Cody Wells


Guns of the Old West



Colt 1851 Navy Revolver .36 Cal


 This is one of my favorites. I don't know what it is about this pistol, but it just feels right.

The Colt Revolving Belt Pistol of Naval Caliber (i.e., .36 cal), later known as the Colt 1851 Navy or Navy Revolver, is a cap and ball revolver. It was designed by Samuel Colt between 1847 and 1850. It remained in production until 1873, when revolvers using fixed metallic cartridges came into widespread use. Total production numbers were exceeded only by the Colt Pocket models in concurrent development, and numbered some 250,000 domestic units and about 22,000 produced in the Colt London Armory. (Wilson, 1985)

The designation "Colt 1851 Navy" was applied by collectors, though the popular name "Navy Revolver" is of early origin, as the gun was frequently called the "Colt Revolving Belt Pistol of Naval Caliber." (ibid, Wilson) The cylinder was engraved with a scene of the victory of the Second Texas Navy at the Battle of Campeche on May 16, 1843. The Texas Navy had purchased the earlier Colt Paterson Revolver, but this was Colt's first major success in the gun trade; the naval theme of the engraved cylinder of the Colt 1851 Navy revolver was Colt's gesture of appreciation. Despite the "Navy" designation, the revolver was chiefly purchased by civilians and military land forces(ibid Wilson 1985).

 Famous "Navy" users included, Wild Bill Hickok, John Henry, Doc Holliday, Richard Francis Burton, Ned Kelly and Robert E. Lee. Usage continued long after more modern cartridge revolvers were introduced in 1873.

The .36 caliber Navy revolver was much lighter than the contemporary Third Model Dragoon revolvers developed from the .44 Walker Colt revolvers of 1847, which, given their size and weight, were generally carried in saddle holsters. It is an enlarged version of the .31 caliber pocket revolvers that evolved from the earlier Baby Dragoon, and, like them, is a mechanically improved and simplified descendant of the 1836 Paterson revolver. As the factory designation implied, the Navy revolver was suitably sized for carrying in a belt holster. It became very popular in North America at the time of Western expansion. Colt's aggressive promotions distributed the Navy and his other revolvers across Europe, Asia, and Africa.

The .36 caliber (.375-.380-inch) round lead ball weighs 86 grains and, at a velocity of 1,000 feet per second, is comparable to the modern .380 pistol cartridge 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.

Sighting consists of a bead front sight with a notch in the top of the hammer, as with most Colt percussion revolvers. In spite of the relative crudity of the sighting arrangement, these revolvers and their modern replicas generally are quite accurate.


Loading and Handling Sequence Common to Percussion Revolvers.

The loading sequence and basic operation of the Colt revolvers remained constant throughout the percussion period, and mirrors the operation of most other percussion revolvers. A shooter familiar with the basic operation of the Colt would find the function of a Remington, LeMat, Adams, or Cooper double action essentially identical.

Safety peg between cylinder chambers

Percussion revolvers are carried with the hammer down between chambers, with a groove or protuberance in the hammer engaging either a safety peg or notch in the rear of the cylinder. This method prevents inadvertent rotation of the cylinder, and prevents the hammer from touching the percussion caps and firing the weapon unintentionally. Patersons and a few later revolvers such as the Rogers and Spencer lacked these safety detents, requiring that they be carried with the hammer down on an empty chamber. 


 To load:

1. Draw the hammer back to the first detent, placing it on "half cock" and allowing the cylinder to rotate for loading;

2. Fill the chambers with powder, leaving enough room to seat a bullet or ball, and place a ball on the chamber mouth with the sprue (mark or projection left from filling the mould) facing exactly forward;

3 Rotate the chamber under the rammer and use the loading lever (if present) to seat the projectile firmly on top of the powder column and at or below the chamber mouth;

4. Place percussion caps on each of the nipples at the rear of the chambers;

5. Rotate the cylinder as necessary and return the hammer to down position (pull it back slightly, squeeze trigger and let hammer down carefully) engaging the safety detents; or

6. Draw the hammer back to full cock for immediate firing.

A single-action revolver is thumb-cocked before firing, which rotates the cylinder and puts a loaded chamber under the hammer; the trigger then is pulled to fire. With double-action revolvers, a single long pull on the trigger cocks the hammer, rotates the cylinder and fires the arm.


A. In the case of foil or combustible-paper cartridges containing bullet and powder, place the cartridge in the chamber and use the loading lever to fully seat the projectile. In the case of foil cartridges, insert a nipple pick through the cone openings to pierce the rear of the cartridge envelopes, then cap the nipples.

B. After #3 above, it was (and still is) common practice to put heavy grease over and around the seated bullet, to lubricate the ball, reduce fouling and prevent multiple (chain) fires; or

C. After #2 above, some early shooters (and modern shooters, too) placed a rigid, greased felt wad over the powder column before seating the bullet, as a hedge against chain fires which may occur with undersized or poorly-shaped bullets or chambers (Bates,Cumpston 2005). It also effectively minimizes fouling buildup in the bore and allows for accurate extended shooting (Keith 1956). It also is common to run a bristle brush or patch dampened with black-powder solvent through the bore before reloading.

D. Most modern target shooters use less than full charges, filling the remaining space over the powder with an inert filler (often Cream of Wheat) so the ball is at the front of the cylinder when loaded. This procedure improves accuracy by reducing the "jump" of the ball before it enters the barrel.






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