The Cap and Ball Revolver
By
Joe Bilby

        Despite his later triumphs, Samuel Colt's early efforts in the gun business were not successful. The Patent Firearms Company of Paterson, New Jersey, established to manufacture and market the inventor's repeating rifles and revolvers, failed in 1840. Sam was out of the gun business, perhaps, he may have thought, forever.
        In Texas meanwhile, his "revolving pistols" were sowing the seeds of a legend. The Texas navy ordered 180 Paterson revolvers and a like number of revolving rifles in 1839. The U.S. Army and Navy also purchased a number of Paterson revolvers and carbines from Colt, and then the company that bought out his assets, between 1838 and 1845. Some of the Texas navy guns ended up in the hands of the Texas Rangers, who wrote the most notable combat chapter in the early history of the revolver. In 1844, an outnumbered company of Rangers shot up a band of Commanche Indians with their .36-caliber Paterson "five shooters," giving birth to the saga of the Colt.
        The outbreak of war with Mexico in 1846 led a suddenly revolver- hungry U.S. military to scour gun shops for remaining Colt handguns. Colonel Samuel Walker of the U.S. Mounted Rifles, a former Texas Ranger who had witnessed the power of the Paterson in the 1844 Commanche fight, traveled east to look up Sam Colt and offer some ideas for an improved version of the gun. The result was the massive, six-shot .44-caliber "Walker" Colt. Despite a disturbing tendency to blow up in a shooter's hand, the "Walker" put Colt back into the gun business for good. For the next twelve years, the terms "revolver" and "Colt" were synonymous.
        The born-again Colt firm churned out a number of handgun models, from 32-caliber pocket guns to big .44-caliber Dragoons. Perhaps the most popular Colt model among civilians was the Model 1851 .36-caliber Navy. Following the 1857 expiration of Colt's patents, a number of new revolvers appeared on the market. Although the Colt 1860 Army, a streamlined gun which retained the effective .44-bore diameter of the Dragoon, became the predominant handgun of the Civil War, the Federal government also purchased large numbers of Remington, Starr and Whitney revolvers, as well as the guns of other makers, including the bizarre looking Savage, with its second "ring trigger" which cocked the arm, and the side hammer Joslyn. Most of the Joslyns were turned in 1862 "due to their utterly worthless field service."'
        All major Union handguns, save one, were loaded with combustible cartridges or loose powder and ball, ignited by percussion caps fitted to nipples on the rear of each chamber. The exception was the French Lefaucheux, which fired a self-contained pin-fire round. Privately purchased Smith and Wesson revolvers, which chambered small caliber self-contained rim-fire cartridges, also found their way to the front.
        Some volunteers who flocked to the Union colors in 1861 brought their own handguns with them. More than a few of these recruits were ignorant of the basics of gun safety, and often mixed gunpowder with alcohol. Two Jersey City militiamen on their way to the front in 1861 shot a fellow soldier while "skylarking" with their revolvers, and a Jersey City officer chased a private through camp, shooting at him.
        In the Fifteenth New Jersey Infantry, an 1862 regimental order banned handgun possession by enlisted men after an accidentally discharged ball bounced into a major's tent and caromed off his boot. Although such prohibitions were widely disregarded, many infantrymen sold or discarded their personal pistols, along with much other excess gear, after their first forced march.
        Some foot soldiers did, however, keep their handguns. Private Alfred Bellard of the Fifth New Jersey Infantry lost his when it was stolen, along with the rest of the contents of his knapsack, while he was tending wounded men following the battle Of Williamsburg in May 1862. Sergeant John crater of the 15th New Jersey, a champion forager, used his revolver to dispatch ducks, chickens, pigs, rabbits and other edible enemies of the Union. Violating regimental orders, Private George Henderson of the 15th hung on to his six-gun until May 3, 1863, when, at the battle of Salem Church, it saved his life by stopping a ball.
        Some infantry colorbearers, including those of the 14th and 15th New Jersey, were issued or requested handguns, and guards at the Camp Chase, Ohio POW camp in January, 1865 carried Remington revolvers in addition to their rifle muskets. During the Atlanta campaign, Confederate infantrymen received revolvers for use in a successful trench raid. Generally, however, infantry enlisted men on either side seldom carried handguns after 1861.
        Although six-guns were often supplied to light artillery batteries, their actual issue was usually limited to non-commissioned officers and drivers, who used them primarily to shoot wounded and out of control horses. Both infantry and artillery officers usually carried privately purchased handguns, but since an officers job was to direct his men and not get engaged directly in the vulgar brawl of combat, these were seldom fired except in dire circumstances. Officers of the 116th Pennsylvania Infantry used their handguns in close quarter fighting at Gettysburg, and the occasion was such an exception that it was noted in the regiment's post-war unit history.
        Most of the revolvers purchased by the Federal government, as well as those captured or bought by the Confederacy during the course of the war ended up in the hands of cavalrymen. The story of the handgun in the Civil War is, therefore, largely a cavalry story. There was general military agreement that the revolver was an ideal weapon for cavalry. One Texas horse soldier thought horses and six-guns "just run together like molasses." For most cavalrymen, revolver meant Colt. In 1861, Colonel Wade Hampton specified that each mounted man of his combined arms Hampton Legion be armed with a saber and two Colt revolvers. Arms historian John D. McAulay notes that "eighty four percent of all the [Union] revolvers on hand [at Gettysburg] were the Colt 1860 Army."
        At the outbreak of the conflict, revolvers were often not to be had, however. The Confederacy seized only 468 Colts from Federal government arsenals, although state arsenals as well as individuals held a significant number of additional revolvers. Still, the 3rd Texas cavalry was armed with 1,547 old single shot smoothbore pistols converted from flintlock to percussion. Some Yankee units fared almost as badly. By the end of 1861, the 3rd Illinois Cavalry had a mere 135 Colts in the ranks, outnumbered by the regiment's 249 obsolete single shot handguns. Missouri Yankees were paying $35 each for scarce Colts, $10 over retail price, as late as the spring of 1862.
        Officers like partisan leader John Singleton Mosby believed the revolver was the ideal cavalryman's weapon. Countering the opinions of officers who argued that a saber was "always loaded," Mosby believed edged weapons were "of no use against gunpowder." Mosby's men, who favored the .44 Colt Model 1860 Army above all other revolvers, found rapid-fire handguns ideal for close range surprise charges on supply wagons or Federal patrols. James J. Williamson, one of Mosby's men, remembered that: "with us the fighting was mostly at close quarters and the revolver was then used with deadly effect." Many Yanks agreed with Mosby. A Federal officer wrote that his regiment "had never yet drawn the saber in a charge, and never would charge with anything but pistols."
        Perhaps the most significant devotees of the six-gun during the Civil War were the irregular warriors of the Border States. In contrast to Mosby, whose men were enlisted in a recognized unit which had had a clear military purpose and value, Kentucky, Missouri and Arkansas guerillas, whether they professed loyalty to the Union or the Confederacy, were often little better than bandits - a trade many adopted as a postwar career. Like Mosby, however, the guerillas found six-guns ideal for ambushes, where a blizzard of bullets rapidly delivered at close range negated the range advantage of rifle-muskets or breech loading single shot carbines.
        Men who relied on the revolver as a primary weapon often carried a number of them. Many of Mosby's troopers holstered two handguns on their belts and another two on their saddles. Rebel guerillas in Missouri outdid the Virginia partisans and often carried as many as five six-guns. In September, 1864, Federal soldiers in Missouri "killed six of ["Bloody Bill"] Anderson's gang, taking from their bodies 30 revolvers." Bloody Bill himself met his end shortly afterward, and the Yankees removed "four revolvers, two watches, and about $500 in gold and greenbacks" from his body. When another bushwacker, Bill Stewart, was killed by cattleman W. H. Busford, who he was attempting to rob: "four revolvers were taken from his person."
        As with the rifle musket, target practice with handguns was rare, although officers often practiced a bit on their own, and the 4th Ohio Cavalry, at least, practiced mounted marksmanship in 1861. Guerilla leader William C. Quantrill allegedly trained his riders in the mounted use of the revolver as well, although many brought a proficiency in the use of the handgun from civilian life.
        The Civil War era percussion revolver was a state of the art weapon for the period. As a short-range weapon, it did not require extensive marksmanship training for effective use. It was probably the only weapon used in the Civil War that fully lived up to its potential in the conflict.
        No weapon is as personal as a pistol. And there is no handgun, with the possible exception of the Colt Single Action Army, which evokes memories of things past better than a cap and ball revolver. History literally leaps into the hand of the shooter who draws a bead with a percussion six-gun, whether original or reproduction.
        Although the collapse of the Confederacy effectively brought the brief military career of the rifle-musket to a close, the end of the Civil War did not toll a death knell for the percussion revolver. Although challenged by rim-fire cartridge conversions, the cap and ball revolver remained a premier fighting handgun for almost a decade, when it was challenged by the appearance of the Smith and Wesson First Model American and the classic Single Action Army. The reputations of many famous and infamous characters of the post-war "Wild West," including Civil War veteran Wild Bill Hickock, were established with percussion revolvers.

This page last updated 02/18/05

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