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.