The Colt Navy Model 1851

by Tom Kelley

The name "Colt" is synonymous with "revolver", for it was Samuel Colt who patented and produced the first American revolver in 1837, more than 20 years prior to the American Civil War. Although that pistol, now labeled the Patterson Model, was acceptable to the American market, it had certain flaws and features that could be improved upon. Sam Colt's next pistol, the Walker Model produced in 1847, was a massive hunk of iron, and threw a .44 slug. The Walkers were designed with the assistance of a Texas Ranger Captain named Walker, and only 1,100 were produced. The size and power of the Walker was impressive, however, and Colt's third venture into production revolvers was the Colt Dragoon, which was a slightly smaller copy of the Walkers. About 15,000 Dragoon Models were manufactured from 1848 to 1861.

The American public had now accepted Colt Revolvers as reliable and desirable pistols. The use of the Walker and Dragoon Models in the War with Mexico had helped to solidify Colt's position as the leading manufacturer of revolvers in America. If Colt's pistols had any detracting feature, it was their massive bulk. The Dragoon and Walker were not easily tucked into a mans belt. Colt's Patterson Model had been a small caliber pistol, with the first four models manufactured in .31 caliber and the final model, the Fifth Model Patterson or Holster Model Patterson, was provided in .36 caliber.

In 1850, Colt began manufacturing a .36 caliber, 6-shot revolver that would continue to be produced for the next twenty-three years - the Colt Model 1851 Navy Revolver. During that span, 215, 348 pistols were produced in Hartford, Connecticut and 42,000 were produced in London, England, a total production of more than a quarter of a million revolvers!. Colt Navy Revolvers were the favorite sidearms of dozens of historical figures during it's production life, including John Singleton Mosby, Wild Bill Hit chcock and Buffalo Bill Cody. Numerous variations of the Navy revolver exist, and most of today's reproductions copy the design of the Second and Third Model Colt Navy Revolver. The second Model had a small, round trigger guard, and the third had a larger round trigger guard.

Colt Navy replicas are available from most sutlers and catalog supply stores, and all are made in Italy and imported.

Tuning the '51 Navy Colt

The '51 Navy Colt Revolver uses the same design as the '60 Army and '61 Navy pistols. The hammer is pulled to the rear, which cocks the pistol and causes the hand to turn the cylinder clockwise as the cylinder stop is lowered at the same time to allow the turning. The cylinder stop pops back up and stops the cylinder with a nipple under the hammer. When the trigger is pulled, the hammer releases and strikes the capped nipple, causing ignition of the charge.

One of the problems with replica arms is many of the parts are "soft." The manufacturer needs to get a certain amount of production from each set of dies for stamping and casting the parts, and the use of milder steel allows longer life for the production equipment. If we were manufacturers, I am sure we would make the same choice. If you are going to use replica arms, accept the fact that some parts are soft and (a) buy some spare parts when you buy the pistol, or (b) try to "harden" some of the soft parts. I know that the hand is going to wear quickest, and I am going to change it every year, usually during the winter sabbatical from skirmishing.

If your '51 Navy is having problems aligning the cylinder, it could be the end of the hand has worn or been knurled over, and is not pushing the cylinder completely. There is a spring on the end of the hand that fits in the hammer, and that spring may be weak after prolonged use. You can replace the spring with a piece of coping saw blade, but be careful not to break the hand at the slot for the spring. Bend the spring while it is off of the hand, then replace it. Keeping a spare hand around also allows you to compare the length of the hand in the revolver with the new one to establish how much wear is occurring when you use the pistol.

One other thing to check is the notches on the cylinder and the cylinder stop. The stop should engage each slot completely, not just on the top of the stop. You may need to enlarge a slot or two, or work the cylinder stop until it fits correctly in the cylinder slots.

These two parts - the hand and the cylinder stop -- are the cause of more than half of the percussion revolver problems that occur in skirmishing. Get to know your particular piece on a first name basis, and keep some spare parts handy to keep it working up to snuff.

Shooting the Colt 1851 Navy Replica

The Colt Navy Model Revolvers - both the 1851 and the 1861 -- are easy to look at and even easier to point. The 1851 set the standard for Colt pistols regarding ease of pointing and fit to hand. Although lighter in weight than its predecessors, the Navy proved itself in California gold fields, on battlefields and in Kansas cow towns.

The cylinder of the '51 Colt Navy allows a full charge of 26.5 grains of FFF powder under the .375 lead ball. The full charge delivers a muzzle velocity of 910 feet per second. If you opt to use the .390 round ball load on top of 25 grains of FFF powder, velocity should be about 825 fps. Both of these maximum loads maintain a 3 inch group out to about 15 yards.

Maximum loads don't always prove to be the most accurate loads, however, and if your Colt Navy is going to break targets at 25 yards, you want an accurate load with a decent group, for a pistol. I tested several loads in the '51 Navy, and the results will be printed in next mont's article.

All in all, I found the 1851 Navy Model to be everything I expected in a medium caliber percussion revolver. I do not favor the tiny post front sight, but that is the only distraction I have with the '51 Navy. The '51 Navy throws a pea down range as well as can be expected, and in the hands of a better shot than I would make a decent skirmishing pistol.

2002 by Tom Kelley

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