A Brief History
On March 5, 1836, Samuel Colt formed the gun-manufacturing company that would produce the pistols “that won the West.” We have already written about Mr. Colt and his innovative and successful revolver, but this time around, we are going to discuss the problems with it.
Colt created his invention when percussion caps were replacing flintlock ignition systems, and the percussion cap is what made a revolving cylinder firearm practical. When relying on flintlock ignition, powder could easily fall out of the individual pan or chain fire, with all cylinders going off at once. (This could happen to percussion revolvers as well, but only rarely.) Metallic cartridges containing the primer, propellant (gunpowder) and projectile (bullet) all in a nice water-resistant metal shell casing, however, were right around the corner, a logical step in firearms development and one that made percussion caps the shortest-reigning ignition type in firearms history.
Colt was happy with his invention and did not seek to embrace metallic cartridges until Smith & Wesson (S&W) had cornered the market (starting in 1856), leaving Colt as an also-ran (loser in the race). The Colt revolvers (percussion or cartridge) were prone to accidentally fire if the hammer was situated on a loaded chamber and the revolver falling on its hammer, leading wise “pistoleros” to keep an empty chamber under the hammer. Colt’s pistols also suffered from another design weakness, that being their open-top frame, whereas S&W and others had a stronger closed frame. The Colt pistol most associated with the Wild West was the Single Action Army of 1873, also known as “The Peacemaker.” Though being able to fire a potent .45 caliber cartridge, the pistol was ridiculously slow to unload and reload, with the operator having to individually push out one empty case at a time to replace it with a fresh round. In the S&W models, on the other hand, all 6 empty cases could be dumped at one time, which allowed for rapid reload of the chambers in short order. This colossal design mistake led the U.S. Army to seek a double-action revolver with a swingout cylinder to replace the cumbersome Peacemaker. What they replaced it with was the anemic Colt .38 caliber revolver that failed miserably in actual combat (because of the cartridge, not due to the pistol design).
By the start of the 20th century, with the introduction of semi-automatic pistols that could be rapidly reloaded with full magazines, there seemed to be no point in further developing the revolver for military use. Colt met the challenge head on with the magnificent M1911 .45 Automatic Colt Pistol (.45 ACP) that went on to serve the U.S. military and many police agencies from 1911 through the present. Even a transition to the M9 Beretta 9mm pistol did not make the M1911 obsolete, as special forces and other units kept using them, and now other U.S. military units are reequipping themselves with newly-manufactured M1911-type pistols.
Although the M1911-type pistol is the most popular pistol in the U.S., many aficionados are so enamored of the Old West that numerous organizations meet to shoot their single-action Colt revolvers and other period guns in what they call “Cowboy Action Shooting.” The Peacemaker is also the gun of choice for quick draw competitions and fancy pistol twirling exhibitions. Despite its drawbacks, the old Cold single-action revolver is apparently here to stay.
Question for students (and subscribers): Do you think anything is wrong with Colt’s revolvers? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Adler, Dennis. Guns of the American West. Chartwell Books, Inc., 2009.
Latham, Sid and R.L. Wilson. Colt : An American Legend. Artabras, 1985.