Rare & Fine Large Iron Triggerguard Colt "Late 3rd Model" 1851 Navy Revolver
- Product Code: FHG-TB536-SOLD
- Availability: In Stock
Next to the Model 1873 Colt Single Action Army revolver, there is probably no Colt revolver that is more iconic than the Colt “Belt Model”, better known to collectors as the Mode 1851 Navy percussion revolver. The revolver was introduced by the famous Colt Patent Arms Manufacturing Company in 1850 and remained in production through 1873, when Colt’s new self-contained cartridge revolvers finely made the percussion revolver obsolete. During its production life, Colt produced 215,348 of the legendary handguns in Hartford, CT, not counting those produced in London, with some 175,000 or so being produced prior to the end of the American Civil War.
The percussion revolver was .36 caliber, with a 7 ½” octagonal barrel and a six-shot cylinder. The action was Colt’s tried and true single action lock work, and the gun was made in two primary sections, with a removable wedge securing the barrel and loading lever assembly to the cylinder arbor and frame. The standard finish was a blued barrel with a color casehardened frame, hammer and loading lever. The backstrap and triggerguard were usually produced of brass with silver plating, but some examples were made with iron backstraps and triggerguards and some were even made with iron backstraps and brass triggerguards. Standard grips were one-piece varnished walnut for commercial guns, while most military contract guns had oiled walnut grips. Like any Colt product, a wide variety of upgrades and options were available to the customer, limited only by the buyer’s budget and imagination. Grips made from exotic materials, most often ivory, were available, and these could be checkered or carved, with other options such as exotic woods available as well. Upgraded finished could include silver and gold washes, nickel plating, full blue and combination finishes of silver plating and blue. Engraved and highly embellished guns were available as well. The Navy was one of the revolvers that Colt offered from time to time with a detachable shoulder stock, and even front sight options were available to the buyer.
Many fighting men of the era considered the “Navy” to be the perfect combination of size, weight, firepower, and overall ergonomics. The advocates for the pistol ranged from pistoleros like “Wild Bill” Hickok, to Confederate cavalry Generals like J.E.B. Stuart and Nathan Bedford Forrest. It is interesting to note that most Confederate produced revolvers were essentially copies of the Colt “Navy”, and not the more powerful .44 caliber Colt “Army” revolver, and even those that were not direct Colt clones tended to retain the .36 caliber chambering. Thousands of these revolvers were used by both US and CS soldiers during the Civil War. Not only those guns that were purchased on US government contracts saw the battlefield, but also many acquired on the open market both before and during the war saw service. Many commercial guns ended up in the hands of combatants on both sides during the course of the war.
Like most of Colt’s firearms that survived in the product line for more than a couple of years, the 1851 Navy went through a number of design and engineering changes during its lifetime. Collectors and researchers have categorized these guns into four “models” from 1st through 4th and then further subdivided the categories into “early”, “middle” and “late” production for the 3rd and 4th model guns. Nominally by serial number the “1st Model” guns appear in the #1-#1,250 range, with the 2nd Model guns appearing in the #800-4,581 range. These 1st and 2nd Model guns are instantly recognizable by their “Square Back” triggerguards similar to the profile of those used on the 1st and 2nd Model Dragoon revolvers and most of the Model 1848 Baby Dragoon handguns. There are some minor differences between the 1st and 2nd Models, most notably the location of the barrel wedge, which is above the screw and enters from the right side on the 1st Model guns and is below the screw and enters from the left on the 2nd Model guns. Other changes are minor and not visible without disassembly. Early 3rd Model revolvers started to appear around #3620 and run through about #30,520 with Middle 3rd Model revolvers appearing in the #30,250-#39,500 range and the Late 3rd Models appearing in the #37,572-#85,472 range. These guns are instantly recognizable by their small brass triggerguards, with the other improvements and changes being minor machining changes in things like the shape of the cut out in the barrel web for the loading groove and some minor changes in the size of some parts, like the barrel lug. The Early 4th Model guns appear around #85,921 and run through about #118,586. The most noticeable change from the 3rd Model guns is the introduction of the large brass triggerguard, replacing the small brass guard typical of 3rd Model guns. The Early 4th Model revolvers also introduced the Hartford barrel address for the first time, as all previous M1851s had utilized a New York barrel address. The Hartford address remained in use through most of the Early 4th Model production but was changed back to a New York address in the #98,000 to #101,000 range. These guns appear in the rough range of #118,000 to #168,000. The primary difference between the Early and Middle 4th Model guns is the addition of the capping groove in the capping cut-out of the recoil shield. Late 4th Model guns appear start to appear in the #166,000 range and continue through the end of production. The primary difference here is the change in the way small parts are knurled and the way in which serial numbers are applied to various parts. Through all these changes, the basic gun changed not at all, but most of the changes and improvements were adopted to either make the guns more ergonomic in operation or to streamline and improve production. The categorization by serial number range used above is from the detailed research of Robert Jordan and Don Geri published in their book Colt 1851 and 1861 Navies & Conversions. This is a fine resource for those who want to find out more details regarding some of the more minute feature and design changes between the various “models” of 1851 Navy revolvers.
Two special groups of 1851 Navy Revolvers are addressed in the authors’ book, those guns that were made with iron triggerguards and backstraps, but that were not part of the US Ordnance Department contracts that included those features. The authors have divided these guns into “Small Iron Triggerguard” and “Large Iron Triggerguard” guns and the authors do not categorized these revolvers as either 3rd or 4th Model revolvers. This is partly because the guns appear scattered within certain serial number ranges of production. Based upon their research, many of the commercially sold 1851 Navy revolvers with iron backstraps were sold with detachable stocks. This makes sense, as the brass backstrap was inherently weaker and would probably not stand up well over time to the rigors of use with a shoulder stock. Due to the lack of surviving factory records, it is impossible to draw more than hypothetical conclusions about the reasons for the use of the iron backstraps and triggerguards. It is known that some of the guns were produced with Large Iron Triggerguards used parts returned from Colt’s London manufactory after it closed in 1856, but most of those parts were used up US Navy contract guns. Additionally, it appears that the English market preferred the iron over brass for the backstrap and triggerguard, so many of the surviving examples of guns with these features have London commercial proofs, indicating they were exported to England.
Offered here is a really nice example of a scarce Colt Large Iron Triggerguard “Navy” Revolver. The gun is one of the scarce iron furniture revolvers that does not bear any English proofs, indicating that it was sold in America. Additionally, unlike so many of the American market iron furniture guns, it is not cut for a shoulder stock, making it a scarce variant. The gun also includes a rare, Colt factory dovetailed Rocky Mountain German silver blade front sight, another non-standard feature that was a special order feature. The gun is serial number 68441, placing its production circa 1857. According to research by Jordan & Geri, two very specific production groups of Large Iron Triggerguard Navy revolvers have been identified, with each having several small runs of these guns in specific serial number ranges. They identify this gun as part of the “1st Group” of Large Iron Triggerguard Navy revolvers, and within the third production serial number series that ran from roughly #55,000 to #69,400. It is important to note that most of the guns in that serial number range were standard Late 3rd Model Revolvers, but a small production run of iron furniture revolvers has been identified within this serial number range, most of which were apparently cut for shoulder stock.
The gun remains in FINE condition and is quite crisp throughout. Although Jordan & Geri prefer not to categorize these revolvers in this fashion, for all practical purposes the revolver is a typical Late 3rd Model revolver that was manufactured with a Large Iron Triggerguard and iron backstrap. The gun has the expected enlarged “V” beveled loading cut out on the right side of the barrel web and has the large percussion capping cutout. The top flat of the barrel is clearly roll-marked in a single line:
− ADDRESS COL. SAML COLT NEW-YORK CITY –
The barrel address shows the broken lower right corner of the “N” in “New” that is encountered in this serial number range. As noted, the gun is serial numbered 68441 with the correct Colt numbering dies of that era, placing production in 1857. The cylinder is roll-marked COLT’S PATENT No 68441. Even the wedge is numbered and matches the gun. The wedge, loading lever and cylinder arbor show only the last four digits of the number, 8441, while the balance of the numbered metal components have all five digits of the serial number present. The one-piece varnished walnut grip is ink numbered 8441 in the backstrap cut out, in a period hand, although the numbers are slightly faded and blurred from age. The revolver is crisply and clearly marked on the lower left side of the frame, COLTS / PATENT, and with a tiny Linspection mark on the front right web of the triggerguard and a smaller G on the left rear of the triggerguard plate.
As previously noted, the gun is in FINE condition. It retains about 25%+ of its original blued finish on the barrel. The majority of the wear and loss is along the sharp edges of the octagon barrel and simply from age and flaking. The blue shows thinning and flaking from holster wear along the 5 upper most barrel flats, with the lower 3 flats retaining more of their original finish with less thinning and fading. The barrel surface is free of any real pitting, but there is some lightly scattered pinpricking present on the metal and some oxidized freckling and light pitting present on the face of the muzzle and in the last couple of inches closest to the muzzle. The areas where the bluing on the barrel has thinned or worn have developed a pleasing plum brown patina that has blended with the finish very well. Under strong light, some minor oxidized age freckling can be seen mixed with the finish and patina. The pistol shows the usual impact marks on the barrel web where the wedge had been beaten out of the pistol during its service life, and then beat back into place. The loading lever retains about 15%+ of its original case coloring, most of which is at the rear of the lever and on the protected side that rests against the barrel. The lever shows the most loss towards the end where it engages the lever catch and on the plunger itself. The balance of the lever is a smooth plum brown patina that matches the gun perfectly. The loading lever moves smoothly and operates correctly and locks tightly into place, as it should. The frame of the revolver retains about 20%+ coverage of the case coloring, but most of it is faded and muted, giving it about a 10%+ vivid case coloring rating. The faded coloring is a smoky brownish-gray base color with some freckled areas of mottled blues, purples and browns present as well. The frame is smooth, with crisp edges and very clear markings. The cylinder retains about 20%+ of its original blue, with the most brilliant areas being in the recesses of the scene and protected areas. The balance of the cylinder has a smooth plum brown and bluish-gray patina that makes the cylinder appear to have more original finish than it does. The cylinder is extremely sharp and crisp and retains at least 85%+ of the roll engraved scene. The Mexican War naval battle scene engraved on the cylinder rates EXCELLENT and is extremely clear. This later production cylinder does not include the Ormsby signature line as found on some high condition guns produced in the previous decade. However, the legend at the front edge of the cylinder is present and is quite legible, reading: ENGAGED 16 MAY 1843. This mark is rarely legible, or even visible, on even the crispest of examples. All of the cones (nipples) in the cylinder are original and they are very crisp, but do show use, with moderate pinpricking and surface oxidation visible in their recesses. There is also some light pinpricking on the face of the cylinder from firing and use. The safety pins on the rear face of the cylinder are in very nice condition. Five of the pins are in wonderful shape and show only light wear and one is battered and damaged with only a nub remaining visible on the rear face of the cylinder. The iron grip frame, grip strap and triggerguard retain some traces of their original silver plating but show a moderately oxidized patina with freckled patches of surface roughness. The action of the revolver is excellent, and the gun functions correctly, timing, indexing and locking up very tightly. The action of the pistol is extremely crisp. All of the screws appear to be original and most are extremely crisp, with only a couple showing any noticeable slot-wear, most obviously the locking bolt screw which shows some moderate slot wear. All of the screws retain at least some traces of their fire-blued finish, showing the usual fading and dulling from age. The bore of the revolver is in about FINE condition as well and is mostly bright with crisp rifling its entire length. There is light to moderate pitting scattered along the entire length of the bore, with a couple of small patches of more severe pitting in the barrel as well. It is not clear how much of this is really corrosion and how much might be accumulated debris, and a good brushing might remove much of the apparent roughness. The original and very scarce Colt factory dovetailed German silver Rocky Mountain front sight blade is in place on top of the barrel, .32” from the muzzle. The civilian style one-piece, varnished walnut grip is in about VERY GOOD+ condition. As noted, it is numbered to the revolver and fits the frame of the gun perfectly. The grip retains only some scattered traces of its original varnish but remains quite attractive. The grip is solid free of any breaks, cracks or repairs. It remains fairly crisp and sharp. There are a couple of deep dings on the lower rear of the left side of the grip and a tiny chip missing from the right front leading edge of the grip. Otherwise, the grip shows only some expected handling marks, minor surface mars and dings.
Overall, this is a really lovely example of a pre-Civil War production Colt Model 1851 Navy Revolver with some very scarce Colt Navy variant features. The Large Iron Triggerguard & Backstrap are scarce features, particularly for a Colt Navy that is not cut for a shoulder stock. The dovetailed Rocky Mountain front sight blade is another rare feature that is not often encountered. The gun is 100% complete and correct in every way, is extremely attractive and displays wonderfully. The revolver has all matching serial numbers, is mechanically excellent, and has a truly outstanding cylinder scene. This would be a wonderful addition to an advanced Colt revolver collection, as these iron furniture Colt Navy revolvers are rather scarce, particularly with dovetailed front sight.