Pat Gallagher, the man behind the pen name Greg Mitchell and a long time writer of BHWs takes a look at the firearms popular during the time of the Old West.
The idea of a multi-shot weapon firing shots from a revolving cylinder had been around for centuries and a few experimental types had been made but the main problem was in containing the priming charge; the small quantity of loose powder used to ignite the main charge in the in the firing chamber. Then, in the early years of the 19th century, the percussion cap was patented. This small copper cap, attached to a cone on the gun lock,fired the priming charge when struck by the weapon’s hammer.The percussion system was far superior to the flintlock although the latter lingered on in some places for several decades.
A young inventor named Samuel Colt quickly incorporated the percussion system in a revolving pistol he was designing and in 1836
placed his new invention on the matket. It was the world’s first commercially successful revolver and was made in a factory at Paterson, New Jersey,U.S.A.
PATERSON COLT – This five-shot revolver was made in calibres,.28,.31,.34 and .36 and had interchangeable barrel lengths ranging from short, pocket types, to large holster weapons The revolver was slow to load with each chamber being loaded with loose powder and a bullet and percussion caps placed on the rear of the cylinder. It was the equivalent of loading five ,muzzle loading firearms. Though considerably more reliable than flintlock systems, there were still a few misfires and `chain fires’ where all cylinders discharged at once The Paterson did not attract many sales in the East and Colt discontinued it after running into financial difficulties. In Texas though, the revolvers proved their worth when a small party of Texas Rangers used them to score a resounding victory over a vastly superior number of Comanche warriors. The new revolvers were usually carried in pairs and the Texans ,having demonstrated their worth, wanted more.
WALKER COLT – Captain Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers, approached Colt with ideas for a new, more powerful revolver and in 1846, the Walker Colt went into production. It was a massive .44 calibre, six-shot weapon with a nine-inch barrel weighing nearly five pounds and was one of the most powerful handguns ever made. A ramming lever and more conventional trigger guard had been added and the chambers were so roomy that rifle-size powder charges of about 60 grains could be jammed into them while the recommended charge was rpughly 40 grains. The Texas Rangers were pleased with the Walker Colts but only about 1,100 were made. Of these ,it was estimated that thirty percent blew up due to heavy loads and inferior metallurgy.
DRAGOON COLT -In 1848 the Colt company produced the first Dragoon Colt. It was a .44 calibre weapon, shorter, lighter and made of better metal than the Walker with a shorter cylinder that still allowed a hefty 40-grain powder charge without the risk of massive overloading This powder charge would be used again later in the Winchester 1873 ,.44/40 repeating rifle. There were three variations of the Dragoon before its production ceased in 1863. The third model had a folding rear sight and a rifle stock could be attached to it.But despite having the 40-grain powder charge, the bullet’s speed did not reach rifle velocities because of the revolver’s shorter barrel. Around this time combustible cartridges combining bullet and powder charge were being made to speed up the loading processes but they were fragile and had to be carried carefully. Some military ammunition pouches were lined with wool.
POCKET COLT – This small,.31 calibre revolver, introduced in 1848, was an immediate success. Like the Paterson, it had a five-shot cylinder although a few with 6sixshot cylinders were were made before production ceased in the early 1870s. The revolver was made in a couple of different variations and sometimes was called the Baby Dragoon. The version without a loading rammer was often called the Wells Fargo as it is believed that the express company issued some of these to their messengers. The Colt Pocket was a well-designed, accurate revolver but its main fault was that it lacked stopping power. It had an intimidating effect on those who knew what a revolver was but wild animals and men determined to kill could absorb multiple hits and still keep coming. But Samuel Colt had not run out of ideas.
NAVY COLT – In 1851 Colt produced a classic revolver. It was a .36 calibre, 6-shot weapon, mid-way between the Pocket model and the Dragoon. It was a convenient size and weight that pointed naturally when aimed, and fired either round balls or the pointed bullets that were becoming popular at the time. It did not have the power of the Dragoon but the 25-grain powder charge was an adequate man-stopper. Though it was widely considered that the US Navy preferred the lighter .36 round, and the Army liked the .44, both services used both types. Many other manufacturers were producing revolvers by then but they also designated their .36s and .44s as Navy and Army respectively.
REMINGTON REVOLVERS – The Remington Arms Company began in 1816 building both flintlock and percussion rifles and shotguns but had to wait for Colt’s revolver patents to expire before building their first revolvers in 1857. These were .31calibre, five-shot pocket revolvers, soon to be followed by larger, six-shot Army .44s and Navy .36s. These weapons were well designed and because the cylinders were inside a solid frame, and a rear sight was milled into the top of the frame, they were considered stronger and more accurate than the Colts. Thousands of Remington revolvers were used in the Civil War that was soon to come. The company retained their big percussion revolvers until replaced by metallic cartridge versions in 1875. They also made a variety of derringer type pistols and small revolvers. Their .41 rimfire, over-and-under derringer was a popular concealable weapon but would not be much use to a cowboy.
STARR ARMY .44 & NAVY .36 — These came on the scene about 1859 and later saw Civil War use. A contemporary account did not rate the .44 very highly but the Navy .36 was a double action revolver. Most handguns at that time were called single action. The hammer had to be cocked to rotate the cylinder and then the trigger had to be pulled to fire the gun. A double action revolver rotated the cylinder and fired the gun by a single pull of the trigger. Double action types were becoming common in England and Europe but it would be some time before American shooters adopted them. Single action revolvers usually had lighter trigger pulls and allowed for more precise aiming.
WHITNEY REVOLVERS – This company made small, .31 calibre pocket revolvers but their best product was a solid-frame , Navy .36 six-shooter. The latter weapon was varied a couple of times during its production but gave good service during the Civil War. The Confederate-made Spiller & Burr revolver was a copy of the Whitney except that it had a brass frame and grip.
LE MAT REVOLVERS – These were produced both in France and U.S.A. They had a large, nine-shot cylinder that revolved around a shotgun barrel and were made in several different metric calibres and gauges. Starting as percussion arms, they endured long enough to move into the metallic cartridge era. Some were used in the Civil War, mainly by the South, but if taken west afterwards, parts or ammunition supplies might have caused problems.
COLT 1860 MODEL – Colt Army revolvers were streamlined in 1860. The octagonal barrels were replaced by rounded ones and a new sort of loading rammer was added. It was still a single action six-shooter but lighter than the old Dragoon and the recommended powder charge was reduced to 27grains. The new version was a powerful , accurate weapon that was highly regarded by the Union cavalry in the Civil War.
COLT POLICE & POCKET MODELS – The .36 Navy Colt was upgraded in 1862 and two different models resulted. Changes were similar to that of the 1860 .44 Army revolver except that the pocket model was slightly smaller and offered a 5-shot chamber. The Police model was offered with both 5-shot and 6-shot chambers. The recommended powder charge was reduced from 20 grains to 15 grains but these revolvers still had sufficient man-stopping power.
CONFEDERATE REVOLVERS– During the Civil War [1861-65] a few revolvers were made in the Confederate states. Most were copies of single action ,Colt six-shooter models in .36 calibre. Due to the shortage of iron, brass parts were often used when they could be. J.H. Dance and Brothers made both Army and Navy models. Griswold & Gunnison, Colombus Firearms, Rigdon Ansley ,Spiller & Burr and Leach & Rigdon were prominent among the weapons used by the South .
IMPORTED REVOLVERS– Both sides of the Civil War imported percussion revolvers at times. English makers were, Tranter, Adams, Kerr and Webley. Some European manufacturers paid little regard to patent law and blatantly copied Colt’s products, others made their revolvers under licence from the American company or introduced new concepts but the imported guns did not gain a foothold in the West .
The weapons mentioned above were not the only revolvers available, but they were the ones most likely to be found in a westerner’s holster.
The traditional cartridge belt seen in movies, only appeared in the percussion era if its owner had a rifle that fired metallic cartridges. Percussion revolver cartridges were too fragile to be carried in a looped belt. However, they could be carried in a pouch or cartridge box attached to the belt.
Thought the percussion revolvers lingered until late in the 19th, century, they could not compare with the metallic cartridge weapons for ease of loading and reliability.
The invention of the metallic cartridge that combined bullet, powder charge and detonating cap in a single unit, revolutionized firearms. Cumbersome, unreliable muzzle-loaders hung on longer than they should have because breech-loading weapons often leaked hot gases in shooters ‘ faces when they fired. But the new, self-contained cartridges solved that problem and breech-loading firearms quickly gained acceptance. The original idea had come from Europe but at first was applied only to rifles,shotguns and pistols. There was a legal problem with revolvers.
In the mid-1850s, Rollin White, a former employee of the Colt company patented a bored-through, revolver cylinder that allowed metallic cartridges to be loaded into the chambers from the rear. He offered to sell the patent rights to Samuel Colt but the latter, in one of the worst commercial decisions of his life, rejected the deal. A smaller company called Smith & Wesson bought the rights and produced America’s first metallic cartridge revolver in 1857. The company also made their own rimfire ammunition where the priming compound was spread around the inside of the cartridge rim..
SMITH &WESSON [S& W] MODEL 1 POCKET REVOLVERS– The first revolvers were small, single action, rimfire ,7-shooters chambered for .22 short cartridges. They were called ‘bottom break’ because the barrels hinged upwards for loading and unloading.
Initially the thin copper bullet shells were inclined to stick in the chambers after firing but that problem was solved on later production runs. Small changes were made periodically to correct early problems but for the first couple of years the revolvers were low-powered weapons,awkward to load and unload.
S & W, MODEL 2,OLD ARMY When the Civil War began in 1861,the company produced a larger version of the first model in the hope of gaining army contracts. This revolver was available in a variety of barrel lengths and was a six-shooter chambered for a .32 long, rimfire cartridge. It was a reliable weapon and stayed in production for several years but it never had been a military revolver and was never purchased by the army. It was said that a few soldiers bought them privately and took them too war but they were under-powered when compared to some of the hard-hitting percussion revolvers of the period.
REMINGTON .46 RIMFIRE The Remington Arms Company had a large stock of .44 percussion revolvers on hand when the Civil War ended in 1865 and immediately set about re-designing them to accept metallic cartridges after paying royalty fees to Rollin White.The new revolvers, like Colt’s conversions, used existing percussion parts where possible and were 5-shot, single action weapons, chambered for the .46 Rimfire Short, a variation of the Remington .46 Rolling Block carbine round . These came on the market in 1868 but never gained the popularity of other large-bore Remington revolvers.
Converted Colt Open Top ,.44 RF or CF, SACOLT, OPEN-TOP .22 RIMFIRE This small rimfire revolver was produced in 1871 and was the Colt company’s first metallic cartridge revolver. The small under-powered cartridge was suitable only for close-range work. It was a self-defence weapon of last resort, more likely to be carried by a woman or a townsman. It could be used as a `hideout’gun but would have little use on the open range.
S&W MODEL 3 – AMERICAN .44 In 1869, S&W brought out their first large-bore metallic cartridge revolver. It was a single action,.44 calibre, six-shooter. Loading and unloading simply involved pressing a catch that dropped the barrel and exposed the cylinder. A rising extractor lifted fired shells clear of the cylinder while leaving un-fired ones ready for use when the action was closed. Initially some of these fired a rim fire cartridge designed for the Henry and 1866 model Winchester rifles. This allowed the frontiersmen to carry the same ammunition for both rifle and revolver. After producing about 1,000 rim fires, the company switched to a ,44 centre fire cartridge. The centrally mounted priming cap was more reliable than the rim fire but both types were far superior to percussion ignition. The Model 3 was an immediate success with the U.S Army buying 1,000 in 1871 although that was the only large order from them..
A Russian Duke was impressed when he saw these revolvers used by Buffalo Bill Cody while on a hunting tour in the West. He arranged for S&W to supply the new .44s to the Russian Army subject to a few alterations. The Russian contracts would tie up the company’s revolver production for several years.
S&W RUSSIAN .44 The Russian version of the Model 3 was an inch shorter in the barrel, had a slightly altered grip and an extension on the rear of the trigger guard to give a steadier hold. The cartridge was altered slightly and the result was an extremely accurate load that became popular with target shooters as well as western users. Ammunition for both the American and Russian models was interchangeable. The extension on the trigger guard caused a problem finding suitable holsters and Russian revolvers intended for the American market,had conventional trigger guards.
CONVERTED REVOLVERS– When the Rollin White patent expired in 1869, gun makers were finally allowed to produce revolvers that could be loaded with metallic cartridges through the back of the cylinder. However some cap-and-ball revolvers had already been altered privately. The Colt company would alter existing revolvers to the new system for $5 each . Basically the cylinder was bored through and a loading gate was added to the recoil shield. Ejector rods to remove fired shells, were attached to certain models although they were deemed unnecessary on other conversions.
Hammers were altered to strike the rim of the cartridge,or the centre, depending upon the cartridge selected by the owner. The .31 calibre became .32, the 36 calibre became .38 and the .44 could be altered to take the Henry rimfire cartridge or the new .44 centrefire type. Later it could be changed to take the Winchester 44/40, centrefire cartridge made for the 1873 Winchester rifle which was far superior to the Henry. Between 1871 and 1873, thanks to Colt engineers, Richards and Mason, the company used existing percussion parts to produce some very good revolvers. The US Army bought some .44 centrefire weapons based on the Colt 1860 percussion frames. Almost any percussion revolver could be changed to a breech loader and Remington, Starr and Whitney weapons were often altered by frontier gunsmiths. Converted weapons were a cheap but effective way for people on low incom
es to update their armouries and they became very popular on the frontier. Fired centrefire shells could be reloaded with a few simple tools so the cost of the new ammunition was reduced.
The introduction of metallic cartridges and their ease of loading, reduced the need for a frontiersman to carry two guns. In close-range shootouts the cap-and-ball weapons were prone to misfire and the reloading process would take too long Percussion revolvers remained on the market for about another decade and as late as 1911, Navy Colts were advertised in at least one European arms catalogue but they would have been second-hand, military surplus.
With metallic cartridges the looped cartridge belt came into its own. A belt loaded with forty or fifty large-calibre bullets is heavy and working horsemen dislike unnecessary weight. Having a revolver that fired the rifle cartridge meant that ,short of a prolonged battle, only one ammunition belt was necessary.
COLT ARMY .45 This single-action revolver which came onto the market in 1873 was an instant success and today the design would be the most-copied in the world. It was powerful, accurate and pointed naturally for instinctive shooting. Over the years it would be called many names but was often called `The Peacemaker’. The earlier shipments were to fill military orders. The cavalry model had a 7 1/2 -inch barrel. The artillery model had a 5 1/2-inch barrel and a 4 3/4-inch barrel was employed on the civilian version. Because of army contracts these guns were slow to come onto the civilian market where it became a favourite arm for westerners on both sides of the law. Later other versions would be made in the calibres offered by the 1873 Winchester repeating rifle. Special calibre weapons based on this design could be custom-made by the Colt factory for a price but .45,Long Colt ammunition was readily available and most westerners preferred it. Authors should note that these revolvers were not available until after 1873.
S&W SCHOFIELD .45 In 1871, an army general named G.W. Schofield, patented an improved barrel catch for the S&W .44 American. Schofield had considerable experience in weapons testing and suggested a revolver that would better meet military requirements. Working with the manufacturers he designed a modified version of the American revolver but in .45 calibre. This would have been the first U.S. .45 army revolver but the first deliveries were not made until 1875 and the Colt company was already meeting most of the army’s revolver needs. Although both weapons were .45s, the ammunition caused one minor problem; the Schofield cartridge would work in either weapon, but the Colt cartridges were too long for the shorter cylinders of the Schofields. These revolvers were well-liked and many found their way into civilian hands either through direct purchase or army disposals. In a fit of depression, the general suicided with one of his namesake revolvers. Production stopped in 1877
MERWIN & HULBERT REVOLVERS In 1876 this company introduced a single-action revolver in .44 calibre called the Frontier Model. It was an open-top weapon at first but latter a top strap was added. Barrels were easily interchangeable and the owner could buy a 7-inch barrel or a shorter 5- inch or3 1/2-inch one. The weapon was well-regarded and went through a few modifications during their production runs. The early ones had `plough handle’ grips like the Colt .45 but later some were made with `bird’s head grips.
In 1880 the Pocket Army, was introduced. It was a double-action weapon which rotated the cylinder and fired with a single pull of the trigger. It could also fire the .44/40 Winchester cartridge but the recoil was said to be fierce. When fired double action the trigger pull was a bit heavy for precise shooting, but used as a single action, the gun shot well. Some of these were fitted with a folding hammer spur to facilitate a quick draw from a pocket. This company had interests in other revolvers sometimes under different brand names but the models mentioned here are the types most likely to be found in cowboy holsters.
COLT DOUBLE ACTION REVOLVERS In 1877 the Colt company brought out their first double action revolver called `The Lightning’ by Benjamin Kittredge one of their major distributors.
It was a six-shooter chambered for the .38 Long Colt. `The Thunderer’was the same design but chambered for the .41 Colt and also owed its name to Kittredge. For some reason the .32Colt version was called `The Rainmaker’. These weapons were slightly smaller than the .45 Army Colt but had some parts from that model. They had two barrel lengths, 7 1/2 inches and 3 inches. The shorter barrels had no ejector rods attached to them. They had bird’s head butts and their exterior design was good but their inner workings were complicated and fragile and when parts broke, they were difficult and expensive to repair. Shooters used to single action shooting sometimes broke the mainsprings when they forgot and cocked the hammers with their thumbs. The Double Action Army Colt, produced in 1878 was a much better revolver.
It was chambered for the .38 long Colt, all the Winchester 1873 repeater cartridges and the British loadings of Webley .455 and .476.
There were hundreds of brands of revolvers and pistols both single and multi-barrelled circulating in the Old West but the types listed above would be some of the most common. Most Westerners would not modify their guns and fictional modifications, so often found in novels, would really have limited the revolver’s practical use. All the best weapons earned their popularity on their performance as sold from the factories.