50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)
COLT FIRST, SECOND & THIRD
With endorsements from American Indian War heroes Captains Samuel Hamilton Walker and Jack C. Hayes, Samuel Colt finally got the military recognition—and orders for his 1847 Walker—that he craved. But although the Walker was a formidable weapon, it had its drawbacks, not the least of which was its 41⁄2 pounds of weight. Additionally, recoil from its 60-grain powder charge often caused the loading lever to drop, plunging the rammer into the bottommost chamber and preventing the cylinder from rotating. Obviously, improvements would have to be made if Colt’s was to remain in the arms race.
This replica Uberti First Model Dragoon duplicates the pristine blued and case hardened look of the nineteenth century horse pistols when they were new.
Back in those crude days of metallurgy, the only way to reduce the weight of a handgun was to reduce its size. Thus, in 1847, Colt’s created a transition gun between the Walker and the subsequent First, Second, and Third Model Dragoons. This revolver, which used many leftover and modified Walker parts, was the Whitneyville-Hartford Dragoon, or Transition Walker, and it represents the very first gun to be made in Colt’s new Hartford factory. But its life was short lived, because, in 1848, Sam Colt unveiled his First Model Dragoon (named after the U.S. Mounted Riflemen). Although still a hefty hunk of iron, the frame and cylinder had been slightly scaled down and the barrel shortened from the Walker’s nine-inch tube to 71⁄2 inches. Because of its smaller cylinder, the Dragoons carried a reduced powder charge of 40 grains.
These improvements trimmed the Dragoon’s weight to four pounds, two ounces, still too large to qualify it as a belt or holster pistol. In fact, it was the Colt Dragoon that helped inspire the term “horse pistol,” for the only way this behemoth could be conveniently carried was on horseback. The guns were typically issued in pairs to mounted troopers— the forerunners of the United States Cavalry—in elongated leather pommel holsters draped over both sides of the saddle.
The .44-caliber Dragoon was a handsome gun, with blued metal, and case hardened frame, loading lever, and hammer. The square-back trigger guard (a holdover from the Walker) and backstrap were polished brass, complemented by one-piece walnut grips. Military guns were stamped with a “U.S.” on the frame and “WAT” on the grips (the latter for Ordnance Inspector W.A. Thornton). The large cylinder provided an ample canvas for an engraving by W.L. Ormsby, depicting Captain Hayes and his mounted riflemen in pursuit of Comanches.
Obviously, Sam Colt still had leftover parts in the bin, because the initial run of First Model Dragoons featured some Walker stampings and parts. This sub-variation was discovered by John J. Fluck and reported by him in the September 1956 issue of American Rifleman. Today, these rare guns, which occur in the 2216 through 2515 serial number range, are known as Fluck Models.
This initial Dragoon, which was produced until 1850, also kept the Walker’s oval bolt locking holes in the cylinder and the relatively weak “V” mainspring. These were changed, in 1850, with the appearance of the Second Model Dragoon. It is in this second generation that the flat, curved mainspring and squared-off cylinder bolt notches with their lead in-grooves first appeared, improvements that would stay with Colt revolvers into the 21st century. In addition, the loading lever latch was redesigned and a rolling wheel was added to the base of the hammer. The square-back trigger guard was retained, making the Second Model, in my opinion, the most attractive of the Dragoons.
Only 2,700 Second Models were produced, until 1851, when it was superseded by the Third Model Dragoon, of which 10,500 were manufactured, along with an additional 700 guns shipped to the British market between 1853 and 1857.
In the Third Model, the lever catch was again improved, but this time with a design that was to be incorporated in all subsequent cap-and-ball Colts, including the 1851 Navy and 1860 Army. The Third Model is also the only Dragoon produced in two barrel lengths, 71⁄2 and eight inches. Some models also sported a folding leaf sight. Additional accuracy was obtained by the factory’s enlarging of the loading grooves in the barrels. Finally, the trigger guard was rounded, thus losing the Dragoon’s last vestige of its Walker heritage.
The Third Model was produced until 1861, but Colt’s Dragoons continued to see action throughout the War Between the States and during the western expansion, when many were converted to cartridges. In addition, some Dragoons were factory cut for shoulder stocks, and a number of presentation guns were engraved by such notables as Gustave Young. Of the 22,000 Dragoons produced during its 13-year lifespan, approximately 10,000 were purchased by the government. The rest were eagerly sought by civilians, in spite of the substantial (for the time) $28 price tag. The civilian guns were usually better finished than military models and their brass backstraps and trigger guards were silver-plated.
Colt Dragoons remain popular not just among collectors, but also with shooters. As testimony to this, in 1974, Colt reissued its Third Model Dragoon, beginning with serial No. 20801—right where the originals left off. Starting in 1980, First and Second Models were also reissued. Although these Colt-produced guns are no longer made today, excellent replicas are offered by Uberti, Cimarron Fire Arms, and Dixie Gun Works.
Although intended to be carried on horseback in a pair of pommel holsters, this rare Third Model was found with an original period holster made of alligator skin, lending credence to the speculation that this gun came from the South.
Indeed, the cylinder scene on both originals and replicas are indicative of the Dragoon’s place in history. It emerged when adventure waited anyone daring to venture into what maps of the time called “The Great American Desert”. Although original specimens, such as the Third Model Dragoon shown here, are investments worthy of any collection, their lofty prices dictate acquisition of one of the better-made replicas for our bucket list. Besides, that way you can shoot it.