COLT 1860 ARMY - 50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)

50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)


Most nineteenth century cap-and-ball revolvers are emblematic of the era in which they were created. The straight, regimented lines of Colt’s Model 1849 and 1851 Navy, and the fanciful complexities of the Whitney and Spiller & Burr, were designs evoking the Victorian age.

Not so with the 1860 Army. With the smooth, streamlined curvatures of its rounded barrel and an underlug that flowed into the frame and cascaded out on the other side into an unusually elongated grip, the graceful .44 could easily have come from the Art-Deco period of the 1920s. In fact, judging this sixgun solely as a work of art, some might have a difficult time realizing it was the principal sidearm of the Union Army in the War Between The States.

The 1860 wasn’t just a Yankee gun. Many were sent to Confederate forces through agents like H.D. Norton & Brothers of San Antonio, Texas, and Peter Williams & Co. of Richmond, Virginia, before the blockades were in force. Afterwards, numerous 1860s were confiscated by Rebel forces. Quantrill’s Raiders were said to have been armed with four 1860s per man—two carried in holsters and two more in pommel scabbards. Yet this was one Yankee gun that was never copied by the Confederacy; it was just too difficult to make.

The author’s original 1860 Army, which he purchased years ago from the late Turner Kirkland, of Dixie Gun Works, looks like it has gone through the Civil War, but was actually made in 1867.

Of course, Samuel Colt didn’t think so. He knew he had to do something to satisfy the military’s growing demand. With the ever-increasing rumblings of an impending Civil War, he was selling all the 1851 Navies he could manufacture, but the army wanted something harder hitting than .36-caliber. On the other hand, Colt’s mighty four-plus- pound .44 Dragoon was deemed too heavy for dismounted combat, and shortening the barrel length and cutting cylinder flutes in the bulky Dragoon to shave weight just didn’t work. Sam had already tried that. Too, the cylinder of the 1851 Navy was too small to safely handle six chambers of the larger .44-caliber that the army favored. By 1860, Colt had found the answer.

He started with an 1851 Navy frame, then milled and lowered the front two-thirds of its profile slightly, which enabled it to clear the larger forward portion of a newly designed, rebated cylinder. This cylinder featured six slightly tapered blackpowder cavities that opened out to .44-caliber chambers, thereby permitting a .44-caliber cylinder on what was essentially a .36-caliber frame. The result was a two-pound, 11-ounce belt gun capable of launching a heavier .44 projectile previously associated only with the horse pistol.

Another innovation was the under-barrel rammer. Rather that retain the hinged rammer used in most of his previous revolvers, Colt adapted a “Patent Creeping Lever” that had been designed by his chief engineer, Elisha King Root, in 1849. It had already been used successfully on Colt’s 1855 Sidehammer Model, but was to find even greater acceptance with the new 1860 Army. Basically a steel knobuled rack-and-pinion system, it provided a smooth, jam-free movement that did away with the friction of a single screw binding against a steel hole, such as in the 1851 Navy. Adding to the 1860s sleek appearance, the under-barrel lug was gracefully rounded to encase and protect the ratchet.

Finally, and perhaps most notably, the New Model Holster Pistol, as it was officially called, sported a dramatically elongated grip, one unlike any Colt before it. Initially, the first few thousand revolvers featured a standard 1851 Navy grip and a 712-inch barrel. That made the gun, with its heftier .44-caliber cylinder and lightened frame, feel awkward. I have handled one of the earliest of these 712-inch barreled guns and it had none of the pointability inherent with the 1851 Navy or the improved 1860 Army. The difference was the elongated grip, which was added to balance the gun and to, allegedly, help absorb recoil of the stouter .44-caliber charge. However, as anyone who has ever fired an original or replica 1860 can attest, the grip does more for settling the gun in the hand than it does for taming recoil, for what it does is reduce muzzle flip, thereby enabling the shooter to cock the hammer and get back on target quicker. This same principle was later applied to the underswept grips of the Colt Bisley and, more recently, on Ruger’s earliest .44 Magnum Super Blackhawk. In addition, per the Army’s request, the barrel was lengthened to eight inches, which helped balance the gun even more.

The “creeping ratchet” loading lever of the 1860 Army was a big improvement over Colt’s previous cap-and-ball designs, as it prevented binding.

That little notch on the top of the hammer is actually the rear sight.

Interestingly, the 1851 Navy’s Ormsby-engraved May 1843 naval battle scene between Texas and Mexico also was used for the rebated cylinder of the 1860 Army. And just so you know, the “Sept 10, 1850” patent date on the cylinder refers to changing the cylinder bolt slots from oval to rectangular. The 1860s trigger guard was brass, but the backstrap was blued steel. The frame, rammer, and hammer were case hardened, while the rest of the gun was highly polished and blued. After 1862, this lustrous finish was omitted on military guns, due to wartime pressures and Colt’s desire to keep prices low in the face of competition. Initially, the 1860 cost the government $24.14 apiece, compared to $14.95 for the 1858 Remington, Colt’s nearest competitor. Obviously the Army was willing to pay extra for Colt’s name and reputation. Later, Colt’s dropped its price to $14 per gun, but as they only cost $8 to $10 apiece to manufacture, the company still made a hefty profit.

At last the army had the gun it wanted, a lightweight, hard-hitting, and well-balanced .44 revolver. The report from the first U.S. Ordnance trial, dated May 19, 1860, stated, “The improvement, as claimed by Mr. Colt, consists of diminishing the weight of his revolver known as the Dragoon or Holster Pistol, and retaining the same caliber, thereby securing the same efficiency of fire without the disadvantages of heretofore found in handling the heavier pistol ... there are a few minor points requiring modification ... with these modifications the Board will be satisfied that the New Model Revolvers, with 8-inch barrel, will make the most superior cavalry arm we have ever had, and they recommend its issue to all the mounted troops.” Not surprisingly, the government ended up ordering 119,300 Model 1860 Armies between 1861 and 1863.

The author enjoys regularly shooting his original 1860 Army.

The originals, while fairly accurate at 25 yards, shot high and to the left, although the force with which the wedge was driven in could alter the point of impact somewhat.

Some of the earliest guns, called Cavalry models, featured full fluted cylinders. Many of them, along with later, non-fluted guns referred to as Military Models, were offered with detachable “carbine” buttstocks. These popular variations featured a “carbine breech” cutaway in the bottom of each recoil shield, plus a projecting screw on both sides of the frame (thus making them “four-screw models”) for affixing a detachable buttstock. Approximately 1,900 of these separate buttstocks did double duty as hollowed-out canteens—rarities that often bring more on today’s collector’s markets than the guns themselves. By comparison, the less plentiful but better finished Civilian Models had no provisions for detachable buttstocks.

In all, a total of 200,500 New Model Holster Pistols were made between 1860 and 1872, when the 1860 was superseded by the Colt 1872 Open Top and, subsequently, the Single Action Army. But the gun was so revered, many made the transition into the cartridge era via Thuer, Richards, and Richards-Mason conversions. Consequently, they played an important role in the settling of the post-Civil War west.

Fortunately for collectors, factory records for more than two-thirds of all 1860 Army revolvers survived a disastrous fire in Colt’s Old Armory in 1864, so many of these guns, including those assembled in the London factory, can be authenticated. Like all of Col. Colt’s guns, a number of 1860 Armies were engraved and used for special presentations. While visiting the Frederick VII Foundation in Jaegerspris, Denmarkm with my friend, pipemaker Erik Nørding, I was permitted to actually handle an elaborate cased pair of gold mounted, Gustave Young-engraved 1860s that had been presented to King Frederick VII of Denmark, by President Abraham Lincoln, in 1863.

All I could think was, “Boy, it would be fun to shoot these!”