Colt handguns ruled the pistol market in the 1800s, especially their percussion revolvers.
With an open mechanism that was both elegant and very resistant to black powder fouling–not to mention Samuel Colt’s brilliant marketing– Colt handguns were legitimate fighting handguns. By the time of the American Civil War (1861-65), the US military’s standard issue pistol was the Colt 1860 Army revolver. The 1860 is half the weight of the previous Walker and Dragoon pistols with the same 44 caliber killing power.
But the Civil War was unlike other previous conflicts. In short, it was a war of attrition. Whoever had the most men and the most arms was going to win. The loss of arms meant that the US Army needed more handguns than what Colt could produce. That lead to a number of revolvers being sent to the front lines– the most popular of which was the Remington New Model Army. It was a revolver so good that it nearly bankrupted the company.
Pietta’s 1858 Remington
The “1858 Remington” is a modern collector’s term for the Remington New Model Army. The Old Model started production in 1861 with the slightly improved New Model Army coming out in 1863. Uberti and Pietta are producing fine Remington style handguns, both authentic and unauthentic.
Pietta’s Army pistol is quite close to the original except the wooden grips are a bit large and the necessary branding and proof marks are in plain view on the barrel. But overall the gun still has the futuristic aesthetics and handling that drew me to the Remington design in the first place when I first started shooting percussion revolvers.
The gun is blued steel with the only embellishment being a brass trigger guard. The barrel is eight inches long and octagonal and the loading lever doubles as a retainer for the cylinder axis pin. This dual purpose loading lever had an 1858 patent date, hence the modern designation of this pistol. Like most Civil War handguns, the New Model Army uses a six-shot cylinder and is single action, requiring the hammer to be cocked for each shot.
The Remington features milled slots in between the chambers so the gun may be carried fully loaded and the cylinder can be quickly taken out for cleaning by simply dropping the loading lever, half-cocking the hammer, and retracting the cylinder pin. I have carried around spare cylinders in the past for quick reloads, but the practice wasn’t documented at the time.
Like all percussion revolvers, loading is somewhat laborious–but fun. Like all percussion revolvers, you can tailor loads for a variety of shooters or purposes from plinking to handgun hunting.
After firing percussion caps on each of the nipples to rid the cylinder of oil, half-cock the hammer so the cylinder will spin freely.
Drop a charge of powder into each cylinder and top it with a ball or conical bullet. Pull the ramrod down and seat the ball.
Then put a percussion cap onto each nipple. A bit of grease over the chamber mouth or a lubricated wad will go a long way to keeping black powder fouling at bay.
When you first pick up the Remington Army, the first thing you will notice is how modern of a pistol it is. You will not get the elegant lines and engraving of a Colt, but a modern solid frame with fixed iron sights. This is not so much of a culture shock for today’s shooter.
The grips on this Pietta are somewhat larger than the original and they fit my meaty hands with room to spare. You can get a full grip on the piece. Where the Remington might miss the mark is natural point-ability as the gun feels somewhat rear-heavy, but it is not a challenge to line your sights on target quickly.
Those sights, by the way, are a groove in the top-strap and a front post, like a modern revolver. They are low profile, but still easy enough to pick up and they do shoot to the point of aim.
The load used in my standard testing is a 30 grain charge of Graf’s FFFg black powder and a .454 inch 141 grain Hornady round ball. This load is not the hottest you can work up–and it isn’t Civil War authentic– but it was easy to work up right from my powder flask. The lead balls are a piece of cake to seat and leave a nice ring of lead upon seating, assuring a tight and safe fit.
This load was mild recoiling yet accurate from seven yards out to twenty-five yards. Cocking the hammer takes little effort and the single-action trigger has no creep. When it breaks, it breaks.
An initial four-inch group at seven yards, one handed.
Then There Was the Conical Bullet
While a fair bit of my shooting with the Remington has been with round ball, I also took the opportunity to prepare some combustible paper cartridges–like those issued with these guns during their military service. The load was 30 grains of FFFg and a 200 grain .450 inch cast Lee conical bullet, similar to the Army load used during the Civil War. Unfortunately these were incompatible with the Pietta as the loading port where the rammer is located is too short for the longer bullet to clear and be seated. Without modification, Pietta revolvers tend to be for round ball use only while the Uberti reproductions are cut and will happily accept conical bullets. But this is an issue with the reproduction, not the overall design itself.
The pistol points very well, though perhaps not as naturally as the ubiquitous Colt 1851 Navy pistol. The gun’s solid frame caught on in years to come. This stronger, enclosed frame reduced the possibility of spent cap parts jamming the action over the Colt revolvers. However, the enclosed action comes at a price.
The Remington’s Achilles Heel
After twelve shots, the hammer became harder to cock and the cylinder will be slower to turn.
The Colt revolvers can go on for many shots with its open top action and an easily lubricated arbor pin in which the cylinder rotates on. The Remington’s closed off action and smaller, groove-less cylinder pin makes it more susceptible to fouling. It might even be necessary to tap the cylinder pin out because of all the fouling. This reality of the Remington design blows away the myth that it was quick and easy to carry multiple cylinders to reload the pistol. This is real life in the field use, not Pale Rider.
Using thick grease like Slick 2000 or Thompson Center Bore butter on the cylinder pin is the best way to keep the Remington trucking, but after twenty-four shots it became necessary to take a paper towel and wipe down the pin and the inside of the frame. Another step is to use lubricated felt wads under the ball or grease over the ball. This keeps fouling soft throughout shooting and in my experience shooting Remingtons, it is the best way to passively keep shooting without having to break the pistol down.
Though not perfect, the Remington New Model proved popular with over 200,000 units produced. This handgun was such a success that in the post-war era, Remington had trouble. With so many people returning from the war armed, Remington could no longer sell their handguns and hope to stay in business. It would take the internationally famous Remington Rolling Block military rifle to save the company and bring it ultimately into our century.
The Pietta firm is making a nice reproduction of the legendary New Model Army at an insane price point–under $300. These handguns are infinitively stronger and more available than original guns, so I can live with its few quirks. It commands range attention with plenty of puissance and aesthetics for a modern shooter.
Photo credits: Terril Hebert