The Colt Model 1851 Navy Percussion Revolver
photography by Mike Cumpston
edited by John Dunn
Click any thumbnail-image for a larger photo.
The era of the percussion revolver was perhaps the shortest epoch in the history of firearms. It extended from 1836--if you discount the multi barrel pepper-boxes--to about 1872 when general production gave way to metallic cartridge arms. Samuel Colt was the initiator and driving force in the early years. His early Patterson belt pistol changed the way Anglo-Texans interacted with the other inhabitants of the region and, on the global scale, generally defined the mass production process of the machine age.
The earliest Pattersons (after the Patterson New Jersey plant) were rickety things-sporting a multiplicity of moving parts, most of them under strain and prone toward breakage. Colt himself was prone to breakage in those days and went soundly broke trying to market his repeaters by way of government contracts. The end of the Mexican War in 1847 killed the demand for the .44 Horse Pistols, killing also Colt’s plan for a financial empire. The happy coincidence of the California Gold Rush of ’49, the Missouri-Kansas unpleasantness, and the influx of settlers into Texas opened up a civilian market that, then as now, proved the most reliable venue for the arms trade.
He was able to sell all the .31 pocket revolvers he could make, refining and simplifying the design at the same time. By 1851, he was able to display quite an array of percussion revolvers at the London Exposition in Hyde Park. Among these was the new Model 1851 in the .36" "Navy " Caliber. It was a sleek and user-friendly item-weighing a few ounces less than three pounds and far better for belt carry than the large caliber Walkers and Dragoons. It was clearly more effective than the popular .31s. It gained immediate acceptance by British Officers, spreading across the World Empire at its apogee in much the same way as it pervaded the civilian diaspora across the American West.
The Navy became the arm of the cattle drives and the first pistol fighters. It was said that every man and boy in the new State of Texas had at least one of them. Farther north, one James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickock departed from the norm by actually practicing with his Navy revolvers. As a result, the sometimes lawman won some well publicized fights and further imbedded the revolver in the public consciousness. Wild Bill himself was heralded as the "Prince of the Pistoleers." He was a prominent feature in the dime novels of the day as well as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He did much to establish the revolver as a versatile tool. In 1842, Texas Ranger Captain Jack Hays had instructed his men, " Don’t shoot ‘till you can touch ‘em (Comanches), boys." Hickock demonstrated that the Navy was effective considerably beyond arms-length when, right after the Civil War, he killed Mr. Dave Tutt in the Springfield, MO town square with a single shot at 75 paces.
Shooting the Navy--Then and Now
Following the normal percussion era operating drill, the Navy is loaded with bullet or ball over a chamber full of Black Powder. The hammer at the half cock position allows the cylinder to rotate. The approximately 21-grain spout on current reproduction flasks fills the chamber with just enough room to compress the charge a bit when the bullet is rammed home. An application of grease over the front of the chamber keeps fouling soft while discouraging multiple discharges. The loading procedure is complete with the seating of percussion caps of the proper size on each of the cones (nipples) at the rear of the chambers.
This was the preferred method of loading in the historic period and remains so in the present day. The lead balls provide better accuracy and stopping potential than the alternative conical bullets, and decanting the powder charge from a flask has long been considered more desirable than the fragile paper cartridges made up around the pointed bullets. One traditional loading sequence calls for greased or treated felt wads to be seated between the powder and ball. I’ve tried this with the modern wonder wads and, with several revolvers, have gotten higher velocity and better consistency with the ball seated directly onto the powder.
The major substructures
Elmer Keith, in his talks with survivors of the Western Expansion, gained the strong impression that the .36 caliber round ball was much more effective than the conical bullets and was in fact, much more effective than the paper ballistics would indicate. Velocities of 1,000 fps with the 80 grain .375" ball over FFFG Black powder have been reported. Actual performance probably varied with the quality of the powder, but such ballistics approach the performance of the modern .38 Special in its standard loading.
Results at 25 yards & 50 feet
The revolvers could be safely carried with the hammer down between chambers, particularly on those revolvers that had cylinder pins for the purpose. The current practice, and a far preferable one, is to leave one chamber unloaded with the hammer down on the empty. It is said that Pony Express Riders and others frequently carried spare loaded and capped cylinders for rapid reloads. Dropping a fully loaded and capped cylinder would be an excellent way to shoot yourself.
Once loaded, the Navy is fired in the single action mode- hammer to full cock, align the front bead with the little notch on top of the hammer and pull the trigger.
While Val Forgett of Dixie Gunworks kicked off the modern percussion era by importing a Colt reproduction from Belgium, almost all subsequent period arms come from Italy. This presents quite a few problems. The Italians have managed to develop metallurgy that seems worse, if possible, than that of the 19th Century Colts. Screws, lock work parts and especially springs are brittle and prone to early breakage.
Some key element of the Italian Connection does not care a bit about what it is doing and is a constant source of grief to the American companies who depend on them. They fulfill orders for complete guns only when it suits them to do so and disdain to supply replacements for their substandard parts. This set of circumstances makes the ’51 Navy an excellent choice for the modern black powder shooter. The replicas of this model exist in sufficient numbers that sources of after-market parts have developed.
Twin Pines Armory tune-up spring kitThe Navy revolvers are generally quite accurate--as much so as many or most modern firearms--the usability of the accuracy depending greatly on the skill of the user as well as how well the revolver is set up for target work. With the standard bead the revolvers tend to shoot as much as a foot over point of aim at 25 yards. Trigger pulls are often a good deal heavier than the ideal for perfect bullet placement. My present personal Navy is a mystery job that arrived in the country sans front sight and finish, apparently part of a lot forwarded from one of the Italian companies and rejected by Colt Black Powder. The 6.5" trigger release is on the heavy side for precise work while the extra tall front bead installed by my personal percussion expert Johnny Bates lays the balls very close to point of aim at reasonable distances. I did the final fitting and assembly myself and finished the steel with Birchwood-Casey Plum Brown.
The finished product
It looks like an original Navy that has seen some use in the open air. I was able to replace an early-broken trigger/locking bolt spring with a round wire spring from Heinie by way of Brownell’s and, since that time, it has remained in good shooting trim.
Basic components include .375", pure lead balls from Hornady and Speer, CCI #10 percussion caps and black powder in the triple fine granulation or a modern propellant substitute. My choice for sealing grease is whatever is available- from automobile cup grease, to Crisco to the Traditions Wonder Lube I presently have on hand. Necessary accessories include a powder flask with 21 grain spout, a substantial screw-driver type nipple wrench (the replicas are made of Italian pot metal and break upon first use), a proper screw driver and cleaning gear.
The flask is a nice touch.
Another feature of the modern era is the general replacement of the original Black Powder with various substitutes like Hodgdon’s Pyrodex, ClearShot and Triple 7. The distributors find it easier and cheaper to deal with these bureaucratically-defined "propellants" rather than black powder, which the common carriers and the federal government defines as an "explosive".
During an early range visit, I managed to drill crudely drawn rabbit targets out to 60 feet shooting two handed. In my most recent shoot my rabbit accuracy played out at 40 feet. In consolation, my black powder handling procedures have improved to the point that I am having far fewer problems with gun malfunctions--failures to fire caused by cap fragments in the action of the revolver. I find that the mechanism handles the fragments very well if I cock the pistol in the low-ready position rather than in the shooting position or while bringing the gun down out of recoil. The Navy hangs very steady in the traditional one-handed shooting position and, despite the heavy trigger and crude sighting arrangement, very satisfactory results are the rule. On one very good day, I produced a five round cluster at 50 feet of 2.5-3". At 25 yards, I kept fifteen rounds in the upper half of the high scoring ring of a Texas Police silhouette target at 25 yards. The majority landed in a group that would score rather well on a 25 yard NRA center. Other shooting sessions have produced less auspicious results but accuracy is generally sufficient to allow me to enjoy the process.
Most of my shooting is done with Pyrodex-P, the Hodgdon's original FFF G substitute. It appears to be a close equivalent or somewhat more energetic than the original. Average velocity for five rounds over my chronograph was 1082 feet per second with a couple of rounds going super sonic. I clocked five rounds of Goex FFF G at 1020fps with an extreme spread of 69fps. The group struck right above the sights at 50 feet and produced a group of about 2". ClearShot, by contrast, landed a 4" group three to four inches right and low and produced only 659 fps with a 113-fps extreme spread. Pyrodex is my propellant of choice for the various front loaders. It resembles black powder in that there is considerable smoke and at least a hint of brimstone in its bouquet. It will also require thorough cleaning to prevent rust and corrosion but does not foul the gun nearly as badly as the original charcoal, potassium nitrate and sulfur mix. Fouling is at about the same level that I came to expect when we substituted FFFF G priming powder for triple F back in the days when black powder was more widely distributed in this area.
The practical outcome is that it is not necessary to dismount and clean the gun to keep it in working order during extended range sessions. I have also found that it cleans up rather easily with the new chemistry marketed to replace the old hot soapy water method still recommended by many cautious shooters. Careful monitoring of my black powder arms after shooting reveals no rust formation and is actually less stressful to the Italian parts than the frequent full disassembly attendant upon the traditional cleaning drill.
The Navy is an interesting historical artifact and the modern replicas can provide an enjoyable foray into the history of the repeating handgun, the industrial age and the cultural precursors of the modern age. Its care and management has become easier with the availability of modern, ready-made ammunition components and convenient cleaning chemistry. Even so, the handling and shooting of the modern copies does not depart in any important way from that of the originals.
Texas Slim Jim holster
I would like to thank Johnny Bates for the invaluable assistance in delving into the intricacies of 19th Century firearms. He has provided the inspiration for the articles I have written on these tools of another age, provided shooting experiences with a variety of original and replica arms, and is the source of much of the information used to detail the day to day use of the weapons while fitting them into the proper historical context. His hand made holsters are faithful to the early patterns as are his finely crafted revolver grips. Descended from county rangers and cattlemen, an eager student of arcane lore, he contributes much to the western heritage of Central Texas.
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