Civil War Revolvers and Their Manufacturers

The revolving pistol was some twenty-years old when the Civil War began in 1860. Samuel Colt produced his first revolver in 1837. The first 2,000 Colts were from .28 to .36 caliber, 5-shot models which certainly were no firepower threat to the official military pistol, the Model 1836 Flintlock Pistol in .54 smoothbore. The Army adopted a percussion pistol in the Model 1842 single shot pistol. In 1847, Colt began producing the famous "Walker" Colt Pistols. These .44 caliber, 73 ounce behemoths carried 9-inch barrels and 6-shots, and helped provide the income for Colt to reorganize from bankruptcy in New Jersey to prosper in Connecticut. Colt production was dominated by the larger bore revolvers in the late 1840's.

From 1850 to 1873, Colt manufactured 257,348 Navy Model percus- sion revolvers in Hartford, Connecticut and London, England. These popular pistols were manufactured in .36 caliber with 6-shot cylinders and 7 1/2 inch barrels. Civilian sales of this model outsell any other revolver of it's day, and many were carried into battle by their owners. This Colt was a known favorite of several Civil War partici- pants, most notably John Singleton Mosby.

In 1861, Colt streamlined the design of the Navy Model, but continued to offer the 1850 Navy as well. Only 38,843 of the newer model were produced, however, until Colt ceased production of all percussion revolvers in 1873. Some modern collectors appreciate the slim look of the 1861 Navy, but it's sales volume is dwarfed by the 1850 Navy. The new Navy was released shortly before Sam Colt's death in 1862, and that circumstance and low production have made it a hot collector's item.

Colt also produced an Army Model from 1860 to 1873. Over 200,000 copies of this .44 caliber, 6-shot revolver with an 8-inch barrel were produced during this time, with most being sold to the United States government.

Colt produced revolvers for the civilian trade as well, and the two most popular were the twin .36 caliber, 5-shot Pocket Navy and Pocket Police Models. These models were serial numbered together, up to 48,000, with slightly less than 20,000 Pocket Navy's being pro- duced. The Police came in various barrel lengths from 3 1/2 to 6 1/2 inches, while the Pocket Navy came in 4 1/2 to 6 1/2 inch barrel lengths. Here again, many volunteers carried their personally owned Pocket Pistols with them when the went off to fight in the War Between the States.

Although Colt was a popular brand, it wasn't the only brand. Colt's patent for a cylinder and barrel mounting on a central pin was circumvented by full frame revolvers and the expiration of Colt's patent for the revolver in 1857 resulted in the birth of several competitors.

Eliphalet Remington founded what we today know as the Remington Arms Company in 1844 by buying out military contractors who were behind on their obligations to produce weapons. After successfully fulfilling the government orders for these long arms, in 1857 Reming- ton turned his eye towards the lucrative pistol trade. With his sons -- Philo, Samuel and Eliphalet III -- and a patent purchase, Remington began producing the Remington-Beals Pocket Revolvers. From 1857 until 1860 7,000 copies of three models were produced in .31 caliber, all with 5-shot cylinders, 3 to 4 inch barrels and spur triggers (no trigger guard).

The Remingtons geared up for wartime production with the Model 1861 Army revolver. This pistol was a .44 caliber 6-shooter, with an 8-inch barrel and a cylinder that could be easily removed without dropping the loading lever. About 12,000 pieces of this model were purchased by the federal government in 1862. This Model was replaced by the New Model Army, which replaced the easy cylinder removing feature at the request of the Army. More than 130,000 pieces of this Model were purchased from 1863 to 1875.

The Remington design was stronger than a Colt, and remained popular while Remington manufactured pistols. Frank James, older brother of Jesse, preferred a Remington pistol frame above all others.

Eli Whitney was always near the Purchasing Officer's door, and he, too, manufactured pistols for the military and civilian trade during this time. Whitney's first pistol was a .36 caliber, 6-shot revolver with a 7 1/2 inch barrel and solid frame. similar to the Remington. From 1857 to 1862, Whitney produced more then 33,000 of these pistols. Early production was marked "Eagle Co." on the barrel, and Whitney later market these to the military as the Navy Model Percussion Revolver. Nearly half of the production was purchased by the government. It was Whitney who had subcontracted to produce the first "Walkers" for Colt while Colt restructured, so this was not Whitney's first pistol venture.

Whitney also produced 32,500 .31 caliber, 5-shot civilian pis- tols, which were marked "Whitneyville" on the barrel. These pistols came in a 3 to 6-inch barrel length, and many undoubtedly traveled with their owners to military posts and duties during the Civil War.

Starr revolvers were also produced during this time. The innova- tive and successful Starr Model 1858 Double Action Revolver allowed the user to fire a chamber without first manually cocking the hammer. The 1858 DA was a .44 caliber 6-shooter whose design failed to meet Army specifications for a barrel longer than the 1858's 6 inches. The 23,000 produced were purchased, due to war conditions, and Starr then produced the Model 1863 Single Action Revolver. With an 8-inch barrel and fewer parts to break, the 1863 production of 32,000 was almost completely consumed by the military. Both models were manufactured in Binghamton and Yonkers, New York. The large numbers of Starr revolv- ers purchased by the military is only surpassed by the Colt and Remington companies, and I have always considered the Starr one of the most aesthetic designs to come out of Yankeedom.

The manufacturers of the Confederacy could not compete with the Northern Aggressors in many areas, and pistol production is just one. The five most potent producers of pistols did not produce a total quantity equal even to the Whitney factory. The state of Georgia was home to the Griswold & Gunnison; Rigdon, Ansley & Company, and Spiller & Burr manufactories, each producing a .36 caliber pistol. Mississippi was home to the Leech & Rigdon factory, which also produced a .36 revolver. Tenneessee's Schneider & Glassick produced .36 caliber pistols as well, until Memphis fell to federal forces. These five companies produced a total of less then 7,000 units, perhaps considerably less.

At the beginning of the conflict, the Army did not have an official revolver. Events occurring from 1860 to 1865 resulted in the Army adopting revolvers to replace large bore, single-shot pistols. Many of the pistols listed above are still available in large quantities to the collector and aficionado. Furthermore, Colt recently began to release exact replicas of their early percussion models, which appeal to shooters and skirmishers alike who do not want to risk damage or wear to original revolvers.

Blackpowder revolving pistol shooting, or collecting, is fun. You can plink in the back yard, or compete with an N-SSA Pistol Team at most skirmishes. Until the next time, shoot safe and have fun.

(C) 1996 Tom Kelley

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