Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Iconic Guns - Part 3- 1851 Colt Navy Revolver

The Colt Revolving Belt Pistol of Naval Caliber was designed by Samuel Colt in the late 1840s, the pistol that came to be known as the "Colt Navy" was in production from 1850 to 1873, more than 250,000 were made and shipped all over the world.

Although they are known as the Colt Navy, most of these weapons were in use by land forces or civilians. They were called the Navy due to the engraving on the cylinder of the Battle of Campecehe in 1843. The Texas Navy had purchased a number of earlier Colt Patterson, and the new "Naval" pistols were engraved with a scene of their victory to honor them. Most of the pistols were chambered for the designated Naval caliber .36 but some were produced in the heavier .44 caliber.

Famous users of the 1851 Colt Navy included Wild Bill Hickok, Robert E. Lee, and Ned Kelly. Lee. While the 1851 Navy was used for many years the ascendancy of modern cased ammunition made it obsolete by about late 1870s.

The 1851 Colt Navy was, in many ways, the Gun that Won the West, well, the pistol that did anyways. It was an up sized variant of the .31 caliber pistols that Colt had already had a great success with. The heavier bullet and longer barrel made it more effective, while it was smaller and lighter than the 3rd Model Dragoon revolvers chambered in the heavy .44. These pistols were extremely popular with settlers in the west and were used on both sides of the Civil War extensively.

This is a black powder, percussion cap revolver, with a 6 shot cylinder. It is loaded by pouring black powder into each of the cylinder chambers and then seating a lead bullet in the chamber and tamping it down with the plunger located under the barrel of the weapon. then percussion caps are fitted to the nipples running around the sides of the cylinder. When the hammer strikes the cap, a spark is produced, igniting the powder in the chamber. The .36 caliber round lead ball weighs 86 grains and, at a velocity of 1000 FPS, is comparable to the modern .380ACP in power. Loads consist of loose powder and ball or bullet, metallic foil cartridges (early), and combustible paper cartridges (Civil War era), all combinations being ignited by a fulminate percussion cap applied to the nipples at the rear of the chamber.

The sights consist of a brass bead front sight with a notched top of the hammer, as with most Colt percussion revolvers. While these sights might seem crude compared to modern hi-viz sights, the 1851 revolver and their modern replicas have a reputation for being quite accurate

Many firearms of the day in private hands were richly engraved

This is a modern reproduction from the Italian firm Uberti. They are very accurate copies and are widely liked. Many modern black powder reproductions are pretty cheap ($200-300) and have a pretty good reputation for quality. If you buy one, here is a tip: don't wear clean clothes.


  1. Great,Nice stuff especially WildBill guns

  2. One minor correction: The 1851 Navy was not called the "Navy" because of the battle scene engraved on the cylinder. It was called the Navy because it was of .36 caliber.

    Pretty much all of colt's pistols that were intended for a military market, either Army or Navy, were engraved with the naval battle scene of the Battle of Campecehe. This was to commemorate the Republic of Texas's navy fighting a more powerful Mexican fleet to a draw, and because it was Texas' purchases of Colt's pistols that got him started with his firearm-manufacturing business.

    I Colt lexicon, .44 caliber pistols were called Army caliber, while .36 caliber pistols were referred to as Navy caliber.

    If you look at the Colt 1860 Army revolver, it also has the same naval battle scene engraved on the cylinder.

  3. Although I have every expectation that the gun I was given is a reporduction, how do I confirm that?

    1. Look at the top of the barrel. An original would have information showing it to be Colt Patented and so on, while most reproductions will not. Also if it is an Uberti, as many are, it will say so on the part of the barrel that is usually covered by the loading lever.

    2. The text on top of the barrel will mention either New York, Connecticut, or London. Looking at the left side of the gun, immediately below the front edge of the cylinder, the words "Colts Patent" will be there on the original. Looking at the same side, at the lower end of where the grip is joined to the frame will be "36 cal." If any of these 3 is missing, it is a repro.

  4. I would say take it to a reputable gun dealer or gunsmith who specializes in older weapons. You might be able to find a list of serial numbers or unique features online. Also, if it looks perfect, it probably is not old.