Revolver Showdown: Samuel Colt’s 1851 Navy vs. Robert Adams’ Double Action
Ask any American firearms collector what inventor made the most important revolvers in the mid-19th century, and you’ll almost certainly hear the name Samuel Colt. Ask them whose shop made and manufactured the best handguns of the second half of the 19th century and you’ll probably hear the same, or perhaps Smith & Wesson. But should you ask an Englishman who made the most innovative handguns during that period, you may well be told Robert Adams instead. You could certainly make an argument for each. Both Colt’s Model 1851 Navy and Adams’ “self-cocking” revolver were on display at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, each garnered a lot of attention and orders poured in for the designs. Both revolvers were adopted by the militaries of both the U.S. and the U.K. and saw use around the globe by military men and civilians. We have several really nice examples of revolvers based on the designs of each of these men in our May Premier Auction.
The Model 1851 Navy or Revolving Belt Pistol of Naval Caliber was Samuel Colt’s second most successful revolver, bested only by the 1849 Pocket. It remained in production until 1873 and continued to see use long after. Many Civil War enlisted men and generals alike carried this model as did lawmen, pioneers, and outlaws in the Old West. The 1851 Navy was built using machine made parts that required little hand fitting and were interchangeable and relatively inexpensive to produce. Their sights were somewhat primitive, relying on a notch in the hammer to serve as the rear sight, but this arrangement actually works pretty well, especially given many of the Navy’s predecessors lacked a rear sight altogether. Orders and interest were so great following the publicity of the Great Exhibition that Colt immediately set about establishing a factory of his own in London. At the same time, he and his associates set out to prevent others from counterfeiting his designs and licensed some Belgian gunmakers to make copies of the 1851 Navy. They also took steps to prevent these copies and others from being imported into the U.S. where they might damage his supremacy in the domestic market. Swayze in ’51 Colt Navies discusses these arrangements and revolvers in detail. Colt hoped to establish his revolvers as key martial arms in England, France, Russia, and beyond and had some early success. Nonetheless, once his design became popular, many unlicensed copies were manufactured in Belgium, Russia, and even the U.S. The Confederate Griswold & Gunnison and Leech & Rigdon revolvers in our May auction, for example, are clearly copied after Colt’s famous design as are revolvers by Whitney and Manhattan Fire Arms Co.
At the Great Exhibition, Robert Adams’ double action revolver, the first of its kind and patented that same year, also garnered a lot of attention, and the resulting sales were enough to boost him from George & John Deane’s manager to a partner in the newly-formed Deane, Adams & Deane. The double action mechanism itself was not entirely new as versions had already been in use on pepperbox handguns for many years by that time, but applying the system to a true revolver required more complex mechanisms that ensured the barrel and cylinder were aligned for each shot. Adams also designed his revolvers with the barrels integral with the frames, making them more rigid and with a sleeker look. His revolvers were chambered in a larger caliber than Colt’s while not being much larger. However, there were some drawbacks to his design. It was originally double action only and had a rather heavy trigger pull; both factors that made it hard to shoot accurately. Adams’ revolvers also cost more to manufacture than Colt’s, and early examples had some issues such as bursting nipples. All things considered, the mechanism and larger caliber proved itself in the hands of British officers who purchased them as private side arms during the Crimean War and Indian Mutiny where, in multiple instances, the ability to fire more rapidly and with more stopping power was more important than accuracy or cost when seconds counted and the fighting was close.
Adams and other English gunmakers worked on improvements and refinements to the design such as variations of loading levers. The most important of these improvements was patented by Lieutenant Frederick Edward Blackett Beaumont of the Royal Engineers in February 1856, which incorporated a spur on the hammer and updated the revolver to fire in what we now think of as traditional double action (DA/SA). This gave shooters a more versatile revolver with all the rapidity of a double action when desired, but also the shorter travel, lighter pull, and increased accuracy of a single action. The improved design, known as a Beaumont-Adams, was adopted as the official sidearm of the U.K. military, and Colt shuttered his London armory that same year due to insufficient sales and profits.
To make matters worse for Colt, Adams also licensed the Massachusetts Arms Co. of Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, to manufacture both the full size .36 caliber and pocket versions of these revolvers. Colt’s main competition from across the pond was now putting up a fight on both sides of the Atlantic. The full sized versions were even manufactured under contract for the U.S. Army and thus had the potential to pose a direct threat to Colt’s government contracts. However, Colt ultimately remained the dominant force in the U.S. market and faced more serious competition from Remington within the U.S.
Adams left the Deane brothers and helped form the London Armory Company in 1856, which he also left just three years later after they started producing more rifle-muskets than his revolvers; an action that cut into his personal profits. They soon were producing revolvers based on the designs of Adams’ cousin James Kerr, who was one of the primary shareholders of the company. Some Kerr revolvers were famously imported by the Confederacy during the Civil War, including the revolver presented to Given Campbell by Jefferson Davis during his flight from Richmond near the end of the war that RIAC previously brought to auction.
So who won the international showdown for dominance of the revolver market? In the end, I guess you’d have to call this one a draw. Both designs, rightfully, remained popular and jostled for sales without pushing the other fully out of the market. Robert Adams’ design and the improved Beaumont-Adams are generally credited with shuttering Colt’s London factory, but they proved little competition here in the States, and Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company continued to export revolvers to London. Colt’s revolvers also remained the primary handguns of the U.S. military when he died on January 10, 1862, and, unless you ask a diehard Smith & Wesson or Remington fan, his company remained the most important handgun manufacturer in the U.S. deep into the 20th century. Not to mention, Colt revolvers retain significant status as cultural icons in the U.S. Adams outlived Colt and died in September 1880; living long enough to watch his brother, John Adams, patent a breechloading revolver in 1867 based on his earlier design, and see it adopted by the U.K. six years before the famous Colt Single Action Army was designed. These .450 Adams revolvers served as the main sidearms in the U.K. until 1880.
Which was the better design? I suppose that is a matter of opinion. I’ll share mine, but my fellow Americans will probably hold my feet to the fire for saying that I’d much rather have an Adams on my hip if I was going into battle. Don’t get too mad though! I like the way an Adams fits my hand, the fine English checkering on the grip, and the smooth lines of the one-piece barrel and frame, but mostly I’d pick an Adams because I’m a generally a pretty terrible shot and might need to shoot quickly multiple times if I actually needed to defend my life. If I was buying them for collecting, I’d give the cop out answer and say, “Why not have both?” Each certainly holds an important place in the history of revolving firearms and the martial arms of their respective countries. Heck, I could buy lot 3281 (the first image of this article) and have an interesting copy of both designs together in a fine looking case with a full set of accessories. Let us know in the comments which you would choose and why. Then, be sure to take a look through our May 2019 Premier catalog in print or online. You are sure to find even more examples of fine 19th century revolvers than I’ve shared here in a wide variety of styles, including engraved pieces of firearms art, battle proven military contract arms, fine cased sets, revolvers with historical inscriptions, and classic standard models that really should be part of any gun collection.