August 19, 2022
By Seth Isaacson
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By the time Samuel Colt patented his first revolving firearms designs in 1836, revolving guns had been around for centuries. The impressive array of early revolving firearms found in Rock Island Auction Company’s upcoming August 26-28 Premier Firearms Auction provides an excellent opportunity to compare the Colt Paterson revolver with its numerous predecessors and competitors.
Though Samuel Colt did not invent the revolver, he was the first to realize the concept of accurately syncing a rotating cylinder to a fixed barrel. Exploring the history of the revolving flintlock and other early repeaters illustrates the various approaches gunsmiths attempted when it came to achieving multi-shot firearms before the Colt Paterson was invented.
Samuel Colt’s Paterson revolver was not a breakout success for the young gun inventor, but its design set the stage for future iterations.
A closer examination of early revolver technology and how Colt built upon that foundation helps us appreciate why Colt’s name eventually became synonymous with the revolver and how his designs made the wheel gun a standard sidearm for the second half of the 19th century, deep into the 20th century, and a continued favorite with shooters and arms collectors today.
Black powder (gunpowder) has been around since at least the 9th century, and revolving firearms date as far back as the 16th century. One of the main limitations in early firearms was their slow rate of fire due to being manually loaded from the muzzle for each shot, so gunmakers naturally tried to find ways to improve firing rate. Adding more barrels or a revolving set of chambers to a firearm were two of the primary ways to achieve this goal.
This "LAZARI COMINAZ" marked Italian over/under Wheellock Pistol is an extremely rare and unusual way to get multiple shots of a single firearm. Instead of revolving, this pistol is built essentially like one pistol with a second pistol installed upside down on top.
Other early ideas experimented with replaceable breechloading chambers foreshadowing later metallic cartridges, designs for superposed loads firing multiple shots out of a single barrel, and lever action designs like the Lorenzoni and Kalthoff repeaters. Each had its advantages and disadvantages, and all were too complicated, expensive, and often delicate to become standardized, unlike single-shot muskets and pistols.
While one of the more common solutions to getting multiple shots out of a muzzleloading firearm was to simply add another barrel, that generally required also fitting a second lock and getting everything installed in such a manner that the locks could work independently of one another to fire the appropriate barrels and triggers setup to fire each lock.
Lot 3269 has an early 18th-century “wender” by Philippe De Sellier of Liege (active c. 1676-1740). Note that each barrel has flashpan, frizzen, and frizzen spring.
Good locks weren’t cheap, so one popular solution, especially in the flintlock and percussion eras, was to use two barrels that could be rotated to switch for a second shot and then one lock. These guns still needed to have two sets of the priming portions of the mechanisms fitted to the barrels. Such firearms are called swivel breeches or “wenders” (meaning “turner” in German). They were commonly sporting guns and pistols rather than standard military issue firearms, but some may have been used by military officers.
With percussion cap ignition, the swivel breech system was even more practical. You simply needed a nipple for each barrel. Most were still two-shot, but this example by Blin of Nonancourt c. 1840 from lot 3241 has four barrels and two back action locks.
Despite the added weight of a second, third, or even forth barrel, they tend to still be fairly well-balanced. In addition to being made by European gunmakers for the well-to-do, swivel breech guns were also made by American rifle makers and owned by more common folk in the U.S.
At least as early as the 16th century, almost three centuries before the Colt Paterson, there were matchlocks with manually revolving chambers. These early revolvers were sometimes configured as a one-piece similar to the “cylinder” that is common on later revolvers, but they were generally not widely used in the 17th and 18th centuries.
A four-shot revolving matchlock musket sold by Rock Island Auction back in 2013. Most of the revolving matchlocks available on the collector’s market are later examples from India and other areas that continued to use matchlocks long after more advanced firearms designs were introduced. If you compare this example to the next, you can see that it is using some of the same elements.
The revolving matchlock became a little more widely used in India in the early 19th century, but they were never nearly as common as other firearms. In these guns, you can see aspects of more modern revolving firearms. There were also multi-shot flintlocks with revolving chambers. Many of the examples we see today came from the gunmakers of Carlsbad, Bohemia, in the 18th century.
The Carlsbad gunsmiths produced some very fine examples of three and four-shot revolving flintlock pistols and sporting guns, but the system remained rarely used and limited to the armories of the nobility rather than a weapon adopted widely for the military or common people. The revolving flintlock design is similar to swivel breech guns, but with only the breech sections of each barrel and then a single barrel they line up with instead.
This 18th-century three-shot revolving flintlock sporting gun, lot 3215 in RIAC’s upcoming August Premier Auction, uses a similar design as the matchlock before it. Because it is a flintlock, it’s more complicated to make than the matchlock but would also be more reliable. To solve the issue of priming for multiple shots, this design has a separate pan and frizzen for each chamber. They are all fired by a single lock.
Another solution for multi-shot firearms, especially handguns, was to take the swivel breech concept and basically keep adding more barrels. A cluster of several barrels designed to rotate multiple shots is generally known as a pepperbox. These firearms existed in the flintlock era but were not very common until the percussion era in the 1840s and 1850s, and were a key alternative to the Colt Paterson and Colt’s other early revolvers as his patents limited the ability of other gunmakers to manufacture what we now think of as a standard revolver. By that period, pepperbox barrels were generally an elongated revolving cylinder rather than a group of separate barrels.
Lot 1254 is a rare example of a British manually revolvering seven-shot pepperbox from around 1813-1830. The shooter would have to reclose the pan, recock, and rotate the barrels between shots.
Mark Twain discussed them in his classic Roughing It: George Bemis “wore in his belt an old original ‘Allen’ revolver, such as irreverent people called a ‘pepper-box.’ Simply drawing the trigger back, cocked and fired the pistol. As the trigger came back, the hammer would begin to rise and the barrel to turn over, and presently down would drop the hammer, and away would speed the ball. To aim along the turning barrel and hit the thing aimed at was a feat which was probably never done with an ‘Allen’ in the world. But George's was a reliable weapon, nevertheless, because, as one of the stage drivers afterward said, ‘If she didn't get what she went after, she would fetch something else.’ And so she did. She went after a deuce of spades nailed against a tree once, and fetched a mule standing about thirty yards to the left of it. Bemis did not want the mule; but the owner came out with a double-barreled shotgun and persuaded him to buy it, anyhow. It was a cheerful weapon--the ‘Allen.’ Sometimes all its six barrels would go off at once, and then there was no safe place in all the region round about, but behind it.”
While some cartridge pepperboxes still had rotating barrels, many, including this classic design by Christian Sharps incorporate rotating strikers instead. Lot 3175 is one of the absolute finest pepperboxes you can get your hands on. The engraving is attributed to legendary New York engraver L.D. Nimschke.
Pepperboxes had a reputation for being inaccurate as Twain mocked, and most had no sights and were double action only with stiff trigger pulls. At close self-defense ranges, they were probably sufficient and maybe even better than Colt’s percussion revolvers in some cases, but they were not suitable for military use or for people wanting to take shots at any real distance. Nonetheless, Ethan Allen’s various partnerships and several American and British gunmakers manufactured thousands of these revolving pistols, and “pepperbox” style pistols mostly with non-rotating barrels continued to be manufactured even into the metallic cartridge era, mainly as small pocket pistols.
One of the most famous of all revolving firearms designs prior to the Colt Paterson was the Collier. Less than 250 total Collier revolver examples are estimated to have been manufactured across multiple variations. The designs were patented by Artemus Wheeler of Concord and Bostonians Cornelius Coolidge and Elisha Haydon Collier. Wheeler patented the design in the United States of America on June 10, 1818. Collier patented an improvement of the design in the United Kingdom on Nov. 24 of the same year, and Coolidge patented Collier's improved design in France on Aug. 5, 1819. Collier & Co. of London in 1818-1827 sold variations of the design in the form of pistols, rifles, carbines, and shotguns
Howard L. Blackmore in Gunmakers of London, 1350-1850 indicates the Collier revolvers were manufactured by John Evans (John Evans & Son) in London. The patent was then taken over by William Mills around 1830, and some revolvers were sold by a partnership between Mills and Collier. Blackmore also notes William Elliot Lee of London as patenting the design in Paris in 1823, and he may have been an agent or manufacturer for Collier as well. Other British gunmakers may have produced components used in manufacturing the Colliers.
Later Colliers were made in percussion ignition. This example was made by an Italian gunmaker named Mazza for the Prince of Salerno in c. 1820-1830 and sold by Rock Island Auction Company in May of 2021. In its design, you can see many aspects that were later incorporated by the Colt Paterson and other firearms. The back action lock was abandoned by Colt for his design, but some other revolvers into the 1860s continued to use locks rather than mechanisms built into the frames/actions.
Both the First Model and Second Model Collier variations are revolving flintlocks. The First Model had a delicate and complex clockwork-assisted rotation mechanism that revolved the cylinder automatically. The Second Model Colliers revolvers have manually rotated cylinders. Later variants, known as Third Models, using percussion ignition (the first known use of caps for a revolver) were also manufactured in limited numbers.
Many of the rare surviving Colliers remain functional, but if you take a close look at them, it is clear the design, especially the flintlocks, probably wouldn’t have stood up well to extensive use. The major components all are strong, but the weak point is the automatic primer mechanisms built into the locks’ frizzens. It utilizes some rather small and fragile components, and it could potentially explode if the flash from the pan found its way into the priming reservoir.
It had been reported in many publications in Colt’s early history that he was influenced primarily by the capstan on a ship while he was a young sailor on the Corvo in 1830-31, but Colt is said to have later indicated that the Collier design did influence his own. The Collier patents and testimony from Collier were also part of the 1851 court case brought by Colt against the Massachusetts Arms Co.
Before Samuel Colt crossed the sea as a young sailor and likely saw a Collier revolver, another American, James Millar (also spelled Miller), patented his own revolving firearms system on June 11, 1829, and manufactured them with his brother John Millar in Rochester, New York, in the 1830s and also licensed others to make them.
Lot 56 has the finest Miller patent revolving rifle I have ever seen. This stunning rifle is arguably one of the finest revolving firearms out there and has beautiful details. These rifles are historically significant in part as early American revolving rifles that pre-date the Colt Paterson by several years.
At least 15 gunsmiths ultimately made revolving rifles under the Miller patent, but William Billinghurst, a former employee of the Miller, is the most famous who bought their patent in 1841 and produced a significant percentage of the total Miller patent revolving rifles. Thus, to many collectors, these rifles are more familiar as “Billinghurst revolving rifles.” It is estimated that only a few hundred were produced in total.
This design is also manually revolved and is generally configured to be fired using priming pills rather than percussion caps. A small latch just ahead of the cylinder helps keep it in alignment and secure when the gun is fired. The cylinders are generally textured in some fashion to make revolving them by hand easier.
In this close-up look at the lock and cylinder of a Billinghurst revolving rifle sold by Rock Island Auction in 2017, you can clearly see the small holes for the priming pills and the latch at the front of the cylinder.
I’ve spent a lot of time showing you that Samuel Colt didn’t invent the revolver, but I’ll happily concede that he manufactured the first widely successful revolvers. He just didn’t get it right the first time around.
Colt received his first American firearm patent on Feb. 25, 1836, for an “improvement in fire-arms” which included a design that had clear similarities to the Collier design in the handgun version which included a bayonet and also included a really interesting lever-operated revolving rifle. He also submitted his patent in England in 1835. Colt formed the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company based in Paterson, New Jersey, to produce and market his new revolving arms.
This extremely rare Patent Arms Manufacturing Company “Paterson” First Model Ring Lever Revolving Rifle is a very fine and rare example of one of Colt’s first firearms. It is lot 63 in the August Premier Firearms Auction.
The ring lever rifles were actually the first to be manufactured. They utilize a lever with a loop to rotate the cylinder and cock the internal hammer. Only 200 of the First Models were manufactured c. 1837-1838. Unlike earlier revolving arms, they were adopted by the military, and the U.S. Ordnance Department purchased 1/4 of them for use in the Seminole Wars in Florida.
Lot 1089 is a classic Patent Arms Mfg. Colt “Paterson” Belt Model percussion revolver. The Paterson revolvers proved to be a financial failure for Colt, but they were well-made firearms and set the stage for the rebirth of his firearms enterprise in the late 1840s.
The more famous of Colt’s new firearms were his Paterson handguns which he introduced later in 1837. He had them manufactured in various sizes appropriate for pocket carry, belt holsters, and cavalrymen. Unlike the ring lever, these were all single-action revolvers and were much simpler than most revolving firearms before them. All the shooter had to do between shots was cock the hammer. They also utilized folding triggers which make the Paterson revolvers particularly sleek but they could also get jammed up. The Colt Paterson was used by the U.S. Army, Marine Corps, and Texas Rangers. They are widely considered to be the first practical revolvers. Had issues with production been worked out in time, the Colt Paterson would have become widely used.
The Paterson Belt Model in lot 3120 clearly shows just how sleek and practical Colt’s revolver was compared to the cumbersome revolving arms that came before it. This example has an unusual design feature at the junction of the back strap and frame by the hammer: they overlap.
However, unlike later Colts, the Paterson revolver did not truly have interchangeable parts and proved difficult to produce in large quantities at competitive prices. When you compare the examples offered by Rock Island Auction Company in August, you can see various minor differences in the components and how they fit together. Because the Paterson revolvers could not be made economically enough and in sufficient quantities, and because of some design flaws, the company failed in 1842 just six years after Colt received his patent.
Despite this collapse, those who had gotten their hands on Colt’s early revolvers continued to use them. The Texas Rangers in particular are famous users. Texas ordered 180 of the larger Holster Models popular nicknamed “Texas Patersons” before Colt’s business failed. They famously used their Patersons in a running fight with the Comanche during the Battle of Walker’s Creek, a battle between guns vs bows, where the rangers came out victorious despite being outnumbered. Without the Colts, they would have been overpowered by the Comanche and their bows which they could fire faster than anyone can reload a muzzleloader on horseback.
Colt’s firearms business revival in 1847 is widely known among gun collectors and stems from the Texas Rangers. In short, while the Texans liked the number of shots Colt’s Texas Paterson revolvers carried (five), they found them to lack sufficient stopping power and overall were too delicate. Texas Ranger Captain Samuel Walker turned to Colt seeking a new revolver that would meet their needs. Colt listened and designed a new revolver based on Walker’s recommendations. This became the Colt Model 1847 Walker revolver, one of the Holy Grails for Colt collectors.
The author shooting a reproduction Colt Walker (left). An authentic Colt Model 1847 Walker Revolver (right). Many hobbists primarily shoot reduced loads through their reproduction Walkers as the full 60 grain powder charge simply isn’t necessary. It was sometimes too much pressure for the originals to take, but its fun to experience in a good reproduction using modern steel. Reproductions can be an affordable way to start collecting and shooting Colt percussion revolvers.
Because Colt did not have a factory of his own in 1847, he turned to the Whitneyville Armory run by Eli Whitney Jr. for the production of 1,000 revolvers ordered by the U.S. Ordnance Department. Colt also had another 100 “civilian” Walkers produced by Whitney’s factory. These big iron revolvers packed a serious punch compared to their Colt Paterson precursors. They were the most powerful revolvers manufactured up until the introduction of the .357 Magnum cartridge and Smith & Wesson Registered Magnum Revolvers in 1935. The Colt Walker could be loaded with a .44 caliber ball or conical bullet and up to a 60 grain powder charge. For comparison, most muzzleloading pistols would be loaded with around half that amount of powder for a ball of that size. A 60 grain powder charge was more typical of a .54 caliber rifle.
The Third Model Dragoon was the last in Colt’s line of massive “horse pistols.” This one in lot 1090 was manufactured under contract for the U.S. Army. Government contracts were crucial to the success of the Colt Patent Firearms Manufacturing Co. throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Colt Walker had some problems such as a weak loading lever latch, heavy overall weight, and cylinders that too often ruptured (at least in part because they were being loaded improperly), but the majority of the Colt revolvers produced from the late 1840s through the 1873 introduction of the Colt Single Action Army were essentially the same design as the Walker in various sizes. The grip, backstrap, and frame design was simplified a bit for a straight junction, and the loading levers received better catches, but the basic overall design remained the same, and the overall profile is what we think of when we picture a revolver in our mind.
Lot 1100 is an incredible example of the most popular of all of Colt’s 19th-century revolvers: the Model 1849 Pocket. This particular revolver was presented by Samuel Colt to James E. Dodd and is cased with a suite of accessories and also includes the historic and incredibly scarce original letter from Colt to Dodd.
The most popular of Colt’s new revolvers, in fact, the most popular of all 19th century Colt firearms, was the .31 caliber Model 1849 Pocket, the successor to the Model 1848 Baby Dragoon. Over 300,000 of these handy revolvers were manufactured before production ended in 1873. They came in several barrel lengths and became six-shot later in production. The next most popular was the .36 caliber Model 1851 Navy with around 272,000 produced. Unlike the ‘49 Pocket, many ‘51 Navies were purchased by governments as issued sidearms. During the Civil War, Colt’s .44 caliber Model 1860 Army based on the 1851 Navy was the most widely used sidearm. In total, 129,730 of these “six-shooters” were purchased by the U.S. Ordnance Department and went on to become one of the most iconic American guns of all time.
Lot 1095. Only an estimated 600 of these 10 gauge (.75 caliber) large frame shotguns were manufactured c. 1860-1863 in addition to around 500 of the 20 gauge (.60 caliber) small frame versions, both based on the upscaled Model 1855 Pocket design making this classic shotgun among the rarest Colt percussion firearms.
Although Colt is mostly associated with revolving handguns, his company continued to produce revolving long guns as well. The Model 1855 First Model and New Model 1855 series long guns were similar to the “New Model Pocket Revolving Pistols” (Model 1855 “Root” revolvers) but on a much larger scale. Instead of being a .28 or .31 caliber pocket pistol, the New Model 1855 long guns could be had with chambers as large as 10 gauge and packed some serious firepower.
The Colt 1855 revolving rifles were offered in several different variations and saw use in the Civil War with the Berdan Sharpshooters, Confederate cavalry, and others. One issue with the revolving rifles and shotguns was a problem that could happen with any early revolving firearm: chain fires. A chain fire occurs when the explosion from the main shot leaks through into additional chambers and causes multiple discharges. The main projectile will go down the barrel, but the others will be spit out from the front of the cylinder and could hit the shooter’s hand or arm that is supporting the forend. Even when chainfires did not occur, the gas leak at the breech could potentially burn your front hand.
Lot 64:James McClatchie's presentation engraved Colt New Model 1855 Pocket revolver is essentially the same basic design as the Model 1855 First Model Sporting Rifle shown above, but it is far from a “standard” Colt. It is one of the finest percussion Colts in existence and has absolutely stunning engraving and an inscription to McClatchie from the company. He has been identified as the timekeeper for the factory.
Prior to the Civil War, Samuel Colt sold arms to both sides and even considered opening a second armory in the South, but once the war began in earnest, he threw his support behind the Union and supplied hundreds of thousands of firearms, mainly his famous revolvers but also many of his New Model 1855 rifles as well as single shot rifle-muskets. By the time he died in 1862, his legacy had been solidified both in the U.S. and abroad, a fact attested to in his obituaries. Colt went from business failure to one of the wealthiest men in the country and had firmly established his business as one of the biggest and most influential private arms manufacturers in the world.
Rock Island Auction Company is the number one source for antique and historic guns, and antique revolving firearms are one of its specialties. Search their Premier, Sport & Collector, and Arms & Accessories Day Auction gun catalogs which bring literally thousands of revolvers to market every year, from modern classics to sidearms of the Old West to one-of-a-kind early designs that paved the way for the revolver to become one of the most iconic firearms designs in history.
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