Scarce Metropolitan Arms Company "1851 Navy" Percussion Revolver
- Product Code: FHG-GB57-SOLD
- Availability: Out Of Stock
In the past, little was definitively known about the Metropolitan Arms Company of New York but is has long been hypothesized by arms historians that the firm was established to take advantage of the massive fire that took place at the Colt Patent Firearms factory in February of 1864. With Colt’s production capacity severely curtailed, there was a perceived opening in the civilian percussion revolver market. It has been further hypothesized that New York gunmaker Orison Blunt was behind the company and produced the earliest guns, which are unmarked, and then relied on the Metropolitan Arms Company to continue production. These long-held beliefs have been proven to be partly correct but more recent scholarship published in Arms Heritage Magazine by American Society of Arms Collectors member Frank Graves reveals more about the real story of the firm.
As previously thought, the impetus for the establishment of the Metropolitan Arms Company was the Colt fire. In fact, the five-person consortium of gunmakers and investors who intended to take immediate advantage of the situation were in business only three weeks after the fire and included the well-known New York gunmakers William J and Samuel R Syms. The pair had previously been in business with Orison Blunt as Blunt & Syms and it is quite likely that Blunt was also involved with the group, although he was not officially listed as “partner”. This is further supported by the fact that the Metropolitan Arms Company took up residence in a building owned by Blunt. The other partners were John S McChesney, John J Serrel and Charles B Hart.
The newly established Metropolitan Arms Company stepped into the void left by the Colt fire by bringing three models to market, all of which were essentially copies of current production Colt products. The primary product was a copy of the Colt Model 1851 Navy Revolver. The secondary product was a copy of the Colt Model 1862 Police Revolver, and the final product was a variation on the Model 1851, which essentially a copy of the Colt Model 1861 Navy Revolver. None of the guns were produced in great numbers and even the Model 1851 type revolver which was produced in the greatest numbers is fairly scarce gun on the collector market today. Between the formation of the company in 1864 and when they went out of business circa 1867 it is estimated that a total of 8,900 revolvers were produced. Of these roughly 6,100 were of the “1851 Navy” pattern, about 2,750 of the “1862 Police” pattern and about 50 were of the extremely rare “1861 Navy” pattern. Interestingly all were .36 caliber guns, and no other calibers were produced.
The demise of the company has been hypothesized as being the result of the metallic cartridge, which made percussion arms obsolete. This seems quite unlikely as companies like Colt were producing percussion revolvers through 1873 and the introduction of any cartridge revolver was problematic until the expiration of the Rollin White patent for the bored-through cylinder in 1869. More likely the firm failed for a number of reasons. Firstly, while the Colt fire did significant damage to the company they were soon back in full swing producing their popular revolvers and were backed by huge name recognition and a large and effectively used advertising budget. Further, roughly one year after the formation of the Metropolitan Arms Company, the American Civil War ended. This meant that the overall demand for percussion revolvers dropped dramatically with the cancellation of the various Civil War handgun contracts. As the larger companies scrambled to stay in business, firm like Remington readdressed their marketing and production capacity to serving the civilian market into which Metropolitan was trying to make inroads. The rather quick downsizing of the United States Army and the subsequent sale of surplus percussion revolvers meant that a glut of firearms were suddenly on the market as well. All of these factors likely conspired to make the job of selling an essentially unknown brand of percussion revolver, in a very soft market for such items, a nearly impossible job. When the cost of machinery, tooling and set up for the production of the guns is considered against the small number of revolvers actually produced, the partners likely decided to cut their losses and close the company rather than keep beating their heads against the wall.
One of the first indications that the firm was having trouble getting market penetration is the fact that the Model 1851 revolvers were produced from serial number 1-63 and then numbering started again at 1164. This bit of subterfuge was likely perpetrated to make the guns appear to have been produced in larger numbers than they were. Similar bit of serial number slights of hand have been documented with some Smith & Wesson models, and more recently has been suggested to have take place at the New Haven Arms Company to make Henry Rifle production appear greater than it really was. The company used the same strategy in the production of their Model 1862 revolver and those guns started at number 1100, rather than 1.
The 1851 Model Metropolitan Revolver was produced in two variations. The first variation of the revolver was unmarked, and these were numbered from 1-63 and then from 1,164 to about 1,800. It is within the serial number range of these unmarked guns that most of Metropolitan Navy revolvers that were marked and retailed by HE Dimick of St. Louis appear. The second variation of the revolver introduced the Metropolitan Arms Company markings and also introduced a roll engraved cylinder scene. Colt had long decorated their round cylinder revolvers with a cylinder scene, starting with their Paterson revolvers. Not to be outdone, Metropolitan commissioned famous artist and engraved WL Ormsby who had created the Colt cylinder scenes to produce a decorative roll engraved scene for their revolvers as well. As the Colt Model 1851 “Navy” revolver initially received its nickname from the engraved naval battle scene featuring the Texas Navy fighting the Mexican Navy, it seemed only appropriate that a naval battle scene be featured by Metropolitan a as well. In this case the scene represented the “Battle of New Orleans” in April of 1862, when the Union forces captured that Confederate port city after sailing past the Confederate forts on April 24 and finally took possession of the city on April 29.
Other than the addition of the roll engraved cylinder scene and barrel markings, there was little substantial difference between the 1st and 2nd variations of the Metropolitan Navy Model 1851 Revolvers. In fact, there was little difference between the 1851 Navy-type guns produced by Colt and Metropolitan. The Metropolitan 1851 Navy revolvers had 7 ½” octagonal barrels and six, shot .36 caliber round percussion cylinders. The revolvers were single action in operation and used a pivoting link loading lever. The revolver barrels and cylinders were blued, the frames, hammers and loading levers were color casehardened and the backstrap and triggerguard were made of silver-plated brass. One-piece, varnished walnut grips completed the guns. As with a Colt, custom features like grips, engraving and finishes were available for additional charges, but such enhanced examples are extremely rare. The differences between the two manufacturer’s guns were minimal, with the most obvious ones being that lack of “lead in” tapered slots on the cylinder stop slots and the lack of safety pins on the rear face of the cylinder. Both of these features were patented by Colt and those patents must have still been active and enforceable when Metropolitan went into business. Other differences are very minor and relate to the grip profile and screw locations, but these are almost irrelevant. To most casual observers, a Metropolitan 1851 Navy and a Colt 3rd Model 1851 Navy look almost identical, unless the markings or cylinder scene are clearly visible.
The Metropolitan 1851 Style Navy Revolver offered here is in about VERY GOOD+ to NEAR FINE condition and is a very nice, crisp example of a fairly scarce revolver. The revolver is a 2nd variation with the Battle of New Orleans roll engraved cylinder scene and with Metropolitan Arms Company barrel marking. The top of the 7 ½” octagonal barrel is roll marked in a single line and reads:
< METROPOLITAN ARMS Co. NEW-YORK >
The revolver is serial number 3339, which means it was really the 2,239th Metropolitan Navy produced, after the addition of the 1,100 “fake” numbers. The matching serial number 3339 is found on the bottom of the barrel lug, on the bottom of the frame, on the triggerguard, on the butt, on the cylinder and on the barrel wedge. The top flat of the loading lever is numbered with the last two digits 39. The face of the loading lever catch is not numbered and appears to be a very old and extremely well-made replacement, possibly from the period of use. The roll engraved cylinder scene has the legend WL ORMSBY, SC and NEW ORLEANS APRIL 1862 engraved on the leading edge in a manner similar to the markings on the Colt cylinders. There are no other external markings noted.
As noted, the revolver remains in VERY GOOD+ to NEAR FINE condition. All of the marking remain clear and fully legible. The barrel retains some traces of blue, most of which has faded, dulled, and worn away. There are some small, freckled areas of bright blue scattered along the barrel, with the most obvious areas of surviving blue being found on the bottom flat of the barrel where it was protected by the loading lever and on the barrel web. The balance of the barrel has a mostly dull bluish-gray patina with some hints of plum. The barrel retains less than 10% of the original blue, but more than just “traces”. The cylinder retains no blue and has a mostly dull gray patina with some areas of oxidized discoloration and some areas that have a bluish tone to them. The frame retains some traces of visible mottled case coloring in the protected areas, with the loading lever and hammer also retaining some traces of mottled color. The balance of the frame shows a smoky grayish patina with some freckled oxidation. The barrel, cylinder and frame are mostly smooth metal with some freckled areas of lightly oxidized surface roughness, some very lightly scattered pinpricking, and some light pitting. The pitting is mostly around the face of the muzzle and the loading lever catch, with some very tiny, scattered freckles of pitting here and there and on the cylinder. The cylinder scene remains mostly visible, is quite clear and is about 85%+ present. The brass triggerguard and backstrap retain only the most minute traces of silver in the most protected areas. The revolver is mechanically excellent and time, indexes and locks up exactly as it should. The mechanism remains very tight and crisp. The bore of the revolver remains in about VERY GOOD condition. The bore is moderately oxidized, retains fine, crisp rifling and shows some lightly scattered pitting along its length. The one-piece varnished walnut grip is not quite as nice as the balance of the revolver and rates about VERY GOOD. The grip retains much of the period varnish with most of the loss from wear and use along the high edges and contact points. The biggest condition issue of the grip are the four notches carved into the right side. While some may want to romanticize these to indicate that the owner of the revolver had four “kills” to his credit, it is impossible to know what they may signify. Other than the four notches, the grip remains fairly crisp with some scattered light handling marks and dings.
Overall, this is a really nice, crisp example of a fairly scarce Civil War era “Secondary Martial” revolver. With only about 6,000 of these guns produced, they are certainly not commonly encountered on the collector market, and when they are they tend to be fairly well used and worn. This Metropolitan Navy is much better than most examples encountered, has matching numbers and a crisp and clear cylinder scene. This would be a fine addition to any Civil War period percussion handgun collection, particularly if your interest is in the less often encountered revolvers of the era. It would also fit in well with an advanced Colt collection as a good example of an unlicensed American copy, produced to take advantage of the Colt Navy’s popularity and the temporary setback at the Colt factory.