Very Fine DFC Inspected Colt Model 1873 Cavalry Single Action Army dated 1880
- Product Code: FHG-3485-SOLD
- Availability: Out Of Stock
There is probably no more iconic handgun silhouette in American history than that of the Colt Single Action Army. The Model 1873 Revolver, known alternatively as the Model P, “Peacemaker” and by a variety of creative nicknames, was the final result of nearly a decade’s worth of effort by Colt to bring the next generation of handguns to the US military. The success of repeating, self-contained metallic cartridge firearms during the American Civil War, such as the Spencer Rifle and Carbine, as well as the Henry Rifle, had clearly foreshadowed the end of the age of percussion firearms. Almost from the moment the Civil War ended, the US Ordnance Department began looking for the next generation of cartridge firearms. The development of a cartridge conversion system for the existing stock of single shot, muzzle-loading muskets by Springfield Master Armorer Erskine S. Allin solved the problem of cartridge long arms for the Army temporarily, and eventually led to the manufacture of the “Trapdoor” series of arms. However, the solution for the handgun problem was more complicated.
Smith & Wesson owned the rights to Rollin White’s “bored through cylinder” patent, making the production of conventional metallic cartridge revolver impossible without coming to some sort of royalty payment arrangement with Smith & Wesson. The patent would not expire until April of 1869, so until that point most firearms companies had their hands tied. In 1868, in order to get into the game a little quicker, Remington agreed to pay royalties for the rights to use the bored through cylinder patent in the alteration of percussion Remington handguns to metallic cartridge. Remington submitted several cartridge conversion samples for the US military handgun trials in 1869. However, it was Smith & Wesson who received the first US military contract for a cartridge revolver design.
In 1870 the US military ordered 1,000 Smith & Wesson Model No. 3 “1st Model” American Revolvers, chambered for the .44 S&W American cartridge. These guns with their top break design and automatic extraction system would become the basis for the later Model 1875 “Schofield” revolver. Colt was not out of the running however, and Springfield Arsenal altered about 1,200 existing Colt Model 1860 Army revolvers from percussion to .44 Colt via the Colt Richards Conversion system in early 1871. Initially these proved satisfactory but were still not as durable as the Remington Army revolvers, whose frames included a top strap for additional strength. During this time, Colt was working on what they were referring to as their “strap pistol” in house. This revolver included all of the best features from the Richards and Richards-Mason conversion, the Model 1871-72 “Open Top” and some new features like a frame with a top strap and a newly designed loading gate.
In late 1872 this new revolver was submitted for trials to the US Ordnance Department, chambered in the .44 S&W Russian Cartridge. Colt assumed that since the .44 Russian was a superior cartridge to the .44 S&W American, that the Ordnance Department would prefer that chambering. But in reality, the Ordnance Department intended to test the new Colt handgun against the Smith & Wesson Model 1870. Since the Smith & Wesson was chambered for .44 S&W American, the Colt needed to be chambered for that cartridge as well. After thorough testing by the US military, some recommendations, and minor modifications and improvements, the new Colt Revolver was officially accepted for military service as the Colt Model 1873 Revolver.
The Colt Model 1873 Revolver was a single action, six-shot revolver with partially fluted cylinder, a 7 ½” barrel, and was chambered for the new .45 Colt cartridge. This new cartridge pushed a 250 grain, .454” diameter lead bullet at about 950 ft/s, with a muzzle energy of about 520 ft-lbs. The stopping power of this cartridge would become the gold standard of 19th century handguns and would be the benchmark for the .45 ACP cartridge, adopted in 1911, which is nearly the ballistic equivalent of the .45 Colt. The barrel of the revolver was rifled with 6 narrow lands and wide grooves that made one turn in 16” with a lefthand twist. The gun had a solid frame with a topstrap. A hinged loading gate on the right side of the frame was used for loading and unloaded cartridges and a spring tensioned ejector rod was mounted on the lower right side of the barrel. The revolvers were blued, with color case hardened frames and hammers. The one-piece walnut grips were oil finished. A screw entering from an angle at the bottom front of the frame retained the cylinder arbor pin. This feature would become known to collectors as the “black powder frame” as the screw retention system would not be abandoned until the dawn of the smokeless powder era, when a spring-loaded cross pin would finally replace the screw. Even though these revolvers were manufactured with mostly interchangeable parts that would require little, if any, fitting to exchange between guns, they were inevitably serial numbered on all of their major components, just like their Civil War era, non-interchangeable brethren had been.
These 7 ½” barreled US martially marked Single Actions have acquired the collector’s name “Cavalry Model” to differentiate them from other variants of the Single Action Army. Colt accepted their first contract on 23 July 1873. The contract was for 8,000 revolvers and deliveries began on September 2 of that year, running through March of 1874. Over the next sixteen years, some 37,060 Single Action Army revolvers would be purchased from Colt by the US military, with the final deliveries taking place in April of 1891. During this sixteen-year period a number of small changes took place on the revolvers, mostly affecting the style, placement, and content of various markings. Some very minor cosmetic changes occurred during the transition from the 1st contract to the 2nd contract, such as increasing the bevel at the front of the cylinder, beveling the ejector housing tip, and increasing the size of the cylinder stops. These changes, however, are only really relevant when discussing the earliest guns delivered by Colt, as these features were standard by the time the 2ndcontract was accepted.
A US military sub-inspector and an accepting officer from the US Ordnance Department would inspect all of these military guns. The sub-inspectors were civilian employees of Springfield Arsenal, but the receiving officer was a US Army officer assigned to the Ordnance Department. Over the years, collectors have classified the Colt Cavalry Models by the name of the sub-inspector, whose initials appear on most of the major components of the revolvers and in a cartouche on the right side of the grips (with the exception of the Ainsworth cartouche that appears on the left side of the grip). The first group of 8,000 revolvers are the most prized Cavalry Models and are known by their sub-inspector Orville W. Ainsworth. The guns from this first contract were inspected with small, single letter inspection marks, as Colt revolvers had been during the Civil War. This system was subsequently changed to the use of all three of the inspector’s initials to avoid confusion between Colt-applied in-house inspection marks and military inspection marks. It was also to prevent confusion when an inspector with a last name that started with a “C” (like A.P. Casey) used only one letter, as it could be confused for a condemnation mark, rather than an acceptance mark. In addition to requiring the use of a full set of sub-inspection initials, the old system of placing two cartouches on the guns returned, with the sub-inspector marking the right side of the grip and the accepting officer marking the left side. The year of acceptance was also added above the accepting officer’s cartouche. The early inspection marking system is typically found on revolvers under serial number 19,500 and the improved system was in full force by about serial number 30,000 (although there are some exceptions in the 47,000-50,500 range – See Graham, Kopec & Moore for more information). Other inspectors that are regularly used to identify Cavalry Single Action Revolvers are John T Cleveland (circa 1876-1877, serial number range 30,693-35,569), Henry Nettleton (circa 1878, serial number ranges 36,798-39,703 & 47,056-51,083), David F. Clark (circa 1880-1886, serial number ranges 41,033-43,300 & 53,006-121,238) and Rinaldo A. Carr (circa 1889-1891 serial number range 130,438-140,361). I am indebted to A Study of the Colt Single Action Army Revolver by Graham, Kopec & Moore for the detailed information regarding the years and serial number ranges for the various sub-inspectors who viewed these Colt revolvers.
In all, the Ordnance Department would procure some 37,060 Colt Single Action Army Cavalry revolvers between 1873 and 1891. In 1895 a process or refurbishing and upgrading the revolvers in service began the process of creating what collectors have termed the “Artillery” Model revolvers. These were 7 ½” barreled cavalry revolvers that were refurbished, refinished, and often had their barrels shortened to 5 ½” in length. The first revolvers to be so transformed were 2,000 that were returned to Colt between 1895 and 1896 for the full restorative treatment and were returned good as new with 5 ½” barrels. It appears that most of these guns came back from Colt with their serial numbers matching. In 1898, some 14,900 of the guns were reconditioned at Springfield Arsenal, where they were reassembled without any effort to match components and serial numbers and were returned to the field with 5 ½” barrels as well. Between 1901 and 1902 2,600 guns were returned to Colt for refurbishing, but these guns were noted to have already been altered to the shorter 5 ½” barrel length. It is probable that these were revolvers that had seen service during the Spanish-American War, either in Cuba or the Philippines, where the harsh climate had taken its toll on their condition. The final group of guns to recondition and shortened to 5 ½” were another 2,600 that were sent to Colt in 1903. In all at least 19,500 Colt Single Action Army “Cavalry” revolvers were altered from 7 ½” barrels to 5 ½” barrels between 1895 and 1903, which is slightly more than half of the total acquisition of this model by the Ordnance Department. This explains why it is rather difficult to find original, unaltered Cavalry Model revolvers today. Even though the Model 1873 was officially replaced in 1892 by the Colt Model 1892 double action revolver in .38 Long Colt, the anemic stopping power of this cartridge meant that the Model 1873 remained in limited use as a “substitute standard” handgun until the adoption of the Colt Model 1911 .45 ACP semi-automatic pistol. The success and popularity of the Colt Single Action Army is probably only eclipsed by the success of the Colt Model 1911.
Slightly less than 358,000 Single Action Army revolvers, in all variants, were produced by Colt from 1872 through 1940, with production picking up again in 1955 with some 59,000+ produced before these “2nd Generation” guns went out of production in 1970. The Single Action Army remains a part of the Colt production line today and has been copied by many gunmakers around the world, a testament to the success of the design and its overall popularity. However, no modern incarnation of the classic Colt revolver is as historic or collectible as the original 7 ½” “Cavalry” Model 1873 Single Action Army, delivered to the Ordnance Department between 1873 and 1891.
Offered here is a VERY FINE example of a US Military 7 ½” “Cavalry” Model 1873 Single Action Army Revolver, inspected by David F. Clark. Clark inspected a total of 13,000 Single Action Army revolvers from eight government different contracts during his eight-year tenure at Colt from 1880 to 1887. This gun is from the 2nd contract that Clark inspected and was part of an order of 1,000 revolvers placed by the Ordnance Department on October 20, 1880. These guns were subsequently delivered during December of the same year, with the last revolvers being accepted on December 31, 1880. As the arsenal sub-inspector assigned to the Colt factory during this time, Clark inspected every contract revolver in detail. As a result, this revolver bears his sub-inspection initials, D.F.C., on nearly every major component, along with his inspection cartouche on the right side of the grip. The revolver is serial number 61898 and was produced at the very end of the year 1880, with most Colt serial number lists claiming that 1881 production began at approximately serial number 62,000. The complete, matching serial number 61898 appears on the triggerguard, frame, and bottom of the grip strap, with the abbreviated serial number 1898 (the last four digits) appearing on the side of the cylinder and on the barrel under the ejector housing, which must be removed to see it. The number also appears in period ink in the gripstrap cut out of the walnut grip. The loading gate is assembly numbered 1741, and this number should not match the serial number of the gun as it is an assembly number. The bottom of the barrel, forward of the cylinder arbor pin is marked with the expected D.F.C. sub-inspection mark and a P proof mark. The D.F.C. mark also appears on the bottom of the frame, above the serial number, on the side of the cylinder and on the bottom right side of the grip. The cylinder also has a Pproof mark as well. The lower left side of the frame is marked with the correct 3-line patent date markings:
PAT. SEPT 19. 1871
“ JULY. 2. – 72.
“ JAN. 19. – 79.
and with the military ownership and inspection mark U.S. stamped to the rear of the patent dates. The barrel is marked with the 2nd type barrel address, found on Colt Single Action revolvers with barrels 5 ½” long or longer from about serial number 24,000 through the end of production in 1940. This block letter address reads in a single line:
COLT’S PT. F. A. Co HARTFORD CT. U.S.A.
The right side of the grip retains a crisp and clear David F. Clark cartouche, with the script letters DFC surrounded by an oval. The left side of the grip shows an equally clear and sharp script CCM cartouche in a rectangular box with rounded edges, with the date 1880 stamped deeply over it. This is the acceptance cartouche of US Ordnance Department receiving officer Lt. Charles M. Morrison, who inspected Colt revolvers with Clark from 1880-1882. All of the markings on the gun remain crisp, clear, and fully legible.
As mentioned, the gun is in VERY FINE condition overall and is a very crisp and extremely pleasing example of an original 7 ½” Cavalry Single Action Army Revolver. The gun retains somewhere around 35%-40% of its original blued finish, with the largest areas of original bright blued finish being on the ejector rod housing, along the barrel where the top of the housing and barrel meet, on the barrel under the housing, in the cylinder flutes and on the triggerguard. The gun has not been refinished at any point in time, and the original “feathered” polish marks are present on either side of the front sight. The balance of the gun has a very attractive, untouched bluish-gray patina that is really more traces of thinned blue over the pewter gray of the base metal. The barrel and cylinder are mostly smooth, with some very tiny areas of lightly scattered pinpricking and minor surface roughness, with some freckles of surface oxidation mixed with the remaining finish. The frame retains about 25%+ of its original case coloring, which has faded, dulled and become muted with age and use. Most of this finish is on and behind the recoil shield. There are also some tiny areas of vibrant case coloring in the protected areas and recesses of the frame as well. The balance of the frame is mostly smooth and has a pleasingly oxidized mottled brown and plum patina. The hammer retains about 40% of its vivid case coloring, most of which is confined to the sides of the hammer where it has been protected by the frame. The balance of the hammer has the same smooth bluish-gray patina as much of the rest of the gun. The trigger retains strong traces of bright blue along its edges, with the face of the trigger worn to a pewter blue-gray color. The screws all retain at least strong traces of their soft niter blued finish, while some retain much more of this blue, in particular the hammer screw and the butt frame screw. The screw heads are mostly in very nice and crisp condition with only a couple frame showing some light slot wear. The original and correct bullseye ejector rod is in place on the revolver, along with the original front sight. The correct factory finish “feathering” is present on the barrel on either side of the front sight blade. The action of the revolver remains in EXCELLENT condition and the revolver functions crisply and correctly on all positions. The revolver times and locks up perfectly and remains exceptionally tight. The loading gate functions smoothly and locks tightly into place and the ejector rod operates smoothly as well. The bore of the revolver rates about VERY FINE as well and is mostly bright with some light frosting. It retains crisp rifling and shows only some lightly scattered oxidation and very light pinpricking here and there along its length. The original, oil finished, one-piece walnut grip remains in about FINE condition. As noted above, the grip retains two wonderful inspection cartouches, as well as an inspection date on the sides and crips and clear sub-inspection mark on the bottom. The grip fits the frame perfectly and shows age, wear and patina that match the revolver perfectly. The grip is solid and free from any breaks, cracks, or repairs. The grip does show a tiny chip missing from the lower leading edge of the left side, forward of the CCM cartouche, but this is almost imperceptible and is really the only condition issue even worth mentioning. The grip shows some very minor light handling marks from service and use, as would be expected from a late-19th century military revolver, as well as some very minor impact marks on the bottom, but shows absolutely no abuse.
Overall, this is a very crisp, extremely well marked, and very attractive example of a 7 ½” Colt Single Action Army US Cavalry Revolver. The gun is 100% complete, correct, and original and somehow escaped the refurbishment, rebuilding and barrel shortening that so many marital Single Action Revolvers were subjected to during the twilight of their service life. Untouched, well-marked Cavalry Single Action Revolvers are very difficult to find these days, especially with such fine grips and cartouches. When guns like this are found, they command strong premiums, and are often the late production guns from the Rinaldo A. Carr era. This is a really great Indian Wars era gun, accepted by David F. Clark in December of 1880, and in service for the last decade of serious Indian War service. Even though this gun was likely issued to a state militia, which allowed it to escape alteration to “Artillery” configuration, it was still in service during Apache Wars (c1880-1886), the Ghost Dance War (1890-91), the Pine Ridge Campaign (1890-91) and the Wounded Knee Massacre (December 29, 1890). Many martial single actions also saw use with volunteer regiments during the Spanish-American War. Rarely do you have the opportunity to acquire such a well-marked, complete, and original US military Single Action Army in its original cavalry configuration, without spending somewhere north of $20,000. This is a gun that any serious collector would be very proud to own and would be a fabulous addition to any collection of US cavalry revolvers from the Indian War era.