Do Calibers And Designs Flow Both Ways?
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Venturino
Mostly true. Let’s start in 1847 when the US Army first adopted a revolver for issuance to their horse-mounted troops, then called Dragoons. The first was a Colt’s cap and ball sixgun commonly known as the Walker. That’s because Samuel Colt and Samuel Walker, a captain in the US Dragoons and former Texas Ranger, put their heads together for this .44 caliber behemoth. It had a 9″ barrel, weighed 41/2 pounds and chambers could hold a full 60-grain charge of black powder. Even today, the load can chase a .44 Magnum.
Sam Colt was financially busted when the US Government placed an order for 1,000 of the Colt/Walker revolvers. Although failing in his first revolver-making venture (named by collectors as “Paterson” for the New Jersey city in which it was manufactured), Mr. Colt did not lack intelligence. He had no factory or machines when the order came in, so when he contracted with someone who did, the order was for 1,100 revolvers. The Dragoons got theirs in pairs and Colt sold the remainder, raising enough cash in the process to begin a new factory. His luck changed, and by his death in 1862 Colt was likely the wealthiest man in the United States.
Between 1871 and 1909 these five revolver models were bought by the US Government. From
left: Smith & Wesson Model No. 3 .44 American, Colt .44 Richards Conversion, Smith
& Wesson Model No. 3 .45 Schofield variant, Colt Model 1903 .38 and Colt Model 1909 .45.
In the first half of the 1870’s the US Army experimented with several revolvers. First they bought 1,000
Smith & Wesson No. 3 .44 Americans (left). Then they bought 1,200 of the Colt .44 Richards Conversions
(second from left). In 1873 they officially adopted the Colt SAA .45 (third from left) but in 1875
also began purchasing a limited number of Smith & Wesson Model No. 3’s in the .45 Schofield variation.
These 2nd Generation Colt cap and ball revolvers are examples of the first three .44 caliberrevolvers
carried by American fighting men. From left: Colt/Walker, Dragoon (3 versions made) and Model 1860.
The first two saw little use by civilians. The third was immensely popular commercially.
Following the Colt/Walker there were three redesigns of the basic Dragoon .44, but they all had 71/2″ barrels and weighed slightly in excess of four pounds. Their cylinders were likewise reduced from 19/16″ to 17/16″ in length, which made powder capacity about 50 grains. In 1860 the last Colt .44 cap and ball sixgun appeared and was a completely new design. All its contours were rounded and for some reason barrel length grew a half-inch. It “only” weighed about 42 ounces. Chamber capacity was 35 to 40 grains of black powder.
There was one thing all Colt .44 cap and ball sixguns had in common. They were developed expressly for military use. Most certainly some Walkers and Dragoons were sold on the civilian market but they were too heavy for practical belt carry. In fact the military issued saddle holsters for them. Only with the 1860 did a .44 Colt become feasible for everyday wear on the person for both civilians and troopers. Of course, the smaller, lighter .36 Navy Colts were extremely popular on the commercial market. Much like today’s civilian market tending toward easier-to-carry handguns like “medium”-sized revolvers or autos.
Collectively all three Colt .44 Dragoons were made to the tune of a few hundred over 20,000. Ten times as many Colt Model 1860’s were made. These figures count those sent to the US Government and those sold commercially. Possible velocity figures for these .44 cap and balls with 148-grain round balls are, for the Walker, 1,200 fps; Dragoons, 1,050 fps and Model 1860, 850 fps. I got these figures from actually shooting my own 2nd Generation versions.
The revolver on the right is an Uberti.36 caliber copy of Sam Colt’s first manufacturing effort.
It failed. In 1847 he was approached by Army Captain Sam Walker and the immense revolver on
the left was the result of their combined ideas.
These three handguns were all issued to its armed forces by the US Government in both World War I
and World War II. From left: Colt Model 1911, Smith & Wesson Model 1917 and Colt Model 1917.
All are chambered for .45 ACP.
The Colt Model 1909 was a stop-gap measure when adopted because John M. Browning was working
on developing the Model 1911 .45. Shown here are a Model 1911 (left) and a Model 1911A1 (right).
The Cartridge Guns
The 1870’s is the decade when cartridge-firing revolvers became the norm. The ultra-famous, Single Action Army .45 was developed expressly for and with specifications supplied by the US Army and it was adopted for the US Cavalry. By this time horse-mounted soldiers were called cavalrymen. They needed a sixgun and cartridge which would do well against horses as well as humans, hence the big .45 round. Barrel length was still 71/2″ and weight was down to about 40 ounces.
Misters Smith and Wesson also wanted a piece of the federal pie and as early as 1870 were submitting cartridge-firing revolvers called “No. 3’s” to the government for testing. Their first samples were chambered for the then popular — in Winchester rifles and carbines — .44 Henry Rimfire. Testers liked the handgun but not the rimfire caliber, so the company returned to the drawing board. The result was S&W’s .44 American cartridge and the US Army bought 1,000 No. 3’s.
The original No. 3 and a couple of follow-up versions were made in a caliber specified by the Russian government, appropriately called .44 Russian, and sold in immense numbers to that country. That’s another story.
An officer named Major George Schofield liked the S&W No. 3 but felt it could be designed better for horsemen. He patented his ideas and then got the company to adopt them for a special, shorter .45 cartridge with wider rim to extract more positively in the revolver’s star extractor. Naturally this version of No. 3 became known as the “Schofield.” The army cooperated, buying about 8,000 of them. These top break revolvers did offer the advantage of simultaneous extraction of cartridge cases but were judged a bit fragile for hard cavalry service and sold as surplus circa 1880.
The two US Model 1917 .45’s. At left is the Smith & Wesson and at right the Colt.
This Colt Pocket Pistol .380, which collectors term Model 1908, was issued to a US general officer.
Colt Model 1909 (New Service) .45 with box of original loads.
Conversely, the Colt Single Action Army as it became known eventually soldiered on until 1892. The US Government bought no less than 37,000 of them. In the “Gay ’90’s” some-bodies in the US Army must have gotten weary of the .45 Colt’s heavy recoil. They adopted Colt’s side-swing cylinder .38, designated Model 1892, and kept it in service with several upgrades until 1909. It’s perhaps the only American standard issue handgun which did not find favor with the gun-packing public.
It fired the puny .38 Long Colt round with a 150-grain bullet at about 700 fps, compared to the .45 Colt’s 250-grain bullet at nearly 900 fps. Colt military .38’s are not something General George Patton or outlaw Jesse James would have ever packed! They preferred Colt SAA and S&W Schofield revolvers respectively.
The primary selling point of the Smith & Wesson Model No. 3 .45
Schofield was its simultaneous extraction of all chambers.
This photo shows an original box for .45 ACP as issued, already in the 3-round half-moon clips.
This is a typical Colt Model 1911A1 .45 manufactured in 1944.
Note by this time the grips are plastic.
New Service & 1911
In 1909 we get to the first American military handgun not developed specifically for the US Army. It had been introduced by Colt 10 years earlier and named the New Service. It was likewise a side-swing cylinder model but on a much larger frame than the Model 1892. It had been chambered for .45 Colt since the beginning but the government remodeled the cartridge slightly. They widened its rim diameter from the barely adequate 0.502″ of early .45 Colts to 0.535″ so as to better function with the star-type extractor of New Service revolvers. So in this instance, the public had a head start on the American military services.
At the New Service’s adoption in 1909 it was understood it was merely a stop-gap measure until John M. Browning could get his new .45 ACP autoloader perfected. He did, in 1911, and it was officially adopted in April of that year. In fact he perfected it so well it remained the official US Army handgun for nigh onto 75 years. Some changes in the 1920’s caused its official name to become Model 1911A1. Ones made for the commercial market wore the name Government Model. And I need not tell most Handgunner readers 1911’s have been made in awesome numbers, by a multitude of manufacturers in numerous countries. Books have been written about it and its history far better than I can detail here.
The Dug Up Gun Museum in Cody, Wyoming, has this relic Model 1860 Army found
near a Civil War combat site still loaded, with the hammer cocked.
In 1873 the US Army wanted a powerful handgun cartridge and as this January 1874 box
shows original military .45 Colt loads carried 250-grain bullets over 30 grains of
For the Colt Model 1909 .45 the Government loads were loaded with
250-grain bullets to a velocity of 725 fps.
This World War I-era cavalryman is showing off his Colt Model 1911, along
with his Model 1903 .30 caliber rifle and his saber.
There is one last genre of US military handgun to come along even after the Model 1911 became standard. At the beginning of both world wars handguns were in short supply for the U.S. military. For World War I the problem was solved in 1917 when both Colt and Smith & Wesson were contracted to alter their large frame revolvers to fire .45 ACP. Extraction of empties would be impossible due to the rimless case design of .45 ACP so small, three-round, stamped-steel clips were developed to solve the problem.
They did the job so well, after World War I ended both companies kept .45 ACP revolvers as catalog options. Colt did with the New Service until 1944 and Smith & Wesson dropped theirs (called the Model 22) in 1966. Thousands of these Model 1917’s were reissued for World War II.
Of course there is the US M9, in 9mm NATO made by Beretta and issued to American fighting men for nearly 30 years. It’s simply the Beretta Model 92FS in military dress. The design was available for commercial sales prior to military adoption, so in this case it went the “other” direction, from civilian to military. No matter, it was our military’s first autoloader with a double-action trigger and double-stack magazine. History changing, at least for the US serviceman. Now it seems the slot is up for grabs again. I’m sure we’ll be covering what happens as time passes.
Here is one last handgun worth mentioning. Colt brought out the J.M. Browning designed .32 Auto pistol in 1903 and the .380 Auto version in 1908. Their cataloged names were simply Colt Pocket Pistols. For decades the US Army had a tradition of allowing officers gaining General rank to choose one or the other. So this pistol started among civilians, but later became military.
That’s my take on American military handguns since 1847. Most were invented with the idea of gaining lucrative government contracts and then also sold on the civilian side. Some the other way around. Some gained worldwide fame and respect. Some did not.
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