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Rare & Fine British Military Colt Model 1851 Navy from the Crimean War Period

Rare & Fine British Military Colt Model 1851 Navy from the Crimean War Period

  • Product Code: FHG-3505
  • Availability: Out Of Stock
  • $5,750.00

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. 


Colt’s 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 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 that 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 then only 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 stores and with the smaller, peacetime 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 Model 1851 Revolvers. 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 Model 1851 Navy revolvers acquired during the Crimean War period, there are no additional records regarding the purchase of Colt Model 1851 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 arms 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 muzzleloading pistol for most mounted branches. This was no doubt due to the 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 for dragoons, but for most mounted soldiers in England and Europe, the handgun was a very much a secondary weapon. This orthodoxy would hamper the arming of English and Continental 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 change over from muzzleloading Enfield pattern arms to Snider pattern breechloading arms was taking place. The relegation of the Colt handguns to Royal Navy 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 or theft. 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 nearly all of the British military acquired Colt Navy revolvers were marked with the usual London commercial proof marks, as well as the government 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 British military markings. I had always assumed that the rather strict proof laws in England required them to at least bear London proofs prior to their issuance. However, this gun disproves that assumption as it does not show any London proofs but does have the expected War Department markings. Apparently, the British ownership marks were 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 that 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 FINE condition and is for all practical purposes a textbook example of one of these scarce pistols. The gun is a London produced Colt Navy with the serial number 13455 placing its production in late 1854 at the height of the Crimean War. The top barrel flat is clearly marked in a single line, flanked by arrows pointing in towards the words and reads:




Typically, London commercial proof marks are found on the left side of the barrel web, just forward of the wedge and between the chambers of the cylinder. Those marks are not present on this revolver, which suggests it may have been one of the guns that was eventually issued to the Royal Navy, and which remained in service after the Crimean War. The revolver does show the standard War Department ownership mark consisting of a small {BROAD ARROW} / WD on the left barrel web, forward of the wedge and another stamped into the left side of the grip. A crisp {CROWN} / 15inspection mark is also found on the bottom of the grip.  The cylinder is marked with the usual COLT’S PATENT Nofollowed by the serial number, over the partly legible W.L. Ormsby engraver’s signature markings. The cylinder bears traces of the standard ENGAGED 16 MAY 1843 marking along its front edge, as well as the usual Mexican War naval engagement roll scene over most of the cylinder body. The left side of the frame is marked with the usual two-line COLTS / PATENT mark and as noted the left side of the one-piece grip bears a {BROAD ARROW} / WD mark. There are no “Opposed Broad Arrows” (two arrows meeting point to point) to indicate that this gun was “sold out of service,” which may indicate that it was lost or stolen in service, rather than being properly marked and sold as surplus. As noted, the gun is serial number 13455 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 loading lever, on the cylinder arbor pin and on the cylinder. The partial number 455 is present 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 gun survives in FINE condition overall and retains a significant amount of its original finish, a very rare condition to find one of these revolvers in. The barrel retains 40%+ of the original blued finish. The bottom three flats of the octagonal barrel retain the most finish, with the upper and side flats showing some moderate flaking and finish loss. This is especially true along the high edges and contact points that show loss from wear. The areas where the finish has worn away have an attractive smoky blue-gray patina and are shot through with flecks of original blue and some flecks of light oxidation as well. The barrel retains very sharp edges, and all barrel markings remain crisp and clear. As is often the case with Colt percussion revolvers, the obverse of the barrel web shows some small impact marks around the wedge where it has been driven out of the revolver over the years. The bore of the revolver rates about FINE as well. It remains mostly bright with some lightly scattered oxidation, minor discoloration, and some pinpricking. The cylinder retains none of its original finish, which is typical of a gun that spent a significant amount of time in a holster. The cylinder has a lightly oxidized pewter gray patina with some scattered areas of darker age discoloration.  It retains about 65%+ of the Mexican War naval engagement scene, with some areas of loss and weakness. The patent markings and the serial number on the side of the cylinder mostly legible, with a fully legible (if worn) Ormsby marking below. The “Engaged 16 May 1843” legend on the front edge of the cylinder is very light and only partly legible, again likely from holster wear. The rear of the cylinder retains all of the original stop pins, and they are very crisp condition. All of the original cones (nipples) are in place as well and are in similarly fine condition. The frame retains about 40% of the original case coloring with moderate fading and loss, and the balance of the frame showing a pewter gray patina. The loading lever and hammer retains some strong traces of their original, mottled casehardened colors. The iron gripstrap and backstrap are the only parts of the gun, other than the cylinder, that retain no finish to speak of. They are mostly smooth, with only some lightly scattered oxidized pinpricking, a pewter gray patina and freckled surface oxidation. The balance of the gun is quite smooth as well and is essentially free of any pitting, with only some oxidized roughness and pinpricking in the cone recesses of the rear of the cylinder and some light etching on the cylinder face and some similar caustic erosion on the muzzle. The revolver retains its original brass cone shaped front sight and all of the frame screws appear to be original as well. The screws are the correct, domed head screws found on London produced Colt Navy revolvers and most retain at least some of their fire blued finish, although most have faded and dulled to some extent. The screw heads are all in very nice condition, with only some minimal slot wear. The pistol is mechanically FINE and the action functions perfectly with fine timing, indexing and tight lockup. The one-piece walnut grip is in about FINE condition as well. The grip has not been sanded and the marks remain clear and crisp in the wood. Amazingly the typical British military lanyard hole has not been drilled through the center of the grip. This is a feature often encountered on English military revolvers of the mid-19th century, whether they left the factory with such a hole or not. The grip remains solid and complete and is free any and breaks, cracks, or repairs. The grip does show some light handling marks, as well as scattered bumps, dings and mars which are commensurate with carry and use, as well as with the condition of the balance of the gun. As would be expected there are some impact marks on the butt and bottom of the grip, where the revolver was apparently used as an ersatz hammer at some point during its service life. These marks are so common, even on high condition guns, that they are hardly worth mentioning. A small surface chip of wood is missing from the bottom of the grip as well, along the edge where the left side of the grip meets the frame.


Overall, this really a very nice 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 be purchased and issued. 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, following the Crimean War. Very few were acquired, and even fewer survive. When they do appear on the collector market they are almost always in fairly rough and very well used condition. However, this one is a real gem. The gun is 100% complete and correct. This is really a fine condition example of a scarce gun that belongs in an advanced Crimean War or British military percussion revolver collection, or in an equally advanced Colt M1851 Navy collection. These guns are significantly less common than US Marital Colt Navy revolvers, but a US Martial Navy in this condition would be priced at nearly 5-figures, or possibly above that point! I am absolutely positive you will be exceptionally pleased to add this very scarce Crimean War British Military Colt Model 1851 Navy Revolver to your collection. I know that I am quite proud to offer it for sale.


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Tags: Rare, Fine, British, Military, Colt, Model, 1851, Navy, from, the, Crimean, War, Period