by Terry Wieland
Never — I repeat, never — did I expect to become interested in muzzle loaders and black powder, being since childhood a cartridge-gun guy. New brass, smokeless powder, non- corrosive primers, tight clusters of bullet holes at a hundred yards. What could be better?
Then I accidentally developed an interest in black-powder cartridge rifles, inherited a small but eclectic collection of firearms that needed to be returned to shooting condition, including percussion guns and flintlocks, and the next thing I knew I was buying books on Colt and fondling percussion revolvers at the Rock Island auction.
Aside from his designs for the revolvers themselves, Samuel Colt left a treasure for historians and collectors in the form of his elaborate presentation guns — especially, to my eye, those made between 1850 and 1865. Many were in fitted cases, complete with accoutrements like bullet moulds and nipple wrenches, and are simply gorgeous. The guns, the presentation, everything.
I can’t afford the fifty grand or so it would take to acquire even a relatively modest one. In fact, the one I think is the most beautiful is in the collection of the British royal family, having been presented to King Edward VII when he was Prince of Wales. A photo of it can be found in Larry Wilson’s book, Colt — An American Legend.
An odd thing about Colts is that while some specimens, like the particular Walker known as the “Danish sea captain,” may change hands at auction for upwards of two million (!) dollars, other guns from the same period, depending on condition and the number made originally, sell for as little as a thousand. For example, the 1849 “pocket” pistol was manufactured for many years, in great numbers, and you can find shootable specimens for not much. Well, not that much.
The same goes for the 1851 Navy, considered by many the finest of all, aesthetically and technically. It was Wild Bill Hickok’s favorite handgun, and he habitually carried a pair in his sash, even when it had been rendered obsolete by the 1873 Army. Nothing felt quite like an 1851 Navy, and Hickok didn’t feel he needed that many shots, not being a spray-and-pray kinda guy.
In the 1970s, Colt began revisiting its early percussion revolvers and produced them as second- and later third-generation models, continuing original serial number sequences. First was the 1851 Navy; later came the huge Walker, the 1860 Army, 1861 Navy, and the pocket police. At the same time, various Italian companies began making replicas. Colt’s second- and third-generation guns are now, themselves, collector’s items, with mint (unfired) specimens bringing premium prices. They are nowhere near the prices of fine first-generation guns, but a century from now they may well be comparable.
One advantage of new-production revolvers is the quality of the steel. Not that there is anything wrong with the old guns; Samuel Colt insisted on using the best steel available at the time, but one of the watershed points in their production history was the switch, in 1860, to a stronger alloy known as “silver spring steel.” This allowed the 1860 Army and subsequent models to be lighter but stronger.
The instructions included with the second-generation (1972) 1851 Navies said you could use as much of any powder as you could stuff into the chambers, which certainly makes loading them more convenient, but I wouldn’t try that with an original. The difference in strength of modern steel really counts with the Walkers, but then no one I know is likely to shoot an original Walker anyway. Even the most beat-up ones — and they’re almost all pretty beaten up, except for the Danish sea captain — are too valuable to risk. Many of the 1,100 original Walkers were destroyed through a range of loading misadventures, such as loading cylindrical bullets backwards (it was easier).
I now have seven different percussion revolvers gracing the rack: six later-generation Colts and one Italian-made Cimarron. Of the bunch, the one I find the most pleasant to shoot is the 1851 Navy. (Hickok knew his guns.) And dabbling in black powder, lead balls, wads, and percussion caps does one thing: It makes me grateful for how easy we have it now, with smokeless powder and non-corrosive primers. Black powder is nothing if not educational.
Gray’s shooting editor is not sure where it will all end, although he recently learned that Keith Neal, the English antique arms expert, later in life took to hunting rabbits with a German wheellock rifle (ancestor of the flintlock, circa 1500.) Which seems, even to Wieland, to be going a little far.