RIAC Army Revolvers vs. Navy Revolvers


Exploring the Weapons of the Army and Navy

While the various branches of the military now utilize a common side arm throughout most of its branches, this way not always the case. Particularly evident between the Army and Navy, different branches of the military often dealt with entirely different terrains, environments, and situations that would require drastically different equipment in response.

Lot 1048: Cased Pair of Colt Model 1860 Army Percussion Revolvers

Of particular interest to many are the Colt 1860 Army and 1861 Navy revolvers because of their frequent and effective use during the American Indian Wars as well as the American Civil War during the 1800s. Similar in design, these two wheel guns are highly desirable and incredibly alluring explaining why they are commonly confused with each other. Almost identical in color, design, and size, what exactly differentiates Army and Navy revolvers?

Artist depiction of a dragoon.

In the Army, muskets and other old styles of firearms remained prominent among soldiers. Extremely cumbersome and difficult to load in short periods of time, these rifles were still the most powerful and accurate weapons of the era. However, smaller side arms were often provided to horse mounted dragoons that would use the pistols as a second method of defense or with the intent of shooting an adversary’s horse from underneath them. Smaller side arms were useful not only because of their compact size, but also because of their readiness to operate at a moment’s notice.

John Paul Jones was the United States’ first well-known naval commander in the American Revolutionary War. He is depicted here with several pistols tucked in his belt.

For sailors, life on the open ocean also warranted the need for self-protection. Unlike their mounted counterparts, sailors worked in close and confined spaces and required the mobility and flexibility to maneuver around aboard their vessels. Thus, the need for a lighter pistols to combat enemy pirates or raids was needed. While those on the land kept their larger pistols in pommel holsters while on horseback, sailors preferred lighter and smaller caliber pistols that were often kept in sashes or belts. This difference in needs and accessories continued well into the Civil War and the introduction of cartridge ammunition and repeating arms like revolvers and rifles.

This presentation engraved & gold inlaid Manhattan Navy revolver believed to have been presented to former Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard sold for $230,000 during Rock Island Auction Company’s Premier December Auction.

The Colt 1860 Army and the Colt 1861 Navy revolvers reflect this continued theme by offering two distinct variations of an incredibly beautiful revolver. Both guns have similar weights, the capability of killing a horse with a single shot, and optimal performance at close range. The two guns have near identical frames, color schemes, and a six shot cylinder. Both are single-action revolvers and were exceedingly popular among the military. Designed also for civilian use, both models are still highly sought after by collectors today.

Colt Army Revolvers

The Colt 1860 Army revolver was the most widely used revolver throughout the Civil War, more often by Union troops who generally had better access to more advanced methods of production. More than 200,000 units were manufactured between 1860 and 1871 with the United States government purchasing nearly half of all models produced. Another definitive feature of the revolver was the front and rear sights which granted the user full view when the gun was fully cocked. Accurate from 75 to 100 yards and firing projectiles at roughly 900 feet per second, this destructive force was valued highly by soldiers compared to the burdensome alternatives.

The Colt 1860 Army revolver was notoriously expensive at the time, costing $20 when first released. Since many soldiers had to buy their weapons out of pocket, this price was heavily criticized and eventually brought down to a more reasonable $14.50. Another notable feature of the gun was the absence of a top strap on the frame meaning that the strength of the gun rested on the large, fixed cylinder pin near the center of the weapon. Ultimately making the gun slimmer and smaller than anything other competitors had available.

With an estimated survival rate of only 2.16%, these original Colt Model 1860 Army percussion revolvers have been extremely desirable and sought-after by collectors for decades. This beautifully engraved Colt Model 1860 Army revolver presented to Lt. Colonel Arthur Ducat, Inspector General of the Amery of Cumberland, recently sold during Rock Island Company’s December Premier Auction for $103,500.

Colt Navy Revolvers

Colt 1861 Navy revolvers owe much of their success to their 1851 predecessor which was frequently used and favored by many armies around the world during the mid-19th century. The Colt 1851 Navy revolver was developed from the .44 Walker Colt revolver of 1847 and is essentially an enlarged version of the widely popular .31 Colt 1849 Pocket Percussion revolver. Well-liked by those on the American frontier, Colt 1851 Navy revolvers have been favored by the likes of Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill, as well as most of the Texas Rangers. Reportedly, the revolvers were so prominent around the world that the Ottoman Empire utilized the percussion guns as late as the Russo-Turkish War in 1877-88 when the weapons were already considered antiquity compared to more modern cartridge-firing designs like the Smith & Wesson Model 3.

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