September 24, 2010
By Garry James
The U.S. military's first double-action sixgun with a swing-out cylinder proved to be a mixed blessing.
By Garry James
By the late 1880s, the quest for smaller, more efficient calibers, which had begun some 20 years earlier, was moved on to the next stage. Abetted by smokeless power, most nations had been able to reduce the bores of their military rifles from the 11mm/.45 sizes down to 8mms and .30s. This same trend was carried on in military handguns and the move toward lighter, more efficient revolvers and (later) autos was set in motion. This continued to the point that when World War I began, with the exception of the British and Americans who stayed with, or returned to .45, a large majority of countries were wielding primary sidearms in the .32 to 9mm range. But we get ahead of ourselves.
Following the Civil War, the United States experimented with a number of cartridge revolvers, wisely settling, in 1873, on the superb Colt .45 Single Action Army. At the time, this was the most powerful (and one of the most reliable) military handguns in the world, with a stopping power that is still formidable today. Later, a quantity of Smith & Wesson Schofield SAs, which had the added advantage of simultaneous ejection, were also added to Uncle Sam's arsenal. These chambered a slightly attenuated .45 cartridge that would later become standard issue.
Though many countries were also fielding single actions at the time some, such as France, Great Britain, and Austria, opted for double actions. The advantage of a handgun that could be rapidly fired by simply pulling the trigger was not lost ordnance officials, and this, along with smaller, more efficient smokeless rounds, led to the obvious conclusion: the Single Action Army would have to be replaced.
Colt had been fooling around with double action for some time with varying success. While its Model 1877 Lightning and Model 1879 Frontier revolvers were extremely popular with the public, their actions, when compared to some of the British and European designs, were somewhat lacking. That being said, it must be admitted that the Brits liked them and many were sold in England and the Colonies. Both of these guns had solid frames and loaded and ejected in the manner of the Single Action Army.
After some experimentation, Colt came out with a gun that would satisfy military requirements. Featuring a double-action and swing-out cylinder, this sleek new revolver was chambered in a equally updated round, the .38 Colt--though it was also available in the older .41 Colt that was offered in the Model 1877.
The new .38 Long Colt cartridge (there was also a .38 Short Colt round that was used in some pocket revolvers) fired a 150-grain lead bullet, backed by 31â'„2 grains of smokeless powder, at 770 fps for a muzzle energy of 195 ft.-lbs. Compared to the .45 Colt's 400 ft.-lbs., the .38 was really something of a non-starter, but officials figured it was adequate for the job, and in 1889 the revolver and cartridge were accepted for use by the U.S. Navy. Civilian versions were also sold by Colt--a practice that would continue throughout the production life of the firearm.
This M1892 Colt Army & Navy is typical of the series of revolvers which ultimately resulted in eight different model designations. It was the first general issue double-action with a swing-out cylinder used by the U.S. military.
The revolver featured a counter-clockwise rotating cylinder, which could be opened for loading and ejection by simply pulling back on a catch mounted on the left side of the frame behind the recoil shield. It was easily manipulated by the thumb of the right hand, and upon release the cylinder could be poked out sideways with the shooter's forefinger. Empty cases were removed by simply pushing back on an ejector rod to activate a star extractor. The six-shooter could then be quickly reloaded and the cylinder clicked back into place.
Sights were the basic rounded front blade and topstrap notch. The finish on all military revolvers was blue, though civilian guns could be had nickeled or with other special finishes and embellishments.
In 1892 the gun was adopted by the Army, and the revolver given the appellation New Army and Navy. Initial experience with the gun caused officials to request some improvements. This would be an ongoing condition, resulting in Models 1892, 1894, 1895, 1896, 1901 and 1903--not to mention a Model 1905 Marine Corps variant.
Modifications consisted of such things as cylinder redesign, the addition (in 1894) of trigger and hammer locks, different barrel markings, the addition of a lanyard ring and the reduction of bore diameter.
The Army and Navy's cylinder latch was pulled rearward by the right hand thumb to unlock the cylinder and allow it to be swung out for loading and ejection of spent cases. Cylinders on these guns rotated counterclockwise.
Grips, depending upon model, were either hard rubber or walnut. Military revolvers will be found with inspector's stampings at various locations. Civilian guns, obviously, do not have these.
While the A&N was reasonably well received by the troops, it really would not get a true baptism of fire until the Spanish-American War of 1898, and later the Philippine Insurrection. At this time Single Action Colts with 51â'„2-inch (and some 71â'„2-inch) barrels were also issued to selected troops.
In his "crowded moment" during the Rough Riders' charge up Kettle Hill in Cuba, Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt, wielding a Model 1892 A&N recovered from the sunken battleship "Maine" and given to him by his brother-in-law, Navy Capt. W.S. Cowles, fired at two Spaniards at a range of about 10 yards, missing one and killing the other. But despite Roosevelt's (and others') success with the New Army and Navy, some soldiers were having reservations about the .38 Colt's lack of power.
The problem came to a head during fighting in the Philippines. A typical instance occurred in 1905 and was later recounted by Col. Louis A. LaGarde.
Though often cited as a defective design, the double action on the Army and Navy, while not up to later Colt and S&W standards, was not all that bad and not overly complicated.
"Antonio Caspi, a prisoner on the island of Samar, P.I. attempted escape on Oct. 26, 1905. He was shot four times at close range in a hand-to-hand encounter by a .38 Colt's revolver loaded with U.S. Army regulation ammunition. He was finally stunned by a blow on the forehead from the butt end of a Springfield carbine."
Lest one think the bullets might have been badly placed, LaGarde goes on to note that three bullets entered the chest, perforating the lungs. One passed through the body, one lodged near the back and the other lodged in subcutaneous tissue. The fourth round went though the right hand and exited through the forearm.
While many tried to blame the problem on the "fanatical nature' of the Moro tribesmen the Americans were encountering, it was difficult to escape the fact that the .38 just didn't have what it takes. As a result, .45 Single Actions were carried by many men and M-1902 versions of the 1878 Colt DA with larger trigger guards and longer triggers (said by some to allow the smaller Filipinos to use two fingers to fire the gun) were issued to the Philippine Constabulary.
Much has been made of the Colt Army and Navy's double-action deficiencies, but I must admit over the years I've seen scores of these guns, both military and civilian, and unlike many Lightings I've encountered, their mechanisms generally seemed to be in good order--taking into account the amount of use a particular revolver has been subjected to.
While not as serviceable as later Colts and Smith & Wessons, the Army and Navy was an important weapon for no other reasons, I believe, than it legitimized the use of the swing-out cylinder and, rather backhandedly, caused the U.S. military to go back to .45 caliber, which ultimately resulted in the adoption of the superb Model 1911 Government Model.
By the time production ceased in 1907 (the gun would be kept in the government inventory for several years after that) more than a quarter of a million versions of the A&N had been made. Not a bad track record for an arm that many consider something of a failure.