BUT SAM COLT MADE THEM EQUAL
The Revolving Pistol in American History

By Bill Dobbins
www.billdobbins.com

colt_model_1873_single_action_army_cavalry_revolver_44
The Colt Model 1873 single-action army revolver. Issued to the US calvary, a popular sidearm in the old west – and an iconic part of US history.  These pistols were made with barrels of differing length.

We don’t have photographic documentation of most of history, at least nothing before about 1839.  But when it comes to the old west, the myths and legends that have grown up about this period are informed to a large extent by photographs – pictures of everyone from Billy The Kid and Wild Bill Hickcock to Custer and Sitting Bull.  Because of photos, we know a lot about how people lived, how they dressed – and what kind of weapons they used.

Western movies have been made almost since the beginning of film, but don’t make that many westerns nowadays – featuring stories the American frontier from the end of the Civil War to the turn of the 20th Century – although you’ll still find lots of “oaters” on services like Netflix and Amazon Prime.  But when I was a kid there were lots and lots of cowboy and western movies and TV shows.  From Hopalong Cassidy and Maverick to John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, they mostly the plots featured a code of honor and honesty and sticking up for justice and the little guy – and western heroes often enforced their will on the bad guys by carrying revolving pistols, more often than not a 45 caliber Army Colt “Peacemaker.”

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The earliest small arms were little more than hand cannons. Not very accurate but effective if you assembled enough of them in the same place.

The historical fact that the possession and use of guns in the early history of the country was commonplace eventually turned into enduring American myth, and is one of the reasons why so many in the US still regard firearms as an essential element of American life.

Firearms of one sort or another have been around for centuries, including pistols, but one major technological development that changed the way people fought and defended themselves with handguns was the invention of the multi-shot revolver.  Most early handguns and long guns, with a few exceptions, limited you to firing one shot and then having to reload – a time-consuming procedure.  The multi-shot revolver increased an individual’s firepower by six or eight-fold, which made a huge difference.

musketeer
A Musketeer. Early muskets were slow to load and inaccurate, less effective than archers, but you could train gunners fairly quickly while becoming an expert archer could take years.  The soldiers in The Three Musketeers story were primarily trained to fight with firearms rather than swords.
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Technology advances: The wheel lock firing mechanism did away with the need to light a fuse and came before the development of the flintlock.

The first primitive firearms originated in 10th-century China when bamboo tubes containing gunpowder and pellet projectiles were mounted on spears into the one-person-portable fire lance,[5] which was later used as a shock weapon to good effect in the Siege of De’an in 1132. In the 13th century the Chinese invented the metal-barrelled hand cannon, widely considered[by whom?] the true ancestor of all firearms. The technology gradually spread through the rest of East AsiaSouth Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Older firearms typically used black powder as a propellant, but modern firearms use smokeless powder or other propellants. Most modern firearms (with the notable exception of smoothbore shotguns) have rifled barrels to impart spin to the projectile for improved flight stability. – Wikipedia

Dueling_pistols
Dueling pistols, such as the one that Aaron Burr used to kill Alexander Hamilton, were highly refined, often elaborately decorated and were quite accurate and deadly at relatively close quarters.
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A formal pistol duel, such as the one in which Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton. In the old west, there was rarely such formality. Two men just picked up guns or knives and tried to kill each other any way they could.

While the development of the cannon was quite rapid once the use of gun powder to propel a projectile was understood (of course, nothing like the computer-controlled, satellite-guided weapons of today), it took a long time for technology to come up with really effective designs for small arms: long guns and pistols.  The earliest long guns were little more than miniature canons – metal tubes stuffed with powder and some sort of metal ball or other material, terribly inaccurate, liable to blow up in the shooter’s hands and so inaccurate they were best used as volley-fire from large groups.

pepperbox
Before the invention of the modern revolver, there were many attempts to design a multi-shot pistol. The pepperbox was one of them. The only problem was the tendency for all barrels to go off at once.
pistols
Pistols have continued to evolve over time.
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The shotgun provides a lot of firepowers. Some pistols have been designed to fire shotgun shells to provide the power of a shotgun in a small package.  Some had a single barrel while other, as in this photo, could fire two shells.

The technology of firearms proceeded from matchlock to wheel lock to flintlock, all involving loading powder and shot or a bullet into the barrel and then having some kind of ignition system to set off the powder and expel the projectile.  One major advance was adding rifling to the barrel to impart spin to the bullet, making it far more accurate than a musket, which shot a ball with no deliberate spin.  A pitch thrown with not much spin is the knuckleball, and it’s a tendency to dance around is great for getting batters out, but this kind of unpredictable movement is not so desirable when you are trying to hit a target with a firearm.

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Unlike muskets, rifles allow sharpshooters and snipers to hit selected targets at considerable distances.

Early 19th century rifles could be extremely accurate over distance, as many a victim of snipers during the Civil War could attest.  A marksman with a good rifle was a far different thing than an ordinary soldier with a musket.

Also by the 19th century, the design of flintlock pistols had become quite sophisticated, as evidenced by the elegance, beauty and deadly accuracy of the gentleman’s dueling pistol,  which ended the life of Alexander Hamilton, as depicted in the extremely popular rap musical about Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

The introduction of a pistol with a multi-chambered revolving cylinder – which we know as the revolver – became a reality a short time before the Civil
War and continued to evolve over time – but the revolvers of that time were not the first attempt at creating a multi-shot handgun.

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The percussion Colt Dragoon from 1848 was a beast of a handgun and often carried in a holster on the saddle rather than on the person.
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The Colt Navy, model 1852. Another significant percussion revolver.

Here is some history, courtesy of EdFormatics:

Snaphaunce” revolvers with the most important features of the type single fixed barrel, automatic cylinder rotation, and positive cylinder alignment were made in the late 17th century. The earliest known specimen, now in the Tower of London armories, is dated about 1680 and attributed to John Dafte of London.

Elisha Collier patented a flintlock revolver in Britain in 1818, and significant numbers were being produced in London by 1822. The origination of this invention is in doubt, as similar designs were patented in the same year by Artemus Wheeler in the United States and by Cornelius Coolidge in France.

Samuel Colt received a British patent for his revolver in 1835 and an American patent (number 138) on February 25, 1836 for a Revolving gun, and made the first production model on March 5 of that year.

Loading revolver
Revolvers such as the Colt Army had to be loaded and unloaded one cylinder at a time.
schofield top break
The Schofield was a revolver that was almost selected by the US army rather than the Colt. It had a hinge which allowed it to “break” forward, automatically ejecting all the cartridges at once. This made for fasting unloading and reloading.
1871-Navy-Colt-OT-Conversion_002
This is a Navy Colt converted from percussion to cartridges.

Another revolver patent was issued to Samuel Colt on August 29, 1839. The February 25, 1836 patent was then reissued as U.S. Patent RE00124  entitled Revolving gun to Samuel Colt on October 24, 1848. This was followed by U.S. Patent 0007613  on September 3, 1850, for a Revolver, and by U.S. Patent 0007629  on September 10, 1850, for a Revolver.

The earliest revolvers of the 19th century involved loading each cylinder with some powder and a metal ball and then a putting an explosive percussion cap on a nipple of each of the cylinders in order to initiate firing.  This was tedious and time-consuming but many of the pistols allowed for carrying extra loaded cylinders that could be quickly swapped out once ammunition was exhausted.  Having a weapon like this created a level of firepower that made a single individual a much more formidable threat than ever before.

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Wild Bill Hickock was a rare individual who could actually be classified as a “gunfighter.” He fought both gun battles and duels and was known as an expert marksman. He was so quick on the tigger he once accidentally shot his own deputy rushing in to support him in a fight.  Hickcock generally relied on his pistols rather than a rifle or shotgun.
01_1951 Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok
Guy Madison as Wild Bill Hickcock on TV. Compare this photo to that of the real Hickcock and you can see how far the myth has drifted from reality.  Madison did not portray Hickcock as the killer he actually was but as a convention, one-dimensional “good guy” wearing a Hollywood version of old west clothing.

These pistols were soon replaced by ones that shot a cartridge that could be loaded and then reloaded into a chamber fairly rapidly.  A lot of early percussion cap-and-ball pistols were later converted for the use of cartridges.  In a lot of Clint Eastwood westerns, you’ll see characters using older model style percussion pistols that are have been upgraded to shoot cartridges.

buntline
The Army Colt “Buntline Special,” carried by Wyatt Earp, featured an extra long barrel, which made the pistol more accurate at a distance.

By the way, another technological development of the time was the use of smokeless powder rather than black gunpowder.  This new type of gunpowder was more powerful and created less residue to foul the weapon.  Lack of a lot of smoke each time you pulled the trigger was also beneficial in not giving away your position each time you fired your weapon.

One very popular revolver at the time, and extremely popular in TV shows and movies about the old west, with the Colt Single Action Army, also known as the Single Action Army, SAA, Model P, Peacemaker, M1873, and Colt .45 is a single-action revolver with a revolving cylinder holding six metallic cartridges. It was designed for the U.S. government service revolver trials of 1872 by Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company—today’s Colt’s Manufacturing Company—and was adopted as the standard military service revolver until 1892.

John Slaughter
John Horton Slaughter (October 2, 1841 – February 16, 1922), also known as Texas John Slaughter, was an American lawman during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Notice he is carrying a shotgun as well as a revolver. 

Actually, the Colt Single Action Army was not the government’s first choice for a military sidearm.  For one reason, it required that each cylinder be loaded individually and then each spent cartridge ejected one at a time.  There were other designs in which the pistol was hinged so it would “break” forward so that all the fire cartridges could be ejected simultaneously, with the rear of the cylinders exposed for easier reloading.  One competing design was the .45 Schofield with a shorter caliber than the .45 Colt. Most importantly it had an improved extractor that ejected all six empty casings at once. But the revolvers were found to be less reliable than the Colt 1873 Single Action. Also many in the Ordnance Department and in the Army felt that the ability to quickly extract empty cartridges was not needed.  So the Colt was accepted by the army and thousands were ordered.

cowboys at bar
Cowboys at a bar. Notice they are not carrying pistols.

There was a saying at the time that God created man and Sam Colt made them equal.  But it is a fact that gunfights with pistols were far less common in the old west than as depicted in TV shows and movies.  In fact, the west of that time was less violent in general than the myths indicate – although there certainly was violence.  To help control violence, many cities passed ordinances that prohibited carrying firearms within city limits.  This made for a lot fewer opportunities for drunken cowboys and miners to hurt or kill each other.

winchester
The Winchester lever action rifle, an improvement over the Henry repeating rifle of 1860, became a standard long gun in the old west and is still popular today.  It was certainly more effective for hunting, combat or self-defense than a revolver.
lee van cleef rifle
Rifles are much more accurate over distance than pistols. There is a scene in an Italian western where Lee Van Cleef is challenged for a gunfight in the street. He walks away from the challenger, goes to his horse down the street, pulls out a rifle from a scabbard and shoots his adversary, well out of range of the man’s pistol.  You don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, but you’d better make sure you are bringing the right kind of gun.

Any firearms expert will agree that pistols are fairly inaccurate weapons without a great deal of practice and ideal circumstances.  Statistics tell us that most police officers miss most of the time when they fire their pistols.  The same was true in the old west, especially using pistols that were less accurate than those of today.  Besides which, it was the style of the era to shoot a pistol with one hand, rather than with two hands and is standard today.  This makes the expertise of somebody like Wild Bill Hickock, who was a marksman capable of shooting down an adversary at 75 yards with a revolver, all the more impressive.

eastwood shotgun
For delivering devastating firepower at close range, the shotgun is clearly superior to the rifle or the revolver.

But if you needed to so some accurate shooting – for hunting, combat, defense against bandits of Indians – the weapon you needed was a rifle.  The Henry repeating rifle was introduced in 1860.  It was a lever-actionbreech-loadingtubular magazine rifle famed both for its use at the Battle of the Little Bighorn and being the basis for the subsequent and iconic Winchester rifle of the American Wild West.

But the Henry used a rim-fire cartridge, which is weaker cartridge than the center-fire version, and this type of cartridge can’t be reloaded after being fired.  So the Henry was pretty much supplanted by the Winchester, which used center-fire cartridges.  Lever-action rifles were supplanted in time by bolt-action weapons for military use, but they remain in production and are very popular to this day.

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There are many “fast draw” clubs and competitions nowadays. But the style and equipment involved bears almost no resemblance to the technique a real gunfighter might have used in combat in the old west.

Of course, when it comes to self-defense and close combat probably the best firearm for the job is the shotgun.  With a simple mechanism, not much chance of misfire, easy to load, requires much less skill to use and aim and creates a devastating result when the trigger is pulled.  Even the most accomplished gunslinger would think twice about going up against an adversary armed with a shotgun.

1911 clips
The 1911 model Colt automatic pistol, which feeds cartridges from a magazine in the handle, was adopted because the revolvers used at the time did not have enough “stopping power.”   Various versions of this pistol remained the standard American military sidearm through a number of wars until relatively recently – and is still carried by some specialized military units.

Nowadays, the semi-automatic pistol has largely supplanted the revolver, especially in the military and with law enforcement.  Depending on the design, this kind of weapon can be loaded with more ammunition than a six-shooter revolver and reloading is simply a matter of ejecting a magazine and inserting another.

But the six-shooter revolver, particularly the Colf Single Army, remains an iconic symbol of the old west and seems to be a permanent part of the American psyche.  Forget that these weapons are not all that accurate over distance, that you can’t really hit anything with a fast draw unless the target is right in front of you (and then you have a good chance of shooting off your own toes), and that actually gunfights face to face in the street were a relatively rare event in the old west.

As the character says in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

John-Wayne-in-The-Man-Who-Shot-Liberty-Valance
John Wayne in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” An iconic actor playing an iconic character.  “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

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Bill Dobbins Sarah Lyons dressing room-SMALL-1

Bill Dobbins is a professional photographer, videographer and writer based in Los Angeles.  His work has been exhibited as fine art in two museums, a number of galleries, and he has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:

The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Taschen)

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EMAIL: billdobbinsphoto@gmail.com

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I remember a scene in a silent western in which William S. Hart walks into a saloon to confront the bad guy. He has two guns drawn and pointed in front of him. That seems like a more realistic way to confront your adversary than waiting to do a fast draw.
great-train-robbery-1903 (1)
A still from The Great Train Robbery, 1903. One of the most iconic movie images of all time. Bandit and six-gun – and so its time to print the legend.