The 1851 Colt Navy was produced from 1851 until 1873  and in that time over 250,000 Navy revolvers were made, 215,340 pistols were produced in Hartford, Connecticut and 42,000 were produced in London, England.  In its day, the 1851 Navy was the most popular Colt revolver ever made, sold and fired. Chambered for the .36 or .44 ball shot.

Below is shown a very nice, modern day reproduction commemorative model 1851 Colt Navy squareback.  These commemorative versions make excellent display pieces when attached to a nice piece of walnut.

Superb embellishments and gold plating on this 1851 Navy will make it a collectors item. Commemorating the Union army's victory in the civil war, a war where the 1851 Navy saw a lot of combat use.

 

The 1851 Colt Navy is indeed iconic and symbolizes the Civil War and Wild West like no other handgun, it was used by such notables as Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody and Calamity Jane, the Colt Navy also served on both sides of the Civil War. The Colt Navy was even manufactured by both sides as well...they couldn't get enough of these accurate and reliable revolvers.

The 1851 Colt Navy is a Percussion Revolver more commonly called a "Cap n Ball" gun in that it uses ball shot, percussion caps and black powder as its ammunition source. The days of pushing cartridges into a revolver were a few years away yet.

General specifications of the 1851 Colt Navy

Caliber.......................Available in .36  or .44
Weight......................2 lbs 4½ ounces.
Barrel........................Generally 7½ inches, octagonal forged.
Overall length.........13 and 1/8th inches.
Frame........................Case hardened.
Front Sight...............Brass bead or blade...blade versions are rare
Rear Sight...............Notched 'V' into top of the hammer.
Handle.....................Polished walnut.
Ammunition............21 -28 grain of Black Powder, percussion cap and ball shot
Capacity............6 shots.

The 1851 Colt Navy was the most favoured revolver of the Union Army Officers for its great handling and accuracy, also like other Colt revolvers it had fully interchangeable parts and was easy to disassemble.

There are quite a few variations of the Navy including the Sheriffs version and a long barrelled shoulder stocked version.

 

1851 Colt Navy Sheriffs Model

And below is proof that snub-nosed revolvers a.k.a snubbys were also in demand in the 1850's with another version of the 1851 Sheriff.  This exclusive image shows that the barrel has been cut down as far as it is possible, so there their is still some use from the under-lever mechanism.

Photo credits Bob & Amy

It took quite some time to actually load up a cap and ball percussion revolver, about three minutes in skilled hands but many users of the gun would have several pre-loaded cylinders and when all six shots had been fired a new cylinder was inserted.

Percussion Pistols were not very reliable guns in that if the powder or percussion caps got damp or were not married up properly, a misfire would result and often did, but its ok as your oppositions guns did the same!

Below is pictured a modern Uberti  Italian copy of the 1851 Navy. This particular piece is a reproduction of the " Square Back " it was called this due to the way the trigger guard was squared off instead of being rounded.

 

These reproduction Old West revolvers have become popular with modern day shooters in gun clubs.  A genuine revolver from the 1850's would cost many thousands of dollars as they are now antiquities, so an ideal compromise is one of the faithful Italian reproductions.

The 1851 Colt Navy has quite an appealing look and feel to it, it was a well made gun and in the right hands it was very accurate.

Below is a Youtube video and screen grab of a modern day shooter firing the 1851 Colt Navy at an indoor shooting range, firing at twelve meters (just over thirty feet.)

 

Recent controlled tests have shown that this revolver was capable of putting three shots into a three inch group at twenty-five yards.  The 1851 Navy can have a full charge of 26.5 grains of black powder and this will render a muzzle velocity of 910 f.p.s (feet per second) which is quite impressive for such an 'old' gun.

The muzzle velocity meant a flatter trajectory and offered greater accuracy, especially over the distances it would be fired, usually not exceeding twenty-five yards.  Most fastest on the draw type shoot outs of the old West would have been within this distance of twenty-five yards and @ 910 f.p.s muzzle velocity, it would drop an opponent with one shot.

 

One of the best and most famous pistolero's of the Old West was James Butler 'Wild Bill' Hickok. His favorite gun was the 1851 Colt Navy and he was a very good shot with it.

1837 - 1876

He was a legendary character in the Old West and a great exponent of the 1851 Colt Navy. Wild Bill arrived in the West initially as a stage coach driver and later became a Lawman in the territories around Kansas and Nebraska. He fought during the American Civil War on the side of the Union Army and achieved renown afterwards as a scout, gambler and gunfighter.

During his time as a Lawman Wild Bill engaged in many shootouts, and with his 1851 Colt Navy he was a very accurate and deadly shot, more so as he always remained calm, cool and collected in a shoot out, whilst the other party was nervous and scared.

 

At the age of 39, Wild Bill Hickok was murdered, he was shot whilst playing poker at Nuttal & Manns Saloon  No.10 in Deadwood, Blackhills, Dakota Territory on August 2nd 1876.

Wild Bill always played Poker with his back to the wall, and one day there were no vacant seats, so for the first and last time he sat at a table with his back to two adjacent doors, he was sneaked up on and shot in the back of the head at close range by a Colt .45 by a coward named as Jack McCall.  Bill was holding four cards, two black aces and two black eights's, forever known now as the 'dead mans hand'

R.I.P Wild Bill, a Gentleman gunfighter.  Read more about Wild Bill Hickok and his Colt Navy on my history web page here...click on the pistol image below.

 

www.vincelewis.net/hickok.html

Below is an image of a genuine 1851 Colt Navy, showing the cylinder and percussion cap nipples at the end of the cylinder.  This revolver has acquired a nice patina to the metal and adds to its value.  Anyone who owns such an antique should never get the polish out and shine it up as this great depreciates the value.  Simply oil it and maintain it if you are firing an antique Navy.

The engraved 1851 Colt Navy below is a typical example of some of the work that gunsmiths of the Old West would carry out to make a mans plain looking 'shooting iron' more decorative. They were often silver or nickel plated and then brought up to a high polish. An original example of a silver plated and embellished 1851 Colt Navy as seen below, sold for $22,500 at auction.

 

I am often amazed at the amount of intricate detail that those gunsmiths could etch onto a gun.  Antiques of this nature are worth many times more than the normal  variety without embellishments.

The 1851 Colt Navy was originally intended to be issued to the Navy and the cylinder consequently portrayed this as it was engraved with an actual naval warfare scene.  The image below shows the naval scene on the side of the cylinder, although not very clearly.

The long curved hammer was designed so it could be 'fanned' back by the shooters left hand.  With the trigger depressed at the same time the gun could then be fired very fast consecutively.  The under barrel loading lever locked away quite nicely into a latch at the end of the barrel...shown on the bottom right.

    

Many 1851 Colt Navy revolvers were presented in a rather nice furnished case like the genuine example in the photo below.  Samuel Colt, the eternal entrepreneur would often make a gift of such a revolver to lucky clients and businessmen, as the publicity would always attract even more business.

The case below contains, the 1851 Colt Navy revolver, ball shot, percussion caps, powder dispenser flask and adjustment tools.

 

Below is Colts entire manufacturing list of all the Colt Navy 1851 serial numbers. The numbers are inclusive, for example:  serial number 174900 is for the year of 1863 and serial number 9990 would be for 1851.

1851 COLT NAVY SERIAL NUMBERS
YEAR & SERIAL NUMBER YEAR & SERIAL NUMBER YEAR & SERIAL NUMBER
1850 --------- 1 1858 ---------- 85000 1866 ---------- 185000
1851 ----------- 2500 1859 ---------- 90000 1867 ---------- 200000
1852 ---------- 10000 1860 ---------- 93000 1868 ---------- 204000
1853 ---------- 20000 1861 ---------- 98000 1869 ---------- 207000
1854 ---------- 35000 1862 --------- 118000 1870 ---------- 210000
1855 ---------- 40000 1863 --------- 132000 1871 ---------- 212000
1856 ---------- 45000 1864 --------- 175000 1872 ---------- 214000
1857 ---------- 65000 1865 --------- 180000 1873 ------ 215000 - 215348
1851 COLT NAVY MODERN REPRODUCTIONS SERIAL NUMBERS
YEAR & SERIAL NUMBER YEAR & SERIAL NUMBER
1971 ---------- 4201 1975 ---------- 15101
1972 ---------- 5901 1976 ---------- 20001
1973 ---------- 8301 1977 ---------- 22701
1974 --------- 10801 1978 ---------- 23401
LONDON, ENGLAND 1851 COLT NAVY  SERIAL NUMBERS
YEAR & SERIAL NUMBER
1853 -------------------------- 1
1854 ---------------------- 4000
1855 ---------------------15000
1856 ------------ 41000 - 42000

1851 Colt Navy revolvers will be around for a long time to come, either in private collections or fired out on the range.  They will also always be portrayed in every American Civil War re-enactment too, as without one, any re-enactment would be incomplete. Who knows, had it not been for the rapid advancement and continuing innovation of firearms technology, the 1851 Colt Navy could still be with us today as a viable weapon.

The 1851 Colt Navy was an accurate and surprisingly reliable old gun and was cherished by all who had cause to use one. It saved life with the same gusto as it took it, being designed to kill and doing so quite well.  It was a very common gun to be seen on the battlefields and in saloon shoot outs in the days of the old west.  Whether for good or for bad, the 1851 Colt Navy is very much a part of American history and is a reminder of those hard pioneering days that eventually formed a great nation.

For those of you who own an 1851 Colt Navy or indeed any other black powder cap n ball revolver, I have a special page explaining how to load and shoot such a gun... How to load a Cap n Ball Revolver.  Just click on the highlighted text.

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Page created August 9th 2007.   Updated December 30th 2012