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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