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Colt Model 1851 Navy-Navy Cartridge Conversion Revolver - only about 1,000 altered

Colt Model 1851 Navy-Navy Cartridge Conversion Revolver - only about 1,000 altered

  • Product Code: FHG-TB640
  • Availability: In Stock
  • $4,250.00


The mid-1850s was a revolutionary time for small arms development around the world, and the United States was no exception. The US Army had already adopted the percussion revolver in limited numbers for the US Mounted Rifles and US Dragoons by acquiring Colt “Dragoon”, .44 caliber “holster” (as in pommel holster) revolvers in 1848. The US Navy, however, remained steadfast in their belief single shot, muzzle-loading pistols were sufficient for the use of their seamen. In 1851 Colt introduced his “Belt Revolver”, a slimmed down, lighter weight, 6-shot .36 caliber handgun that would become known by its year of introduction as the Model 1851 revolver, or simply by its nickname, the Colt “Navy”revolver. 

 

The number of Colt’s .36 caliber M1851 “Navy” revolvers purchased by the US Navy was rather limited. While Colt had vigorously lobbied the Navy to purchase his revolving pistols during the early 1850s, he met with significant resistance. He did manage to secure an order for 100 revolvers in June of 1852 for the use of Commander Perry’s command on his voyage to Japan. However, the general belief of the Naval Ordnance Department was that pistols were only of use while boarding an enemy ship, and in those circumstances edged weapons such as sabers or axes were of more use to the typical seaman. In fact, the chief of Naval Ordnance, Commodore Morris, wrote to Secretary of the Navy James Dobbin on June 21, 1854, noting in part:

 

“It has not been considered advisable heretofore, to purchase Colts revolvers for general service……….Pistols can seldom be used with effect in the Navy, except when boarding vessels, with the view to their capture, which very rarely occurs. At such time, the contest soon becomes hand to hand when sword or boarding hatchets could be used by seamen, with equal, if not greater certainty and effect than pistols.”

 

Colt was not to be discouraged, and ever the consummate salesman, he did manage to sell the Navy fifty of his M1851 revolvers in June of 1856 and an additional fifty revolvers in May of 1857. In September of that year, the Navy finally placed a larger order for M1851 revolvers. They purchased 2,000, less the one hundred that had been previously ordered, and deliveries began in November of 1857. These “1st Contract” guns appear in the 55500 to 62000 serial number range. The first 615 were delivered for inspection at the Norfolk Naval Yard on November 9, 1857. The next batch of 667 were delivered to the Boston Naval Yard on December 6, and rest of the guns were delivered to the New York Navy Yard later that same month. The Navy placed a second order for an additional 600 M1851s in August of 1859. These guns were in the 89000 to 91000 serial number range, with half of the guns delivered to the New York Naval Yard and the other half delivered to the Boston Naval Yard. The US Navy purchased Colt M1851 revolvers were unique in that they were specifically ordered with iron backstraps and triggerguards. This is particularly interesting because the standard production revolvers had brass backstraps and triggerguards, which were less likely to be damaged by the corrosive salt air environment the revolvers would be exposed to in service. By 1860, Colt M1851 revolvers were listed in the small arms inventories of nearly thirty US Naval vessels, including the USS Caledonia, USS Colorado, USS Congress, USS Crusader, USS Cumberland, USS Decatur, USS Fennimore Cooper, USS Fulton, USS Independence, USS John Adams, USS Lancaster, USS Merrimack, USS Mississippi, USS Pawnee, USS Plymouth, USS Porpoise, USS Powhatan, USS Portsmouth, USS Roanoke, USS Sabine, USS Saranac, USS Saratoga, USS St. Mary’s, USS Susquehanna, USS Vincennes, USS Wabash, USS Water Witch and USS Westernport

 

The end of the Civil War essentially announced the end of the percussion firearms era for the US military. The effectiveness and reliability of self-contained metallic cartridges had been more than proven on the battlefield and all of the US armed forces were looking for ways to modernize their small arms by adopting cartridge-firing weapons. Even the incredibly traditional US Navy looked for a self-contained cartridge handgun to add to their small arms inventory. However, the traditional attitude about the utility of pistols, and revolvers in particular, remained in place at the top echelon of the Naval hierarchy during the first decade of the post-Civil War years. As a result, the Navy adopted the Remington rolling block single-shot pistol as their standard sidearm in 1865. This clearly indicated the Navy felt that self-contained cartridges were desirable for pistols, but the multi-shot firepower of a revolver was not! The Navy was also caught in a budget crisis that arose from government debt that was accrued during the Civil War, and from an overabundance of small arms, albeit obsolete, on hand. The reality was there was simply no budget for the widespread acquisition of cartridge revolvers, nor was there a general consensus regarding which revolver might be the appropriate choice. 

 

In 1873 the Colt Patent Firearms Company approached the Navy with a potential solution that was low cost and allowed the Navy to upgrade many of their obsolete percussion revolvers to cartridge handguns. General W.B. Franklin, Vice President of Colt, offered to upgrade existing stocks of M1851 and M1861 Navy revolvers to centerfire cartridge via the Richards-Mason conversion system for $3.50 each. In a 10 July 1873 letter to Franklin, USN Chief of Ordnance William N. Jeffers accepted the offer from Colt and noted that he had “…advised the Commandant(s) of the Boston, New York, and Philadelphia Navy Yards to send to your manufactory 100, 400 and 300 pistols respectively for alteration.” Thus began the process by which some 2,097 US Navy owned .36 caliber Colt percussion revolvers were altered to metallic cartridge by the Richards-Mason system. 

 

The guns were all altered to .38 Long Colt, and while some sources suggest the barrels were reamed and re-rifled, the reality is that the bores of the guns were not altered, although a few barrels were replaced by Colt due to the poor condition of the bores. The alteration consisted of a series of modifications to the frame, cylinder, and barrel of the revolver. The cylinder was modified by milling down a portion of its rear, removing the percussion cones (nipples) and creating a bored-through chamber, while leaving the original ratchet mechanism intact. The chambers were then reamed out to accept the .38 Long Colt cartridge cases. A conversion breech plate was added to the frame, mounted in front of the original recoil shield and a loading gate was added on the right side of the frame. A new, longer, 2-pronged hand was added to the internal mechanism to actuate the cylinder and the ratchets on the rear face of the cylinder were re-cut to insure proper timing and indexing. The barrel had the loading lever and associated catch removed, and the dovetail for the catch, as well as the loading lever mounting recess were both filled. The hole in the front of the frame through which the rammer plunger passed was not modified. A Mason pattern ejector rod assembly was added to the right side of the barrel, consisting of an ejector rod tube, with a spring-loaded ejector rod that was tipped with a kidney shaped plunger tip with concentric rings embossed on the front to ensure a good grip while using the ejector rod. After the alteration the pistols were refinished by Colt. At least one letter from Colt to the Navy suggested that the iron backstraps of the M1851 Navy revolvers be polished and refinished, and new grips be installed on the revolvers to improve their overall appearance and bring them up to the standards of the rest of the gun that had been refinished after the alteration process. The Navy agreed and paid Colt an additional $0.75 cents for each gun that had the backstrap refinished and the grips replaced. The poor condition of the iron backstraps was specifically noted, and again begs the question of why the Navy insisted on iron instead of the standard brass for their revolver backstraps. As a result of the replacement of most of the grips on the guns sent to Colt, original USN inspection marks in the grips are usually missing from the cartridge converted “Navy-Navy” revolvers. Due to the polishing and refinishing, the original percussion era marks on the guns are often weak or missing, as are most of the original Naval markings in the metal. The pistols were stamped on the lower left side of the frame with the new two-line patent date legend that referenced both the Richards and the Mason patents. In almost all cases the wedges of the cartridge-altered revolvers were replaced with new Colt factory wedges, using both left over percussion wedges with springs and newly made cartridge wedges without springs, all of which were unnumbered. For some reason, many the M1851 Navy-Navy revolvers that were altered ended up with mismatched cylinders that were typically renumbered to match the gun, either below the original serial number on the side of the cylinder or on the rear face of the cylinder. This is probably because the work to modify and machine the percussion cylinder into a cartridge one was the most complicated and time-consuming part of the process, thus cylinders were removed and sent to the machine shop when the guns were disassembled and cylinders that had already been modified were used during reassembly. 

 

It is generally believed that only about 1,000 of the Colt Navy-Navy cartridge conversions were performed on M1851 Navy revolvers, with the balance performed on M1861 Navy revolvers. When the revolvers were returned to the various Navy yards by Colt, only those sent to the New York Navy Yard received any new inspection marks. The revolvers sent to New York were inspected by Commander Richard W. Meade, who stamped his initials and an anchor under the barrels, forward of the frame. Those pistols with the R.W.M. {ANCHOR} mark can be concretely attributed to having been inspected at the New York Navy Yard after alteration. No known inspection markings have been attributed to the revolvers returned to the Boston, Philadelphia, Norfolk, and Portsmouth Navy Yards. 

 

Today all the Richards-Mason converted Colt Navy-Navy revolvers are quite scarce, with less than 100 of the 1,000 altered M1851 Navy revolvers believed to remain in existence. The revolver is an important one in any martial collection as it is the first metallic cartridge revolver used by the US Navy and one of the first metallic cartridge revolvers used by any of the US armed forces.

 

This Richards-Mason Converted Colt Model 1851 Navy-Navy Revolver is part of the second order for 600 guns in August of 1859. All 600 guns were delivered on 9 September 1859, with the deliveries being split between the New York and Boston Navy Yards. While the guns from the initial order for 2,000 revolvers were universally marked USN in the butts and with inspector marks that were usually applied to the bottom of the wood grips, most of the guns from the second order did not receive any “USN” markings at the time of delivery. However, it appears that some did receive USN marks at later points in time. As the wood grip was usually replaced during the alteration to cartridge at the Colt factory, it is often very difficult to determine where any of the guns from the initial order were originally delivered, nor is it possible to know which of the two navy yards a gun from the second order was delivered. 

 

The revolver is serial number 89849 which places it in mid-1859 production. The serial number is found on all major components, with the exception of the unmarked wedge, which was replaced by Colt during the alteration process. The original serial number on the cylinder was obliterated during the polishing and refinishing process and the last four digits of the gun’s serial number, 9849, was added to the rear face of the cylinder with two sets of numbers on either side of one of the chambers, so it appears as 98 and 49.

 

Like all the Colt M1851s delivered under the 2nd US Navy contract, the revolver has a Hartford-style iron backstrap and a large Hartford-style iron triggerguard with a slightly “round bottom” profile that is not as flat as the London-style triggerguard found on the earlier contract guns. The lower front portion of the left side of the frame was originally marked in three lines: COLT’S / PATENT / U. S. and amazingly remains mostly legible. This mark was usually almost completely removed by the polishing and refinishing, but in this case remains mostly visible. The left side of the frame is additionally marked in two lines: PAT. JULY. 23, 1871. / PAT. JULY. 2, 1872. The octagonal barrel is marked with the Hartford address as were all the guns from the second order and it reads in a single line:

 

— ADDRESS SAML COLT HARTFORD, C.T. —

 

The cylinder is marked with the usual COLT’S PATENT No but as noted the original serial number that was on the cylinder has been mostly obscured by the refurbishment process. The cylinder is rolled with the typical Texas and Mexican naval engagement scene, which remains about 80%+ visible. This is much better than the roll engraved scenes normally are on Navy-Navy alteration revolvers. Even the ENGAGED 16 MAY 1843 legend at the front edge of the cylinder remains almost entirely legible. The loading gate is marked with the factory assembly number 1156, and there is no doubt if the conversion ring were removed from the breech face of the revolver that it would also be marked with this number. The same assembly number, 1156, is found on the top of the cylinder arbor as well. These numbers were Colt factory internal assembly marks for the conversion process and were not meant to match the serial numbers of the guns they were applied to. The bottom of the barrel is clearly and deeply stamped with the R.W.M. {ANCHOR} inspection mark, so we know the gun was sent to the New York Navy Yard after it was converted by Colt. A 12 August 1873 letter from Commander Jeffers to Colt asked that when the first 100 revolvers were altered that 50 be sent to the New York Navy Yard and 50 to Portsmouth. No doubt Colt delivered the guns to the various navy yards as needed, and at Jeffers’ direction. However, due to the diligent inspection of the guns that were delivered to the New York Navy Yard by Commander Meade, we know that this gun was returned from Colt to New York.

 

The gun remains in VERY GOOD+ condition and remains relatively crisp and sharp throughout, with good edges and sharp markings. The pistol retains essentially some minor traces of its original Colt factory refurbished blued finish in the protected areas, particularly along the edges of the ejector housing. The balance of the blued portion of the gun has a mostly smooth pewter gray patina with speckled age discoloration and scattered freckles of surface oxidation giving the gun a somewhat mottled appearance. The color casehardened frame retains about 30% of its factory refurbished color, most of which has worn and faded to a dull pewter gray patina. Again, the most obvious and vivid finish is in the more protected areas of the gun. The hammer retains some minor traces of its mottled casehardened finish and has mostly dulled to a dark, bluish-gray patina with some freckled of darker mottling. The metal surfaces are mostly smooth, with some scattered patches of surface oxidation as well as some pinpricking. This is mostly found on the barrel, in particular around the muzzle area and on the web section forward of the cylinder mouths. As noted, the cylinder retains about 80%+ of the roll engraved Mexican War naval battle scene and has a similarly oxidized brown over pewter gray patina as the rest of the gun. The loading gate retains some minor, faded traces of its original color casehardened finish on the interior and is numbered 1156 matching it to the Type III Richards conversion ring at the rear of the cylinder. The ring is numbered on its back and must be removed to check the number. The cylinder arbor is marked with the same assembly number as well. These parts were assembly numbered together during the manufacturing process and were never numbered to the guns that they were installed in. The gate uses the less commonly encountered “outside” spring to secure it. Most Richards-Mason alterations use an “inside spring”, but all the Navy-Navy alterations use the outside spring system. The spring retains about traces of its original niter blued finish, which has faded and dulled. The gate functions smoothly and correctly. The action of the pistol is in FINE condition and the revolver remains extremely tight, timing and indexing perfectly and locking up exactly as it should. The trigger retains some minor faced traces of its original niter blued finish and is now a mostly dull smoky gray color. Like the balance of the action, the trigger functions crisply as well. The iron backstrap and triggerguard have the same mottled pewter gray patina as the rest of the gun and retain no real finish. The butt of the frame is stamped U S N, in a style typical of guns that were marked a later date and not when they were originally delivered to the Navy as percussion guns. This mark was likely applied during the gun’s percussion service life, possibly when shifted to a different navy yard or ship and shows the expected wear to the marks for a gun that went through a factory refinish. The ejector rod button is of the correct kidney shaped pattern with the concentric rings, and functions smoothly and correctly as well. The gun appears to retain all of its original screws as well, which are in nice condition, with most showing minimal slot wear and a couple showing more moderate wear. The screws all retain strong traces of their niter-blued finish, although they have faded and dulled with age. The bore of the pistol rates about GOODcondition. The bore is moderately oxidized and is a dull gray color with scattered oxidized discoloration and evenly distributed light to moderate pitting, as well as some areas of more moderate pitting. Despite this the bore retains strong rifling. The one-piece, oil finished, black walnut grips are in NEAR VERY GOOD condition, and are free of any breaks, cracks, or repairs. However, the grips do show the expected moderate number of bumps, dings and handling marks from use and service. Amazingly, the grip is ink numbered to the revolver in a period hand with the full serial number 89849. Most Navy-Navy conversion revolvers encountered today are wearing grips that were replaced during refurbishing at Colt. Finding a gun with its original, pre-Civil War grips is a real rarity. As would be expected, the grips fit the gripstrap and frame very well, although the backstrap is very slightly proud of the wood along the center of its arc. The grips show wear commensurate with the condition of the balance of the revolver, but also remain about as crisp and sharp as the metal is.

 

Overall, this is a really lovely, 100% original, complete and correct Colt Model 1851 Richards-Mason Converted Navy-Navy Revolver. These are very scarce guns, with only about 1,000 M1851s altered in this way. This gun has a really nice, untouched look and has not been messed with in any way. It is in much better condition than most Navy purchased M1851 conversions revolvers encountered. This is because these guns had a service life of well over three decades, serving the United States Navy in the years leading up to the Civil War, during the war and then being converted in 1873 to serve more than another decade until the Colt Model 1889 Double Action .38 revolver was taken into service to replace them. With all that service and use, it is amazing the gun remains as crisp as it is. A Colt Navy-Navy is a real coup for any serious collector of US marital revolvers to acquire, and a Richards-Mason conversion is even harder to find. This gun would be a great addition to any US Navy collection, to any Colt collection or to a US military revolver collection. This is simply a really solid, “no excuses” gun that you will be very proud to own and to display.

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Tags: Colt, Model, 1851, Navy, Navy, Cartridge, Conversion, Revolver, only, about, 1, 000, altered