50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)
COLT 1871-1872 OPEN TOP
It’s a shame Sam Colt never got to see his company’s legendary revolver, the Single Action Army. Colonel Colt died in 1862, 11 years before the Model P made its appearance. As unfortunate as that was, he did give the shooting world its most famous handguns of the era, the 1851 Navy and the 1860 Army. In turn, both of these cap-and-ball sixguns formed the basis for the first cartridge revolver ever completely designed and produced by Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company (cap-and-ball conversions obviously notwithstanding), the Open Top Model of 1871-’72—and it was the Open Top that evolved into the SAA.
With the end of the American Civil War, in 1865, and the expiration of Rollin White’s patent four years later, the field was wide open for the development of pistols with bored-through cylinders that could chamber the new-fangled, self-contained metallic cartridge. But a surplus of parts for both the 1851 Navy and 1860 Army—the two most prominent handguns of The Great Rebellion—inspired a Colt’s employee, Charles B. Richards, to alter the cylinder and hammer of the 1860 Army so that a centerfire .44 cartridge could be loaded from the rear of the cylinder, rather than have loose powder and ball rammed in from the front. This was accomplished by milling off the back portion of the percussion cylinder and affixing the frame with a conversion ring. This ring contained a shallow fixed rear sight and a surprisingly modern-looking spring-plunger firing pin, which was struck by the flat surface of a filed-off percussion hammer. In addition, the under-barrel rammer hole was plugged with a round ejector rod assembly that angled to the right of the barrel, to facilitate punching out empty cases when the gun was put on half-cock, which would align one of the cylinder bores with the ejector rod.
This exquisite 1871-1872 Open Top was made for the author by Cimarron Fire Arms and features charcoal bluing, fancy burl walnut one-piece grips, and elegant period-style engraving. The matching belt and holster were custom made for this gun by El Paso Saddlery.
As successful as the Richards Conversion was, blackpowder fouling often plugged the spring-loaded firing pin. Plus, the supply of surplus 1860 barrels was dwindling. So it was, in 1872, that another Colt employee, one named William Mason, designed a new barrel with a solid contour underneath, which did away with the rammer hole, thereby alleviating the need for a plug. Mason also replaced the spring-loaded arrangement on the frame with a modified conversion ring containing a hole for a fixed firing pin riveted onto an 1860 percussion hammer. In addition, he lengthened the ejector rod tube.
The buttstrap reflects the Union Pacific Railroad’s importance in the opening of the West, as it linked up with the Central Pacific Railroad to form the transcontinental railroad.
Even the backstrap was period-engraved for the author.
The Richards and Richards-Mason systems were notable but interim transitions into the era of fixed ammunition. But surplus cap-and-ball parts were being used up, and it was clear a new cartridge gun was needed, especially in light of the upcoming Army trials scheduled to select a large-bore handgun. Thus, in 1872, a new Colt galloped onto the scene, the 1871-’72 Open Top (at the time it was referred to as the New Model Holster Pistol). The twin dates refer to the “Pat. July 25, 1871” and “Pat. July 2, 1872” stamps on the left side of the frame, which covered an improved method of attaching the ejector rod to the barrel. Except for the grip frames, none of the parts interchanged with any previous Colt, making the Open Top the company’s first factory-built cartridge gun.
The ejector rod button of the Open Top was a precursor to the bull’s-eye ejector rod of the 1873 Colt Single Action Army.
Interestingly, the Open Top was chambered for .44 rimfire, as it was more familiar to frontiersmen than any centerfire cartridge of the time. It was basically the same cartridge used in the Henry and Winchester 1866 rifles, but sported a more elongated 200-grain bullet and packed 23 grains of Blackpowder—the equivalent of the older cap-and-ball charges. For the first time, it offered the convenience of using the same cartridge for both rifle and pistol, thus pre-dating the more oft-touted Winchester-Colt calibers of .44-40, .38-40, and .32-20, all of which came later.
At first glance, the Open Top appeared to be a Richards-Mason conversion, but there were notable differences. For one thing, there was no separate “conversion ring” on the frame. In addition, the cylinder was newly manufactured, although still roll-engraved with the same W.L. Ormsby 1843 Naval scene previously used on both the 1851 Navy and 1860 Army (the Colt’s factory certainly got their money’s worth out of those dies!). Also, the fixed notch rear sight was not on the hammer, but, rather, was an integral part of the barrel, near the breech. Finally, the six-shot .44 caliber cylinder was not rebated, as it had been on the 1860 Army (which had enabled it to be fitted onto the smaller .36 caliber 1851 Navy frame). Instead, the straight-sided cylinder was matched to a larger .44-caliber frame.
The Open Top was offered in two versions, with the distinctive, elongated grip of the 1860 Army, or with the plow-handled grip of the 1851 Navy (which would, eventually, be adapted to the Single Action Army). The backstrap and trigger guard initially were brass (and sometimes nickel plated), with iron being used on later models. Grips were one-piece varnished walnut, although special order ivory was available. The hammer and frame were case hardened, while the rest of the gun was blued, and, as on all Colts, nickel-plating and engraving were options. Barrel length was 71⁄2 inches, but some rare eight-inch versions are known to exist.
The 1871-1872 Open Top met with immediate acceptance, hampered only by the availability of .44 rimfire ammunition in some of the more remote regions of the frontier. However, Colt’s new cartridge revolver still utilized the old cap-and-ball system of using a wedge to affix the barrel to the frame and, so, without a rammer to facilitate leveraging the barrel off so the cylinder could be removed, disassembly was a bit tricky. That and its lack of a topstrap doomed the Open Top in the Army trials of 1872. Undaunted, Colt’s designers added a topstrap with an elongated groove for a rear sight, strengthened the ejector rod and loading gate, and took note of the Army’s last-minute request for a .45-caliber chambering, rather than .44. Instead of calling it the Improved Open Top, Colt’s named its new gun the Single Action Army.
The appearance of the SAA, in 1873, spelled the end of the Open Top, with only 7,000 produced during its short lifespan. Many of these guns were shipped to Mexico and South America, where they saw rugged use. Even most Open Tops found in the U.S. show much wear, testimony to the importance this little-known cartridge and revolver played in blazing a trail in the West.
Cimarron can bore its 1871-1872 Open Tops to accept .44 Specials, as well as .44 Colt.
The author has found the Open Top to be highly accurate in .44 Colt, a comfortable caliber to shoot—plus it’s authentic to the gun!
Most of the original Open Tops I have encountered have been either too worn or, if not, were then too expensive for any serious consideration, even though this pre-Peacemaker single-action has long been on my bucket list. But a few years ago, Mike Harvey, head honcho of Cimarron Fire Arms, brought out an excellent Uberti-made 1871-’72 Open Top replica chambered in .44 Colt, a centerfire cartridge that was originally developed for the Army’s use in the Richards-Mason 1860 Army cartridge conversions.
Interestingly, the .44 Colt was available as a factory loading, from 1871 until just prior to World War II, although the Army’s use of this cartridge lasted only until 1873, when they replaced it with the .45 Long Colt and the Single Action Army. However, thanks to the revived interest in replica cartridge conversions and, now, with the availability of Cimarron’s 1871-’72 Open Top, the .44 Colt is once again obtainable from firms such as Black Hills Ammunition and Ten-X. In addition, on special order, Cimarron will bore out the .44 Colt chambers of the Open Top so that they will also accept .44 Specials, although I should caution you that this is at the extreme end of what this nineteenth century handgun design can take, so I suggest having a competent gunsmith check out your Open Top before shucking in the slightly elongated .44 Specials—even then, I would only recommend cowboy loads.
The Open Top’s loading gate predated that of the Colt Single Action Army.
The Open Top disassembles in the same manner as the open top Colt-style cap-and-ball revolvers.
As for me, yes, I had my Open Top bored out to .44 Special, but, so far, I have only fired it with .44 Colt ammo. Somehow, it seems more in keeping with this little known but historic gun from my bucket list.
The standard Open Top from Cimarron Fire Arms is a thing of beauty and bridges the gap between cap-and-ball and cartridge pistols.