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Scarce Colt Model 1861 Navy-Navy Cartridge Conversion Revolver

Scarce Colt Model 1861 Navy-Navy Cartridge Conversion Revolver

  • Product Code: FHG-TB652
  • Availability: In Stock
  • $4,750.00


This is a NEAR FINE condition example of the scarce US Navy marked Colt New Model (Model 1861) Navy Cartridge Conversion Revolver. The Model 1861 Navy was the pinnacle of Colt’s percussion revolver production and blended some of the best features of both the popular Old Model Navy  (aka Model 1851) and New Model Army  (aka Model 1860) revolvers into one pistol. The gun was a .36 caliber (as implied by the name “Navy”), six-shot, single action revolver with a 7 ½” round barrel. The loading lever was of the M1860 Army “creeping style” and for all practical purposes the front half of the revolver was a scaled down version of M1860 Army in .36 caliber. The rear portion of the revolver was pure “Navy” with the classic M1851 grip frame and grip angle, which would live for generations as the pattern for the grip design of the classic Colt Model 1873 Single Action Army. The M1861 Navy was more streamlined than the earlier M1851 variant and the new loading lever was a significant improvement over the older toggle action design. 

 

While the revolvers were not purchased in huge numbers by the US government during the American Civil War, they did serve in reasonably large numbers, proportional to their production. Only 38,843 of the pistols were produced during their production run from 1861 to 1873, with less than 28,000 being manufactured before the end of 1865. Most sources place US Ordnance Department (Army) purchases at about 2,000 but based upon recorded serial number data; more were purchased on the open market both by the various states and by individual soldiers. The US Navy acquired a total of 3,370 of the New Model Navy revolvers, with the first deliveries being made on September 28, 1861. This delivery was of 200 New Model Navy revolvers to replace an order of M1860 Army revolvers that had not passed US Naval inspection at the end of August 1861. During the inspection process, US Navy inspecting officer Lt. R. Wainwright found that the .44 revolvers had much thinner walls in the cylinder chambers than the .36 revolvers the Navy had previously purchased. He noted in his report that: 

 

“One of them exploded three charges with one pull of the trigger, and it was found to be flaws between the chambers……I have stopped the inspections for further instructions.”

 

This shipment of 200 Army revolvers was replaced with 200 of the new M1861 Navy revolvers, and all further US Navy purchases of Colt revolvers for the balance of the war would be of the new .36 caliber handgun. The initial shipment of revolvers cost the US Navy $23.00 each, and even after negotiating with Colt, the price never dropped below $15.00 each. As a result, after the deliveries of September 1862, the Navy decided to contract with Remington and Whitney for their .36 caliber revolvers, as both manufacturers were willing to sell the handguns for $12.00 each, significantly less than the Colt revolvers. The wartime Navy purchases of Colt M1861 Navy revolvers are rarely inspected or marked in any way, probably due to the need to get the guns issued as quickly as possible.  Civil War firearms historian and author John D. McAulay notes that “while a few of these revolvers were inspected with naval markings, it appears that the majority were accepted at the naval yards without formal inspection.”

 

The end of the Civil War essentially announced the end of the percussion firearms era for the US military. The effectiveness and reliability of self-contained metallic cartridges had been more than proven on the battlefield and all of the US armed forces were looking for ways to modernize their small arms by adopting cartridge-firing weapons. Even the incredibly traditional US Navy looked for a self-contained cartridge handgun to add to their small arms inventory. However, the traditional attitude about the utility of pistols remained in place at the top echelon of the Naval hierarchy during the first decade of the post-Civil War years. As a result, the Navy adopted the Remington rolling block single-shot pistol as their standard sidearm in 1865. This clearly indicated the Navy felt that self-contained cartridges were desirable for pistols, but the multi-shot firepower of a revolver was not! The Navy was also caught in a budget crisis that arose from government debt that was accrued during the Civil War, and from an overabundance of small arms, albeit obsolete, on hand. The reality was there was simply no budget for the widespread acquisition of cartridge revolvers, nor was there a general consensus regarding which revolver might be the appropriate choice. 

 

In 1866, the Navy started to sell off their excess inventory of percussion revolvers and by 1873 the only percussion revolvers in the US Naval inventories were .36 caliber M1851 and M1861 Colts. In 1873 the Colt Patent Firearms Company approached the Navy with a potential solution that was low cost and allowed the Navy to upgrade many of their obsolete percussion revolvers to cartridge handguns. General W.B. Franklin, Vice President of Colt, offered to upgrade existing stocks of M1851 and M1861 Navy revolvers to centerfire cartridge via the Richards-Mason conversion system for $3.50 each. In a 10 July 1873 letter to Franklin, USN Chief of Ordnance William N. Jeffers accepted the offer from Colt and noted that he had “…advised the Commandant(s) of the Boston, New York and Philadelphia Navy Yards to send to your manufactory 100, 400 and 300 pistols respectively for alteration.”

 

Thus began the process by which some 2,097 US Navy owned .36 caliber Colt percussion revolvers were altered to metallic cartridge by the Richards-Mason system. The guns were all altered to .38 Long Colt, and while some sources suggest the barrels were reamed and re-rifled, the reality is that the bores of the guns were not altered, although a few barrels were replaced by Colt due to the poor condition of the bores. The alteration consisted of a series of modifications to the frame, cylinder and barrel of the revolver. The cylinder was modified by milling down a portion of its rear, removing the percussion cones (nipples) and creating a bored-through chamber, while leaving the original ratchet mechanism intact. The chambers were then reamed out to accept the .38 Long Colt cartridge cases. A conversion breech plate was added to the frame, mounted in front of the original recoil shield and a loading gate was added on the right side of the frame. A new, longer, 2-pronged hand was added to the internal mechanism to actuate the cylinder, and the ratchet on the rear of the cylinder were re-cut to insure proper timing and indexing. The barrel had the loading lever and associated catch removed, with the dovetail for the catch, as well as the loading lever mounting recess both being filled. The hole in the front of the frame through which the rammer plunger passed was not modified on the M1851 Navy revolvers but was plugged on the M1861 revolvers. A Mason pattern ejector rod assembly was added to the right side of the barrel, consisting of an ejector rod tube, with a spring loaded ejector rod that was tipped with a kidney shaped plunger tip with concentric rings embossed on the front to ensure a good grip while using the ejector rod. Colt refinished the pistols after the alterations were completed. 

 

At least one letter from Colt to the Navy suggested that the iron backstraps of the M1851 Navy revolvers be polished and refinished, and new grips be installed on the revolvers to improve their overall appearance and bring them up to the standards of the rest of the gun that had been refinished after the alteration process. The Navy agreed and paid Colt an additional $0.75 for each gun that had the backstrap refinished and the grips replaced. The M1861 Navy revolvers had silver plated brass backstraps, and it appears they were only polished and not re-plated as part of the alteration and refinishing process. As a result of the replacement of most of the grips on the guns sent to Colt, original USN inspection marks in the grips are usually missing from the cartridge converted “Navy-Navy” revolvers. Due to the polishing and refinishing, the original percussion era marks on the guns are often weak or missing, as are most of the original Naval markings in the metal, if they were ever present (most Navy-Navies were only marked on their grips). The pistols were stamped on the lower left side of the frame with the two-line patent date legend that referenced both the Richards and the Mason patents, over stamping the original 2-line “Colt’s Patent” mark. In almost all cases the wedges of the cartridge-altered revolvers were replaced with new Colt factory wedges, both left over percussion wedges with springs and cartridge wedges without springs, all of which were unnumbered. The large majority of the M1851 and M1861 Navy-Navy revolvers that were altered ended up with mismatched cylinders that were typically renumbered to match the gun, either below the original serial number on the side of the cylinder or on the rear face of the cylinder. This is probably due to the fact that the cylinder required the most machining and work to make it usable, and when a revolver was received for alteration, its cylinder was sent to the machine shop to be converted, and another cylinder that had already been altered was pulled from stock and reassembled with the revolver. It is generally believed that only about of 1,000 of the Colt Navy-Navy cartridge conversions were performed on M1851 Navy revolvers, with the balance performed on M1861 Navy revolvers. When the revolvers were returned to the various Navy yards from Colt, only those sent to the New York Navy Yard received any inspection marks. The revolvers sent to New York were inspected by Commander Richard W. Meade, who stamped his initials and an anchor under the barrels, forward of the frame. Those pistols with the R.W.M. {ANCHOR} mark can be concretely attributed to having been inspected at the New York Navy Yard after alteration. No known inspection markings have been attributed to the revolvers returned to the Boston, Philadelphia, Norfolk and Portsmouth Navy Yards. Today all of the Richards-Mason converted Colt Navy-Navy revolvers are scarce, with less than 100 of the 1,000 M1851 altered guns believed to remain in existence, and approximately 120 of the 1,097 altered M1861s believed to have survived. These revolvers are important ones in any martial collection as they are the first metallic cartridge revolvers used by the US Navy and some of the first metallic cartridge revolvers used by any of the US armed forces.

 

This Richards-Mason Converted Colt Model 1861 Navy-Navy Revolver in about NEAR FINE overall condition and is a very nice example of a wartime US Navy purchased Colt M1861 returned for alteration to .38 Long Colt circa 1873. The revolver is serial number 4158, which places it in late 1861 production, which ended at approximately 4,600. Interestingly I have previously owned the cartridge altered USN Colt M1861 Navy-Navy that was #4163, only 5 numbers away. Colt delivered 2,000 M1861 Navy revolvers to the Navy during 1861, about 43% of that year’s total production of that model. The serial number is found on all major components, with the exception of the wedge, which is numbered 316 and the cylinder. As with many such cartridge conversions, the wedge was replaced by Colt during the alteration process by the newer pattern which did not have a spring. The number on the wedge is an assembly number, which will be discussed shortly. The lower front portion of the left side of the frame is marked in two lines: COLT’S / PATENT, without the “US” found on M1851s purchased by the Navy. Amazingly, the markings are all still quite legible, even after the Colt refinishing of the frame and the addition of the new patent marks that Colt stamped over the original ones. The new patent marks are stamped in two lines:

 

– PAT. JULY. 23, 1871. –

– PAT. JULY. 2, 1872. –

 

with dashes at the beginning and end of each line. The round barrel is marked with the late production New York barrel address that reads: 

 

— ADDRESS COL. SAML COLT NEW - YORK U.S. AMERICA—

 

The cylinder is marked with the usual COLT’S PATENT followed by the serial number No 9422. This was the serial number of the original Colt M1861 Navy that was sent in for alteration. The number “9422” has been lightly lined out and a new number 2894 has been stamped below it. This is the most common way to “force match” the altered cylinder to the altered gun’s original serial number. However, in this case that is not the number of this gun either. At first blush this would suggest that the cylinder was mismatched, but it is not. The cylinder was apparently never installed in 1861 Navy #2894, as the cylinder has the assembly number 316 on its rear face. This same Colt assembly number is found on the rear face of the Richards-Mason loading gate and as noted earlier, is the number applied to the Colt replacement wedge as well. In my opinion this is all factory work and for whatever reason the re-numbered cylinder never was installed in #2894 and ended up in this gun, with matching assembly numbers on the loading gate and wedge. The cylinder is roll engraved with the typical naval engagement scene which remains about 70%+ visible. Even the ENGAGED 16 MAY 1843 remains mostly legible. The rear face of the cylinder also bears a single C Colt factory inspection mark. The top rear of the barrel is stamped with the US Navy’s {ANCHOR} reinspection mark, which was applied during a period of arms inspection that took place towards the end the Civil War and apparently continued for a short period after the war as well. This mark proves that this revolver was part of the US Navy’s inventory of small arms during the war. The brass butt is also stamped U . S . N with the usual individual dies and no period or marks after the “N”.

 

As previously noted, the gun remains in about NEAR FINE condition. The gun remains fairly crisp and sharp throughout, with good edges and clear markings. The pistol retains about 10%+ of its original Colt factory blued finish on the barrel, mostly on the barrel web and in protected areas around the edges of the ejector housing. The balance of the barrel retains some thin traces of blue mixed with a moderately oxidized and mottled gray patina over the balance of the barrel. The frame retains about 20%+ of the vivid Colt casehardened finish, with the balance of the frame dulling and fading to a pewter gray patina. The case coloring is primarily in protected areas around the recoil shield. The hammer retains a similar amount of casehardened finish, with the balance of the hammer mostly a grayish color. The metal surfaces are mostly smooth, with some scattered patches of light pinpricking, mostly on the barrel. There are also some areas of light surface oxidation around the muzzle and scattered on the barrel. As noted, the cylinder retains about 70%+ of the roll engraved Mexican War naval battle scene and retains about 30%+ of its Colt factory blued finish which has worn and faded blending with a smoky blue-gray patina. The loading gate retains only traces of its original case hardened finish and has a slightly mottled smoky gray look. The gate uses the “outside” spring to secure it, and the spring retains some faded traces of its original niter blued finish. The gate functions smoothly and correctly. The action of the pistol is EXCELLENT, and the revolver remains tight, timing and indexing perfectly and locking up as it should. The trigger retains bout 40% of its original bright niter blued finish, with the balance toning to darker dull blue, and functions crisply as well. Both the brass backstrap and triggerguard were polished by Colt during the alteration and refinishing process and as a result their serial numbers are a little soft, as is the “U.S.N” on the butt. The brass now has a lovely golden ocher patina that is very attractive. Interestingly there are two small areas, one on the backstrap and one on the butt that appear to be filled holes, suggesting that this revolver may have been equipped with some form of wire buttstock at some point in time. The ejector rod housing retains no finish and has the same moderately oxidized smoky pewter gray patina as is found on most of the barrel. The ejector rod button is of the correct kidney shaped pattern with the concentric rings. The ejector rod functions smoothly and correctly as well. The gun appears to retain all of its original screws as well, which are all in very nice condition and show minimal slot wear. The screws all retain at least some of their niter-blued finish, although most have faded and dulled with age. The wedge screw, likely replaced during the alteration, retains the largest amount of bright nitre blue. The bore of the pistol rates about VERY GOOD overall. It remains mostly bright, with crisp rifling and shows some evenly distributed light pitting along its length, with a couple of patches of more moderate pitting. The one-piece, oil finished, black walnut grips are in NEAR FINE condition as well. They are free of any breaks, cracks or repairs. The grips are original to the gun and not replacement grips installed during the alteration process at Colt. The serial number 4158 is written in ink in a period hand in the backstrap cut out of the grips. The number is preceded by the added period ink marking U.S.N. indicating that when good grips were pulled off the Navy guns during the alteration process, a real effort was made to identify them and keep them for reinstallation. The replacement grips that were installed by Colt were not numbered to the guns. The grips do show some of the expected bumps, dings and handling marks from use and service. The grips show a couple of tiny chips, both at the leading edges of the bottom front of the grip frame. This is minor, but mentioned for exactness, and in no way affects the display of this rare pistol.

 

Overall, this is a really lovely, 100% original complete and correct Colt Model 1861 Richards-Mason Converted Navy-Navy. These are very scarce guns, with only about 1,100 so altered. This gun has a really wonderful look and has not been messed with in any way. It is in much better condition than most Navy purchased M1861 conversions encountered on the collector market today. This is one of those guns that had a service life of well over 3 decades, serving the navy in the years leading up to the Civil War, during the war and then being converted in 1873 to serve another decade or more until the Model 1889 Colt Navy double action revolver was taken into service. With all of that service and use it is amazing the gun is as crisp as it is. A Colt “Navy-Navy” is a real coup for any serious collector of US marital revolvers to acquire, and a Richards-Mason conversion is even harder to find. This gun would be a great addition to any such collection or to a Civil War or USN collection. This is simply a great gun that you will be very proud to own and to display and would certainly be worth obtaining a Colt factory letter on, if the records for the gun are available.

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Tags: Scarce, Colt, Model, 1861, Navy, Navy, Cartridge, Conversion, Revolver