Samuel Colt’s revolving firearms were already legend in Texas before they became well-known around the globe, and a bit of Texas history was portrayed on some of the best known Colt wheelguns for decades.
Colt’s 1835 patent for his revolver system, according to legend sparked from an idea of a ship’s capstan, proved the basis of every wheel gun made by his company for the bulk of the 19th Century. From his early production 5-shot Paterson revolvers– which lacked a trigger guard but had a folding trigger– to his huge Walker and Dragoon series hand cannons of the 1840s, the former made for the Texas Rangers, Colt’s designs proved extremely popular, making them the Glocks of the day.
By 1851, Colt began producing a six-shot .36-caliber revolver that, due to an impressive 7.5-inch octagonal barrel, was 13-inches overall. Weighing 42-ounces, it was the same heft as today’s S&W Model 29, although a few inches longer.
When its cylinder chambers were stuffed with a 125-grain lead ball over 14-grains of decent black powder, it could deliver said lead at 760 fps, which translated to just 160 ft./lbs of energy– about the power of today’s .32 ACP cartridge using smokeless powder. Nothing crazy, but enough to get the job done with proper shot placement. Most importantly, it had six rounds on tap, which could beat any single-shot pistol of the day, all day.
To make his mechanical contraptions more aesthetically pleasing to the consumers of the day– and to provide an easy way to confirm if the gun being offered was a counterfeit knock-off– Colt around the same time began engraving the cylinders of his revolvers with assorted martial scenes. His 1848 Dragoons had a mounted combat scene. The Colt Pocket Pistol a stagecoach robbery.
The 1851 Colt? It was graced with the scene of a naval battle between two opposing squadrons of warships arrayed against each other, with linework designed by Connecticut engraver Waterman Ormsby, who was high in demand at the time to produce counterfeit-proof currency designs.
Ormsby’s scene portrays the little-known naval Battle of Campeche, which took place over two weeks across April and May 1843 between the Navy of the Texas Republic and local allies against the Mexican fleet along the shore of the Bay of Campeche in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Texas Navy, under Commodore Edwin Ward Moore, was equipped with two sailing ships, the Austin and the Wharton, and opposed a much larger Mexican fleet that included a pair of British built iron-hulled steam frigates. Although outnumbered, the Texans and their allies won the day as the Mexican fleet ultimately withdrew, with neither side losing any ships.
The engraving is inscribed “Engaged 16th May 1843,” and Colt himself directed the scene to be placed on the revolvers following correspondence with Moore in which the Texan Commodore said, “The confidence that your arms gave the officers and men under my command when off Campeche in 1843 and opposed to a vastly superior force is almost incredible. I would not sail if I could possibly avoid it without your repeating arms and I would have no other.”
A standard feature of the Model 1851, the engraving led the revolver to be dubbed the “Colt Navy,” although it was neither designed for nor in the end adopted by any fleet. Nonetheless, the model proved extremely successful in both the commercial and military markets. The U.S. Army ordered no less than 17,000 Colt Navy models during the Civil War while individual state units and soldiers purchased their own guns out of pocket.
However, the engraving was recycled on other models as well.
The Model 1860 Colt Army, a .44-caliber six-shooter that looked very much like its Model 1851 predecessor but with a round barrel and other updates used the same engraving. Of the more than 200,000 Colt Army models produced, all but the first 4,000– which had fluted cylinders– retained the Campeche engraving. The gun was the most prolific revolver purchased by the U.S. Army in the Civil War, with 129,730 bought under government contracts.
Finally, Colt used the engraving on the Colt 1861 Navy model, a .36-caliber round barreled revolver similar to the Colt Army but slightly shorter. Like the Model 1851, it remained in production until 1871, when Colt moved to switch over from cap-and-ball and cartridge conversions to full-on cartridge revolvers such as the Colt Peacemaker.
But that is another story.