Shooting the Colt Model 1861 "Navy " Revolver

By Tom Kelley

Most black powder revolver shooters sooner or later own a Colt replica, and in my case it's both sooner and later. One of my very first blackpowder guns of any kind was a .44 caliber Colt replica. I don't know where that pistol is now, but given my level of skill and experience way back when, I didn't shoot it very well, and graduated to the solid frame Remington and Rogers & Spencer designs.

However, I have had a hankering for a nice .36 pistol for a long time now, and at the Fall National I picked up a Navy Arms Model 1861.

History of the Model 1861 Navy

The Colt Model 1861 Navy Revolver is a beautiful redesign of the Model 1851 Navy. The earlier model, while quite serviceable and dependable, appears square and rough next to the streamlined appeal of the 1861 Navy. Certainly, more 1851's were produced than 1861's - about six times more. And, both models were available from their production/model years until 1873. But Sam Colt must have liked they way his 1860 Army looked, and decided to give the 1851 a facelift along the same lines. The 1861 is also the last Colt design that Sam Colt supervised and nurtured from design to production.

The original Colt 1861's carried a New York address on the 7 1/2-inch barrel, were .36 caliber and could load six shots. The most frequently encountered original 1861's have a cylinder that is roll engraved with a scene depicting the Texas Navy and Mexican Navy in battle, however, there were two other minor variations, including a fluted cylinder model and a model adapted to shoulder stocks.

My replica is true to the original in several aspects, including the silver-plated brass back straps, case hardened frame, lever and hammer. My Navy Arms replica has the shoulder stock cut outs and screws on the recoil shield and frame, respectively, and is an excellent reproduction of the appearance of the original.

Shooting the .36 Navy Arms Model 1861 Revolver

While the timing of my out of the box pistol pleasantly surprised me, I did perform two minor improvements before working up loads for the .36 Navy.

First, I coned the barrel with an 18-degree reamer from Brownells. Replacing the factory forcing cones is almost a necessity to improve accuracy in most replica revolvers, so I went ahead and coned it before shooting. And, I cut a crown on the flat-faced muzzle of the barrel. A crown protects the end of the rifling groves and lands, and defends the accuracy of the revolver from accidental dings and burrs. There is no worse feeling than investing hours and days in load development, then buggering up the muzzle and having to start all over. So, I crowned the muzzle first.

After working on both ends of the barrel, I started working up loads with round balls and lead bullets, and even came up with some paper cartridges that worked quite well. The Colt Navy, like all Colts, is easy to point. The design of the sight radius has the shooter looking down the notch in the hammer, but it also provides a longer sight radius and therefore is a little more accurate.

I came out of my test firing with four loads that I liked for one reason or another. Three of these loads use the standard .375 lead round ball, and the other uses a .358 hollow base 148 grain lead wadcutter.


Average Velocity

Group Size


.375 Round Ball

21.5 g FFF Goex

.36 WonderWad™

RWS #10 caps

850.3 fps

6.0 inches


.375 Round Ball

18.5 g FFF Goex

.5 cc filler

CCI #10 caps

901.0 fps

5.25 inches

Extreme spread = 25.06

Stand. deviation = 09.21

.375 Round Ball

15.1 g FFF Goex

.7 cc filler

CCI #10 caps

775.5 fps

5. 75 inches

Extreme spread = 39.81

Stand. deviation = 15.25

.358 hollowbase w.c.

16 g FFF Goex

RWS #10 caps

571.9 fps

6.75 inches

Wadcutter wrapped with cig. Paper for tight fit

All of these loads performed well at 25 yards. The bulls-eye of a 25-yard N-SSA target is 5 inches, and the 8-ring diameter is 8 inches. I would expect any of these loads, with practice would produce 25 yard scores in the 80's, which is nothing to sneeze at. The best load of this lot was the 18.5 grains of FFF under the standard round ball. It developed excellent statistics in the chronograph, and shot a 9-ring size group off hand at 25 yards. The wadcutter load was tested in an attempt to find a heavy projectile for interactive targets in competitions such as Cowboy Action Shooting. Although difficult to prepare, due to the paper wrapping of the bullets for a recoil-resistant fit, the wadcutters would be serviceable at the shorter CAS distances. A couple of the cylinders shoot the wadcutters dead on at 25 yards, so interested shooters may want to investigate their use in individual competitions, where only one or two cylinders can be loaded during the lengthy time allotment.

The Downside

Shooting a Colt pistol does have its downside, and I would be remiss if I failed to address the issue. The design of the Colt pistols lacks the solid frame of the Remington-type revolvers. Removing the cylinder is a lengthier process in a Colt, and it is therefore a practical necessity to load the pistol without removing the cylinder. I found that using paper cartridges was not practical in the Colt Navy, because the angle of the recoil shield cut out does not allow the use of a nipple pick long enough to puncture the paper cartridge after loading. This resulted in many hang-fires during my shooting sessions with paper cartridges, and is the primary reason why I do not recommend them in the Colt Navy.

Another problem is the hammer cutout in the frame allows fired caps, when stuck to the hammer after firing, to drop down into the mechanisms of the Colt Navy. Several times during testing, I had to completely disassemble the pistol to restore function, and each time the culprit was a spent cap. While it is possible during individuals to verify that each spent cap does not enter the hammer cutout, it would be a painfully slow process during a Revolver Match.

Overall, the Navy Arms Colt Model 1861 Navy Revolver is a beautiful work of manufacturing art. I simply love the looks of the Colt 1861 Navy. It points perfectly, like an extension of my arm; it is as easy to aim as pointing your finger. The low weight projectiles result in little perceived recoil; I could shoot the Colt Navy all day. However, due to the flaws mentioned above, it is not a pistol for beginners to master. Extreme care must be taken to keep the mechanism free of spent caps, and it may be a task that simply is not worth the effort. An N-SSA Revolver Team Match is 18 shots in 3 relays, and it will take care and effort to nurse the Colt Navy through that requirement. It can be an accurate piece, and individuals must decide if the accuracy is worth the effort. I haven't given up yet, and I hope to be able to use the Colt Navy in Individual Matches in the future.

Until the next time, promote responsible gun ownership, shoot safe and have fun.

2001 by Tom Kelley

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