The First Big-Bore Sixguns

17

The 5-shot .36 Paterson of 1836 compared to the 6-shot .44 Walker of 1847.

In 1814 we took a little trip along with Col. Jackson down the mighty Mississipp”; so sang Johnny Horton in his hit recording of “The Battle of New Orleans.” The same year as this battle another momentous occasion took place hundreds of miles north in Hartford Connecticut as Sarah presented her husband Christopher with a son they named Samuel. Three years later another Samuel was born and both Sams were destined to cross paths. Those two Sams were Samuel Colt and Samuel Walker respectively. Sam Colt developed an early interest in firearms and explosives and the legend says by the time he was six years old he had dismantled an old single-shot pistol and rebuilt it with acquired parts from other broken pistols. Years later while attending Amherst Academy, Sam Colt got in trouble with his professors for actually shooting this old gun.

In 1830 Sam shipped out on the brig Corvo to begin training as a navigator and ship’s officer. Something else was definitely waiting to influence Sam and change his direction. While watching the ship’s wheel being rotated and then locked into place, Sam got an idea. Using his pocket knife he made a wooden model of a revolver.

One year before Sam was born Elisha Collier patented a revolving flintlock pistol in England and some were actually used by British troops in India. This was a very cumbersome first attempt at a repeating revolving pistol. The cylinder had to be rotated by hand and also needed percussion instead of a flint to make it more practical. It has now been proven Sam Colt saw Collier’s invention but he took his idea even further using the locking mechanism idea of the ship’s wheel eventually equipping his revolvers with a pawl and ratchet. In 1836 Sam’s idea became reality with his first revolver, the Colt Paterson.

Targets fired at 20 yards with the Transitional Walker. Notice how high the revolver
shoots as “X” marks the aiming point. Most were sighted to strike point of aim at 100 yards.

The Paterson

The Paterson, so named for the factory at Paterson New Jersey, was a 5-shot affair with a revolving cylinder usually in .28, .31, .34, or .40 caliber. As with all subsequent percussion revolvers it was loaded from the front with powder and ball and then primed at the back of the cylinder with a percussion cap. However, unlike Colt revolvers following, the Paterson did not have a triggerguard, and a folding trigger came down as the hammer was cocked.

Shooting a replica Paterson without the trigger guard is an interesting experience as it always seems like there’s a possibility of actually dropping the sixgun. In spite of this and also being very fragile it was still a tremendous improvement over single-shot pistols. Now a Texas Ranger carrying two pistols had 10 shots instead of two.

The most famous story surrounding the Paterson concerns a small band of Texas Rangers, probably 15 in number, led by Major John Coffee “Jack” Hays. While patrolling, Hays’ Rangers encountered a large band of Comanches west of San Antonio in the Nueces Canyon. The Indians were prepared to make short work of the invading Rangers.

One of those Rangers was Sam Walker who would write of the revolvers to Sam Colt: “The Texans who have learned their value by practical experience, their confidence in them is unbounded, so much so that they are willing to engage four times their number. In the summer of 1844 Col. J C Hays with 15 men fought about 80 Comanche Indians, only attacking them upon their own ground, killing and wounding about half their number. Up to this time these daring Indians had always supposed themselves superior to us, man-to-man, on horse … result of this engagement was such as to intimidate them … With improvements I think they can be rendered the most perfect weapon in the world for light mounted troops which is the only efficient troops that can be placed upon our extensive Frontier to keep the various warlike tribes of Indians and maurauding Mexicans in subjection. The people throughout Texas are anxious to procure your pistols & I doubt not you would find sale for large number at this time.”

Replicas of the Walker have the same problem as the originals —
a loading lever which unlatches. That could be inconvenient!

The Walker

By 1845, Congress had annexed the Republic of Texas making war with Mexico a foregone conclusion and the Texans who had been fighting Mexico alone finally received federal help as General Zachary Taylor arrived in Corpus Christi with about 3,500 mounted troops. Both Taylor and many of his officers had used the Colt Paterson in the war against the Seminoles in Florida. Taylor gathered all the Colt repeaters he could find, however by this time Colt was bankrupt and the Paterson factory was closed. The Texas Rangers were drafted into United States service, with two of those Rangers being Jack Hays and Samuel Walker. In 1846 Taylor sent then Captain Walker back to recruit volunteers from Maryland as well as acquire more Colt revolvers. The problem was there were no more Colt revolvers.

As a result of the bankruptcy Colt had nothing, no factory, no machinery, no working models, and no money, however he did possess his genius and ingenuity. He certainly saw the opportunity and quickly made an improved working model from memory. In late 1846 Sam Walker ordered 1,000 “heavy” revolvers complete with several improvements. By heavy Sam Walker meant larger in caliber than the Paterson and definitely stronger.

These were to be true sixguns, 6-shot, 9″ barrels, and in .44 caliber. Colt contacted Eli Whitney Jr. — who did have a factory — and the agreement was made for Whitney to produce the Colt revolver. This gun became known as the Model of 1847 Army Pistol, or more commonly — the Walker. The Walker literally dwarfed the sleek little Paterson. It weighed 41/2 pounds, with a much larger grip, square-backed brass trigger guard, and a loading lever mounted under the barrel. Colt was able to deliver such a large number of sixguns simply because Eli Whitney Jr. understood interchangeable parts. Any part from any Walker could be easily placed in any other Walker. This was long before Henry Ford and his assembly line production.

The first Walker sixguns would be delivered in July of 1847, however they would not reach Texas until much later in the year. Colt had presented Walker with a matched pair of Walkers and he was using these when commanding his force of 250 men against 1,600 Mexicans in the town of Huamantla. Walker was killed in this battle on October 9, 1847. The fighting had basically ceased by November and a peace treaty was signed in February 1848 with very few of the Colt Walkers actually seeing service in the war with Mexico. Sam Walker was dead, however Sam Colt and his company were now solidly based.

The Transitional Model of 1848 had a shorter barrel and cylinder and loading lever lock.

Leather is not easy to find for Walkers or Transitional Walkers so Taffin makes his own.

Better Designs

Walker held his Colts in high esteem saying they were good on man or beast out to 200 yards. However, the Walker Colt would be short-lived and more improvements would soon arrive, for as effective as it was it had two major drawbacks. Walkers were huge sixguns, and issued to the Rangers in pairs they were heavy and cumbersome sixguns. Walkers are not only so heavy they are very difficult to use, especially one-handed, but a second problem is the loading lever often drops upon recoil.

Genuine Walkers are rare and very expensive, however I have had considerable shooting experience with four replicas and they are authentic down to the point of having loading levers drop when the Walker is fired with a full house load of 50 or more grains of black powder.

It did not take long for the Walker to be improved. In 1848 the Transitional Whitneyville Walker Hartford Dragoon appeared. The grip frame, the mainframe and working parts remained the same however the cylinder was shortened slightly and the barrel was cut back to 71/2″. The locking arrangement of the loading lever was also changed moving it from the center of the lever to the end, with the spring-loaded male end matching up with the female stud on the barrel.
I have been shooting percussion revolvers, both original and mostly replicas, since the mid-1950’s. Today’s replicas, especially those from Uberti are very well made as to fit and finish, authentically styled, and the cylinders lock up tightly. Just this past month I purchased a Transitional Walker Dragoon from Cabela’s and it averages just over 1″ for five shots at 20 yards using 30, 35, 40 and 45 grains of Hodgdon’s Pyrodex P, which is comparable to FFFg black powder. With 45 grains, muzzle velocity is well over 1,050 fps.

The Uberti Dragoons are very well made, tightly fitted and very nicely finished, however there are two things to be done to make them much easier to use. One problem with this Transitional sixgun as well as the new 1st and 2nd Model Dragoons is the fact the stud on the barrel has a receptacle for the locking latch of the lever which was cut at the wrong angle. Upon firing the latch would release allowing the lever to drop down. A few files strokes by my friend Denis to the angle on the stud to make it parallel with the barrel solved this problem.

We also found the rammer on the loading lever had a tendency to grasp seated bullets and pull them back out of the cylinder. The problem was when the bullet seating stem was finished a very small ring of metal around the edge was turned over into the bullet seater causing the problem. Denis came to the rescue again and cleaned out the excess metal using a cutter, finishing it off with emery paper.

Powder, a capper with percussion caps and round balls keep these Transitional Models (and Walkers) shooting.

Good Shooters

Colt shortened the cylinder and barrel on the Transitional Model to make it lighter and somewhat smaller bringing it to about four pounds. But how powerful were the 9″ Walker Colts with their longer cylinders? Using a replica 1847 Walker with .454″ Speer round balls and CCI #11 Caps over 55 grains of Goex FFFg with a lubed Thompson Wad in between powder and ball results in a muzzle velocity of 1,224 fps and places five shots into 11/4″ at 50 feet. This is the most accurate load I’ve found in my Walkers. Going up to 60 grains, something I would not recommend for continuous everyday use, gives a muzzle velocity well over 1,300 fps. With a 140-gr. ball at that muzzle velocity the Walker was definitely in what would become Magnum Territory. The Texas Rangers were definitely well armed.

Sam Colt furnished 1,000 Walker revolvers to the Army. These were serial numbered to match the Company receiving them. A Company got A1 to A220; these were followed by B1 to B220, C1 to C220, D1-D220, and the remaining sixguns were probably E1 to E120 making a total of 1,000 Walkers. Colt also made non-lettered Walkers, about 100 of them, to give away to the right people. Once the Army contract was fulfilled Colt opened his own factory in Hartford, Conn. The stage was now set to produce the Dragoons.

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