Colt first got the attention of gun owners and military types with their cap and ball revolvers, and the early days of Colt would be filled with great success and great failure.
For the longest time, inventors tried with varying degrees of success to create a handgun that could fire more than one shot before having to reload. But it only became viable with the invention of the percussion cap around 1820. The small copper cap filled with shock-sensitive explosive eliminated the flint mechanism and the need for priming powder in a flash pan.
Connecticut-born Samuel Colt drew inspiration for a handgun that had a rotating cylinder that used one barrel and was locked in place by the cocking of a hammer. After various hardships, Colt had his first working handgun and set up the Patent Arms Company to produce the new gun. The year was 1836 and the gun was the Paterson Colt.
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1836 Colt Paterson
The Colt Paterson was the first practical repeating firearm, and it got its name from the town of Paterson, New Jersey, where Colt set up shop. The gun came in a belt and pocket model and was available in .28, .31, and .36 caliber. Even a carbine variant was made.
The gun was a five shot weapon and it did not have safety notches in between chambers to be carried fully loaded safely. The gun was single action and did not have a guard to protect the folding trigger.
Initially, the gun did not have a loading lever to reload the gun and the gun would have to be disassembled by removing the barrel key, the barrel, and the cylinder. This was remedied in 1839.
Less than 3,000 Patersons were built and the U.S. government ultimately declined to adopt the new gun, which was deemed too fragile and complicated. Though the Texas Navy and the Texas Rangers got use out of Patersons, the company went bankrupt and production of the Paterson ceased in 1842.
1847 Colt Walker
Samuel Walker was one of the many Texas Rangers who were impressed with the Paterson. The gun had proven itself in the fight against the Comanche Indians, and with the Mexican-American War in full swing, Walker met with Sam Colt about making a more efficient gun for his new outfit, the U.S. Mounted Rifles. The result was the Colt Walker revolver.
The gun weighed about five pounds and wore a 9-inch barrel. It was still single action and held six shots of .44 caliber conical bullets over a massive charge of 60 grains of powder for use against horses and men. The gun also had a fixed trigger and trigger guard with a standard loading lever arrangement. Since Colt had no factory he collaborated with Eli Whitney Jr. out of Whitneyville, CT to produce the new gun.
The huge gun remains the most powerful sidearm ever used by the U.S. military. The Walker proved itself in battle with the U.S. Mounted Rifles, though Sam Walker died in the war with his trademark guns in hand. Only 1,100 of these guns were made, but the revolver concept was finally proven and Sam Colt was back in business.
The Dragoon Revolvers
It was realized that the Colt Walker was not perfect and the Dragoon series of revolvers succeeded it in 1848. There were three distinct models of Dragoon revolvers, but they share several things in common. The Dragoons had a latch to hold the loading lever in place under recoil, a more practical 7 1/2-inch barrel and slightly smaller size than the Walker. It was still a massive handgun and was intended to be used on horse holsters.
By the time of the 3rd Model Dragoon, the gun had safety notches to carry fully loaded, and the gun’s internal lock work had reached its peak to where it would not be improved any further. The 3rd Model is also distinctive in having a rear sight mounted on the barrel rather than the normal notch on the hammer’s nose.
Despite the military origins, the Dragoon was most popular with civilians given that the gun was developed in peacetime. Some 18,000 Dragoons were sold until production ceased in 1860.
A curious pocket revolver in .31 caliber also came out in 1848. The gun was known as the Baby Dragoon, and it would prove to be the starting point for the most popular Colt cap and ball revolver, the 1849 Colt Pocket.
The 1849 Colt Pocket
By the time Colt formed his new company in 1848, there was a need for pocket pistols in the peace time era for civilian self defense. The Baby Dragoon was good, but a shooter had to take apart the gun in order to load.
Colt’s answer was the 1849 Pocket revolver. It is little more than the 1848 Baby Dragoon with the option of a loading lever on the gun. It weighs just over a pound, holds five shots of .31 caliber and came in 3-6 inch barrels.
It proved to be a success for Colt with over 300,000 being made until production ended in 1873. The new gun was popular with civilians from all walks of life, from the bustling East Coast cities to the gold mining towns in California.
The gun was also quite popular in the Civil War despite the fact that the .31 caliber was never officially adopted. The Baltimore Police Department was the first department in the U.S. to outfit their officers with guns, and their choice was the Colt 1849.
The Colt 1851 Navy
As metallurgy technology improved, a lighter gun in a larger caliber could be had. The 1851 Colt Navy was a result of the Navy needing a sidearm in .36 caliber.
The gun wore a 7 1/2-inch barrel and weighed just under three pounds. The British were also impressed with this six shooter, and Colt set up a factory in London to produce his Navy and Dragoon revolvers.
The gun would see worldwide service and would be the standard issue handgun of the Confederacy in the Civil War. Despite that it was meant for the Navy, Army personnel purchased most of them. The Navy would also prove popular with early Western lawmen and outlaws. Wild Bill Hickok and Doc Holliday were known to have carried Navy pistols.
Almost 300,000 of these handguns were made until production ended in 1873.
The 1855 Colt Root
Colt opened his new weapons factory in Hartford, Connecticut in 1855. That same year one of Colt’s engineers, Elisha Root, developed a new gun. The gun was available in .28 and .31 caliber and had an unusual side hammer, spur trigger and solid frame. The cylinder could be removed via a removable cylinder pin. The Root was made up until 1870 with just under 50,000 made.
While not as popular as Colt’s other weapons, the gun’s rack and pinion loading lever would be used in Colt’s later guns. The gun would be upsized into the Colt 1855 revolving rifle that saw much use in the Civil War.
The Colt 1860 Army
The Dragoon series was looking large and dated by 1860. Thanks to the Bessemer process of making steel stronger and cheaper, one no longer needed a massive gun to contain .44 caliber loads. The result was the Colt 1860 Army revolver.
It was a six shot .44 caliber handgun that weighed just under three pounds. It featured an eight inch barrel, a rack and pinion loading lever, and a six shot capacity. The Army revolver also used a round barrel, which is easier to manufacture than an octagonal barrel. It borrows the same frame and grip from the Colt Navy pistol, but had a stepped cylinder to allow for the larger .44 caliber round.
About 200,000 were made until production ended in 1873, with the U.S. government buying most of them. It was a standard issue weapon for the Union during the Civil War, and saw much use in the West after the war. Famous gunman John Wesley Hardin was known to have carried an Army pistol. John Wilkes Booth, assassin of President Lincoln, was killed with an Army pistol after a 12-day manhunt in April 1865.
The Colt 1861 Navy
The 1861 Navy was little more than a Colt 1851 Navy that was modernized. Aestetically, it is nearly the same as the 1860 Army revolver but using the 36 caliber Navy round. Less than 40,000 of these were made up until 1873.
In the end, a fire at the Colt factory in the middle of the war as well as little need for new guns kept production numbers low.
The Colt 1862 Police/ Pocket Navy
The 1862 Police and Pocket Navy revolvers were the final evolution of Colt’s black powder revolvers. They were little more than the 1849 Colt revolver blown up to accept a .36 caliber round.
It had a rounded barrel that could be had in different lengths and a five shot fluted cylinder as well as the same loading lever as the Colt 1860 Army model.
A Colt factory fire and the need for fewer handguns kept production at under 40,000.
The gun, however, was popular with police forces for its addition punch over the 1849 Colt.
Despite Sam Colt’s death in 1862 and a factory fire in 1864, the Colt company emerged from the war in dire straits with no contracts to fill and no cartridge guns. Colt did not own the rights to the Rollin White patent that allowed for a bored through revolver cylinder. Only after the patent expired could Colt make a cartridge gun from the ground up.
The advent of the Colt Single Action Army in 1873 meant that cap and ball revolver production was over. But these early guns fulfilled the promise of a gun that fires more rounds and fires faster than what came before. It is a quest we continue to strive for today.