When I was growing up in Connecticut, my father was a state government executive based in Hartford and I can recall often passing by the Colt Firearms Company with its signature dome located just outside the city. As a youngster, I had the chance to tour the factory and remember seeing some of the famed weapons that were the product of Samuel Colt’s inventive mind. One of them, the .44 caliber Colt Model 1860 Army Revolver, became the most widely used sidearm of the Civil War. A later variation, the famed Model 1873 .45 caliber “Peacemaker” gained fame as the preferred handgun of the Wild West. Let’s take a look at Mr. Colt’s contributions to firearm evolution.
Samuel Colt was born in Hartford in 1814, one of eight children of textile manufacturer Christopher Colt. From his early childhood, Sam demonstrated an inventor’s curiosity but without any scholarly bent. By the age of 16, he had dropped out of school. Colt went to sea and while working on shipboard, became fascinated with the workings of the ship’s wheel. This led him to his first steps in the development of a firearm with a rotating cylinder. In the early 1830’s, Colt wisely patented his idea for a revolving cylinder holding five or six bullets in both Europe and the United States. But, gun owners were not yet ready to give up their single shot muskets or hand weapons and accept a firearm that could fire multiple rounds without having to stop and reload.
However, Colt was a born marketer as well as an inventor. It was once said of him, “Abe Lincoln may have freed all men, but Sam Colt made them equal.” He opened his first manufacturing plant in 1836 in New Jersey at the age of 22. At first, his business failed to gain momentum. But, as word came back from front line soldiers that his revolver was instrumental in defeating the Indians in Florida and Texas, business picked up. It took the 1846 Mexican War and a commission by the U.S. Government to popularize the Colt revolver. Colt secured a government contract for 1,000 handguns. He built his now famous factory in Hartford in 1855 and soon had offices in New York and London. The Civil War was looming and Colt went into high gear.
Taking the .36 caliber Model 1851 Navy revolver, Colt re-engineered the frame to enable the use of a .44 caliber cylinder as well as interchangeable parts. The 1851 Navy Colt had an octagonal barrel, whereas the Army Model 1860 had a rounded 8-inch barrel. The Model 1860 uses a small copper percussion cap to ignite a 30-grain charge of black powder and fire a spherical lead ball or conical shaped bullet. Soldiers usually used paper cartridges consisting of a measured load of black powder and a ball wrapped in nitrate-soaked paper (to make it more flammable). These cartridges were inserted into the front of the cylinder chambers and rammed into place with the loading lever. A percussion cap was seated into a raised aperture (or nipple) at the rear of the chamber on the back of the cylinder. The hammer was cocked and the trigger pulled to fire the weapon. The hammer had to be manually pulled rearward with the thumb to fire each round. Depending on the amount of powder used, the muzzle velocity of the fired ball would be between 550 and 1000 feet per second. Compare that to the muzzle velocity of a modern Colt 1911A1 .45 ACP at 825 feet per second. At .44 caliber, the old Colt Model 1860 had great knockdown power with an effective range of between 50 and 75 yards.
More than 200,000 Model 1860s were produced between 1860 and 1873 (with nearly 130,000 going to the U.S. Government). Although the Colt factory supplied had both the North and South just prior to the start of the Civil War, the vast majority of Colt revolvers carried by Southern fighters were captured. Colt’s patents eventually expired and this opened the door to numerous other smaller gun manufacturers to make copies – some poor, some excellent- that added to the plethora of percussion side arms carried by many of the 2.75 million who served in the War. Nevertheless, the Army Model 1860 and other Colt pistols were certainly weapons of choice on both sides from 1861-1865. Early models of the Model 1860 sold for $20, a little pricey at the time. Eventually, the price was lowered to $14.50.
Colt’s company continued to dominate the handgun market after the Civil War. The company’s most legendary pistol, the Colt Single Action Army in .45 Long Colt caliber, also known as the “Peacemaker”, was introduced in 1873. Various models of this weapon were used by the military during the Indian Wars, the Spanish American War and the Philippines Insurrection. This revolver remains extremely popular today as a reminder of the “Old West” and is still manufactured by Colt.
Colt died in Hartford on January 10, 1862, one of the wealthiest men in America. His company has continued to grow over the many decades since.
Last fall, the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum’s collection was enhanced with the acquisition of a Model 1860, cap n’ ball paper cartridge revolver. Armory Vice President and Museum Curator Patrick Donovan has also obtained a matching military-issued holster in excellent condition (both revolver and holster are illustrated in this article). We continue to enhance our collection of Civil War firearms and other memorabilia, with a special focus on the First Rhode Island Cavalry, a unit whose men would have carried the Model 1860 as a standard-issued sidearm. Watch for more developments in the future.