Colt Dragoon: History and Variations
By Joel Kolander
Early Colts have been hot commodities in the auction world for some time now, and RIAC’s world record sale of a Colt Walker for $1.84 million earlier this month only confirms that the trend continues to climb. However with Patersons and Walkers frequently stealing the limelight, my thoughts often turn to the following chapter in Colt revolvers: the Dragoon, or as it was known by Sam Colt, the “Old Model Holster Pistol.” The large revolvers are early enough in the Colt story to have a fascinating history of their own, they’re an improvement on the Walker in several areas, and the prices are substantially more affordable than any Paterson or Walker revolver. Let’s take a look at a few variations of the Colt Dragoon as they appear in our 2018 June Regional Firearms Auction.
Given their extreme rarity, no article on the Colt Dragoon revolver would be complete without mention of the Whitneyville-Hartford Dragoon, colloquially known as the “Transition Walker.” Approximately 240 in number, with a serial range from 1101-1340, these Dragoons were manufactured toward the end of 1847 with several design improvements, but also incorporated leftover parts from the Walker revolvers. These take their name from the Walker revolver parts that were manufactured at Eli Whitney’s plant in Whitneyville, CT (at that time Samuel Colt did not have a factory since his bankruptcy in Paterson, NJ) and the Dragoon parts made by the new Colt factory famously located in Hartford, CT. They were the first model to come from Colt’s new factory and provide an important link between the Walker and the Dragoon models.
With low productions numbers and destined for a life of hard use, it’s no wonder one is not present in the June Regional Auction. These scarce examples are estimated to have a survival rate hovering around 12 percent. Complicating things is the existence of two known examples that do not conform to this serial range (1344 and 1437), which means the range could be larger than previous thought, that there are other misidentified examples, or those yet undiscovered. These rare and often faked revolvers have oval-shaped cylinder stops and a distinct joining point of the grips, grip strap, and frame. Despite the presence of variations of this meeting place, the juncture never forms a straight line from top to bottom as seen in later models. Either the frame is recessed to accept a curved grip or the back of the trigger guard does not meet the grip strap at a perfect vertical. For detailed photos of these variations, please consult your nearest Flayderman’s Guide
First Model Dragoon
After the 1,100 Colt Walkers were manufactured (1,000 for the military, 100 for the civilian market (and presentations) in 1847, it didn’t take long for feedback to come from the field regarding needed improvements. Walkers were beloved as a “magnum” firearm of their day providing the same rapidity as the Paterson revolvers, but with greater power, reliability, simplicity, and sixth shot. All that said, they still had their problems. The loading lever on the front was not secured well and many times the recoil of a shot would cause the lever to fall, jamming the action as well (and necessitated a “Walker slap” to return the lever to place). The cylinders were extremely long and prone to overloading with blackpowder by many troops who had never seen let alone used a revolver before. This, combined with their backwards loading of the conical bullets and the unsophisticated metallurgy of the period, led to numerous ruptured cylinders. They were also just plain heavy at 4 lbs, 9 oz, and relatively difficult to wield at 15 1/2-inches, nine of which was the barrel alone.
So, Colt began manufacture of his new Dragoon revolver with a shorter barrel to reduce weight, a shorter cylinder to lessen powder loads and prevent them bursting, and an improved catch for the loading lever so users would no longer have to tie it up with a spare thong of leather or whatever was available. Many of these improvements must be credited to ordnance officer Captain William A. Thornton, whose script initials “W.A.T.” can be found on numerous firearms, bullet molds, flasks, and more of that period. They saw use by the United States Mounted Rifles (USMR) and other cavalry units, generically known as “dragoons,” and hence gave the revolver its name. Most models will have “MODEL U.S.M.R.” included in the cylinder scene, but fewer examples read “U.S. DRAGOONS” (this is true for First, Second, & Third Models). About 7,000 were produced in whole from 1848-1850, serial number range approximately 1,341 – 8,000, and as with most evolutions this close in chronological proximity variations occur near to the beginning and end of the production. Early models may incorporate several features of the Transition Walkers and later models may have already begun utilizing improvements that would become standard on the Second Model Dragoon. However, First Models are often most readily identified by their combination of a squareback trigger guard, oval-shaped cylinder stops, and the straight vertical line maintained where the grips, grips strap, and frame meet.
The Dragoons nicknamed “Fluck” Dragoons, are easily an area where even an experienced collector can become confused. Part of this is due to their abundance of names and nick-names that have been bestowed on them such as: Walker Replacement Dragoon, pre-1st Model Dragoon, Fluck Dragoon, and more recently the “Second Contract Dragoon” (not to be confused with the Second Model Dragoon). Yikes. Long story short, because so many Walkers were experiencing catastrophic failures in the field, Colt produced 300 of these rare “Walker Replacement” Dragoons to replace them, hence the “Second Contract” name, even though no specific second contract was given for these revolvers. They too are rare, made from a mix of Walker and Dragoon parts, and were manufactured in 1848, thus, many people confuse them with Transition Walkers. To make things more confusing they also utilized Colt-reworked Walker parts and the same small serial numbers as seen on Walkers.
Their range of serial numbers, 2216 – 2515, was discovered by one John J. Fluck in 1956, and so they bear his moniker to this today. However, in the late 1990s, a detailed and controversial study was published that expanded the serial range of these guns from 2,001 – 3,000, stating four different models existed in four unique shipments. It is this study that introduced the unfortunate and confusing term “Second Contract Dragoon.” While this hypothesis is based on a small sample size, it may hold water. More time and analysis will tell. Our June Regional does not offer a rare Fluck Dragoon, but shown above is one offered in the preceding April 2018 Premiere Auction that sold for $16,100.
Second Model Dragoon
Second Model Dragoons were short-lived compared to their First and Third Model Counterparts. Only 2,700 were made from 1850-1851 in a continued serial range from the First Models, approximately 8,000 – 10,700. Relatively few changes were made and many are difficult to observe. The mainspring was changed, a roller bearing was added to the hammer, and the trigger guard was widened slightly. However, they are more easily identifiable from the combination of a square-back trigger guard and the introduction of rectangular cylinder stops. The Second Model is the rarest of the three primary models, and an especially rare version was made for the militias in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, marked “NEW HAMPSHIRE” and “MS” respectively. One of the “NEW HAMPSHIRE” marked versions will be offered in this sale (in the correct serial range for these rare finds) and can be seen below. Again, please do not confuse “Second MODEL” Dragoons with the poorly named and not-yet-fully-vetted “Second CONTRACT” Dragoons (which is really a Fluck Dragoon).
Dragoon 3rd Model
Dragoon Third Models are essentially what you think of when someone says “Colt Dragoon.” They were the most produced Dragoon with 10,500 revolvers made from 1851-1861, despite the presence of several other models being produced concurrently by Colt (1851 Navy, 1860 Army, 1861 Navy). These quintessential Dragoons stand out from earlier variations with the introduction of a rounded trigger guard and the continuation of the rectangular cylinder stops. With an estimated 1,200 – 1,500 ready to accept one of three types of shoulder stocks, it is more common to find a Third Model with those necessary modifications than previous models.
Model 1848 Baby Dragoon
When full-sized Dragoons were just beginning production, Colt also had plans to produce a smaller version of the pistol which would come to be known as the “Baby” Dragoon. Given their own serial number range of 1 – 15,000 (approx.) during their 1847-1850 run, Baby Dragoons were only chambered for 5-shots of .31 caliber ball, instead of the 6-shot .44 caliber punch their big brothers carried. Besides being much smaller in size, most Baby Dragoons can be quickly recognized by their lack of loading lever (a feature that wasn’t added until around #11,600), and other features unique to early Colts: squareback trigger guard, the Ranger & Indian cylinder scene (which was truncated due to the much smaller cylinder surface area available) that would give way to the Stagecoach scene, and the oval cylinder stops which would be rectangular in later production.
Production of the Baby Dragoon ceased quickly due to the introduction of the 1849 Pocket, which ran from 1850-1873, and was the smaller version of the 1851 Navy. The 1849 Pocket did bear a loading lever and was made in numbers greater than any other Colt percussion firearm, around 340,000 in total. The 1848 Baby Dragoon was the first Colt pocket revolver since the failed Paterson days and makes an interesting piece of Colt history. It is worth mentioning that because the Baby Dragoons are much more rare than the 1849 pocket, the opportunity for fakers and con artists can arise. Baby Dragoons will have a squareback triggerguard whereas the 1849 Pocket’s is round, and the Baby Dragoon will have no loading lever, where the 1849 usually will. Be sure to look for alterations in these areas when you find “too good” of a deal.
Colt Hartford English Dragoon
These were a special set of Third Model variants that were made in Hartford, but with final assembly and finishing done in the newly constructed Colt factory in London. Given their own serial number range of 1 – 700, it is easy to tell an English Dragoon if you find the usual Third Model characteristics, but a low serial number. Although it’s probably easier to look for the British proofmarks. Made from 1853 – 1856, it is estimated that at least 20% of Colt’s English Dragoons are finely engraved, with some featuring a hand engraved barrel address. A large number of variants exist within English Dragoons due to Colt using up their already produced parts – some have a Hartford barrel address for this reason. In an interesting historical fact, 200 of these revolvers were shipped back to Hartford in 1861 for use in the American Civil War.
That, dear friends of the firearm, is all seven of the primary variants of Colt Dragoon revolvers. Of course “primary” is the key word there because all the variations within those seven are enough to keep any collector busy for quite some time. Not only are Dragoons an early revolver that helped raise Colt from the ashes of bankruptcy, with many of the desirable hallmarks of early Colts, but they come in any number of conditions. You like shooting blackpowder and want to get your hands on a “four pounder”? I can guarantee there’s a Third Model out there with your name on it, or you can buy a modern production Colt Blackpowder series (seen below) which will look like new. Do you want a cased, factory engraved, high condition model with all the accessories and silver plated grip straps? Those Dragoons certainly exist as well, and at a much lower cost of entry than a comparable Paterson. No matter what your level of collecting or whether your interest lies in early Colts, high art guns, or just big ol’ revolvers, the Dragoon fits the bill and at a price tag that may leave you pleasantly surprised.
Flayderman, Norm. Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms– and Their Values. Gun Digest, 2007.
Sapp, Rick. Standard Catalog of Colt Firearms. Gun Digest Books, 2007.
Tobias, Arthur. Colt Cylinder Scenes 1847-1851: The History, Process, Variations, and Modern Copies. Arthur Tobias, Artist, 2011.
Wilson, R. L. Colt: An American Legend. Artabras, 1992.
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