Colt Percussion Revolvers

1860 Army Colt Percussion Revolver basic diagram

The percussion firing system came about in the 1820s, and didn’t take really take off until around the 1840s. New things are often slow to take hold. Eventually, percussion weapons began to replace the old flintlock system. Colt produced Police and Pocket percussion pistols in 1847, followed by the now-famous 1851 Navy Colt, although at the time, it’s unlikely the name “Navy Colt” was actually used. This led to the more successful percussion Colts of the Civil War. The 1860-1861 Army and Navy model Colts were among the very last firearms using the old percussion system. 1860 was the year that Benjamin Tyler Henry unveiled his lever-action repeating rifle that used a newly-perfected .44 caliber rimfire metal cartridge–invented by Daniel Wesson and perfected by Henry. Nobody may have seen it coming then, but the metal cartridges took the world by storm, and quickly usurped the old percussion and black powder weapons. This technology spread and developed like wildfire, and in a short time, centerfire cartridges and smokeless powder took the place of rimfire (except in small calibers), and not long after that, semiautomatic weapons. After centuries of using black powder and relatively simple flintlock firing mechanisms, the technology of firearms was now on the fast track. Percussion revolvers weren’t much more than an innovative, but short-lived technology to fill in the gap between black powder flintlocks and the use of full-metal self-contained cartridges. Cap and Ball percussion revolvers used a small sack (or tube-shaped “paper cartridge”) of nitrated paper or cloth filled with a measure black powder, with a small lead ball or conical bullet packed on top of it. This was done with either a ramrod, or in the case of the Civil War-era Colts, a built-in rod (loading lever) on a hinge that would pack the powder and bullet wad into a chamber in the cylinder. The shooter would then attach a percussion cap, a small copper or brass open-ended cylinder enclosing fuliminate of mercury onto the “nipple” (on the rear of the cylinder) which held it in place. When struck by the hammer, the cap would detonate, flashing sparks through a small hole on the back of the nipple into the revolver chamber, igniting the main powder charge and firing the bullet. By placing the hammer in the half-cock position, the cylinder would be allowed to rotate freely for loading. Obviously, this was a much lengthier process than what we employ today with the use of self-contained metal cartridges. These were some of the last of the percussion-type weapons being developed.

The predecessor to the 1860 Army and 1861 Navy Colts, was the Colt Pocket revolver made in the late 1840s, and was the continuation of the “Baby Dragoon.” The most popular Pocket model was the 1849 model, with some variations being the Pocket Police Model and the Pocket Navy. They were especially popular with the California Gold Rush crowd (Sutter’s Mill, California ’49 Gold Rush, remember?) and also later, during the Civil War. The 1849 Pocket Pistols were set in .31 caliber and had 5-shot cylinders, and like the M1851, had an octagonal barrel, but it was noticeably shorter than on the later Colts. The Pocket Pistols were produced from 1847 to 1873. This model introduced the successful single-action mechanism that was still used in the M1860 Army and M1861 Navy Colt percussion six shooters.

Some of the distinguishing characteristics of the Civil War-era percussion Colts are the loading lever, which hinges down to pack the bullet and charge into the firing chamber, and when finished, can be snapped back into place with a spring under the barrel. The M1860 Army had a cam in the loading lever hinge that would not allow the lever to fall all the way against the barrel, should it happen to unclip itself and fall during recoil, a handy addition from the older 1851. More than 200,000 of the percussion revolvers were produced between 1860 and 1873. While the Army percussion revolver was set in .44 caliber, the Navy version was set in .36 caliber, and was produced in smaller numbers than the Army model. The M1861 Navy had a shorter cylinder, and less recoil than the M1860 Army, but otherwise was nearly identical. Unlike its forbear the M1851, the 1861 had the “creeping” cam feature on the loading lever. Some of the 1860-61 models had fluted cylinders and arrangements for an optional shoulder stock, but most did not. The 1860-61 Colt revolvers had round barrels, while the old 1851 models had octagonal barrels. All of these Colt percussion revolvers from the M1851 through the M1861 were used heavily in the Civil War.

Since the Colts–and most others too–were made in the American Northeast (Yep, Union territory!) the Confederate states didn’t have access to to new supplies of the weapon once the hostilities began. They had to make do with whatever weapons they already had, import new ones from overseas, such as the LeMat revolver by smuggling them through the Union’s Naval Blockade. They also had the option to make their own weapons, and they did, but with only limited success. One such weapon was the Griswold and Gunnison revolver. It was actually a bit crude conpared to the Colt revolvers, but was otherwise an exact copy of the M1851 Navy Colt, right down to the .36 caliber size. The Confederates had major issues getting the right kinds of metals they needed, and often ended up using a fused mixture of brass and steel, or whatever they could lay their hands on. Today, the homemade Griswold & Gunnison revolvers are extremely rare, and worth a fortune to collectors, some of whom have paid over a million to get one. The Colt percussion revolvers, produced in larger numbers are not quite as rare, however, if you ever see one (or a pair of them) at auction, complete with a wooden box, bullet mold, original powder flask and other tools, in good shape, and especially if it’s engraved or was owned by a famous person, be prepared to spend at least that much. One that’s in very good shape, even lacking the engraving or the famous person angle, means that you’re looking at a price tag of at least US $400,000, and up to $750,000. Of course, if you can’t spare three-quarters of a million bucks for a classic firearm, you could always get a nice, non-firing or blank-firing replica, that looks, feels and acts like the original, right down to the mechanical action, but costs much less.

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Fancy Flintlocks of the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries

Versailles Dueling Pistol, Kumbley & Brum of London flintlock

There are some very sleek and modern pistols being produced today, with major advances in technology and accuracy. But they are in a different class from the old flintlock pistols of the past. Ornately engraved and scrolled decorative finishes are something that is no longer produced, except in custom work, made to order at a high price. Many European gunsmiths were producing beautiful flintlock pistols in the 18th and 19th century. The few that have survived are now fetching high prices at auction, or on display in museums.

French design is legendary for its classical elegance and ornate decor. It is evident in French furniture and architecture. It can also be found in flintlock muskets and pistols produced by the famed armory at St. Etienne, the Manufacture d’armes founded in 1764 in Charleville, France. St. Etienne is only one of many locations for armories bearing the name. Small arms have been produced here since the middle ages, including the many weapons used in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon Bonaparte himself had personal weapons made here for him by his personal gunsmith, Jean-Baptiste Gribeauval. Among these are a double-barrelled flintlock pistol, and Napoleon’s personal St. Etienne 1806 traveling flintlock pistol with his crowned mongram “N” on the grip. Though customized, it is clearly a variation of the AN XIII flintlock pistol, used by French Cavalry in the Napoleonic wars. Polished wood, and intricately scrolled brass and pewter fittings make a resplendent contrast to the plain and the utilitarian. There are also the Versailles dueling pistols made by Nicholas Boutet in the time of Napoleon. Carved exotic woods and precious metals were used in the production of these pistols, which were presented to high-ranking officials.

A lot of the St. Etienne flintlocks made their way to America also. Merriweather Lewis and William Clark carried some of these flintlock pistols on their famous 1804-1806 expedition to explore the open western lands for expansionist and president Thomas Jefferson, accompanied by a native-American guide, Sacajawea. These were variations of the St. Etienne Model AN IX, which were issued to French infantrymen in the Napoleonic Wars. Most of these flintlocks can be identified by the famous St. Etienne stamp in the metal on the side of the lock mechanism.

Around 1680, Italian gunsmith Lorenzoni produced some magnificent triple-barrel flintlock pistols for the Medici family, with ornately carved ivory grips. Around 1795, Kumbley & Brum of London also made flintlock pistols with beautifully-carved ivory grips and bas-relief brass engraving.

First American President George Washington had a favorite pistol, a 1748 Hawkins, made in London had his name engraved on a silver plate on the grip. It is now housed in the museum of the United States Military Academy at West Point. He was also presented with a brace of flintlocks by the Marquis de LaFayette. The famous first shot of the American War for Independence, the “Shot heard ’round the world” was fired by a 1760s Scottish flintlock pistol, an all-metal piece of extraordinarily ornate design. These are but a few examples of the fine art and craftsmanship that went into gunmaking in the 17th through the 19th centuries. When compared with today’s utilitarian, sleek and modern hanguns, which are faster and more powerful, there is still something magnificent about the time-honored practice of handcrafted elegance.

The first flintlock firing mechanism was created by a French courtier for King Louis XIII, and by 1630 was in use in Europe for warfare. Flintlock weapons were in use for around two hundred years, until they were succeeded by the invention of the percussion cap. The percussion cap was a short-lived technology, bridging the gap between flintlocks and the later self-contained metal cartridges.

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Napoleon: Not as Short as You Think

Napoleon Bonaparte page banner

Everyone has heard of Napoleon. The historical French leader, presumed to be short, who rose to great heights, and then fell to great lows when he was defeated at Waterloo. For the most part, that’s all that most people know about him. The truth is a little different. Like all people, he had his good points and his bad points. The first thing one needs to do when considering history is to actually CONSIDER history. It wouldn’t be fair to judge a person who acted in the late 1700’s based on 21st century politics. Things were a little different then than they are now. Sometimes that’s good. Sometimes not. Whichever the case, here you’ll get a brief, unrevised look at the life and career of Napoleon Bonaparte I of France.

Born on 15 August, 1769 in Ajaccio, Corsica to Italian parents, and christened Napoleone di Buonoparte, he came from a background of minor nobility. Because of this moderate affluence, he was able to study, among other things, to be a French artillery officer. He served as a second lieutenant until just after the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. At around this time, he was involved in fighting in a complicated campaign in Corsica between Corsican royalists, revolutionaries and others. At one point, he even battled against a French army. This did not prevent him from later being promoted to the rank of captain in Paris. He was at odds with the Corsican leader, Pasquale Paoli, and eventually, Napoleone di Buonoparte and his family were forced to flee into what is now France to escape from Corsica. He later changed his name to the more French-sounding moniker of Napleon Bonaparte.

The French and the British had more or less been at war since medieval times. This was at a time before the existence of nation-states, when most of Europe was a collection of loose alliances and small Holy Roman Empire Papal States. A complicated mess, left over from the collapse of the Roman Empire, and lasting hundreds of years, well past the renaissance. Other than the currently-serving Popes, the rest of the continent was more-or-less a disorganized and decentralized jigsaw puzzle of small sovereignties and wavering loyalties. The alliances of these small states changed frequently, and there was usually a lot of discontent to breed trouble. Rather than nations fighting each other, there were coalitions, some large, some very small. Some were merely representing a single city. It would make your head spin for me to list all of the coalitions and states that existed at the time. The same goes for keeping track of which ones were aligned for or against each other.

Napoleon used his influences within the French military and leadership to rise to power, mainly through his unique grasp of artillery placement and use, and his ability to write compelling opinions. He was said not to be a very good speller, but that he was quite good at math and geometry. And he was certainly credited in his lifetime as being a very capable military tactician. He was instrumental in driving the British out of Toulon in 1793, and rose to the rank of Brigadier General, and later, even higher. The French had an army in Italy, and Napoleon’s success there further increased his position of standing with the French leaders. French involvment in these coalition battles eventually led to widespread French power and influence. In one of Napoleon’s most successful campaigns, he was able to defeat Rome, ending an 1,100 year-long independence, and creating a much better position for the French. It was at this time that Napoleon’s political influence grew vastly.

For a time, Napoleon was away in Egypt, attempting to expand the French Empire there, but had a great deal of difficulties due to numerous local uprisings and harassment from the British Royal Navy. (Britain largely owes its Empirical strength to its Navy) While Napoleon was away and busy in Egypt, the French were again being beset by coalition warfare, and also going bankrupt, and had lost a lot of the support of its people. Upon his return to France, there was a coup by Napoleon, his brother and some other supporters. Leading an army into Paris, he eventually triumphed over opponents, drafted a new constitution, and shortly thereafter elected himself as First Consul, the most powerful position in France. This allowed him to take up residence in the Tullieres Palace. He returned to Italy with his troops and drove out the Austrians in another of many coalition skirmishes. The large number of battles and struggles between these coaltions came to be known as the Napoleonic Wars.

After the narrow victory over the Austrians, there was a short-lived peace in Europe, followed by yet more coalition warfare. With the French colony in Haiti being lost to a revolution there, and in general a state of near-bankruptcy, Napoleon realized that he could not hold onto or defend the vast tracts of French territory in America, so he made an offer to United States President Thomas Jefferson to sell that land. His offer was accepted, and Napoleon got some money, and the United States got a huge, massive tract of real estate to call its own. This of course, was the famous Louisiana Purchase of 1803. This land was sold for less than three cents an acre. Quite the deal for the United States, and worth a lot more now.

Napoleon was mostly victorious in his military campaigns, and enjoyed many successes, and suffered a few failures. While in power in France, he instituted many reforms, most notably a set of laws called the Code Civil or Napoleonic Code. These were sweeping reforms to what was before a feudal system. Now there was a legal system of due process and justice, commerce laws, private property laws, the formation of a central bank, and many others. He instituted an infrastructure system of roads and sewers, and other improvements to civil engineering, ushering in the modern age from the medieval age. These reforms worked so well that many of them are still used today in Europe and abroad, including the United States. He changed the military model of using small units to a large, centralized force, and wisely accepted the ideas of arms designers to standardize the production of weapons, rather than having a large assortment of mismatched weapons in the field. At around this time, the British and the Americans were doing likewise.

In 1804, Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of the French, and the next year, he was crowned the King of Italy. His reigns as leader of Italy and France overlapped each other. After the military victories and reforms, pushing out the old medieval ways, many saw this as a throwback to the feudal and imperialist system, and were displeased. Among the displeased was the famous composer, Ludwig von Beethoven, a former admirer of Napoleon, now bitterly disgusted with him. He even went so far as to scratch homage to Napoleon from his Third Symphony.

More coalition wars, campaigns and skirmishes followed. While Napoleon was on a roll across a vast portion of the European continental mainland, the British were holding their own at sea with their vastly superior Royal Navy. Also, Britain’s island geography made the British homeland more defensible. For the most part, Napleon enjoyed victory in his coalition wars and conquests. Then came his 1812 invasion of Russia. France and Russia had an alliance from 1807, but like so many others in Europe, it deteriorated, and once again, war visited Europe. Napoleon was able to push the Russian forces clear beyond Moscow, and it looked like certain victory for Napoleon, until he experienced a natural Russian advantage: the Russian Winter. Russia has winters like no other, and throughout time, it has aided the Russians in driving off would-be conquerors. Basically the same thing happened to Hitler’s Army in World War II. The bitter cold took a very heavy toll on Napoleon’s forces, who were wracked with frostbite, starvation and disease. What the bitter cold of a Russian winter did not take away from attackers, it sucked into the deep mud of the Russian spring thaw. Mud so widespread and deep that it hinders troop movements and bogs down everything. Even if his men and horses could find food, they couldn’t negotiate the famous Russian mud. It also produces a crop of disease-carrying mosquitoes that won’t quit. For the most part, Napoleon won the battle for Russia. But the Russian habit of leaving nothing behind for conquering forces to take (Scorched Earth Policy) and the winter and spring is too much for any attacker. The Russians burned Moscow, rather than let Napoleon have it. Originally 400,000 strong, fewer than 40,000 soldiers remained of Napoleon’s Army, which gave up on Russia and retreated back to France.

Upon returning to France, some of Napoleon’s generals staged a mutiny, and he was forced to abdicate the throne, and was exiled to the Island of Elba in the Mediterranean. This is a result of the Treaty of Fontainebleu. In his exile, Napoleon was given sovereignty over the island, and while there, put together a small army and navy, but his wife and son were living in exile in Austria. He knew that there was a plan to exile him to another island in the Atlantic, so he escaped from Elba and made his way back to France. When he landed on French soil, a regiment sent to intercept him was instead won over by him, and together they returned to Paris, causing Louis XVIII to flee. Evidently, Napoleon still inspired some fear and respect with his presence. Neighboring Austria caught wind of his return, and acted to raise up a large coalition force against him.

Napoleon reigned in Paris for around a hundred days, and had built up an army of some 200,000 troops. Upon the advance of the Austrian coalition army, Napoleon launched an offensive attack, in an attempt to divide their forces. They met up in Waterloo, in what is now Belgium, and fought. The British forces led by the Duke of Wellington, aided by the arrival of the Russian coalition were able to drive back Napoleon’s forces, which fled in disarray. The coalition forces then marched on Paris and restored Louis XVIII to the throne.

After a brief imprisonment, Napoleon was again exiled, this time to the small island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean, very far away from any main land mass. Some members of the British Parliament and even some Lords sympathized with him. There were a few other intrigues, plans of escape and rumors, but further conquest was not to be. Living in Longwood House, the former Deputy Territorial Governor’s decaying mansion, Napoleon’s health declined, and he died of stomach cancer on 5 May, 1821. Napoleon remained buried in obscurity until the French King Louis-Phillipe had his remains returned to France in 1840. He was given a state funeral and intombed at the chapel in Les Invalides, a hospital campus for French war veterans in Paris, where he remains to this day. It is now a famous and very popular military museum that leaves a lasting impression on those who visit.

There are a number of things that Napoleon is noted for, such as having a very profound effect on the history and future of France. He did some bad or questionable things, such as ordering disease-wracked soldiers in his army poisoned, to keep them from falling into the hands of the enemy while leaving Egypt. During his reign, he reinstituted slavery in outlying French colonies, and when it came to politics and the military, he was a sly operator. But he also paved the way for the abolition of the loose coalition of Papal States, in favor of autonomous nations, which still endures. From what was once a mass of disorganized sovereign and combative hotspots is now the mighty nation of Germany, for better or for worse, even after its travails of the 20th Century. Continental mainland Europe is now a strong collection of sovereign nations. Many of his Code Civil/Napoleonic Code laws and ideas are still practiced worldwide, including the UK and the United States. While he was in part, defeated by the British, many Brits, including some high-ranking Lords still admired him. He is also viewed as a military genius, having easily proved that through his many conquests and tactics. He also enacted the Jewish Emancipation, which allowed Jews to own private property, and other rights. Oh, I almost forgot; Napoleon’s height. The Duke of Wellington stated that Napolen was approximately 1.7 meters tall, or about 5 feet, 8 inches. A tad under 6 feet. The normal, average adult height.

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