The Colt 1851 Navy Revolver: One of the first significant carry guns

The Colt 1851 Navy Revolver was a single action six-shot revolver. (Photo: Rock Island Auction Company)

Using a single action system, the Colt 1851 Navy Revolver was a major success for Colt Manufacturing in its heyday. Using a lightweight and rugged revolver design, the Model 1851 Navy also boasted a beautiful finish with a specialized engraving celebrating soldiers. While not as well-known as other antique revolvers, why has the 1851 Revolver earned a spot in both Colt’s history as well as America’s?

The birth of the 1851 Navy Revolver

The Colt 1851 Navy Revolver sprang from the mind of brilliant firearms’ maker Samuel Colt in the late 1840s. Offering consumers a lighter alternative to the Colt Dragoon Revolver, the 1851 Navy Revolver saw production at Colt’s Hartford, Connecticut manufacturing plant from 1850 to 1873.

Originally termed the Ranger model, the pistol’s name later evolved into the Navy model due to the revolver’s intricately decorated cylinder. Depicting a scene of victory of the Second Texas Navy at the Battle of Campeche in May 1843, the cylinder’s engraving set it apart and is what makes it a unique revolver even by today’s standards. The naval themed engraving, created by Waterman Ormsby, was a nod and gesture of appreciation to the Texas Navy.

The Colt 1851 Navy Revolver was manufactured at Colt Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Connecticut from 1850 to 1873. (Photo: Rock Island Auction Company)

Engraving aside, the percussion style six shooter spat out .36 caliber lead balls weighing 80-grains and featuring a velocity of 1,000 feet-per-second — a figure comparable to modern .380 models. Its lightweight design made it ideal for carry and after a receiving a U.S. Army contract, many soldiers chose to do just that. Often tucking the 1851 Navy Revolver into a belt holster, the revolver served both soldiers and frontier settlers making their way out West.

Success here and abroad

A major success in the gun industry at the time, Colt manufactured roughly 215,000 model 1851 Navy Revolvers domestically and approximately 42,000 revolvers at the Colt London Academy. Many notable historical figures fought with the 1851 Navy Revolver on their side to include: Wild Bill Hickock, John Henry, “Doc Holliday,” Ned Kelly, Robert E. Lee as well as the Texas Rangers prior to the Civil War.

The revolver was often carried in a belt holster and was used by settlers heading West. (Photo: Rock Island Auction Company)

The revolver went so far as Europe, Asia and Africa due in part to Colt’s aggressive marketing style and promotion of his revolvers. The 1851 Navy Revolver even served the Ottoman Empire, used in combat during the Russo-Turkish War spanning 1877 to 1878.

Conversions

After its initial launch, the 1851 Navy Revolver saw the addition of conversions, allowing the revolver to fire .38 rimfire or centerfire cartridges. A small batch — around 1,000 to 1,500 – of 1851 Navy Revolvers were converted incorporating front-loaded, tapered cartridges designed to fill the chambers of the cylinder.

The engraving, done by Waterman Ormsby, depicts a scene from the Battle of Campeche. (Photo: Rock Island Auction Company)

Around 1869, Colt 1851 Navy Revolvers were either converted or newly created in order to accommodate the .38 rimfire or centerfire rounds, leading to the manufacture of the Colt Model 1851 Richards-Mason Conversion. An 1851 Navy conversion was even featured in the movie The Good, the Bad and the Ugly used by The Man With No Name.

Today’s Market Value

As with any antique firearm, the value of the 1851 Navy Revolver usually boils down to quality and condition. While some revolvers might fetch $700 some are valued as high as $25,000. Rock Island Auction Company, a premier auction house for antique weaponry, auctioned a U.S. Contract Model 1851 Navy Revolver in May 2017. The extremely rare revolver sold for a whopping $86,250.

Benefiting from a well-built and obviously durable design as well as its creatively engraved cylinder, the Colt 1851 Navy Revolver has proven why it’s earned a place in American gun history and on the auction blocks.

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