The Colt Navy Model 1851 - Part II

by Tom Kelley

Last month, we started our look at one of the most successful revolvers of all time - the Colt Navy Model of 1851. This month, let's look at the data from the shooting bench and clean our Navies before we put them back in the shooting box.

Preparing to Shoot the '51 Colt Navy

Last month, we talked about tuning the Colt revolvers. One key component left to cover is the barrel wedge. Colt revolvers are designed with a trapezoidal wedge that maintains proper clearance between the front of the cylinder and barrel. Under no conditions do we want the barrel and cylinder to actually touch, but we don't want a large gap, either. Colt designed the wedge to maintain a proper clearance between the barrel and cylinder. As the wedge gets worn, you just tap it in a little more until it wears down again. The wedge has a screw that can be backed out and set for a specific distance so the wedge can be removed and inserted to the proper depth each time the revolver is cleaned. It doesn't hurt to have a spare wedge around for when it finally gets so worn it is useless.

Another step I took on my '51 Colt Navy was to cone the barrel. Although my Navy had good lock up and bore alignment, installing an 11 degree cone helps ease the jump of the projectile from bore to barrel, particularly since I like using oversized .395 round balls in my '51 Navy. It doesn't take a great deal of cone; I only opened mine up to about .450 inches. This will help insure more accuracy in prolonged uses, like revolver matches and cowboy shooting, when I will reload three or more times with little time for cleaning between use. If my cylinder stop or notches get cruddy or the hand gets dirty, a slightly misaligned ball will be guided more easily into the coned bore of the '51 Navy. You may acquire a coning kit yourself from Brownells or get any competent gunsmith to perform the operation for you in about 15 minutes. Since I cone all my blackpowder pistols, purchasing a kit seemed the way to go for me, and the operation is a simple do-it-yourself endeavor.

The last step I took to prepare my Navy Colt for N-SSA action was to dress the nipples. Three relays in about 15 minutes can foul up these key components, and during testing I noticed that the revolver was harder to prime each time. I placed the nipple in a drill chuck, and polished the nipples with 500-grit wet/dry emery paper and steel wool. Keep a cap handy, and stop working the nipple when the cap will slide on easily, but doesn't fall off when inverted. It takes a while to get the hang of what's right, but you'll be glad you took the 30 minutes or so it takes. Now, the pistol primes quite easily for four or five relays, usually enough for an Individual Target and a Match, too.

Shooting the Colt '51 Navy

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 966.5 feet per second. If you opt to use the .395 round ball load on top of 25 grains of FFF powder, velocity should be about 808 fps. Both of these maximum loads maintain a 3-inch group out to about 10 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 best results are printed in the tables below.

Load/projectileaverage velocityAverage group size

@ 25 yards

12 g FFF/.375 rb424.63" by 11" oval
26.5 FFF/.375 rb



As I discussed last year in my article on the Colt Navy Model 1861, a .395 round ball can be easily loaded in the Navy cylinders, and provides a projectile with more surface to rifling contact then the nominal .375 ball. Results with the .395 load are below.

Load/projectileaverage velocityAverage group size

@ 25 yards

19 g FFF

.395 rb

695.8 fps4" group

3" high


26.5 FFF

.395 rb


808.4 fps7"group

As with the Model 1861 Navy, I found I got better results with the oversized projectile. The Standard Deviation (SD) on the 19-grain, .395 round ball load was excellent and I recommend any Navy shooter start his load development from that point. Recoil was modest and the load was easy to load and shoot.

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.

Cleaning the Colt Navy Model 1851

Cleaning the Model '51 Navy on the firing line can be tedious, due to the fact that the revolver must be partially disassembled to clean adequately. I can shoot an Individual relay of ten to twelve shots with out cleaning, but it requires more luck than I usually carry to get through a three relay revolver Match without a cleaning or a foul-up. The way I prefer to handle the situation is to shoot the first relay, pull the wedge and separate the revolver into 3 subparts - cylinder, barrel and frame. I keep a pistol cleaning rod handy with a brush in the tip, and on the brush I place a patch. The first thing I do is clean the 6 chambers of the cylinder, turning the patch inside out after 3. Hold the cylinder up and make sure the nipples are clear. I discard that patch and place a clean patch on the brush, which I run through the barrel quickly. Reassembling the pistol, I can usually get this quick clean done between the first and second relay. If not, because of a fouled gun on another position, etc., I just make sure the nipples are clear and wait until the break between the second and third relay, which is usually a little longer due to target material being hung. It is a rare revolver match that I can't get the Navy cleaned up before the start of the third relay.

After all the shooting is done, the revolver is again broken down into the subparts, but this time it is placed in a mineral spirit bath. I've been able to get a gallon of mineral spirits for about two dollars, and I removed one whole side of an old gallon can with tin snips to make a container to soak the parts in. If the timing hasn't shown any signs of wear or tear, I scrub the cylinder and barrel real good, then rinse with boiling water. While the metal is still hot from the water, I apply a liberal coat of Ballistol(tm) spray to the parts.

About twice a year, or every couple hundred rounds or so, I disassemble the revolver completely and inspect the parts for wear, replacing what is needed from the spare parts pile I told you about last month. And, don't forget to order another part when you install your spare in the pistol, pardner! When reassembling, I use white lithium grease in copious quantities on the internal parts. The white lithium is very dense, and is not easily blown off the metal like lighter oils. Most of the fouling, therefore, accumulates in the grease, not on the metal, and is easily removed. I also keep a 100 cc syringe full of white lithium in my shooting box, and during loading I make sure that there is a good size dollop of the stuff in the mortise cut for the hammer. Many times, caps that have blown off the nipple and would have gone down and messed up the timing have been captured in the lithium barrier and been removed before they could do any damage.

So, until the next time, enjoy shooting the Colt Model 1851 Navy revlover, advocate responsible gun ownership, shoot safe and have fun.

(c) 2002 by Tom Kelley

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