Firearm of the Week, the Colt Model of 1851 .36 Caliber Navy, Revolving Belt Pistol of Naval Caliber

We are going old school this week—really old school. This was the Colt that made all men equal in the final days of black powder percussion firearms. One of the most produced and popular pistols of any era, the gun was the Colt Model of 1851 .36 caliber Navy. If you have not wrapped your hand around one of these smoke wagons and made big medicine then you should make an addition to your bucket list.

During its run from 1851 to 1873, it was second only to the Colt Pocket pistol of that era. This was due to many factors, one being that it saw production in both the United States and in London. Furthermore, a war broke out during its tenure in the U.S. from 1861 to 1865.

Wielded in the hands of the immortal historical figures like Robert E. Lee, Wild Bill Hickok, John Henry “Doc” Holliday, Ned Kelly, Nathan Bedford Forest, and my personal favorite Rooster Cogburn, no single gun has an equal playlist. It rode under the Union Flag, the Confederate Flag, and the Black Flag of Quantrill’s Raiders. Oh yeah, this is that gun!

Why the Navy tag? For purchasing his Colt Patterson revolver, Samuel Colt was so appreciative of the Texas Navy he chose a Texas Naval battle, Campeche on May 16, 1843 to engrave on the cylinder. If you look close and hard at the cylinder of a real one or a good replica, you can see both the battle and the date. Even though the gun itself was not an overwhelming success, the engravings are just too cool.

As a kid, I would gaze at that scene on my great, great, grandfather’s 1851 Navy. He carried it for the Union out of Boston in the opening days of the Civil War. It was the first gun I ever really appreciated as a work of art. Sergeant Henry Stanton Gilman’s 1851 Navy was one of 17,010 purchased by the Union during the Civil War. Making it second only to the more modern Remington .44 Army.

The end of the Civil War was not the demise of the pistol. Colt manufactured the Navy before, during and after the Civil War. They remained numerous for years afterward. This allowed the Navy to tame the west alongside newer centerfire-cartridge revolvers. Wild Bill Hickok would drop a man from almost 75 yards away in a shootout in the Springfield, Missouri town square on July 21, 1865. This shootout was just months after the war concluded and would help cement the Colt Navy into the chronicles of the West. It was the first one-on-one shootout in Western lore and a Colt Navy .36 was present and accounted for.

Lucky for us, these guns are still readily available to own and shoot. While I would not recommend you shoot your grandpappy’s original, plenty of modern replicas exist today. They are inexpensive and the fixings to shoot it are too. I recently purchased a replica and used it as a model for this post. I have to admit it is a great gun to handle. It looks awkward but has a wonderful balance in the hand. History came full circle and another Gilman wields this storied weapon.

When you pull back on the hammer, there are two very distinct clicks as it goes from half- to full-cock. Located at the tip of the now cocked hammer, the rear sight aligns perfectly with the front bead sight. When you pull the trigger, the hammer drops on the percussion cap. After that, there is a noticeable but very brief delay as the powder ignites. The explosion occurs and a cloud of white smoke emits from the cylinder and the breach. This is shooting in its purest form. The sounds, sights, and smells are a trip back in time to gunfights on distant smoke filled battlefields and shootouts. You get one shot—maybe two—and at six, you are done! What a gun. What a time!

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Comments (7)

  1. How can I tell how old this 36 is ? It does not have a name on it that I can find. The cylinder does have aching on it . How can I find more about it?

  2. I really dig these reports on the old firearms. Not just the ‘old west’ but any that have history to go along with the style. The visions they conjure up. Forgive me posting on such an old blog but my inbox was inundated with around 350 blogs this AM, perhaps the whole archive? Someone hates me or loves me, depends on how you look at it. Of course there are many posts I haven’t seen and for that I’m really enjoying it. Yours are favorites most of the time. Thanks much, Roger

  3. My Great Great Grandfather was one of Bill Hickok’s deputies while he was sheriff of Hays Ks. During that time they all carried the Colt 1851 of which Bill gave grandpa Himelik a matching set. One of these was still in the family until a few years ago when it was confiscated by the Salina Ks. police and never found again. Go figure. If you would like to see on of the 1851 that Bill actually owned you can visit the great, Winchester firearms museum in Cody Wy.

    1. Lonnie I would have to find out what happened to that gun. if you can buy one and have it delivered then the cops have no business stealing it.

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