Rare 56 Caliber Colt Military Style Model 1855 Revolving Rifle
- Product Code: FLA-3723-SOLD
- Availability: Out Of Stock
In 1855, Samuel Colt introduced his “Sidehammer” series of handguns and longarms. The handguns are known to collectors today as the “Root” revolvers, in honor of their designer, Elisha K. Root, while the revolving long arms are more generically referred to as Colt revolving rifles, carbines, or shotguns. Between 1855 and 1864 Colt produced a total of eighteen thousand three hundred revolving longarms, of which only eleven hundred were shotguns, with the balance being rifled arms. During their period of production, the rifled arms were available in a wide variety of calibers from .36 through .64 and were produced as Sporting Rifles, Carbines, and Military Rifles. Depending upon the caliber and the model, the barrel lengths varied from as short as 18” for carbines and as long as 37 ½” for the larger caliber Military Rifles. The smaller caliber arms (.36, .40 & .44) were manufactured on a medium sized frame with 6-shot cylinders and larger caliber arms (.50, .56 & .64) were produced on a much larger frame with 5 shot cylinders, as were the shotguns. All of the arms featured the closed top, solid frame Root design with a side mounted hammer and a cylinder pin that entered through the rear of the frame. Most of the guns had a creeping loading lever mounted under the barrel, forward of the cylinder. While the early production sporting arms had round cylinders with a roll engraved hunter and deer scene, the majority of the revolving long arms were produced with fluted cylinders.
As with all of his firearms, Colt looked to the US military to as a potential customer for them and as a means of promoting his designs to the larger civilian populace. Colt felt that there was no better advertising fodder than to be able to say that his guns were used by the United States military. The US military had placed their first order for Colt long arms in 1838 when they acquired fifty of the Colt Patterson Number 1 Ring Lever Rifles for use fighting the Seminoles in Florida. These revolving firearms must have rendered at least satisfactory service in the field, as additional orders were soon placed for Model 1839 Patterson repeating carbines. On March 2, 1841 a small number of M1839 repeating carbines were ordered by the US Ordnance Department for the US Navy. Subsequent orders included sixty of the same model for the US Dragoons on July 23, 1841, one hundred for the US Navy’s Pacific Squadron in December of 1841 and another one hundred for the US Navy on August 28, 1845. Colt had clearly gotten his foot in the door selling revolving rifles to the Ordnance Department, and despite any shortcomings of the revolving long arm designs, an order was soon forthcoming for his newest revolving rifle design.
In 1856, an order was placed for one hundred of the new Colt Model 1855 “Sidehammer” Revolving Rifles, with a total of one hundred and one being delivered (one being a sample rifle). The guns were the “military” model, with a full length forend that was secured with two screw tightened clamping barrel bands, sling swivels and three leaf military rear sight graduated to 100, 300 and 500 or 600 yards. The rifles had 31 5/16” long barrels and accepted an angular socket bayonet. While future military purchases of the Colt revolving rifles and carbines would be in the large .56 caliber this first order was for the .44 caliber variant with a 6-shot cylinder. Interestingly, whether due to previous experiences with revolving long arms, due to a recommendation from Colt, or with an eye to carrying a spare loaded cylinder, the order specified that the guns were to be supplied with an extra cylinder for each rifle. All of the Colt Model 1855 long guns were serial numbered in their own range, based upon caliber. While it has been generally reported that the US Military order for the .44 caliber guns are found under #300, that is based upon a survey of the few examples that were known to noted Colt author R.L. Wilson when he wrote The Book of Colt Firearms, where he notes the highest military .44 rifle serial number that he was aware of was #299. Wilson may have also obtained the “under 300” number from an old Bannerman catalog advertisement, which is one of the places that “gun show lore” often originates, usually with minimal basis in truth. It is, however, reasonable to believe that the one hundred .44 caliber military rifles that were delivered on January 22 of 1857 were probably all under serial number 400. During the production run of sidehammer rifles, a total of thirty-two hundred .44 rifles were manufactured, eight hundred in the sporting configuration, twelve hundred as carbines and twelve hundred in the military rifle configuration. However, only one hundred and one were initially acquired by the US military and so marked. These early .44 rifles are typically found without barrel or topstrap markings and are simply marked on the tang in three lines: COLT’S/PATENT/US. They were cartouched on both sides of the stock wrist, and serial numbered on major components as is typical of Colt revolving firearms. There is not much written about the service that these early military Colt revolving rifles saw, but it is known that their initial issue was for the US military Utah Expedition in 1857-1858 to put down the Mormon Rebellion. The commander for the expedition was Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston, who led the recently formed 2nd US cavalry. Johnston’s field and company officers included a “who’s who” of future Civil War generals, including Robert E. Lee, William J. Hardee, Earl Van Dorn, Edmund Kirby Smith, Fitzhugh Lee and John Bell Hood, all of who would serve as generals in the Confederate Army during the coming war. Future Union generals George H. Thomas, George Stoneman and Kenner Garrard also served in the 2nd Cavalry’s officer corps. The orders to confront the Mormon’s were subsequently retracted and the 2nd Cavalry spent the next two years fighting the Comanche Indians in Texas and Kansas, with famous victories at Devil’s River, Wichita Village, Rush Springs and Crooked Creek. While the majority of the 2nd Cavalry was armed with Sharps or Hall carbines and with Colt Model 1851 “Navy” revolvers, it appears that at least some of the troopers were still carrying the .44 Colt revolving rifles they had been issued prior to the beginning of the Mormon Expedition. Despite any misgivings that might have existed regarding the guns, an additional three hundred were ordered by the US government on June 1, 1858 for additional field testing.
In 1857, Colt had introduced an improved variant of the 1855 “Root” rifle design as he pursued US military contracts. These guns eliminated the opposed finger spurs at the front and rear of the triggerguard, the side mounted cleaning rod and essentially eliminated the round cylinder in favor of the fluted one. He had also introduced the larger frame size to accommodate the larger “military” .56 caliber cylinder. Like the earlier production Colt revolving rifles, these were produced in two primary frame sizes and with numerous barrel lengths. The “military” variants were produced in .56 caliber with carbines manufactured with 21”, 24” and 27” barrels. Carbine production was very limited with only twenty-five of the 21” guns produced, and approximately one hundred each of the two other carbine variants. The military rifles were produced with 31”, 31 3/16”, 31 5/16”, 37 ½” and 37 5/16” lengths. The guns were produced with either a lug to accept a saber bayonet or a musket style front sight that doubled as a lug to accept an angular socket bayonet. The largest production group of the “new model” revolving military rifles was the 37 ½” barreled variant. These guns accepted a socket bayonet and four thousand eight hundred and twenty-five were produced. The 31” barreled group of guns was produced in much smaller numbers with 1,700 of the 31” guns, eight hundred of the 31 3/16” guns, and five hundred of the 31 5/16” guns. Only twenty-five of the 37 5/16” guns were produced. The 31” barreled guns were produced with the saber bayonet lug, as were the 31 5/16” guns. The eight hundred 31 3/16” barreled guns accepted a socket bayonet.
While the US military was still considering acquiring larger numbers of the of the Colt Revolving Rifle for field service, a number of the various states started to request the guns under the Militia Act of 1808. Due to these requests, the 318 Colt Revolving Rifles, 64 Artillery Carbines and 4 Cavalry Carbines were purchased for distribution to the states between July 1, 1858 and June 12, 1860. These arms were issued to the following states in these numbers and on these dates:
Alabama: 50 Rifles on May 7, 1857
Connecticut: 60 Rifles on May 15, 1858
20 Rifles on October 4, 1858
Illinois: 5 Rifles on May 7, 1859
1 Cavalry & 1 Artillery Carbine on March 5, 1860
Louisiana: 10 Rifles on May 7, 1859
New Jersey: 2 Rifles on August 31, 1859
New Mexico: 10 Rifles on March 30, 1860
New York: 1 Rifle, 1 Artillery Carbine & 1 Cavalry Carbine on January 12, 1860
North Carolina: 120 Rifles & 60 Artillery Carbines on May 7, 1859
Ohio: 1 Rifle, 1 Artillery Carbine & 1 Cavalry Carbine on May 7, 1859
Pennsylvania: 1 Artillery & 1 Cavalry Carbine on July 13, 1859
Virginia: 100 Rifles on May 7, 1859
Washington (Territory): 2 Rifles on April 14, 1860
Research by the late Herb Houze indicates that some states were acquiring the Colt revolving long arms directly and not through the US government. In early 1861 the state of Virginia traded a large number of Colt revolving rifles and carbines back to the US government to acquire “holster pistols”, likely Colt Model 1851 Navy and/or Colt Model 1860 Army revolvers. The trade in included the 100 Rifles the state had acquired on May 7, 1859, as well as an additional 60 .56 caliber rifles and 80 .44 caliber carbines. These other guns had been purchased by the state in November of 1859, and their willingness to dispose of them indicates not only the state’s pressing need for revolving handguns but probably suggests that the state was less than happy with the guns. In addition to the first four-hundred and one .44 caliber military rifles and the guns acquired for the various states, additional military rifle acquisitions were made prior to the Civil War. The Ordnance Department showed more than seven hundred Colt Revolving Rifles in inventory by December of 1860, with one hundred and seventy of the guns on hand in Santa Fe, NM. In general, it is believed that most of the guns acquired for the various states in 1858-1859 and additional purchases by the Ordnance Department were of the .56 caliber rifles with nominally 31” barrels, both with saber and socket bayonets.
The outbreak of the American Civil War caused a huge increase in demand for the .56 caliber, military pattern Colt Revolving Rifles. The first orders were placed by large private retailers like B. Kittridge & Co. of Cincinnati, OH and Schuyler, Hartley & Graham of New York. These guns were sold to various state and local buyers to outfit newly formed companies and regiments. In both cases, it is quite possible that some of the guns were sold to “straw purchasers” who acquired them on behalf of southern states. The first big wartime order from the Federal Government was placed in January of 1862. This was for 1,000 of the .56 caliber rifles with 37 ½” barrels. These guns were to be issued to the newly formed 1st and 2nd US Sharpshooters under Colonel Hiram Berdan. In addition to these 1,000 rifles, an additional 2,725 were purchased by the US government in four orders placed between September 30, 1862 and February 16, 1863. Of those guns 824, purchased on October 28, 1862, were shipped to Corinth, MS for issue to western theater Federal troops and 300, purchased on February 16, 1863, were sent to Ohio for issue by their governor. Based on these purchases a total of 3,725 (about 77%) of the 4,825 37 ½” .56 caliber military rifles were acquired by the US government. However, these guns were not all of the military rifles that saw service during the war. A huge number of US cavalry and infantry regiments were at least partially armed with the revolving rifles. According to research by Earl J. Coates and Dean Thomas, no less than 21 US cavalry regiments and 29 infantry regiments carried at least a few of the Colt repeating long guns. Many of these guns were also of the 31” variants, as not enough of the 37 ½” guns were produced or were available to fill all of the needs of the various regiments.
On the Confederate side, the 12th Virginia cavalry is known to have carried them as well, suggesting that the state bought even more of the long arms than the ones that were traded in during 1861. The largest numbers of cavalry regiments to carry the guns were those of the states of Illinois, Kentucky and Michigan. The infantry regiments of Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio and Missouri were the ones most commonly armed with the guns. Of those the 21st Ohio is probably the most famous, notably for their stand at Chickamauga where the massive firepower of their repeating arms helped to stabilize the Federal line and allow Rosecrans’ army to escape destruction. In addition to the 1st and 2nd US Sharpshooters, Colt revolving rifles were issued to the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th US Regular Infantry Regiments. As many of the rifles that saw use during the war, particularly by various state troops were not acquired through an official Ordnance Department contract, they were not marked or inspected in any way. This makes their concrete identification problematic.
Offered here is a scarce and rarely encountered Colt Model 1855 .56 Military Revolving Rifle. The gun is in about FINE condition and is substantially nicer than most of the military pattern Colt revolving rifles encountered today. This is one of the 31 3/16” barreled .56 caliber guns that accepts an angular socket bayonet. Records suggest that only eight hundred of the 31 3/16” barrel guns were produced, although the minimal difference in length between the 31”, 31 3/16” and 31 5/16” barrels may have resulted in these numbers being somewhat inaccurate. The gun shows the typical markings for the later production “new model” Colt Revolving Rifles. The top strap is marked in a single line in the sighting groove:
COL. COLT HARTFORD CT. U.S.A.
The cylinder is marked in one of the flutes in a single line, PATENTED SEPT. 10th 1850, referring to some of Colt’s earlier design patents. The left side of the frame is marked behind the cylinder COLT’S PATENT in an arc over Nov. 24, 1857, a reference to some of the mechanical improvements implemented in the Root design after its original introduction in 1855. The rifle is serial number 3418. The gun is matching throughout with the number stamped on the bottom of the frame, on the bottom of the barrel (under the forend), on the triggerguard tang, on the rear of the cylinder, on the cylinder pin and on the toe of the buttplate. The number is also written in old period ink inside the forend. The number places the gun in the midst of a number of recorded Civil War used Colt Revolving Rifles. These include #3115 issued to Company K of the 7th Michigan Cavalry, #3148 and #3508 issued to Company I of the 1st Missouri Cavalry, #2892 and #3538 issued to Company M of the 9th Illinois Cavalry, #4421 issued to Company C of the 21st Ohio Infantry and #4461 issued to Company G of the 4th Michigan Cavalry. Surviving serial number records are quite scarce and only a small number of guns can be traced by their number. This gun also has an added German silver plaque on the reverse of the buttstock. The scalloped escutcheon is similar to some of those used with post-Civil War ladder badges and measures nominally 2 ¼” by 1” and is engraved in script: J H Morton. It is impossible to know exactly who this refers to. However, a review of the records available through Historical Data Systems offers three possible US soldiers it could refer to: John Morton of Company G, 7th Kansas Cavalry, John Morton of Company A of the 21st Michigan Infantry and Lt. John H Morton who served on the staff of the 26th KY Infantry. All three of these soldiers served in regiments that were known to carry Colt Revolving Rifles.
As noted, the rifle remains in about FINE condition. The gun is relatively sharp and crisp throughout and remains 100% complete and correct in all ways. The barrel retains about 30% of its thinning blued finish which has faded, dulled and worn and is blending with a very attractive, lightly oxidized plum brown patina. The even blending of the blue and the patina give the barrel the appearance of retaining much more finish than it really does. The underside of the barrel protected by the forend retains more than 80% of its original dark blue finish. The frame has a mostly mottled grayish patina with freckled surface oxidation and discoloration. There are some traces of blue in protected area, particularly under the hammer neck. The frame shows some scattered oxidized roughness and some even pinpricking, mostly on the topstrap and on the lower frame around the gas escape ports forward of the cylinder. The cylinder has a thicker, more darkly oxidized brown patina with scattered erosion and some pitting around the cone recesses, at the rear of the cylinder and around the chamber mouths. The triggerguard, barrel bands and buttplate all have a similar patina to the frame, with a dull gray color and freckled darker surface oxidation and discoloration. All of the metal is primarily smooth, with the noted minor roughness and pinpricking on the topstrap, bottom of the frame and some scattered minor oxidized roughness here and there on the furniture and some freckled roughness here and there on the barrel. The rifle retains clear and legible markings throughout. The action of the rifle is excellent, and it remains fully functional, operating exactly as it should. These guns were noted during the period as being fragile and delicate with numerous reports from the field discussing the guns being likely to get out of order from use. As such, finding one with such a wonderfully crisp action is a real joy. The creeping loading lever functions correctly and locks tightly into place when not in use. The bore of the rifle rates about VERY GOOD and it retains strong rifling throughout. The bore has a mottle appearance with bright and darker areas, showing moderate oxidation along most of its length along with some areas of light to moderate pitting. The original musket pattern front sight and socket bayonet mounting stud is present on the top of the barrel near the muzzle. The gun is designed to accept either an “Enfield” style socket bayonet, which Colt no doubt imported from his English contacts and suppliers, or a bayonet similar to the US M1855 with a slightly higher bridge. The original rear sight is dovetailed into the small octagon portion of the barrel, forward of the cylinder. The sight retains its original fixed 100-yard leaf and the folding 300-yard leaf as well as the longer 600-yard leaf, which appears to be slightly bent. Both original barrel bands are in place on the rifle, as well as both the upper and lower sling swivels. The original brass forend cap is in place at the end of the forestock. The original rear sling swivel is in place in the toe of the stock as well. The original, full-length onion-bulb tipped cleaning rod is in place in the channel under the barrel. The original cleaning rod extension piece is in place in the butt trap of the rifle as well. The stock and forend of the rifle rate about FINE as well. They remain fairly crisp and although they show wear do not appear to be sanded. The butt still has strong edges along the comb. The butt is solid and complete and is free of any breaks, cracks or repairs. The forends of these rifles are thin and weak and often show significant damage from cracks and splintering. Most of the forends show significant repairs when they are found today. This one is essentially free of any major damage and shows only a tiny internal crack near the nose cap, as well as a tiny internal chip. Externally, there are a couple of small, old chips missing from the entry point of the cleaning rod channel, but no other significant issues are noted. Both the butt and the forend show numerous scattered bumps, dings and surface mars that include some scuffs and scraps. The wood to metal fit is quite good throughout and the wood has a lovely dark brown tone that displays wonderfully.
Overall this is a really FINE condition example of a scarce Colt Model 1855 .56 Caliber Military Pattern Revolving Rifle. The gun remains entirely complete and correct with a large amount of finish on the barrel and clear markings throughout. The gun functions wonderfully and displays wonderfully as well. This gun is head and shoulders better than most examples of Colt Revolving Military Rifles that appear on the collector market today. Some additional research may finally reveal who J H Morton was and what his historical significance was, as well as his relationship to the rifle. These guns are quite hard to find in such nice condition and with only three thousand of the military pattern .56 caliber guns produced with all variations of the 31” barrel length, this a rather scarce gun all on its own. This would be a find addition to any Civil War small arms collection, a revolving rifle collection or a Colt collection. I have no doubt that you will be very pleased when you add this fine gun to your collection.
ON HOLD / LAYAWAY