Doubtless as soon as the first firearm was perfected, the search began for a way to make rapid successive shots without reloading, which often took the form of multiple barrels. A rotating barrel cluster, with a separate charge for each barrel was another approach, evolving into “pepperboxes,” which proved popular and effective in the mid-19th Century. The idea of a single barrel firearm with a revolving or rotating series of chambers successively bringing fresh loads to the rear of the barrel appeared as early as the flintlock era.
However, it was Samuel Colt who perfected the revolver system, leading to the formation of one of the preeminent and most historic firearms companies in the world.
His first efforts had folding spur-triggers with no triggerguards, and are known today by collectors by the name of the New Jersey town where they were first made – “Patersons.” Introduced in 1837, they were a bit fragile and underpowered, did not meet with commercial success and are highly sought after by affluent collectors today. Even a rough common variation may push a five figure price, and the finest can break into six figures.
If the design of the Patersons was not perfect, the revolver concept was sound and innovative. With the input of Texas Ranger Captain Walker, in 1847 Colt came back with a much beefier design. Named after Walker, it chambered a .44 cal. projectile that reached power levels not surpassed in repeating handguns until the introduction of the .357 Magnum nearly a century later. This massive 4.5 pound six-shooter launched a series of highly successful Colt percussion revolvers, which were far and away the predominant handgun design through the American Civil War.
Major variations of the models that followed the Patersons and Walkers are most often identified by their year of manufacture. Often, the name includes “Army” for a .44 cal. model or “Navy” for a .36. In roughly chronological order, they include:
|Dragoon Models -1848-1861, .44 caliber. These massive revolvers were similar in design to the Walkers, with slightly shorter barrels & cylinders. Collectors recognize 3 main models & several variations. Their heft rendered them awkward to carry in a belt holster, and they were more appropriately “horse pistols”, often carried in a pair of holsters over a saddle pommel.|
|1849 Pocket Model – 1850-1873, .31 caliber. The massive Dragoons were obviously impractical for daily carry on the person. In 1848 Colt introduced a compact .31 “Baby Dragoon” which was slightly modified into the 1849 Pocket Model. They were made in 5 shot and 6 shot configurations, with 3, 4, 5, or 6″ octagon barrels, and remained popular into the early cartridge era, with the highest production numbers of any Colt percussion model.|
|1851 Navy Model – 1850-1873, .36 caliber. An effort to make a reasonable weight revolver in a more effective caliber; very successful and widely used in the Civil War. 7.5″ octagon barrel.|
|1855 Sidehammer Root – 1855-1870, .28 or .31 caliber. A very different design from the other percussion Colts, this model did not meet with as much success, with lower production numbers through several variations.|
|1860 Army Model – 1860-1873, .44 caliber. In an effort to get larger caliber power in a belt holster sized gun, Colt initially experimented with producing an 1851 Navy type revolver in .40 caliber. Eventually, they came up with the idea of making a “rebated” cylinder, with the back half a smaller diameter than the front half, and used this concept to make the belt sized Army Model, which was a tremendous success throughout the Civil War years. 8″ round barrel.|
|1861 Navy Model – 1861-1873, .36 caliber. Essentially the same configuration as the 1851 Navy, but with a round barrel instead of octagon and some design changes.|
|1862 Police Model & 1862 Pocket Navy Model – both .36 caliber five-shots, both 1862-1873. Both featured the more effective .36 caliber round in the small pocket model sized frame. The Police had a fluted cylinder with a round barrel, and the Navy a rebated cylinder with an octagon barrel. They shared the same serial number range.|