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Colt model 1849 pocket pistol.

By the late 1840s, Samuel Colt's revolvers had demonstrated their utility on the Texas Frontier and in the war with Mexico. Colt's experiences with military contracts had convinced him that his business would have to serve a much larger and more stable market in order to survive and grow. In 1847, he announced plans to produce a revolver of manageable size and simple construction that would be useful to the general public.

The design that emerged was the .31 caliber Baby Dragoon. This small-framed revolver used fewer action parts than the earlier martial revolvers. The size made it suitable for comfortable and discrete carry. The time was ripe, as the Mexican War had opened a vast area of Western territory for expansion. The volatile political climate of the times prompted citizens across the continent to look to themselves for personal protection.

With the addition of an attached loading lever and other refinements, the Baby Dragoon became the Pocket Model of 1849. It arrived on the scene just in time to satisfy the demand created by the California Gold Rush and remained in production until 1872. (Shumaker reports production of 3,000 units between 1872 and 1875.)

Peak years occurred in the early 1850's Gold Rush period and during the Civil War years. The Colt single-action lock-work came to maturity in the model of 1849 and formed the basis for the Navy and Army models to come. While these larger pistols achieved more historical recognition, the Pocket Model remained Colt's best selling revolver throughout the percussion era. Total production reached 340,000 units.

Johnny Bates, a local collector and walking encyclopedia of frontier history, has an original Colt Pocket Model in his collection. Produced in 1856 with the serial number 115,711, the Bates gun is a small trigger guard variation. It is in original trim except for a replacement loading lever.

This gun is a five-shot .31 caliber with 4" barrel and is generally representative of its type. The revolver was later produced in six shot versions and several barrel lengths were available. Overall length is 9.5", about 1" longer than a common 3" J-frame. The 1849 is significantly smaller in width and height than a modern double-action. Bates considered this revolver a bit elderly for firing and chose an essentially identical Uberti replica for a shooting impression.

We repaired to Bates' private shooting range with a good supply of FFFG black-powder, #10 caps and .31 caliber balls. We found that 12.5 grs. of the fine granulation powder filled the chambers with enough room left over to seat the 50 gr. ball. Average velocity with this combination worked out to 720 fps with a .25 ACP-esque 58 ft./lbs. of energy. We shot several rounds into an 1 1/4" redwood window frame and observed that the balls stopped after about 1" of travel.

The trigger pull was typical, unaltered Colt single-action. We found that shooting from the duelist stance, we could easily produce palm-sized groups at 10 yards. At just over 40 feet, I put a one-handed five-round string into 4". The best four shots formed a 3" group. The group was horizontally well-centered, and about 5" high.

The only malfunctions encountered were a couple of failures to fire caused by cap fragments which fell into the hammer cut and prevented full hammer fall. This is a common occurrence with percussion revolvers. It can be minimized or eliminated by proper handling technique.

When the Pocket Model arrived on the scene, the closest tactically equivalent small handgun was the Allen pepperbox. Most pocket-sized pistols were of the single shot Derringer-type with a few designs capable of repeat fire by use of multiple barrels. The only apparent advantage possessed by those contemporary pistols was the availability of more effective calibers and loads.

The Model of 1849 was a much trimmer package than the majority of the Allen revolvers and had a definite accuracy advantage as range increased. Then, as now, many handgun carriers were perfectly happy with mousegun ballistics. The Pocket Model maintained a strong market presence even after the introduction of the slightly larger .36 caliber Pocket Police and Pocket Navy Models.

In recent years it has become a popular, if inaccurate conceit, among the anti-gun crowd that Samuel Colt invented the American Gun Culture as a marketing tool. Historical revisionism aside, Colt's introduction and promotion of the 1849 Pocket Model certainly did democratize personal armament in a manner most consistent with the American experience.
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Author:Cumpston, Mike
Publication:American Handgunner
Date:Jan 1, 2001

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