Colt 1851 Navy

Colt 1851 Navy

Beginning with this issue, our "Great Guns" series turns its attention to handguns from our nation's past that hold a military pedigree.



There's little question that the Model 1851 Colt navy revolver is one of the more important firearms in American history--not necessarily because it was the most powerful repeater of its time (it wasn't) nor because it was any more reliable or accurate than its competitors. As they say, timing is everything, and the '51 entered center stage at just the right moment.


Samuel Colt introduced his first Paterson percussion revolvers in 1837. The first models were small and not particularly powerful. Eventually a .36 caliber belt model appeared and saw some military use, but it still wasn't a big hit. In short order, Colt came up with the behemoth .44 Walker revolver, which weighed more than 4.5 pounds, and then various other large revolvers such as the .44 "Dragoons." They were strong and powerful, though a bit too hefty to carry in a waistbelt holster for extended periods.


In 1849, Colt hit it rich with his .31 caliber Pocket Model, which put his company on a firm financial footing but still wasn't all that powerful; an upscale new belt model, the 1851 Navy (so named for a cylinder roll engraving depicting a battle between the Mexican and Yucatan navies), made its appearance in 1850. Chambered in an effective .36 caliber and weighing just two pounds 10 ounces, it became an instant hit with adventurers, city dwellers and the military.

Adopted officially by the U.S. Army and Navy, it saw considerable Civil War usage. In fact, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee carried one throughout the conflict. It was also the most-copied Rebel revolver south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The '51 was popular with desperados and lawmen, and "Wild Bill" Hickok often carried a brace of ivory-gripped '51s thrust into his sash. It is said he performed some prodigious feats of marksmanship with these guns.


The 1851 went through a number of variations--including some of most highly embellished revolvers of the period--and by the time production ceased in 1873, close to quarter-million had been made. With such a pedigree, there is little doubt that it is one America's most influential arms.

Recommended for You

SIG SAUER has introduced the American Made P210 Standard pistol to the U.S. Commercial Market. Semi-Auto

SIG P210 Standard Pistol: Legendary and American Made

Handguns Online Staff - April 23, 2019

SIG SAUER has introduced the American Made P210 Standard pistol to the U.S. Commercial Market.

The Ruger Security 9 Compact 9mm (model # 3818) is a shootable, dependable gun with a low price tag. Compact

Ruger Security 9 Compact Review

J. Scott Rupp

The Ruger Security 9 Compact 9mm (model # 3818) is a shootable, dependable gun with a low...

Do you remember the first time you fired a gun? If you're like most, you were somewhat Training

Pro Tips For Controlling Recoil

Richard Nance - April 11, 2017

Do you remember the first time you fired a gun? If you're like most, you were somewhat

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Going To The Range

Going To The Range

Jim and Scott show you how to make each trip to the shooting range a quality experience.

Teaching New Shooters

Teaching New Shooters

Julie Golob of Team Smith & Wesson guest stars, joining Jim and Scott for a discussion of how best to introduce new shooters to the sport.

Handgun Basics

Handgun Basics

SIG Academy's Hana Bilodeau joins Rich and Jim to discuss the essential skills all handgunners should master.

See more Popular Videos

Trending Stories

While some modifications require an experienced gunsmith, the average shooter can install most parts in just minutes.
Instead, the curtain-rod engineer with a Accessories

8 Popular Drop-In Glock Mods

Dusty Gibson - July 17, 2013

While some modifications require an experienced gunsmith, the average shooter can install most...

One of the newest in the Micro 9 series, the Kimber Micro 9 Nightfall is a serious pistol designed for personal defense. Compact

Kimber Micro 9 Nightfall Review

Jeff Chudwin - January 29, 2019

One of the newest in the Micro 9 series, the Kimber Micro 9 Nightfall is a serious pistol...

I don't have a distinct recollection of the first time I reloaded a cartridge – it's been a long Ammo

To Cast a Good Bullet

Bart Skelton - June 28, 2012

I don't have a distinct recollection of the first time I reloaded a cartridge – it's been a...

See More Stories

More Historical

 This Ethan Allen derringer - firing a blackpowder .22 short load - is the smallest cartridge handgun ever made Historical

Ethan Allen .22 Short

Handguns Online Staff - November 15, 2017

This Ethan Allen derringer - firing a blackpowder .22 short load - is the smallest cartridge...

              By Wayne van Zwoll    John Browning committed 20 years to long-gun design for Historical

In the Beginning

Wayne van Zwoll - September 24, 2010

By Wayne van Zwoll John Browning committed 20 years to long-gun design for

Colt's premier .357 hits the big five-oh. Historical

Colt Python: A Complete History

Rick Hacker - December 21, 2015

Colt's premier .357 hits the big five-oh.

See More Historical

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction.

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

×