Genesis Of The Colt
Part 1 Of A 12-Part Series Begins!
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos Yvonne Venturino
Editor’s Note: We’re excited to begin this exclusive on-line series by Duke on the Genesis of the Colt Single Action revolver. It will be running monthly on Handgunner’s website, over the following 12 issues. Make sure you return each month (even on the month we don’t publish the print edition!) to catch the next installment! Roy Huntington
First Of The Big Bore Boomers
Show for size perspective with a common Colt Model 1911A1 is the “behemoth” of Colt single action revolvers — the Colt/Walker .44 with 9 ½” barrel and four pound, nine ounce weight.
Duke considers the Colt/Walker (top) as the first actual Colt single action revolver because Samuel Colt’s first attempt, the Paterson (bottom) was a failure and bankrupted him. The Colt/Walker shown is a 2nd Generation Colt and the Paterson is an Uberti made replica.
The Colt Single Action Army revolver has to be the most famous, most recognizable handgun in the world. But it didn’t spring from the drawing boards in 1873 as a brand new idea. It evolved slowly over a quarter century.
Actually the genesis of the Colt revolver story started in 1836 with that odd-looking duck called the Paterson after the New Jersey city in which it was manufactured. That’s not where we’re going to start this series, however, for the Paterson revolvers did not carry the Colt name and besides, Patersons excited almost no one except a few Comanche-fighting Texas Rangers.
The first revolver with Samuel Colt’s name on it is today called the Walker and it appeared in 1847. Here’s how it came about. A former Texas Ranger turned U.S. Army Captain of Dragoons (The army’s name for mounted troops at that time.) named Sam Walker remembered how well those Paterson revolvers served for Indian fighting. Because Samuel Colt had gone bankrupt with the Paterson, Sam Walker had to travel back east to find him so they could put their heads together. He didn’t go empty handed. He had authority from the U.S. Government to order 1,000 revolvers. It was a meeting of one mind who knew how to make things and another who knew how to use them: i.e. the inventor and the fighting man.
What those two brains developed could rightly have been named “The Behemoth.” It had a 9½” barrel with a six shot cylinder 1 9/16″ long. Weight was four pounds, nine ounces. Caliber was .44 but in those days the bore size of a barrel was considered the caliber, not its groove diameter as is the norm today. That means .44 caliber Colt/Walkers used .457 diameter projectiles. Such could be either round balls or bullets commonly called “conicals” in that era. That huge Colt/Walker chamber could hold a full 60 grains of blackpowder under a pure lead round ball weighing about 148 grains. To put that in perspective consider the following. The .58 caliber rifle muskets used in the American Civil War of 1861-1865 were charged with 60 grains of blackpowder under 460 grain Minie balls.
Being down and out Samuel Colt had no manufacturing facility in which to produce the handguns ordered by the U.S. Government via Sam Walker. Therefore he subcontracted production to Eli Whitney of cotton gin fame. Being intelligent Samuel Colt had Whitney make 1,100 instead of 1,000 revolvers. Then he used the proceeds of selling off that 100 overrun to finance an arms making factory of his own. The rest is history. When he died in 1862 Samuel Colt was perhaps the richest man in America.
The Colt/Walker .44 was a six shot revolver designed to accept black powder from a flask, pure lead projectiles such as the round ball and separate percussion caps.
One of the problems encountered with the Colt/Walker was the loading rammer beneath the barrel was only held up by a spring. It tended to fall at every shot, locking the cylinder from rotating.
Since metallic cartridge development was still years in the future, Samuel Colts’ new revolvers were loaded with powder, primer and percussion caps as separate components, or with powder and projectile encased in a treated combustible paper cartridge. Regardless of how powder and ball got into the chamber, the projectile had to be rammed flush with the chamber mouth, which is precisely why a hardened steel rammer was mounted under the barrel. Still the percussion caps had to be placed individually on each chamber’s nipple. The difficulty of that operation is the reason why Colt/Walker six-shooters were issued to Dragoons in pairs.
Contrary to modern movie and western novel portrayals, the Colt/Walker was not a popular handgun. It was too heavy to carry on one’s person, for which reason the military issued saddle holsters for them. Also function was less than perfect because the unsecured rammer beneath the barrel had the habit of dropping down at the moment of firing. That locked the cylinder until it was manually raised again. And perhaps most importantly, the 60-grain powder charge was just too heavy for the metallurgy of the era. Colt/Walker cylinders were known to burst.
Sources vary as to whether Captain Sam Walker received his pair of new revolvers or not. What isn’t debated is he met his death in combat during the Mexican War.
From the very beginning with the Colt/Walker .44, Samuel Colt considered a notch in the top of the hammer spur as a perfectly adequate rear sight.
Nevertheless, Americans are impressed with size, making replicas of Colt/Walkers popular among today’s cap & ball handgun buyers. When Colt re-introduced a line of their cap & ball revolvers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Walker was included.
Being American to the core, I had to have one. And that leads me to one of my funniest stories about cap & ball handguns. One warm May day I set up my Oehler chronograph right outside our downstairs door. Loading of the cap & ball pistols was done inside out of the wind and then I stepped outside and clocked their loads over the chronograph screens.
My wife Yvonne was working in her flower garden around the corner of the house, safely behind me. I proceeded through several smaller Colt percussion handguns with nary a comment from her. Then came the Behemoth — the Colt Walker. At the first shot, Yvonne stuck her head around the corner and exclaimed, “What the hell was that?”
“That” was the thunder clap a .44 Colt/Walker makes with 60 grains of Goex FFFg blackpowder and a 148 grain pure lead round ball. The chronograph said those six rounds averaged 1,171 fps. To the best of my knowledge, no American revolver gave more muzzle velocity until the advent of the .357 Magnum in 1935.
If not for replica Colt/Walkers such as mine, we modern shooters would have little idea about their shoot-ability. Only about 100 of the originals survived their time in the Old West, and today can bring upwards of a million bucks, depending on condition. But the Colt/Walker’s failure as a viable handgun was a good thing, for it quickly led Samuel Colt to bring out better ones.
Those are called the Dragoons by modern collectors, and will be the subject of our next installment.
The Colt/Walker .44 used a six-shot cylinder 1 9/16″ long to hold 60 grains of black powder and then round ball or conical projectile. Until the advent of the .357 Magnum cartridge in 1935 (shown) no American made revolver gave a muzzle velocity to equal a Colt/Walker’s 148 grain round ball propelled by 60 grains of black powder.