What do you know about the Colt 1851?
My history with the Colt 1851 Navy revolver runs deep. It was my first personal handgun. It was a .44 caliber brass framed Pietta replica model that joined me on many deer hunts as a backup to my single shot cartridge rifle. In 2013, my want for another Navy led me to get another model with a steel frame and in the authentic 36 caliber. It features an octagonal 7.5 inch barrel with a fixed bead front sight and a fixed notch in the nose of the single action hammer with a six shot cylinder. But why would I bother taking up this old, obsolete weapon? Because it was the first practical carry gun ever made. How cool is that?
A Brief History
A more thorough history is explained in my video on the fine Colt 1851 Navy (embedded above), but a brief note is in order. The pistols before the Colt Navy, which released in 1850, had problems. Small pistols were normally single shot or small caliber revolvers, like the Colt 1849 Pocket, and all service pistols of the time were too heavy to be effectively carried by a human and were instead held in saddle holsters on horseback. By 1850, steel making had advanced to the point that guns could be constructed stronger and lighter. The six shot single action Colt Navy was adopted by the U.S. Navy in .36 caliber (less concern about needing to shoot horses) rather than the Army’s .44 caliber. The Colt 1851 Navy saw heavy use in the American Civil War (1861-65). Other countries, like Britain and Russia, adopted the pistol, so the 1851 Navy saw worldwide use. This service made it the first handgun to be adopted on a global scale. With over 250,000 made, it proved to be Colt’s most popular percussion revolver, despite being discontinued in favor of the new cartridge firing Colt Single Action Army revolver in .45 Colt in 1873. Original guns and modern replicas by Uberti, Colt, Pietta, and others continue to make smoke in the hands of happy classic firearms enthusiasts like me.
The loading process on all percussion revolvers is labor intensive, which is why many officers and horsemen carried as many of them as they could fit in their belt (what is now referred to as the “New York reload”). In those days, loading would have been performed with a paper cartridge, containing a charge of black powder, and a round-nosed lead bullet. While I did not attempt paper cartridges in my test, I did try to duplicate the standard service load. 20 grains of gun powder under a 130 grain .375 inch diameter cast Minie Ball type projectile. (Most modern enthusiasts prefer the 80 grain lead ball.)
- Pull the single action hammer back to half cock to free the cylinder.
- Load the powder charge into the front of the cylinder and place the bullet on top.
- Rotate the cylinder below the loading lever and push the lever down until the bullet seats in the cylinder.
- On the rear of the cylinder is a number of metal tubes for each cylinder. Place a percussion cap on each and snugly fit it on.
- Lower the hammer, then raise it slightly and rotate the cylinder so the hammer rests between two cylinders on a safety pin.
Firing the Colt Navy is a little more straightforward. For every shot, the hammer is pulled to the rear and trigger is pulled for every shot (single action). Recoil is very mild, which I expect for a smaller caliber gun. The sights are effective even though they are rather primitive. The long 7.5 inch barrel makes seeing the crude, low profile sights a breeze. Accuracy out to 75 yards is maintained with ease. Bear in mind, that even in the “old days” of percussion firearms, these guns were sighted for 75 yards (for shooting horses), so typically, cap and ball revolvers shoot about six inches high at 7 yards. Despite this, my groups were great—easily covered with the palm of a hand. The Colt 1851 Navy is truly a hoot to shoot, and once you get on top of the sights, you can use the Navy for more practical applications other than shooting targets. The .36 caliber round ball is ideal for taking small game and varmints from a reasonable distance.
Colt’s 1851 Navy revolver is heavy and slow by our modern standards, but it set a standard for sidearms to come. If you are not a nostalgic type, as I am, the Navy has plenty of power for game, and is probably one of the funnest guns I have ever shot. While reloading is a little labor intensive, shooting it is well worth the effort. This natural pointing six gun gives you your own cloud of smoke and flame that will leave spectators amazed and all with plenty of accuracy to boot. You can’t help but to feel some of the spirit of Wild Bill with a pair of these functional pieces of history in hand.
Featured image courtesy of imfdb.org