The Colt Model 1851 Navy,
Designed between 1847 and 1850 by Samuel Colt, the Colt Model 1851 would become the revolver that made Colt a household name. While the Colt Paterson was the first Colt revolver, it was short lived without many produced. The Colt Walker was Colt’s first popular design, but it had many flaws that detracted from its practicality. The Colt Dragoon was an attempt to correct those flaws, yet the Dragoon was a hefty pistol that was usually carried in a saddle holster. The Colt Model 1851 was a vast refinement over all other previous designs. It’s simplification allowed it to be mass produced at large numbers. It was easy to use, compact, easy to hold, easy to aim, and at only 2.6 lbs, it was light enough to be carried on a belt holster.
Like all cap and ball revolvers, the Colt Model 1851 was a muzzleloader, with each chamber of the cylinder being loaded with powder and a .36 caliber ball. Each chamber was ignited by a percussion cap. Later, during the Civil War, loose powder and bullet was replaced with combustible paper cartridges. After the Civil War, with the introduction of metallic cartridges, many were converted to use modern ammunition. The use of the name “Navy” denoted its caliber being .36, while cap and ball “Army” revolvers are .44, it had nothing to do with any military branch. They were all single action, which meant the user had to cock the hammer before firing. What made the Model 1851 so important was it had all the features that people wanted in a revolver, even up to today. It was portable, easy to use, simple, reliable, accurate, and affordable. Thus, it became the most popular revolver produced up to the introduction of the Model 1860. During the Civil War, it was the 2nd most common pistol issued to both sides, and production continued up to 1873. Some of the most popular people of the 19th century owned one, including Doc Holiday, Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln, Ned Kelly, Nathan B. Forest, the Texas Rangers, and the Quantrill Raiders. One of the most popular users of the Model 1851 was the celebrated gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok, who carried an ivory handled pair until his death in 1877. Interestingly, he never had them converted, preferring them in cap and ball configuration years after the introduction of metallic cartridges. The Model 1851 was also sold around the world, including Britain, Canada, Austria, Russia, Australia, and Turkey.
For Samuel Colt, the Model 1851 would elevate him from a well to do gunmaker into a wealthy industrialist. 272,000 were produced at Colt’s factories in Connecticut, while another 30,000 were produced at the Colt factory in London.