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Rare Upper Canada Marked Colt Model 1851 Navy Revolver

Rare Upper Canada Marked Colt Model 1851 Navy Revolver

  • Product Code: FHG-TB595-SOLD
  • Availability: Out Of 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 American Civil War, as well as seeing significant civilian service on the frontier. However, most collectors are unaware that the Colt M1851 Revolver was the first revolver to be accepted into service and issued by the British military. The revolvers also saw subsequent use in some of the British colonial possessions as well.


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 as workers 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 several 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 store 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 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 also 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.


Most 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 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 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 any of these revolvers 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 cavalry well into the 20thCentury 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.


At about the same time that the British military was involved in the Crimean War and was simultaneously trying to maintain control of its colonies and possessions around the globe, the Canadian Parliament passed the Militia Act of 1855. This may well have been due to the Canadian perception that their English overlords were too preoccupied to provide internal security in Canada. The act authorized the establishment of a 5,000-person active Canadian Volunteer Militia Force which included both infantry and several troops of cavalry. The force was intended to provide internal security within the provinces and to some degree operate has a national police force particularly in the more remote and less populated areas. The forces were divided into two broad organizational hierarchies, Upper Canada, and Lower Canada. Upper Canada consisted of the territory that encompass the province of Ontario today. Lower Canada consisted of the territory that encompasses today’s province of Quebec. The act also provided funding for the equipping of the militia. According to the Canadian Militia General Order released on 16 May 1856,


“Each Cavalry Volunteer will receive one cavalry sword with scabbard compete, one six shooting Colt’s pistol, one sword belt, one sword knot, one cartouche box and belt one holster, one cleaning rod, one nipple wrench.”


The organizational structure allowed for approximately 800 mounted militiamen, which were divided between 13 troops in Upper Canada and 5 troops in Lower Canada. Most of the troops were authorized a strength of 50 men, although some were smaller. A recent published study of Canadian militia units, their strengths and their small arms by Clive Law indicates that nominally 560 mounted militiamen served the Upper Canada district and 246 served the Lower Canada district, or a total of 806 men during this period. To supply these men approximately 800 Colt Model 1851 Navy Revolvers were acquired in London by the Canadian government. The guns were supplied in two shipments of 400, with the first group arriving in May of 1856 and the second group arriving in November of that year. The guns were all standard production London Navy revolvers with iron backstraps and triggerguards as well as rounded head screws. The finish was the standard for London Navy revolvers with blued barrels, backstraps and triggerguard, color casehardened frames, loading levers and hammers and varnished one-piece walnut grips. The reverse of the grip was stamped with either a “UC” or a “LC” designator for Upper and Lower Canada respectively, as well as with the troop letter and the gun (man) number. Some of the guns that were delivered bear British Ordnance inspection marks with a Crown/Number mark. It is not clear if some of these were part of the original British military order of Colt revolvers that were redirected to Canada before being placed in Ordnance stores, or if the Ordnance Department might have randomly inspected some guns to verify quality. These inspected guns are in the minority when examining extant Canadian militia guns and most are standard London civilian production. A study of extant examples of Canadian Militia Colt M1851 Navy Revolves by author Robert Jordan and Don Geri, published in their book Colt 1851 and 1861 Navies & Conversions, notes that database contains a total of 140 Canadian Militia Navies, suggesting a survival rate of about 18%. Of those guns, 89 were “Upper Canada” marked and 51 were “Lower Canada” marked. Based upon the small arms numbers provided in Clive Law’s study, that indicates an approximate survival rate of roughly 16% of the Upper Canada guns and about 20% for the Lower Canada guns.


The Canadia Militia Marked Colt Model 1851 Navy Revolver offered for sale here is in VERY GOOD condition and is a textbook example of one of these scarce pistols. The gun is a London produced Colt Navy with the serial number 28753placing its production in mid-1855. Production serial numbers for that year ran from approximately 15,000 to 46,000. 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, is marked with a pair of London commercial proof and view marks, consisting of a {CROWN} / GP and {CROWN} / V. The cylinder is marked with the usual COLT’S PATENT No followed by the serial number, over the 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 Mexican War 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 marking as well. The most important markings are those found on the reverse of the grip, which is stamped upside down:






This marking indicates issue to the Upper Canada Militia, Troop E, man #27. Troop E was the 2nd York Troop of Upper Canada Militia Cavalry, which consisted of 50 men. According to the database compiled by Jordan & Geri, 11 guns are known to have survived from that cavalry troop and are in their listing.


As noted, the gun is serial number 28753 and is matching throughout with exception of the wedge, which is a period, unnumbered replacement and inside the grip, where the number is illegible. 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 gun is in VERY GOOD condition overall but retains only the most minor traces of original finish. This is most visible on the bottom barrel flat where the loading lever has protected the finish. Otherwise, the revolver has a mostly smooth, grayish-brown patina with some areas of mottled darkness on the frame suggesting the original color casehardened finish and scattered freckles of surface oxidation and discoloration. Some very minor traces of casehardened color remain in protected areas of the loading lever and hammer as well. Although the metal is primarily smooth there are some small patches of minor pinpricking and surface roughness scattered around the gun and some minor pitting is present, primarily around the percussion cone recesses of the rear of the cylinder, around the face of the cylinder and at the muzzle. 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 numerous 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. It remains mostly bright with some lightly scattered oxidation, minor discoloration, and some pinpricking. The cylinder retains about 65%+ of the Mexican War naval engagement scene, which remains mostly crisp and clear. The patent markings and the serial number on the side of the cylinder is the one area that shows the most wear and weakness, along with the Ormsby marking below. This is likely the result of holster wear. The “Engaged 16 May 1843” legend on the front edge of the cylinder is light and remains partially illegible, again apparently from holster wear in combination with a very light rolling of the mark. The rear of the cylinder retains the remnants or outlines of the original stop pins, but only one is actually in place. All the original cones (nipples) are in place and are in very good condition. The revolver retains its original brass cone shaped front sight, which shows some holster wear. All the frame screws appear to be original to the revolver, they are the correct, domed head screws found on London produced Colt Navy revolvers. The screw heads are all in decent condition and show only light to moderate slot wear. The pistol is mechanically FINE and the action functions perfectly with correct timing, indexing and tight lockup. The one-piece walnut grip is in about VERY GOOD condition. As noted, it is deeply stamped with the Upper Canada Militia marking UC / E / 27. The grip retains some of the original varnish and does not appear to have been sanded. As would be expected the grip shows a moderate number of scattered bumps, dings, mars and impact marks from carry and use. Otherwise, the grip remains solid and complete and is free any and breaks, cracks, or repairs.


Overall, this is a solid and attractive example of a very scarce Upper Canada Militia marked Colt Model 1851 Navy Revolver. Very few of these guns were acquired and based upon a scholarly study less than 20% of those guns survive today. When these scarce revolvers do appear on the collector market they are often in fairly rough and very well used condition. This one is a nice crisp example that is matching, fairly sharp and with an attractive brownish patina. The gun appears to be complete and correct, with the exception of the replaced wedge, which matches the condition of the gun perfectly and was mostly likely replaced during the period of service. For any collector of 19th century Canadian small arms or an advanced Colt collector specializing in Colt Navy revolver variations, this is a “must have” item. The gun is a solid, “no apologies” example that is very fairly priced and which I am sure you will be happy to add to your collection.


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Tags: Rare, Upper, Canada, Marked, Colt, Model, 1851, Navy, Revolver