The 1851 Navy was the second best-selling revolver from Colt. Outsold only by Colt’s 1849 Pocket Pistol, it is arguably the most recognized cap-and-ball sixgun in the world. If ever a gun were to be considered a classic, certainly the 1851 Navy Colt would rate near the top of anyone’s famous firearms list.
The Colt 1851 Navy Revolver
It could be debated that this caplock six-shooter was the first truly practical revolver. Specifically since those Colts that preceded it were lacking in ergonomics and design refinements. Not to mention, they were simply too big and cumbersome or too small and underpowered.
The ’51 Navy model represented the peak of firearms technology of its day. It married lightweight, excellent balance, natural pointing and handling characteristics, practical accuracy, and man-stopping power—all in a one-hand gun.
During its 23 years of production, a total of 257,348 Navies were turned out by the Colt facilities. This includes both the Hartford, Connecticut, and London, England, armory.
Of the 215,348 of these 7.5-inch octagon-barreled revolvers made in America, ironically, the federal government purchased only 3,005 during the Civil War. Although a great many more were privately purchased and used during the conflict.
This streamlined cap-and-ball revolver was especially highly valued by Confederate soldiers. Namely, those who were fortunate enough to capture one from their northern foes. And the Confederacy actually produced a number of copies of the Colt.
In fact, an engraved Colt Navy ’51 was the personal sidearm of none other than Confederate General Robert E. Lee!
Origins of the 1851 Navy
Conceived and designed—but only put to paper—as early as 1847, the finished product was finally introduced for sale in November of 1850. And it was originally intended to be sold under the name “The New Ranger Size Pistol.”
However, it wasn’t marketed in any quantity until the following year. Possibly due to difficulties during the winter season’s weather conditions. It was subsequently named the “1851 Navy Model,” or as it was often referred to, the “Belt Model.”
An 1843 naval battle scene was roll engraved on the cylinder, depicting a battle between the Texas and Mexican navies. This was a shrewd move on the part of Colt. He knew that Texas would undoubtedly prove to be a good market, as it had in the past. He was right.
The ’51 Navy was a vast improvement over the heavy and somewhat cumbersome .44 Dragoons and the smallish, .31-bore ’49 Pockets. This was a practical-sized holster pistol! Thus, the model very quickly became a success.
In fact, serious arms scholars agree that it was the introduction of the 1851 Navy Colt that spelled the demise of the single-shot pistol in the West. Although sales of the Pocket ’49 remained strong—especially with people who did not feel the need for a larger, belt-sized revolver—the diminutive pistol outsold the Navy model.
Nonetheless, Dragoon sales suffered a considerable drop since the Navy offered man-stopping power in a much handier, lighter package.
Advancing the Development of Modern Revolvers
We don’t think of the Navy Colt as being a particularly powerful weapon by modern standards. However, in its day, it marked a great advancement in the development of practical revolvers.
Military tests of the era revealed that Colt’s ’51 Navy had a range of up to 200 yards. It was also an accurate arm when fired at 30 yards and could penetrate up to 7.5 inches of 1.5-inch-thick pine boards (with spaces in between to allow for easier measuring).
Produced until 1873, the Model 1851 Navy Colt reigned as a favorite fighting handgun with knowledgeable gunmen worldwide. This was until shortly after Colt’s Single Action Army revolver was introduced in the Navy model’s final year of production.
Even then, many Navies were converted to take the then-new metallic cartridges. This gave them a longer practical life, with some seeing use up through the turn of the century. This six-gun could easily be dubbed the “Peacemaker” of the percussion era.
It was the sidearm of choice of such historical figures as the “Prince of Pistoleers” James Butler, “Wild Bill” Hickok. as well as many of his gun-savvy contemporaries like John Wesley Hardin, the James-Younger gang, Californio bandit Tiburcio Vasquez, the Pinkertons, military officers of the pre-Civil War years, the Pawnee scouts, and frontiersman Major Frank North, to name a few.
In its earliest years, the Navy Colt was highly regarded by those hardy Argonauts who flocked to the untamed California gold fields in search of their fortunes. It later saw use in the Australian “Outback” country by civilians and police troopers alike.
In other lands, the Navy was packed by the government forces of Austria, Canada, and England. Always at the forefront of action, a number of British sailors were issued the .36-caliber Colts during the Crimean War.
Likewise, while campaigning in Balaklava, more than a few Navy Colts thundered into the valley of death during Great Britain’s ill-fated but legendary Charge of the Light Brigade.
Colt’s Standing as a Favored Sidearm
Throughout the Western frontier, Colts of all types were often the favored sidearms. There was great demand for the company’s revolvers. Especially in such places as the California gold country, where Navy Colts commanded prices several times above the normal retail price of about $25 each.
Colt had all it could do to keep up with the orders for Navy models. Which it fulfilled along with those of the big Dragoons and the ’49 Pocket models.
The gun was also very popular in England due to the Colt’s popularity on the American frontier. Not to mention the fact that Samuel Colt, ever the sales promoter, proudly displayed his wares in London, England. This took place during the five-month-long Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851.
Shrewdly, he also exhibited his firearms in Ireland and the New York Exhibition in 1853. And in 1855, his Colts were shown in Paris. These exhibitions, along with the tales of the feats of the Texas Rangers, the U.S. Dragoons, and other frontiersmen armed with Sam Colt’s inventions, cemented the Colt name all over the world.
Once introduced, the .36-caliber Navy Colts were seeing use by the military, along with the .44 Dragoons. In one such instance in July of 1857, young Lt. John Bell Hood (later Confederate general) was patrolling the southern Texas plains. During the patrol, his Second Cavalry happened on the trail of a Comanche war party.
As Hood described, his men carried “an army rifle and a six-shooter; a few of us had sabres and two revolvers, while I was armed with a double barrel shotgun loaded with buck shot and two Navy six-shooters.”
As the cavalrymen came upon the hostiles, Hood recollected “My men gave one yell, and went right in their midst, and fought hand to hand; the Indians, from their heavy fire, beating us back a little, until I rallied my men with their six shooters.
“Our being within four or five paces, our shots were so heavy we drove them back… I forced them back until all the shots of my rifles and six shooters were expended… if I had two six shooters to a man, I would have killed and wounded near all of them.”
That same year, Lt. Samuel Ferguson accompanied Albert Sidney Johnston’s march to Utah.
He remembered carrying a “brand-new Navy Colt,” adding that “so frequent were assassinations that each man traveling on the prairie, as soon as he perceived another approaching him, slipped his six-shooter to have it most convenient to his hand.
“Of course, the flap of the holster had long before been cut off; it was preferable to suffer a little rust on the weapon rather than run the risk of losing a fraction of a second in drawing it.”
Civilians continued to use the Navy Colt for years after it ceased production. Specifically, because they might not have been able to afford the latest metallic cartridge firearms.
As late as September of 1878, the Colt Navy prevailed during the last Indian raid in Kansas. Dull Knife and a group of Cheyenne warriors were set on reclaiming the ancestral land they had been removed from. This caused one settler and his wife to take refuge in their little cabin.
When he felt the Cheyenne raiding party was getting too close, he recalled, “We opened fire on them. My wife had a one-shot gun, and I a cap-and-ball, Colt’s Navy revolver, fired through loopholes in the wall. They immediately left us.”
Although the ’51 model was enjoying brisk sales, Colt decided to produce a .36 Navy. It had a round barrel and a sleeker, more up-to-date appearance, similar to that of the 1860 Army .44 revolver.
Ironically, this “New Model Navy,” or “1861 Navy,” did not sell nearly as well as the older squared-design and octagon-barreled ’51. A total of 38,843 of these ’61 Navies were produced.
As a matter of record, the 1851 Navy outsold the newer ’61 model by 116,500 guns. This was during the years that both arms were being produced. The old model Navy more than held its own!
The Colt 1851 Navy Frame Lives On
Even in modern times, the Navy’s fame lives on. In the late 1950s, modern black-powder pioneer Val Forgett selected a Confederate copy of the 1851 Navy to introduce the first replica Civil War-type firearms for shooters. Perhaps no greater testimony to the historical status of this mid-19th-century revolver can be given than this.
Today, the ’51 Navy Colt is likely the most replicated black-powder handgun in the world. Among firearms enthusiasts, it is considered by many as the archetypical percussion revolver.
This article was originally published in the Guns of the Old West Fall 2021 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions at OutdoorGroupStore.com. Or call 1-800-284-5668, or email email@example.com.