Colt Model 1851 Navy
The Colt 1851 Navy revolver became one of the most popular handguns ever produced, seeing totals reach some 250,000 examples by 1873.
Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited:
At the end of the 1840's Samuel Colt was hard at work designing a new revolver of .36 caliber, this design becoming the famous "Colt Model 1851 Navy". The revolver then began production at the Colt Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company out of Hartford, Connecticut in 1850 and manufacture would last until 1873. By this time, newer revolver types had appeared along with advances in cartridge design, but the Colt Model 1851 Navy would stand the test of time and remain a fixture across the globe. In fact, the Colt Model 1851 Navy proved to be one of the famous revolvers in firearms history with some 215,000 to 250,000 produced - essentially becoming the Colt concern's first "true" financial success with numbers only strengthened by the arrival of the American Civil War (1861 - 1865).
The Colt Model 1851 Navy received its "navy" designation by the usual depiction of a naval warfare scene engraved on the ammunition cylinder. The scene recounted the Battle of Campeche which had occurred in 1843 and involved the republics of Texas and Yucatan versus the nation of Mexico. While known for this engraving, not all Model 1851s were finished in this way - some simply utilizing basic smooth-sided cylinders instead. Despite the engraving's tribute, the revolver was not commonly used by naval forces as the name implies and use of the "navy" name went on to generically identify most any future revolvers being .36 in caliber - such was the Model 1851 Navy's place in history.
At its core, the Colt Model 1851 Navy was a single-action, percussion cap revolver with a rotating cylinder containing six rounds of .36 caliber ammunition (at this time being of paper and lead ball). As a "single-action" system, the revolver required the operator to "cock" the hammer before each firing. The first detent of the hammer set the weapon to "half cock" and allowed rotation of the cylinder while the second detent placed the revolver in "full cock", ready for fire (similar in action to the flintlock pistols that the percussion cap types replaced). Design of the revolver was "open frame" meaning there was no connecting bridge found across the top of the ammunition cylinder. The trigger was held low in the design and ahead of an elegantly formed pistol grip with flared bottom. The barrel was octagonal in form and completed to a 7.5 inch length while overall length of the gun was approximately 14 inches, its size making it highly portable by all manner of users - be they military or gunfighter in nature. Weight was approximately 1.18 kilograms. Sights were found at the front (bead type) and at the rear (notch at the hammer). As the Model 1851 Navy utilized percussion cap firing, these "caps" were added to each nipple at the ammunition chamber rear. Each chamber was also filled with gunpowder with the lead ball bullet seated therein. Construction of the Model 1851 Navy was very basic with the revolver able to break down into roughly about eleven major pieces including the barrel, hammer, cylinder, trigger, hand assembly, main spring, arbor, bolt, bolt spring and breech. This allowed it to be very robust and reliable when abused in the wide open spans that was the American Wild West.
The Colt Model 1851 Navy was favored by such high profile names that included gunfighters "Doc" Holliday and Wild Bill Hickok as well as Confederate General Robert E. Lee. While typically remembered as an American revolver, the Model 1851 Navy also made its way to Europe where it was used across Great Britain, Poland and Prussia as well as the empires of Austro-Hungary and Russia. Over 20,000 of the type were even manufactured at the London-based Colt London Armory.