June 11, 2020
His name was James Butler Hickok. He hailed from Illinois, and during his life, he was a gambler, a lawman, a scout, a spy, a showman and more. But he was best known, accurately or not, as one of the greatest gunfighters of the American West. His main guns of choice were a pair of Colt 1851 Navy blackpowder revolvers with ivory grips.
Renowned reproduction maker A. Uberti is honoring the legend of “Wild Bill” Hickok with an 1851 Navy conversion in .38 Special as part of the company’s Lawmen and Outlaws series of guns. Other guns in the series include “Frank” (as in Frank James, brother of Jesse), a replica of the 1875 Remington; and three unique replicas of the 1873 Single Action Army named for Jesse James (all-black finish, bison-horn grip), Doc Holliday (nickel plated, pearl grip) and William Bonney (blue/case-hardened finish, buffalo-horn grip).
You could almost write a doctoral dissertation on the guns Hickok may or may not have carried during his lifetime, but the 1851 Navy was definitely a favorite. He often carried a pair of them, butt-forward for a reverse or cavalry draw.
Like Hickok’s guns, the Uberti Wild Bill is stocked with ivory grips—simulated, of course—attached to a blue grip frame. The 7.5-inch octagon barrel is blued, and the frame is case-hardened.
The original 1851 Navy, which actually debuted in 1850, was a .36 caliber blackpowder revolver. According to historian R.L. Wilson, it was perhaps Samuel Colt’s own favorite. While the gun weighed 42 ounces, it was lighter than the massive 66-ounce .44 Dragoon (produced 1847–61). Because of that, Wilson writes, Colt saw the 1851 as more suited to naval service—hence the “Navy” moniker—while the .44 caliber Dragoon was more fitting for landlubbers.
The U.S. government saw it differently, and the first contract for the 1851 Navy, for 1,000 guns, went to ground troops. The gun was also quite popular with private citizens because it was a step up in power from Colt’s .31 caliber guns but was not as huge as the .44s.
The naval motif extended to the 1851’s cylinder, which was engraved with a scene from the Campeche sea battle between the Texan and Mexican navies, which Texas won. Wilson indicates Colt did this because he felt a debt to Texas, as it was the first government to embrace his gun designs and buy them in any quantity.
With the Wild Bill revolver, Uberti decided to go with the smokeless-powder cartridge version of the Navy. This decision wasn’t just a good call in terms of sales potential; it also has a historical basis when it comes to Hickok.
In the late 1800s Colt belatedly decided he needed to get into the smokeless game, but a patent by Rollin White that was held by Smith & Wesson forced him to try to figure out other ways to adapt his revolvers to the new type of ammunition. The first conversion revolvers Colt produced featured a muzzleloading conversion design by F. Alexander Thuer. Colt produced about 5,000 such guns, according to Wilson. Models included 1860 Army, 1851 Navy, 1861 Navy, 1862 Police and Pocket Navy and 1849 Pocket.
But by 1872 he was able to use the new Richards-Mason patent to produce breechloading smokeless conversions. This included 3,800 1851 Navy revolvers, and the Uberti is of the Richards-Mason design.
According to Joseph A. Rosa’s book Wild Bill Hickok: Gunfighter, Hickok was reported to have carried a 1851 Navy conversion while in Deadwood, South Dakota, where he met his fate. He was shot in the back of the head during a card game. The hand he reportedly held at the time was pairs of aces and eights, which came to be known as the “dead man’s hand.”
The Uberti Wild Bill has the same 7.5-inch octagon barrel as the original 1851 Navy, and it sports a slightly recessed crown. The top flat is stamped “Stoeger Accokeek MD A. Uberti Italy,” and the calibers “38 Colt & S&W Spec” are on the underside.
The sights are wicked cool. The front is a cone-shaped brass “bead,” and the rear sight is a notch in the hammer. More on this later.
I’m a sucker for case-hardening, and the nicely done finish on the Wild Bill frame is set off by blued screws and a blued trigger guard. The left side of the frame is stamped “Pat.July.25.1871” and “Pat.July.2.1872.”
The cylinder has the aforementioned naval battle scene engraved on it, as well as the date of the battle: “Engaged 16 May 1843.” Other engravings include “Patent No.” (but not the number) and “Engraved by W.L. Ormsby New York.” Waterman Lily Ormsby invented a roll-engraving machine that Colt employed on a number of early revolvers, including the 1851 Navy.
The faux ivory grips look great, although the right stock on mine has a tiny flaw near the base of the grip. Fitting to the frame isn’t picture perfect—it’s a little proud at the top of the frame on the left stock and underneath the frame on the right stock—but it’s pretty darned good.
Opening the loading gate and drawing the hammer to half-cock gives access to the six cylinders. The bolt stops are slightly off-center, and the timing on my sample was perfect.
The ejector rod is not your standard deal. Instead of a fixed ejector rod head that travels straight back, the Wild Bill’s pivots downward through an angled cut in the ejector rod shroud. Pull it down into its channel, then push the ejector straight back against spring tension. Release it and it springs back, with the head folding flush against the barrel.
It takes a bit of getting used to if, like me, your single-action experience has been with Single Action Army-style revolvers, but once you do, it’s fast and fun to kick out empty cases.
When loading/unloading or disassembling the Uberti, the manual urges you to activate a “safety block” located in the hammer. There’s a small screw in the right side of the hammer. Turning that screw half a turn clockwise causes a small lever inside the hammer to pivot outward and prevent the hammer from falling fully forward, thereby keeping the firing pin from striking a cartridge primer.
I did note that it occasionally took a couple attempts to get the safety block to retract into firing position. But I’m not going to worry about this because the block is obviously a liability-driven extra “safety” that I’m unlikely to use. I think proper gun-handling practices will suffice here.
To disassemble the Wild Bill, turn the barrel wedge screw located in the left side of the frame so the flat side of the screw is facing the wedge. Then pull out the wedge.
That sucker fits really tight—as it should—so at least at first you should expect to have to use a non-marring punch of the right size to drive out the wedge from the opposite side.
With the wedge out, pull the barrel forward to remove it and then slide the cylinder off the arbor for cleaning. Reassemble in reverse order. On my sample I was unable to get the wedge screw to go into the proper position when turning it clockwise, but it’s at 90 degrees and will still prevent the wedge from backing out during firing.
I confirmed this with a Uberti rep, who told me that as long as the flat edge of the screw is not parallel to the wedge in a six o’clock position—and as long as the screw is tight—the wedge will not come out.
As far as shooting the gun goes, what a hoot. For one thing, it was more accurate than I expected it to be—or at least I was able to shoot it better than I anticipated. In fact, I hadn’t even planned to test it at 25 yards because I figured I wouldn’t be able to see the sights well enough. But I gave it a shot, and it turned out I was wrong.
By placing the brass bead where it just protruded above the tiny rear-sight notch in the hammer, I was able to get some great groups—including one with Black Hills’s cowboy load that was less than an inch. The averages you see in the accompanying table are more than respectable for a gun of this kind. The only downside was the gun shot four inches low and right.
Under the range’s overhead cover, the brass sight looked like any plain metal sight, but out in the open, the bright, shiny bead was quick to pick up and quick to use. I had a literal blast with the Black Hills ammo, burning through 100 or more rounds on an MGM plate rack. This load is soft shooting—it’s intended for cowboy action competition, after all—and is in my opinion a great pairing for the 2.8-pound Wild Bill revolver.
I mentioned that from the bench the gun shot low and right, but out in the sunshine, it was a simple matter of placing more of the shiny front sight above the notch and holding a little bit left. For a while I thought I was never going to miss a plate.
The trigger has just a bit of gritty creep, but it breaks nicely at two pounds, 11 ounces and was a big aid in accurate shot placement.
The revolver’s balance is just perfect, and the gun comes up on target quickly. I didn’t have a proper holster, so I engaged the plates one-handed and two-handed from Low Ready. My right thumb isn’t long enough to easily reach the serrated hammer spur for one-handed shots, but in a two-handed hold I could really rip through all six rounds using my support-hand thumb to cock the hammer.
On the range I did load a full six rounds into the Wild Bill’s cylinder, but since there’s no transfer bar safety, if you’re going to carry it you need to keep an empty chamber under the hammer. And don’t think you can get away with loading six but drawing the hammer back to the half-cock, load/unload position. This is not a safety position, and if you drop the gun with a live round under the hammer, it can fire.
Some guns you own because they’re practical, some because they’re fun to shoot, and some because they’re just plain cool. The Wild Bill certainly checks the latter two boxes.
I love shooting single actions, and a nice handling, soft shooting revolver like the Wild Bill is hard to beat in this regard. And with its good looks and the colorful history behind it, you won’t find many guns that are cooler.
Buy it now. Log on to GalleryofGuns.com, select this firearm, pay a deposit and it will be at your local gun store in two days. When purchased from GalleryofGuns.com, Davidson’s guarantees to repair or replace this firearm for life.
Uberti Wild Bill 1851 Navy Conversion SpecsType:
Single-action centerfire revolverCaliber:
7.5 in. octagonOAL:
Blue barrel, cylinder, backstrap and trigger guard; case-hardened frameGrips:
Hammer notch rear, brass bead frontTrigger:
2 lb., 11 oz. pull (measured)Price:
A. Uberti/Uberti USA, uberti-usa.com
Uberti Wild Bill 1851 Navy Conversion Accuracy Results