The guns produced The Volcanic Repeating Arms Company are extremely important in the history of repeating firearms development in the United States. The Volcanic Repeating Arms Company had been formed in July of 1855 as a joint stock company by Horace Smith, Daniel Wesson, and Courtland Palmer, with a number of investors, including Oliver Winchester, a shirt manufacturer from New Haven, CT. The Volcanic Company had been built upon an earlier failure, the original Smith & Wesson partnership. Both the Smith & Wesson and Volcanic companies were established with the goat to manufacture and sell repeating firearms based upon the designs and patents of Walter Hunt and Lewis Jennings. Hunt had developed the “Rocket Ball” ammunition, which was a crude predecessor to modern fixed ammunition. The “Rocket Ball” placed propellant in the recessed cavity of a conventional lead bullet and used an external source for ignition. This was an improvement over the traditional system of loading firearms, in which all the components were separate components. While Hunt’s “Rocket Ball” was underpowered and somewhat unreliable, it was the first somewhat successful American attempt to create a self-contained cartridge that was potentially useable in a repeating firearm. Hunt subsequently patented a crude repeating rifle design that utilized his ammunition. Hunt’s design was further improved upon by Lewis Jennings. Jennings modified and refined it, with the result being the Volition repeating rifle. As none of the designers had the capital or manufacturing capability to proceed with the venture, the patents were assigned to George Arrowsmith, who found the same difficulties, and subsequently sold the patent rights to Courtland Palmer. Palmer was a successful New York hardware merchant and budding industrialist. In 1850, Palmer contracted with Robbins and Lawrence of Windsor, Vermont to manufacture Jennings patent rifles using Hunt’s patent ammunition. It was there that the stars aligned, and a group of men that would revolutionize the firearms industry came to work together on the same project. They were Horace Smith, Daniel Wesson and B. Tyler Henry. All three worked on the Jennings rifle project at Robbins & Lawrence and started to come up with improvements and refinements to the design. The group realized that the single biggest issue with the Jennings design was the shortcomings in the ammunition, so the group went to work on that problem. They also set their minds to developing what would become the basic design for modern lever action firearms for the next 20+ years. This resulted in the Smith-Jennings rifle, but the complicated action and underpowered Hunt patent ammunition kept the design from being a commercial success. In 1852, at the completion of the contract with Robbins & Lawrence, Palmer left the endeavor. However, he appears to have remained in contact with Smith and Wesson. Over the next two years Smith and Wesson worked on improving the ammunition and the firearm designs. Their improvements received patents in 1854. One was for a new, improved self-contained ammunition design. The other was for a repeating firearm with a toggle link action, the basis for all the Volcanic, Henry and early Winchester firearms designs. In 1854, with Courtland as their financier (and the holders of the Jennings and Hunt patents), the first incarnation of Smith & Wesson was born. The firm lasted for only a year, but produced the first of the lever action, toggle link firearms that would revolutionize the American arms industry. Some 1,700 guns were produced between 1854 and 1855, as small frame .31 pistols, larger frame .41 pistols and a handful of .50 rifles. The repeating guns received the nickname “Volcanics” from a review of the arms in the magazine Scientific American, which noted the rate of fire from the guns was like the eruption of a volcano. As with their previous ventures, the shortcoming in the design was the Hunt based ammunition that they chose to use. Smith & Wesson did not use their patented ammunition in the guns, but only an improved Hunt “Rocket Ball” design that now no longer required an external ignition system.
The company soon fell on hard times and Smith & Wesson sold the company assets to an investment group that included (among others) Oliver Winchester, although they stayed on to work with the company. This group set up the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company in 1855. The group initially concentrated on assembling .31 caliber lever action pistols that were made up from left over parts from the failed Smith & Wesson venture. Later, the firm also produced brass-framed lever-action “Navy” pistols in .41 caliber with both 6-inch and 8-inch barrels, which were considered the “belt” and “holster” models, respectively. The firm also produced lever action pistol carbines with 16-inch barrels and detachable shoulder stocks. Both the pistols and pistol carbines were numbered in the same serial number range. The company also offered lever action carbines with 16, 20 and 24-inch barrels, but it appears none were actually manufactured during the roughly two years they were in business. During the brief time that the Volcanic company was in business, they supposedly produced some 3,000 of the .41 caliber “Navy” sized pistols, although it is unclear how many of these were sold during that period.
In 1857, the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company declared “insolvency” and went out of business. At this point, Smith & Wesson went off to pursue their own careers, and soon patented their self-contained rimfire metallic cartridge, and with the purchase of Rollin White’s “bored through” cylinder patent were producing the revolutionary Smith & Wesson #1 revolver. The remaining assets of the Volcanic company were assigned to Oliver Winchester and he formed the New Haven Arms Company on May 1, 1857. One of Winchester’s first moves was to hire B. Tyler Henry to be the manager for the factory. Henry was a brilliant and innovative designer and machinist and probably contributed as much to modern lever action rifle designs as later firearms genius John Browning. Under Winchester’s leadership and with Henry running the factory and workforce, the design of the lever action firearm came into its own. The company produced two frame sizes, the No. 1 in .31 caliber and the No. 2 in .41 caliber. The No. 1 was manufactured as a 4” pocket pistol and a 6” target pistol, and the No. 2 was produced as a 6” or 8” “Navy” pistol, as well as a carbine with a 16”, 20” or 24” barrel. All of the guns were available with either a plain, polished brass frame or with a plated and engraved frame. The plating and engraving cost an extra $1.50 on the No. 1 pistols and $2.00 on the No. 2 pistols, with the carbines varying between $2.00 and $3.00 more over their unadorned brethren. Over the next few years, some 3,370 pistols and carbines would be manufactured by the New Haven Arms Company. The guns were serial numbered from 1 upwards, in sequence of manufacture, without regard to model. Thus a 4” pocket pistol could be #32 and a 16” carbine could be #33, and so on. The New Haven Arms Company also introduced the Henry Rifle in .44 Rimfire Henry Flat in 1860. The “Henry”, both the gun and the ammunition, was the result of B. Tyler Henry’s constant efforts to improve upon the basic Volcanic gun designs and Hunt’s ammunition designs. The success of the Henry rifle and its subsequent improvements lead to the development of the classic M1866 “Yellow Boy” rifle, and in 1867, the New Haven Arms Company ceased to exist, and was replaced by one of the most famous firearms companies in history, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.
The Volcanic “Navy” Pistol, like all of the Volcanic, New Haven Arms and early Winchester firearms designs, were a lever action repeating firearms that utilized a toggle link action. After cocking the hammer, lowering the lever under the receiver to its “open” position pushed the bolt back against the hammer spur. While with the carbine and rifle designs the longer lever had sufficient torque to cock the hammer, the pistols and their shorter, ring levers, could not reliably cock the hammer of the pistol. Opening the lever lower retracted the bolt, ejected any spent cartridge in the chamber and raised the cartridge lifter. Pulling the lever back to its “closed” position closed the bolt and shoved the fresh cartridge from the lifter into the breech. It also returned the lifter to its resting position at the bottom of the receiver, where it was aligned with the magazine tube and would receive a fresh cartridge. The magazine tube under the receiver was spring-loaded and held eight cartridges for the 6-inch Navy pistols and ten cartridges for the 8-inch barreled pistols. A brass follower pushed the cartridges from the muzzle towards the receiver and the cartridge lifter. To load the pistol, the follower was pulled towards the muzzle, until it had passed a split in the magazine tube. The front 2 ¼-inch section of the tube could then be rotated about 45-degrees to the right, exposing he magazine tube for loading, or unloading. After inserting the cartridges, the front portion of the magazine was rotated back to the closed position and the follower was released. This system fed the improved, self-primed Hunt’s patent “Rocket Ball” ammunition onto the cartridge lifter to allow the pistol to function. While the prices for the Volcanic made pistols are not readily available, the same pistol was sold by the New Haven Arms Company (after Volcanic failed) for $18.00 with a plain brass frame and $20 for a pistol with a plated and engraved frame.
This is example of a Volcanic Repeating Arms Company Navy Pistol remains in about FINE condition. It is the most desirable variant as it is the 8” barreled pistol and retains extremely crisp and clear markings, as well as some nice original finish. This pistol is serial number 629 and is so marked on the left side of the grip frame, under the grip, on the right side of the lever and on the interior of the both grip panels. The side plate, bolt and other internal parts should be numbered as well, but the side plate was not removed to check the numbers as reassembly of these pistols can be tricking.
The serial number makes this a fairly early production Volcanic pistol, placing it in roughly the first 20% of production, and suggesting that it was probably manufactured circa 1855, during the first year of Volcanic’s operation. The pistol appears to be 100% complete and correct in every way. It remains in crisp and sharp condition throughout. The pistol retains about 25%+ of its original blue on the barrel and magazine, most of which has faded and blended with a smoky blue-gray patina. The metal of the barrel and magazine tube is mostly smooth, with only a handful of small patches of minor surface oxidation and pinpricking, and one larger patch on the obverse along the barrel rib that measures about 1 ½-inches in length.
The top of the barrel is very clearly and deeply marked in three lines:
REPEATING ARMS CO.
PATENT NEW HAVEN CONN. PAT. FEB 14, 1854.
The markings were applied with five separate dies, so placement, spacing and the depth of the markings is often erratic. This pistol shows five deep, crisp and 100% legible markings.
The frame has a wonderfully rich butterscotch patina that is very attractive. The frame shows only some minor nicks and tiny tool marks around the sideplate, which often shows significant wear and damage from being pried off during the years. The hammer and ring lever both show mottled traces of case color and have a dark, mottled gray patina. The trigger shows some nice traces of blue, with silvering along the edges and at the points of contact. The magazine tube retains its original brass follower and what appears to be the original magazine spring is in place. The follower moves smoothly, and the spring retains good tension. The front of the magazine tube rotates smoothly and opens and closes as it should, with no undue stress or strain. The bore of the .41 pistol is in FINE condition and remains mostly bright, with strong rifling and only some lightly scattered pinpricking along its length, with slightly more oxidation present near the muzzle. The action of the pistol works perfectly and is mechanically excellent. The ring lever operates smoothly, the cartridge lifter raises and lowers as it should and the hammer cocks crisply and releases when the trigger is pulled. The pistol retains its original brass front sight on the top of the octagon barrel, near the muzzle, and the original notched rear sight, dovetailed into the top of the brass frame. Even the screws of the pistol remain in very crisp condition, with only minimal slot wear and no abuse noted. The two-piece grips are in FINE condition. They are free of any breaks, cracks, or repairs and remain solid. There are a couple of very tiny, almost imperceptible old chips at the trailing sharp edges, but these are so minor they are hardly worth mentioning. The grips retain about 80%+ of their original varnished finished, and other than some minor handling bumps and dings, remain very crisp and sharp. The fit of the grips to the frame is excellent, and as mentioned above, the grips are numbered to the pistol on their interiors.
Overall this is a really attractive, rather high condition and unmolested example of an 8-Inch Volcanic Navy Pistol. The gun has fantastic eye appeal and is in very crisp condition with excellent markings, fine grips and an a mechanically excellent action. Only about 3,000 of these Volcanic produced Navy pistols were manufactured before the company went out of business. While it is unclear how many were sold prior to the New Haven Arms reorganization, these guns were essentially all sold during the late 1850s and early 1860s. By contrast, many of the New Haven Arms produced Navy pistols were never sold during the Civil War era but were acquired by workmen at Winchester during the 20thcentury. This accounts for the number of high condition, later production New Haven “Volcanics” in collections. However, high condition Volcanic produced Volcanic Navy pistols are rather scarce. This wonderful pistol would be a great addition to any collection of Civil War era pistols and is an essential bookend to a collection of 19thcentury American cartridge pistols. It is also a wonderful addition to any collection that focuses on early cartridge and repeating handguns and would display perfectly next to the European produced Colette pistols that used a similar “Rocket Ball” type ammunition. At least some of these innovative pistols went off to battle in the early days of the American Civil War in the hands of young soldiers and officers, and this gun would be equally at home in a collection that represents the many early weapons that went to the Civil War from home. One way or another, this is a scare and desirable pistol that was the direct predecessor to the famous Henry Rifle and deserves a place in a collection of fine antique arms.