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Colt model 1851 Navy revolver.

If ever a handgun were to be considered a classic, certainly the 1851 Navy model Colt would qualify. It could also be argued that it was the first truly practical revolver, since the Colts that preceded it were either too big and cumbersome or lacking in practical refinements, or both. The 1851 Navy model represented the peak of firearms technology in its day. It married light weight, excellent balance, natural pointing and handling characteristics and practical firepower, all in a one-hand gun.

During its 23 years of production, 257,348 Navy models were turned out by the Colt facilities at home and abroad in their London, England, armory. Of the 215,348 of these 7-1/2-inch octagon-barreled handguns manufactured in America, the federal government purchased 3,005 during our Civil War. There were so many variations of this percussion six-shooter produced that a listing here would be too lengthy. Suffice it to say that collectors recognize four major models. Within this grouping are Navies with such features as attachable canteen stocks and either brass or iron backstraps.

Introduced in 1850, and produced until 1873, the Model 1851 Navy Colt reigned as a favorite fighting handgun with knowledgeable pistoleers until the introduction of the Colt Single Action Army revolver. In fact, this sixgun could easly be nicknamed the "Peacemaker" of the percussion era. It was the sidearm of choice of such historic figures as James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok, often called the "Prince of Pistoleers," as well as many of his gun savvy contemporaries. It was highly popular with those hardy argonauts who flocked to the untamed California gold fields in search of their fortunes, and during the War Between the States, hard riding Confederate cavalrymen considered the Navy Colt to be the handgun supreme.

Today, in a world of Magnum revolvers, auto pistols, laser guns and other ultra-modern handguns, the old cap-and-ball Navy Colt is surprisingly still holding its own-although strictly as a black powder leisure-type firearm. In fact, back around 1959, the Model 1851 Navy Colt, as replicated by Navy Arms, was the first of the reproduction black powder revolvers to be introduced! To this day, the Navy Colt remains one of the most widely copied black powder replicas. Variations of this model are likely to be found in almost any gun store and in the collections of many firearms enthusiasts--regardless of whether they are muzzle-loading buffs or not. To many shooters, the Navy Colt represents the classic cap-and-ball revolver.

Because of the high cost of serviceable original Colt Navies (and with the popularity of the reproduction), we chose a Navy model of 20th century manufacture for our Classic Test Report. The gun selected was a Colt "reissue" Navy of 1971 vintage. This version closely duplicates the features and characteristics found in the 1851 models of the 19th century.

Our test model was finished like the originals, with a rich, blue barrel, cylinder, trigger and screws. (A darker and more durable covering is found on the reissue Colts.) The frame, hammer and loading lever assembly are all richly color case-hardened. A silvered backstrap and triggerguard (as found on most Navy Colts produced for the civilian market) and varnished one-piece walnut stocks complete the exterior of this fine handgun. The reissue Colt functions and shoots exactly like the originals I have fired in the past. Colts of this ilk all seem to shoot about 4 to 6 inches high at about 25 yards. It is my understanding that these arms were sighted for 50 yards, and, at about that range, I've found that they do shoot to the point of aim. However, because the Navy was also designed as a horsemen's sidearm to be used in close combat, it should be remembered that it is not a target arm; but within its range of intended use, it was reliable and accurate--at least for its time.

This .36 caliber revolver, which actually measures .375 in the bore--making it closer to a .38 (even more so than our modern .38s, which only mike out to .357)--is accurate. The Navy's biggest drawback to any precision shooting is its crude sights, which consist of a tiny brass bead front sight and a small notch cut into the top of the hammer! Of course, as the trigger is pulled on this single-action revolver, the rear sight is thrown forward--an obvious drawback to modern shooters. However, because the Navy Colt was made without a topstrap, the hammer must have seemed like the best place to put the rear sight back in 1850.

At distances of 15 to 30 yards, a 4 to 6-inch, six-shot group, offhand, can be expected from an experienced shooter. The percussion wheelgun is easy to operate, and, with a little practice, any competent handgunner can shoot it well. For this test session, I gave the reissue Navy Colt a workout on paper bullseye targets and various objects such as rocks and cans found in an isolated area of the Angeles Shooting Range in nearby Little Tujunga Canyon. Shooting a two-hand, offhand group on paper, I was quickly able to produce a pleasing six-shot cluster of 4 inches at 15 yards, illustrating the gun's capabilities. I also tried hip shooting a few cylinder full at soft drink cans. A fair number of hits demonstrated the Navy's natural pointing abilities and ease of handling. Recoil is comfortably mild.

Here's a shooting tip that is not only handy but downright necessary when firing any percussion Colt revolver. Because all Colt revolvers (except the sidehammer Root model of 1855) were designed without topstraps, once a cap has been detonated and has shattered or split, it has a tendency to fall rearward off the nipple as the hammer is pulled back for the next shot. The exploded cap often drops down into the workings of these arms, thus causing a jam. If this happens, partial disassembly is often required. To avoid this, between shots, simply elevate the muzzle of the handgun to a 75-90 degree angle, then pull the hammer back. By doing so, the cap will fall clear of the entire revolver, and you can continue shooting uninterrupted.

Using a load of 25 grains of FFFg black powder, an Ox-Yoke Originals' Wonder Wad, a .375 Speer swaged round ball and CCI #11 percussion caps, I was able to approximate the ballistics of the older Navy Colts. Loads using around 22 to 25 grains of FFFg black powder will produce around 710-plus feet per second (fps) of muzzle velocity and pack around 88 foot pounds (ft/lbs) of energy. While these figures may not seem impressive by modern handgun standards, it must be remembered that in the mid-19th century, the Navy Colt was considered an effective firearm for manstopping purposes. During the 1850s, before the advent of the 1860 Colt Army (a practical-sized .44 revolver), the '51 Navy was one of the few handguns that could be wielded with ease.

Being a "muzzle-loading" revolver (which is somewhat of a technical misnomer, since it loads from the mouth of the cylinder's chambers and not the muzzle of the barrel), the 1851 Navy is loaded--slowly--in typical percussion sixgun mode. To load a '51 Navy Colt safely, follow these steps: First, make sure that each chamber is free from oil or other foreign objects which may obstruct discharge. This can be accomplished by a visual inspection. Then pop a percussion cap on each nipple. Once you are sure the nipples and chambers are clear, pour your desired black powder charge (USE ONLY BLACK POWDER OR PYRODEX) from the powder flask into a powder measure, then from the measure into the chamber. If felt-type wads are used to prevent a multiple discharge (this happens when, because of the loose powder and ball arrangement, the flame from a single chamber flashes over into other chambers, causing a multiple discharge--a potentially dangerous phenomenon), then insert a wad on top of the powder charge, and compress it with the loading lever. Next, insert the ball (or conical projectile) into the mouth of the chamber, and seat it firmly by pulling downward on the loading lever. If grease or some other lubricant is used to prevent a multiple discharge, then insert the ball directly over the powder charge and cover it with grease. One method or the other should be used. Repeat the above mentioned process until the six chambers are all loaded.

The last step in loading a Navy Colt is the capping process. I have found that with virtually all of the modern-made percussion revolvers, finger pinching the caps (regardless of what size is used) is necessary. No. 11 caps are the recommended size. Once the arm is loaded, manually rotate the cylinder so the hammer can be lowered on one of the "safety" pins that are found between each nipple. These safety pins are small protrusions that are found on the original Colts, reissue Colts and some of the replica Navies--however, don't rely on these as a true safety system. The pins are somewhat fragile and should be used if the gun is going to be carried loaded for any length of time. It is better to remove the cap from a chamber and lower the hammer on that uncapped nipple (also called a cone). After looking at hundreds of original Navy Colts, I've found that it is not uncommon for these pins to be mashed, worn or broken off.

Disassembly of an 1851 Navy Colt is simple. First, as a matter of safety, bring the Colt to half-cock position and, if the gun is loaded at the time of disassembly, be sure to remove all percussion caps. Next, with a rawhide mallet, or some other similar object, tap the wedge on the right side of the frame, and drive it through to the left side until it clears the cylinder base pin slot that it is wedged into. It is not necessary to completely remove the wedge from the barrel assembly. Then, rotate the cylinder until you line up the cylinder facing between the chambers with the loading lever plunger. Depress the loading lever, pushing against the cylinder's face. This will force the barrel assembly away from the Colt's frame. Once it has cleared, return the loading lever to its catch under the muzzle and remove the barrel assembly. Then slide the cylinder off of the Navy's base pin. Basic disassembly is now complete. This is all that is required for normal cleaning.

Incidentally, as with other black powder firearms, a pan or sink full of lukewarm soapy water is about the best solution for removing the carbon buildup caused by black powder or Pyrodex. The commercial black powder solutions such as Hopppe's No. 9 Plus also work well. I tend to use soap and water around the house and the Hoppe's No. 9 Plus when out in the field or at the range. After the parts have been cleansed of any black powder debris, dry them completely, then lightly oil each part. By the way, pipe cleaners work well for cleaning out nipples and around the cut-away section of the cylinder where they are housed. While some shooters remove the nipples each and every time the arm is cleaned, I have not found this to be necessary. Use your own judgement in this matter. Once each part has been cleaned, dried and oiled, reassemble the gun. Cleaning isn't as bad as some gunwriters have made it out to be. I'll admit I don't like cleaning any guns, but it is an important step in firearms care and ownership. A clean gun in good operating condition will look and perform better, thus making your shooting sport more enjoyable.

The 1851 Navy Colt was one of the best handguns of it's time, and although it employs an archaic loading and ignition system by today's standards, it still remains a popular sidearm with millions of modern shooters all over the world. It was the precursor to the legendary 1873 Colt Single Action Army revolver, and it paved the way for the practical big-bore sixguns of today. In my book, that spells a true firearms classic!
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Title Annotation:evaluation
Author:Spangenberger, Phil
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Article Type:Product/Service Evaluation
Date:Nov 1, 1985
Words:2023
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