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Rare Crimean War British Military Colt Model 1851 Navy Revolver with Interesting Inscription

Rare Crimean War British Military Colt Model 1851 Navy Revolver with Interesting Inscription

  • Product Code: FHG-2204-SOLD
  • Availability: In Stock
  • $1.00

The Colt Model 1851 “Navy” Revolver has typically been thought of as a distinctly American pistol, with many of the revolvers seeing service with the Union and Confederate military during the course of the American Civil War, as well as seeing significant civilian service on the frontier. However, most collectors are unaware that the Colt Model 1851 Revolver was the first revolver to be accepted into service and issued by the British military. 


Colts revolver designs were first brought to prominence in England during the great Crystal Palace Exhibition in London during 1851. Two major events that would affect the future of Colt with the British military occurred at that time. First, the Admiralty requested some sample Colt revolvers to be tested against those being manufactured by Deane, Adams & Deane under Robert Adams’ 1851 patent. Second, Samuel Colt was invited to speak at the English Institute of Civil Engineers on November 25, 1851. Colt took advantage of this opportunity to extol the virtues of the “American System of Manufacture” that he used in his Hartford facility; in other words, the use of machinery and interchangeable parts to manufacture items using an assembly line process, resulting in higher quality, more consistent items and increased output. He even noted that unskilled workers, including women and children could be used with this system of manufacture, as only a handful of skilled workmen were required to operate and oversee the machinery and unskilled laborers could assemble the parts that were created. Colt’s presentation flew in the face of the English handmade manufacturing process in which every worker was a craftsman who had gone through an appropriate, and often lengthy, apprenticeship to acquire the necessary skills to do his job. 


The leading revolver maker in England during that period was Robert Adams. Adams was present at the meeting and took umbrage to Colt’s statements and challenged their validity in what apparently became a fairly heated exchange between the rival handgun manufacturers. In the end, Colt pointed out that Adams’ manufacturing process was slow and inefficient, and that Adams’ double action lock work design resulted in a heavy trigger pull that could only be a detriment to accurate shooting. The best Adams could do is point out that in the trials held by the Royal Navy between the Colt and Adams designs, the Colt was “not recommended.” However, as no Board of Ordnance or Admiralty report exists regarding these trials that I am aware of, it is not clear what the actual conclusion of the testing was. More than likely any failing in the Colt design was simply that it was not “British” or British made; as the Board of Ordnance had always been very protective of their own arms making industry and rarely went outside their country for small arms unless forced to by the exigencies of war. Interestingly, during the exchange, Thomas Hastings (a member of the Board of Ordnance), who was privy to the trials, made a point of noting that Adams’ version of the trial results was not an official one and essentially said any negative comments should be taken with a grain of salt. Hastings then proceeded to make a number of positive comments about the Colt design. By the conclusion of the meeting it was clear that Colt’s revolver and production methods would find at least some favor in Great Britain, and Colt proceeded to set his sights on opening a London based manufactory.


With the advent of the Crimean War and the sudden need for handguns in the field, the British Ordnance Department placed orders for a total of 23,700 Colt’s “Navy” pistols. The .36 caliber revolver was a departure from British military handgun doctrine in many ways, as it was both a very small caliber (.36) when compared to the traditional British military pistols that were typically between .58 and .65 caliber, and it was a multi-shot weapon. The general acceptance of modern repeating handguns was still very much up in the air with the British military at that time, but they proceeded with the order anyway. These revolvers were delivered between March of 1854 and February of 1856, when the Crimean War ended. While many of these guns were delivered from Colt’s London production facility, additional revolvers were delivered from his US based Hartford manufactory as well. Of these revolvers, 9,600 were issued to the Royal Navy, 5,000 were issued to the army in the Crimea and 9,000 remained in storage at the Tower of London as of February 1856. Period accounts indicate that the Royal Navy found the revolvers quite useful, particularly for boarding parties. In fact, after the conclusion of the Crimean conflict, the Royal Navy continued to utilize the Colt revolvers in Chinese waters during the Second Opium War, which broke out in the fall of 1856. Within the British army, the use of revolvers was much more limited. The issuance of the revolvers was confined to officers and infantry sergeant majors, and in those rare cases where sufficient numbers of single shot pistols were not available for mounted troops. All Lancers were authorized pistols, as were sergeant majors of Dragoons and Hussars, as well as trumpeters. Due to shortages of appropriate arms, it was acceptable to issue the revolvers on an emergency basis if the single shot pistols were unavailable. It is worth noting that at the end of the conflict the revolvers were returned to storage and with the smaller, peace time army in the field, a return was made to single shot pistols. Only the Royal Navy used Colt revolvers would remain in service after the conclusion of the Crimean War.


The majority of the British purchased military guns were standard London production Colt M1851s. These guns featured iron backstraps, large iron rounded triggerguards, the standard Colt London address, small “severe” London style serial numbers, rounded head frame screws and “Slim Jim” grips. Some American made revolvers were delivered to complete the order, with the usual brass backstraps and triggerguards. However, all of these British military purchased Colt Navy revolvers were standard six-shot, .36 caliber revolvers with 7 ½” octagonal barrels. Other than the 23,700 Colt M1851 Navy revolvers acquired during the Crimean War period, there are no additional records regarding the purchase of Colt M1851 Navy revolvers (or any other Colt revolvers that I am aware of) by the British military. Regarding the disposition of these Colt revolvers after the war, English firearms authors Chamberlain & Taylerson note: “With peace, these small-calibre Land Service revolvers were quietly abandoned to naval or Colonial needs.”


The British military did acquire a small number of Adams patent revolvers during the Crimean War as well, but they were larger caliber 54-Bore (.442 caliber) and 38-Bore guns (.50 caliber), thus the authors’ comments about the Colts being “small-calibre” revolvers. It is worth noting that the War Department was obviously not impressed with the revolver at this time, as in 1856 they adopted a single shot, .577 caliber muzzle loading pistol for most mounted branches. This was no doubt due to European military doctrine that still saw the saber as the primary weapon of the cavalry, with the lance a close second. Carbines were standard arms of dragoons, but for most mounted soldiers in England and Europe, the handgun was a very secondary weapon. This orthodoxy would hamper the arming of English and Continental European cavalry well into the 20th Century and the opening months of World War I. Strangely, the revolver would not be widely adopted for military service in England until more than a decade after the end of the Crimean War, at a time when the change over from muzzleloading Enfield pattern arms to Snider pattern breechloading arms was taking place. 


The relegation of the Colt handguns to Naval and Colonial use in the post-Crimean period would no doubt explain the lack of British military marked Colt revolvers on the modern collector market, as the number was fairly small to begin with. Colonial and Royal Naval service was most certainly a death sentence to most of those handguns, due to both the service environment and potential for loss. This type of post-war service, combined with the harsh conditions experienced by the men and materiel that had served in the Crimea, are no doubt the reason that surviving examples tend to be in heavily used, and well-worn condition.


Eventually all of the British military acquired Colt Navy revolvers were all marked with the usual London commercial proof marks, as well as the royal ownership mark of a small “Broad Arrow” and WD (War Department) mark. Due to their acquisition on the open market and the speed with which the revolvers were issued, many went into the field during the Crimean War without these British military markings, although I am rather sure that the strict proof laws in England required them to at least bear London proofs prior to their issuance. The British ownership marks were apparently placed on most of the guns after they were turned in at the conclusion of the war. Some of the arms were also refurbished and refinished at this time, which is why some appear from time to time with blued frames, hammers and loading levers, parts that had originally been casehardened in mottled colors. 


The British Military Marked Colt Model 1851 Navy Revolver offered here is in about VERY GOOD condition and is a textbook example of one of these scarce pistols that clear saw hard use during its service life. The revolver is also inscribed on the backstrap in what appears to be a very authentic and period hand, but which also provides a substantial conundrum as to its authenticity, which we will discuss later in this description.


The gun is a London produced Colt Navy with the serial number 21583 placing its production in early 1855. The top barrel flat is clearly marked in a single line, flanked by arrows pointing in towards the words:




 The left side of the barrel web, just forward of the wedge, shows a weak pair of London commercial proof and view marks, consisting of a {CROWN} / GP and {CROWN} / V as well as a War Department ownership mark consisting of a deeply struck, small {BROAD ARROW} / WD. The cylinder is marked with the usual COLT’S PATENT No followed by the serial number, over a weak W.L. Ormsby engraver’s markings. The cylinder bears the standard ENGAGED 16 MAY 1843 marking along its front edge, as well as the usual Battle of Campeche Texas and Mexico naval engagement roll scene over most of the cylinder body. The usual set of alternating London commercial proof and view marks for a London produced or retailed revolver are present on the cylinder, between each chamber. The left side of the frame is marked with the usual two-line: COLTS / PATENT and the left side of the one-piece grip bears a weak {BROAD ARROW} / WD mark. The revolver does not have a set of “Opposed Broad Arrows”, the two arrows meeting point to point, indicating that the gun was “sold out of service” by the British military.


As noted, the gun is serial number 21583 and is matching throughout. The full serial number appears on the bottom of the gripstrap, on the triggerguard, on the frame, on the barrel web, on the cylinder arbor pin and on the cylinder. The partial number 1583 is present on the loading lever and on the bottom of the wedge. The grip is numbered in the backstrap cut-out in period ink. The ink is faded and dulled and difficult to read but appears to be matching with the balance of the gun.


The revolver is jeweler quality engraved on the backstrap in a lovely, apparently period hand:


W.D. DeSaussure 15th S.C.V.I.


A search of both British and American military records of the period finds only one person to whom this inscription could refer; William Davie DeSaussure (1819-1863). DeSaussure’s personal history can best be summarized by this brief biography located on www.findagrave.com.


Civil War Confederate Officer. A native of Columbia, South Carolina, he was an 1838 graduate of the South Carolina College. He afterwards practiced his profession as an attorney in his father's Columbia law office. With the outbreak of war with Mexico, DeSaussure was appointed a captain in the Palmetto Regiment. It was the earliest opportunity for the citizen soldier to command men in combat, and he proved to be a competent officer who distinguished himself at Churubusco, a battle where he was wounded in action. At this war's end, he returned a hero to Columbia to continue his career as a legal representative. He subsequently delved into South Carolina politics and successfully campaigned to become a State Representative of Richland District during the years 1848- 1851 and 1854-1855. In was in 1855 that DeSaussure was commissioned a captain into the 1st United States Cavalry Regiment with an assignment to the western frontier where he battled against the Comanches and Kiowas while under the command of John Sedgwick. In December 1860, South Carolina seceded from the United States, and on the happening of this occasion, for reasons satisfactory to him, DeSaussure resigned his commission in the United States Cavalry and remained loyal to his native state. His subsequent confirmation as colonel and commander of the 15th South Carolina Infantry is dated December 24, 1861. As he did in the Mexican War, the South Carolinian would display his aptitude to command men during the American Civil War. Following their acceptance into Confederate service, Colonel DeSaussure led the 15th SC through the battles of Port Royal Sound, South Mountain, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. In the summer of 1862, the 15th SC was assigned to Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, specifically, the brigade commanded by Joseph Brevard Kershaw. On July 2, 1863, the second day of the battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Kershaw's Brigade, consisting of the 3rd South Carolina Battalion and the 2nd, 3rd, 7th, 8th and 15th infantry regiments, was a major component in the Confederate's effort to assail the Union's left flank. With the day's fighting in progress, the 15th SC became detached, remaining behind the other regiments of Kerhaw's Brigade as they moved forward. Last but not least, DeSaussure's South Carolinians, still separated and independent from Kershaw, entered the mounting seesaw battle on the right flank of Georgians led by Paul Jones Semmes. Advancing "at the head of his regiment", Colonel DeSaussure was instantly killed by a gunshot to the chest during a countercharge against a Union position in the Rose Woods.


Obviously, an inscription to a Confederate officer, killed at Gettysburg is somewhat unlikely to be found on a British military marked revolver. The British military conventions of the time required arms to be kept in service or storage for a minimum of ten years from the time of acquisition, unless the arms became unserviceable. Such arms were then struck with the “Opposed Broad Arrows” and sold out of service. After the ten year service life, obsolete arms or those that were no longer part of the standard small arms inventory of the service were eligible for sale, but often remained in storage in case of a national emergency. Thus, it was not uncommon for some arms to remain in storage for decades after their useful service life. The lack of any indication that this gun was sold out of stores certainly makes the inscription questionable, as a revolver acquired in 1855 would not be eligible for sale until 1865, some two years after DeSaussure was killed at Gettysburg. The only potential scenario in which the inscription is not fraudulent would be that that the revolver was lost or stolen while in British service and then somehow ended up in DeSaussure’s possession. The inscription would indicate that it was applied after DeSassure joined the 15th South Carolina, sometime in December of 1861 and prior to his death. As I cannot make this rather fanciful jump in logic, I will not assert that the inscription is authentic. I will note that it is absolutely in a period style hand, well done with expected wear that makes it appear completely legitimate. Only the circumstances of history surrounding the gun and inscription make it appear unlikely. So, the revolver is being sold simply as a scarce British military Colt Navy with an apparently spurious inscription. If the inscription can be determined to be authentic, the revolver will be worth many times what I have priced it at, considering it would then have belonged to a Confederate officer killed at Gettysburg. As I cannot prove that at this time, I am not asserting that. Further in depth research could well prove very fruitful to the new owner.


The gun remains in about VERY GOOD condition overall, although it certainly shows substantial wear and use. The revolver retains essentially none of the blued finish on the barrel or cylinder but does retain some very casehardened colors on the frame, possibly as much as 20%-30% on the left side and strong traces on the right side. The loading lever retains some color as well, mostly near the hinge, but is mostly a dully mottled smoky gray color. The lever probably retains about 10% color at most. The barrel and cylinder are a mostly medium pewter gray patina with areas of darker grayish colors and some hints of faded and dulled blue on the cylinder. They show evenly scattered surface oxidation and discoloration with fine pinpricking and some light pitting here and there. The reverse of the barrel web shows the usual scattered impact marks from driving out the wedge, and other scattered impact marks are found here and there in the metal; all typical of a military revolver that saw real world use in the mid-19th century. The barrel still retains decent edges, but they are not exceptionally sharp or crisp, however this appears to be due to wear. Markings on the barrel remain quite clear and legible, with only the London proof marks substantially worn; likely form erosion as they are in front of the cylinder chambers and were subject to the hot gasses escaping from there. The cylinder retains much of the naval battle scene and even the text on the cylinder remains mostly legible. The bore of the revolver rates about GOOD. Although it remains mostly bright it shows evenly distributed light pitting along its length with some areas of more moderate pitting. Despite this wear, it retains clearly visible rifling with moderate wear to the edges of the lands and grooves. The rear of the cylinder retains at least the remnants of all of the original safety pins, with some heavily battered and worn to almost nothing and others showing only moderate wear. All of the original cones (nipples) are in place and they show moderate wear as well as moderate oxidation and some pitting in their recesses. As would be expected, the iron gripstrap and backstrap retain no finish to speak of. They are mostly smooth, with only some lightly scattered pinpricking and a pewter gray patina with some surface oxidation and discoloration on some of the metal. The revolver retains its original brass cone shaped front sight that shows moderate wear. The screws all appear original as well and are the correct, dome head screws found on London produced Colt Navy revolvers. The screw heads are all in fairly nice condition, showing only light to moderate slot wear. The pistol is mechanically FINE and the action functions very well. The revolver indexes, times and locks up as it should. The one-piece walnut grip is in about GOOD condition and its wear matches the balance of the gun well. The grip has been sanded and still shows a moderate number of bumps, dings and mars. The sanding has left the backstrap slightly proud of the wood and has left the grip markings smeared and difficult to see. In typical British military fashion, a lanyard hole has been drilled through the center of the grip, a feature often encountered on English military revolvers of the mid-19th century. However, at some point in time, apparently very long ago, this hole was filled. This little “repair” does add a small amount of credence to the backstrap inscription, as the filled hole suggests to me that the gun did have a post-British Military service life, the question is simply where, and with whom?


Overall this is a solid, if well-used example of an extremely scarce British military accepted Colt revolver from the Crimean War period. These are historic guns as they were the first British military revolvers to see purchase and issue. Many of these revolvers went on to see additional Royal Navy service and service around the British Empire in various colonial outposts during the third quarter of the 19th century, after the Crimean War. Very few were acquired, very few survive, and when they do appear on the collector market they are nearly always in fairly rough and very well used condition. This is not a superior example, but is certainly in better condition than some I have seen. The gun is appears to be 100% complete and correct, with only the inscription on the backstrap possibly being not what it appears to be. This would be a solid example of a rather scarce gun to add to a Crimean War or British military percussion revolver collection, or in an advanced Colt M1851 Navy collection that was looking to add some of the rarer variations. These guns are significantly rarer than US Marital Colt Navy revolvers, but a US Martial Navy in this condition would probably still be priced higher than this gun! For the avid researcher, if period evidence could be located to substantiate the inscription on the backstrap, this gun would easily be worth somewhere in the low 5-figures range. However, I am selling it for what it is on its face, for a fair price for a scarce Crimean War period British Military Colt M1851 Navy Revolver.


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Tags: Rare, Crimean, War, British, Military, Colt, Model, 1851, Navy, Revolver, with, Interesting, Inscription