Colt invented the first truly successful repeating pistol; more Colt pistols and more different modes have been produced than those of any other manufacturer; the Colt pistol is a popular symbol in our dramatic national history.

Samuel Colt’s personal story is one of the most colorful in the annals of American industry; it is ably recorded in suggested reference books listed later. Samuel Colt died in 1862; the Colt Patent Fire Arms Mfg. Co. then came under new management and eventually under changing ownerships. But the production of popular Colt pistols at the Hartford, Connecticut, plant was not interrupted.

The first Colt pistols came off the workbenches at Paterson, New Jersey, in 1836. From 1843 to 1847 no weapons were produced, the stock company formed to make Colt patent pistols at Paterson having failed. Manufacture was resumed in 1847 at Whitneyville, Connecticut, when the big “Walker” Colt pistols were made there under contract for the U. S. Government. The next year (1848) Samuel Colt managed to establish his own factory at Hartford, where the wheels of production have been turning ever since.

Colt’s first belt model, made at Paterson, New Jersey.

Let us first give attention to the Colt cap-and-ball models, from the folding trigger original pattern made at Paterson, New Jersey, to improved Colt pistols manufactured through the Civil War.

The sire arid king of the Colt pistol line is the folding trigger five-shot model marked on the barrel “Patent Arms M’g. Co. Paterson N. J. Colt’s Pt.” These pistols were made in three major sizes and in different calibers and barrel lengths. Some were put tip in fine hardwood boxes in which were included the loading tools and an extra cylinder. Values now run from a thousand dollars sharply upward. The most popular of the sizes is the so-called Texas model of .36 caliber; these usually have a 7½-inch or 9-inch barrel.

In addition to pistols, the Patent Arms M’g. Co. made Colt shoulder arms at Paterson. While these are actually in smaller supply than pistols, they have never been as much in demand nor have they brought near the price of pistols. Actually, more records of prominent use are credited to the carbine than any other Paterson-made weapon. Some were used by the early Texas Rangers; they were issued to a select group of skirmishers aboard ships of the Pacific Squadron in 1846; famous trader Josiah Gregg carried one down the Santa Fe Trail; William Lewis Manly toted one in his heroic rescue of the Argonauts stranded in Death Valley. At the present ratio of quoted prices, Paterson-made shoulder arms are especially desirable.

The next Colt endeavor was to produce, in Mr. Eli Whitney’s factory near New Haven, a big four-pound Dragoon (cavalry) pistol of .44 caliber, with a 9-inch barrel marked on the right side “U. S. 1847.” This was the first Colt “six-shooter” and credit goes to Captain Samuel H. Walker for helping Colt redesign the old Paterson model, making the newer model sturdier, easier to load, and Possessing more firepower. About 1,100 were made at the Whitney plant.

Moving his scene of operations to Hartford, Samuel Colt soon had found the resources to start a small factory in that city. Here, using some leftover (or rejected) parts from the Whitney contract along with new parts, Colt produced the prototype from which his famous Dragoon pistols would take their final form. Only a few hundred pistols of this first output (known as Whitneyville-Hartford Dragoon pistols) were made. They had a 7½-inch barrel and are recognized primarily by features of the trigger guard; the serial numbers run approximately in the 1100 to 1400 range.

Whitneyville-Walker 1847 Colt Dragoon. Note the loading lever under the barrel. All in one bullets were not used yet. The user had to “hand pack” the percussion cap and rest of the bullet into each hole in the revolving cylinder.

Three .44 caliber Colt Hartford Dragoon pistol models followed, varying little, gaining popularity with mounted troops of the U. S. Dragoons and with westerners generally. Although they retailed around $25 apiece at the factory, they often sold for as high as $150 in the California gold fields. These big four-pound weapons have always rated very high in popularity and in value among arms collectors.

Along with the big .44 caliber Dragoon holster pistols, Colt designed a small .31 caliber pocket pistol in 1848. These first pocket pistols were made with barrels 3 to 6 inches long that had no attached loading lever. The trigger guards, resembling the early Dragoon design, had a straight back. Later models of both the Dragoon and pocket pistols were fitted with trigger guards which were rounded front and back.

Thus in 1848 began at Hartford a long line of Colt pocket pistols. Soon these were accompanied by a size loosely described as “belt pistols,” but which were in effect a size between the big .44 caliber holster pistols and the small .31 pocket pistols. Most Colts in this class were made in .36 caliber.

Following the pocket model of 1848, there soon came the 1849 model which had an attached loading lever under the barrel. This loading lever became a standard feature on all but a special few of the Colt percussion pistols made thereafter. In practically all Colt percussion models you will find certain variations that set some specimens apart as rarer than others. Obviously we do not have space here for extensive details, but collectors are urged to study these features in the books which do describe them, for they often have important influence on desirability and value.

One of the least successful of Colt’s pocket pistols was a side-hammer pistol known as the Root 1855 model. This design is credited to Elisha K. Root (who followed Samuel Colt to the Colt Co. presidency). The pistol had a sheath trigger, without guard. It was made in .265 and .31 calibers with a five-shot cylinder (sometimes round and sometimes fluted). There were various other structural variations, but none of these pistols had the ability to stand very hard use. Although the Root mechanical principles worked reasonably well in the larger-frame revolving cylinder rifles and shotguns made at the same time, the center hammer and standard lock design of the previous models were the more reliable for pistols. This standard center-hammer lock system was even used for the famous Single Action Army cartridge model, a rugged revolver manufactured right to this day.

A truly effective pocket pistol known as the Pocket Pistol of Navy Caliber came on the market soon after the Root model. Navy caliber is .36, and we’ll get to Navy belt pistols soon. These .36 caliber pocket pistols are sometimes erroneously referred to as the Model of 1853. They have a rebated five-shot cylinder and an octagon barrel. With a short barrel they were true pocket pistols, but with their long 6½-inch barrels they were small belt pistols. The next model of this same class (the final design of all Colt percussion pistols) is known as the Police Pistol of 1862. These are also of .36 caliber and can be easily identified by their semi-fluted five-shot cylinders, round barrels, and improved ratchet-type loading levers. A rare variation of this pistol has a short barrel and no loading lever. These pistols have the most beautiful streamlining of any Colt percussion model; they are very popular with collectors.

Soon after the 1849 pocket pistols were moving out well, Colt had turned his attention to designing an in-between pistol, a pistol that did not have the weight and bulk of the big .44 caliber Dragoon but possessed more power and accuracy than the .31 caliber pocket model. True genius went into this work, for Colt’s model 1851 Navy pistol was destined to become the most widely used of any percussion repeating pistol ever manufactured. It had a 7-inch octagon barrel, a round six-shot cylinder bearing a naval scene, and was of .36 caliber. The balance and grip were especially pleasing; it was dependable, had good range and accuracy.

Model 1851 Navy pistol, round trigger guard. Note the engraving.

Early models of the 1851 Navy were fitted with straight-back trigger guards. The first type had a notched cylinder pin (not slotted as on later models) and the wedge screw was under the wedge slot rather than in the usual position above it. Any of these early Navy pistols with original straight-back guards (and appropriate low serial numbers) are scarce and valuable.

After ten years of manufacture (in which a rounded trigger guard early became the standard), the octagon barrel was replaced by a round barrel which had a ratchet-type loading lever instead of the old hinged type. In this form, the pistol became known as the Navy Belt Pistol of 1861.

A year earlier, Colt had redesigned the big .44 Dragoon holster pistol, reducing weight and making it more streamlined. This became the Army Holster Pistol of 1860. A few early 1860 Army models retained the Navy size grip, but this was soon changed to a longer grip with the same general contour. Most of the first pistols were made with a fluted six-shot cylinder. After somewhat over 5,000 were made, the fluted cylinder was abandoned in favor of a rebated cylinder. Hence the fluted cylinder models are relatively scarce and valuable.

Model 1849 pocket and model 1851 Navy percussion pistols were also made for a short time (1853-1857) at a London armory operated by Colt. These pistols will be found to have a London address on the barrel and British proof-marks on barrel and cylinder. Some pistols made in the United States for sale in Great Britain also bore a London address. These will sometimes be found without any proof-marks.

Dragoons (cavalry).

There are many Colt percussion pistols of special interest and merit. Some are attractively cased with their appropriate accessories; some are beautifully engraved and fitted with fancy stocks; others bear presentation inscriptions; a few are equipped with attachable shoulder stocks which transform a pistol into a carbine. (More spurious or replica shoulder stocks are to be found than the original Colt-made products, and one must be wary when buying.)

The war years 1861-1865 brought about rapid development of the metallic cartridge. Smith & Wesson held a very important patent which reserved for them until 1869, the use of the straight bored-through revolver cylinder. Colt got around this patent by a system developed by one of their most talented workmen, F. Alexander Thuer. Thuer’s system was designed to accommodate tapered front-loading cartridges. Any of the center-hammer Colt percussion pistols could be quickly converted to use the Timer metallic cartridges by an interchangeable cylinder and conversion ring. Pistols so equipped are extremely rare and quite valuable. They are so rare and valuable that an enterprising dealer in Mexico has manufactured a large number of replica cylinders and rings, which have made the purchase of a Timer conversion pistol very risky unless authenticated by a qualified expert.

When the Rollin White patent held by Smith & Wesson was no longer an obstacle, the Colt company converted many of their percussion models so that they might be chambered for .38 and .44 metallic cartridges, either rim-fire or center-fire. This period was mearly a lull after the storms of war, wherein Colt managed to use up a lot of parts on hand and work on designs of pistols specifieally planned for the metallic cartridge. It is an interesting period, however, and the collector will find many Colt variations. The 44 rim-fire model, with no conversion ring aud a raised rear sight on the barrel (ancestor of Colt’s Peacemaker) is actively sought by collectors and has good value.

Among the first of Colt’s new models in the cartridge line were their single shot derringer pistols. These were all .41 caliber. The first was marked with the Colt company name and address and “No.1” on the barrel; it is all metal. The second bore a “No. 2” marking and has wood stocks. The third was designed by F. A. Thuer, had a side-swinging barrel action instead of the swing—down system of the first two, and was simply marked COLT. Colt resumed production of a derringer similar to the Thuer model in recent years, but it is .22 caliber rather titan the original .41 rim-fire.

All-metal .41 rim-fire “No.1” Colt derringer … a small pocket pistol.

Another early cartridge model is the house pistol of 1871, called the “Cloverleaf” because of the odd shape of the four- shot cylinder. A similar pistol, but with a round five-shot cylinder, was also produced. Rarest variations are the “Clover-leaf” pistols which are fitted with short 1½-inch round or octagon barrels.

Closely following the “Cloverleaf” pistols in the early 1870s came a series of rim-fire and center-fire pistols of pocket size. There is an “open-top” model in .22 rim-fire, notable only because the type with an integral ejector housing is quite scarce. The “New Line” pocket pistols had a solid frame and screw-in barrels. Most of them had a rounded “bird-head” grip, sheath trigger, and flitted cylinder. Calibers were .22, .30, .32, .38, and .41. From this basic design came a model of especial interest to collectors—the police and house revolvers with a flat instead of a rounded butt. The police revolvers were chambered for .38 center-fire cartridges and were fitted with hard-rubber stocks on the lower section of which were the figures of a cop and thug. These police pistols and the companion flat-butt house pistols are good Collector items.

Caliber .41 “Cloverleaf”” Colt, just a 4-shot cylinder, scarce octagon barrel.

Just as Colt had really produced a winner in the 1851 percussion Navy model, they came up with another “all-time great” in their single action Army cartridge revolver of 1873. This revolver has been continually manufactured from 1873 to the present except for the period 1941-1955.

Many collectors seek nothing but this one model. It can found in many different calibers, various barrel lengths, with or without cartridge ejector, in standard or target model, and with a variety of finishes and stocks.

The .22 rim-fire and .44 rim-fire specimens, few in number, are actively sought as are the target models with flat-top frames. Specimens, with A, B, or C quality engraving and carved ivory stocks are in good demand and bring substantial prices.

This is the revolver which has dominated all others in western use for many years. Modern TV shows would have a hard time getting along without this good old “Frontier,” sometimes also called the “Single Action,” or the “Peacemaker.”

Self-cocking revolvers bad been on the market back in the percussion days and were a subject of great interest to Colt designers. By the first of 1877 Colt had a self-cocking model ready. Collectors call this the “Lightning” model. About the greatest claim to fame this model has, is that Billy the Kid is said to have used one, a rather dubious distinction. Gunsmiths hate to work on these “Lightning” revolvers and collectors give them very little attention. One model, however, is as scarce as hen’s teeth, and that is a .32 caliber target model. Most of the standard models were chambered for .38 and .41 center-fire cartridges.

“Lightning” model Colt DA. An unusual variation in .32 caliber with long barrel and target sights.

Larger self-cocking Army and frontier pistols, with bird-head grip like the smaller ‘Lightning” pistols, came along and are known as models of 1878 and 1902. They were not very popular. The best collectors pieces are a rare target model and the so-called house model which is made with a short barrel and no ejector.

We pass now into the extensive realm of Colt revolvers with swing-out cylinders. The models are many. Some, like early Marine Corps revolvers, are rather scarce and desirable. In general, collectors will find the target models and engraved specimens good collector material. Others, of which production was small, will also have appeal.

Colt long arms, too, are worthy of the collector’s interest—from the Paterson or Hartford cylinder arms through the Civil War Colt rifled muskets, the Franklin, the Berdan, the double rifles, the lever and pump action rifles, and the Gatling guns.

Colt Armory, 1857.
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