After Samuel Colt's revolving cylinder firearms patent expired in 1857, a slew of competitors swooped in to claim their share of the emerging military and civilian pistol market. The timing could not have been better for firearms manufactures as the United States was set to enter into a years-long civil war (1861-1865) that would take the lives of 600,000. The Whitney Model 1861 Navy was a product of the period, standing as a percussion revolver of largely conventional design. The Whitney name was related to the famous inventor of the cotton gin, Eli Whitney. Aside from his invention, Whitney also established an arms production business around 1798 and the company went on to manufacture several revolvers and rifles of outside origin.
By the time of the American Civil War, Whitney's son, Eli Whitney, Junior, had taken hold of the arms business. The company had receive considerable experience when manufacturing Colt's .44 revolver during 1847 at a time Colt lacked its own manufacturing capabilities. From this exposure was born an in-house revolver design as the Whitney Model 1861 Navy. The "Navy" title was used to generically designate a .36 caliber revolver as "Army" models were generally in .44 caliber. As such, the Navy name did not mean sole sale to any one naval power of the day. Manufacture of Whitney guns was under the Whitneyville Armory brand label of New Haven, Connecticut and this new gun was developed to compete with the popular Colt Navy revolvers. The guns proved one of the first early notable attempts at a solid-frame revolver - a structural design quality popularly associated with Remingtons of the day.
The Model 1861 was a no-frills revolver design featuring a six-shot revolving cylinder held in a centralized position. Unlike competing Colts - and more like competing Remingtons - the Whitney design utilized a "bridged" frame - a structure running over the cylinder to join the frontal and rear sections of the gun - to promote a more rigid, and thusly robust, end-product. The hammer was exposed and its spur within easy reach of the primary hand. Walnut grips were set along either side of the handle for some basic comfort when firing. The trigger was held within an oblong ring favoring one-handed firing. A loading lever was set under the barrel and used to ram the chamber contents rearward during loading. Loading required the primer and shot to be set within each individual chamber and then rammed home. Percussion caps were set upon awaiting nipples on the rear cylinder edges. As a single-action revolver, the operator was required to manually cock the hammer for each shot, the trigger pull releasing the hammer upon the awaiting percussion cap. The cap provided the ignition to the primer and the resultant pressure sent the projectile bullet down and out of the barrel. The barrel measured 7.5 inches in length and was of an octagonal design with internal rifling that added accuracy. Iron sights were provided (rear notch, front post) as external accuracy assistants though the revolver was a true short-ranged weapon. Overall length was 13 inches with a weight of 2lbs, 7oz.
Some 33,000 Whitney revolvers were produced from late 1858 into the early 1860s. The primary customer became the United States military whose Army and Navy took stocks of the type into inventory (as such they promptly saw service during the American Civil War). The State of New Jersey became another notable purchaser. 200 examples of the First Model, 2nd Type were produced.