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Very Fine Richards-Mason Colt Model 1861 Navy Revolver

Very Fine Richards-Mason Colt Model 1861 Navy Revolver

  • Product Code: FHG-3452
  • Availability: In Stock
  • $7,995.00


With the end of the American Civil War many American firearms companies found themselves in a quandary regarding their future. The immediate demands for arms from a huge internal conflict had come to an end, and with it had come the apparent end to the percussion era. The large numbers of various patent firearms utilizing self-contained metallic cartridges had proved their worth during the war, and for most companies it was obvious that their future lay in the production of metallic cartridge arms and not percussion ones. Nowhere was that more apparent than at Colt Patent Firearms, where an end to the war and the huge demand for handguns had reduced the output from the “Under the Blue Dome” to a mere trickle. During 1862, 1863 and 1864, Colt had produced between 60,000 and 65,000 Model 1860 Army Revolvers per year, however between 1865 and 1870 Colt only produced a total of 32,000 Model 1860 revolvers. This was about half the output of a single year during the war, over a five-year period. It was not just the cessation of hostilities that had brought America’s premier handgun manufacturer to its knees, but the reduced demand for percussion revolvers. Cartridge firearms like Lefaucheux’s revolutionary pinfire revolvers had worked well during the war and had shown the distinct advantages of being able to load and unload the revolvers so much more quickly. They also utilized ammunition that was not likely to become damaged when it was handled, or worse, useless if it became wet. Other Union cartridge revolvers like the Pidault-Cordier (Raphael) and the Perrin were less successful mechanically but showed the same advantages inherent in self-contained metallic cartridge ammunition. The US military had clearly shown its preference for cartridge arms with the adoption of the Model 1865 “1st Allin” alterations of Civil War produced muzzle loading rifle muskets in 1865 and kept refining their design with subsequent Allin improvements. 

 

The US military was also looking for an inexpensive way to upgrade its large inventory of percussion revolvers (primarily Colts & Remingtons) to cartridge as well. Colt, however, was stymied by the fact that Smith & Wesson controlled the rights to the Rollin White patent on the bored through cylinder. This effectively prevented Colt from producing a metallic cartridge revolver that loaded and operated the way we expect a revolver to function today. They were forced to come up with an alteration process that could convert existing percussion revolvers to metallic cartridge, without violating White’s patent. They found their solution in the design of Alexander Thuer, who came up with the first of the Colt cartridge alterations. Thuer’s design required the rear of the percussion cylinder to be machined and turned down, leaving a central portion of the cylinder its original full length. A conversion ring was then placed over this turned down portion, with a floating firing pin. The conversion ring was not bored through, and the cylinder was loaded from the front, which effectively circumvented the Rolling White patent. This also allowed the conversion cylinder and ring to be removed and a conventional percussion cylinder re-installed should the user run out Thuer cartridges. The system worked, but was hardly simple or popular, and in the end only about 5,000 Colts of all patterns were altered to the Thuer system, including a small number of guns produced using the system from previously unused parts on hand. However, Colt now had some experience with the concept of metallic cartridge alteration and production, and with the expiration of White’s patent protection in 1869, the company moved forward with the Richards Conversion system. 

 

Richards altered Colt Model Army revolvers were produced from 1871 to 1878, with about 9,000 guns being altered or produced from a mixture of newly made and previously unused parts on hand. The Richards system introduced the loading gate on the righthand side of the cylinder, and a spring-loaded ejector rod in a housing that was added to the right side of the barrel. The guns also used an improved conversion plate or ring at the rear of the cylinder, but still used a firing pin in the conversion ring for ignition. The loading lever was removed and the hole the frame through which the plunger passed was filled. The guns were typically refinished at the factory after the alteration process, so the altered revolvers came out looking brand new. The downsides to the Richards system were the complicated machining of the conversion ring with the captive firing pin, and the overly complex and in some ways delicate ejector rod. These shortcomings were soon eliminated with the next Colt offering, the Richards-Mason conversion. 

 

This conversion system utilized an improved ejector design that had been patented by William Mason. Using lessons learned from their production of the Model 1871 “Open Top” Revolver, which was Colt’s first “from the ground up” made as a cartridge revolver design, as well as the subsequent Model 1873 Single Action Army, the Richards-Mason conversions were the pinnacle of Colt’s cartridge alterations. Like the other conversion revolvers, the Richards-Mason used a conversion ring at the rear of the cylinder, but it no longer had a floating firing pin, as the pin was now attached to the hammer face. This allowed the system to be used for either center fire or rimfire chamberings. Although the reloadable centerfire system was going to win out in the long run, the desire to carry a handgun chambered in .44 Rimfire like the Henry or Winchester 1866 rifle made this chambering an attractive option in a revolver. The Richards-Mason conversion also used a simplified and more robust ejector rod system that was a major improvement over the Richards conversions. Even though the Model 1873 Single Action Army was in production, the mid-to-late 1870s saw many Colt percussion revolvers altered to cartridge by both the Richards and Richards-Mason systems. This made good sense for those that already owned a percussion revolver and could not afford the expense of a new cartridge Colt. Even for those who did not own a percussion Colt, their availability on the used gun market after the Civil War still made purchasing a percussion Colt and sending it back to the factory for conversion a cheap way to get a quality cartridge handgun.

 

Offered here is a truly VERY FINE condition example of a Richards Mason Converted Colt Model 1861 Navy Revolver. The Model 1861 Navy is considered by many collectors and Colt aficionados as the pinnacle of Colt percussion handgun development. The easy handing of the Colt Model 1851 Navy sized frame, grip and caliber, combined with the sleek lines of the Model 1860 Army revolver, resulted in a very attractive handgun. Only 38,843 Colt Model 1861 (New Model) Navy revolvers were produced during their production lifespan form 1861 through 1873, making them one of the lower production guns in the Colt line. During the mid-to-late 1870s, some Colt altered about 2,200 of these guns to cartridge via the Richards-Mason system. The guns were offered either in .38 Rimfire or .38 Centerfire (.38 Colt) and are classified into three types. The first type was produced from unfinished and unused Model 1861 Navy parts on hand at the Colt factory. The second type were US Navy owned Model 1861 revolvers that were sent back to the factory for alteration to cartridge for the US Navy. The third type were percussion guns sent back to the factory by their civilian owners for upgrade and conversion to cartridge. While this gun at first blush appears to be one of the third type guns, it is in fact a very interesting example of a second type gun that somehow ended up on the civilian market rather being returned to the US Navy. Like the Navy altered guns, this one has been converted to .38 Colt centerfire.

 

It is serial numbered 3591 and was originally manufactured and sold in 1861. Colt factory records for these guns are somewhat fragmentary so a search of the Springfield Research Serial Number record books was performed and revealed that of the Model 1861 Navy revolvers recorded in the general range of this gun, many were issued to either Company F of the 13th Illinois Cavalry, with the closest numbers being #3384, #3580 and #3612 or to Company E of the 11th Ohio Cavalry with the closest numbers being #3272, #3718 and #3902. One of the closest numbers to this gun was #3916 which was one of four Model 1861 Navy cartridge conversion revolvers issued to the US Fish Commission on December 1, 1896. Interestingly, on additional Model 1861 cartridge conversion revolver was noted (#4447) as being turned in by Lt. Commander H. Webb on March 5, 1890. This record, along with the issue of the guns to the Fish Commission, shows how long the altered revolvers remained in service. This example has a small US Navy {ANCHOR} stamp on the top of the barrel where it meets the frame. This indicates that the gun was in the possession of the US Navy during the re-inspection period of naval small arms at the close of the Civil War and that this is one of the roughly 1,100 Model 1861 Navy Revolvers returned to Colt by the US Navy to be altered to cartridge circa 1873. However, the gun was apparently not returned to the Navy after the alteration, but rather ended up on the civilian market. One of the features common to the Navy contract altered 1851 and 1861 Navy revolvers are mismatched cylinders. The machining and modification of the cylinder was the most complicated and time-consuming part of the process. As a result, it appears the cylinders were removed and sent to be machined when the revolvers arrived and were then reinstalled without regard to matching numbers with the original gun. These cylinders were then renumbered, either on their sides or their rear face, to match the balance of the gun. While the factory refinishing of the guns often left the markings weak, under strong light and with magnification, the original number 3591 can be seen on this cylinder. This revolver also received a re-silvered backstrap and triggerguard and a set of extremely fine, highly figured varnished smooth walnut grips. The Navy contract guns were not re-silvered, and the replacement grips were the standard military style smooth oil finished walnut grips, not figured walnut. It is not clear how this gun was separated from the other Navy owned guns returned to Colt, or if the Navy intended to “pay” for the alteration process by sending more guns in than they really wanted altered, allowing Colt to keep and re-sell the excess guns to cover some of the alteration costs. The Navy did use this method of payment with Remington when they traded percussion guns for cartridge guns during this same period.

 

As noted, the revolver remains in VERY FINE condition after its return trip to Hartford for alteration and refurbishment some 135+ years ago. It retains about 65%+ of the factory blue that was applied at that time to the barrel and cylinder, and 80%+ vivid case coloring on the frame. The hammer retains only some dulled and faded traces of case coloring. The barrel and ejector housing show a handful of impact marks around the wedge. There are some lightly scattered freckles of minor surface oxidation here and there on the metal and a small patch of cleaned oxidation on the top of the barrel that has left some scuffs and scratches as well as some minor pitting in this location. The loss of blue on the barrel and cylinder appears to be a combination of flaking and simple holster wear and light surface scuffing, with the ejector rod housing showing significant loss consistent with heavy holster wear. The factory refinishing of the altered guns was necessary, as the loading lever was removed and the plunger hole in the front of the frame was plugged. Additionally other machining and fitting of parts (most notably the conversion ring with loading gate, the ejector system and the firing pin) would have necessitated refinishing to make the gun look good again. Many of the Richards-Mason altered revolvers were refinished in nickel, so a high condition blued gun is a rare and highly coveted revolver. The revolver has matching numbers throughout, with the number 3591 on the barrel, cylinder, frame, triggerguard and grip frame. The wedge is an un-numbered Colt wedge without a spring, typical of mid-to-late 1870s Colt percussion conversion revolvers. These newly made, “springless” wedges were often installed in Richards-Mason conversion revolvers and are 100% correct for the gun. The revolver bears the post-July 1872 set of two-line patent marks on the lower left of the frame,

 

– PAT. JULY 25, 1871 –

– PAT. JULY 2, 1872 –

 

which were stamped on the Richards-Mason conversion performed after those dates. As is common on these alterations, the weak remnants of the original COLT’S / PATENT mark can be seen under the new patent date mark. While the revolver would have originally been roll marked with the one-line New York address on the barrel, the marking was polished off during the factory refinishing of the gun. Likewise, nearly all of the cylinder scene was removed during refurbishment as well. The revolver is mechanically excellent and functions perfectly in all respects. The action is crisp and tight, and the cylinder times, indexes and locks up exactly as it should. The loading gate operates correctly as well, and snaps closed securely. The gate is the later era Richards-Mason design, with the improved, external gate spring.  The ejector rod functions smoothly, and the spring retains strong tension, easily pulling the rod back into its housing after using it. The original and correct kidney shaped ejector rod head with the concentric ringed face is present as it should be. The bore of the revolver is in about VERY FINE condition as well and is very bright, retaining crisp rifling and only some lightly scattered pinpricking and minor pitting in the grooves. Even the screws remain in fairly nice condition, with most of them retaining large amounts of their heat tempered blue and showing only light to moderate slot wear. The brass grip frame and triggerguard retain nearly all of the factory restored silver plating. Colt did not typically re-plate the brass frames of altered guns and usually polished them bright. This gun was probably replated because of the very high-grade grips that were added to it. The one-piece wood grip is also in VERY FINE condition and retains about 90%+ of its original Colt varnish. The majority of the finish loss is along the sharp edges around the bottom of the grip. The grip is free of any breaks, cracks, or repairs, but does show the expected bumps, dings and minor marks from handling and use that revolver of this age would have experienced during its life and a tiny, chipped ding at the lower right rear. The grip is highly figured walnut that certainly would have resulted in an additional charge from Colt as the figuring is really extremely attractive and the richly varnished finish is also substantially higher quality than a standard varnished grip. The grip fit is excellent and is clearly original to the revolver, but due to the high condition of the wood the grip was not removed to check the number as it was not worth risking damage to the wood or the varnish.

 

Overall, this is an extremely attractive and very high condition example of the rarely encountered Richards-Mason Model 1861 Navy Conversion Revolver.  Colt Model 1861Navy revolvers are scarce in their own right, with less than 40,000 being produced, versus over 215,000 Colt Model 1851 Navies and over 200,000 Colt Model 1860 Armies! Only about 2,200 Model 1861 Navies were altered by the Richards-Mason system, making it one of the harder large frame Colt factory conversions to find for sale. It is particularly hard to find these guns in this state of preservation, and even harder to find one with so much factory finish in blue! This is one of those scarce colt alterations that deserves a place in a truly advanced Colt collection, and the gun is so attractive there is no doubt that it will please even the most critical of collectors. I am quite positive that you will be extremely happy with this wonderful condition and rare example of a Richards-Mason Colt Model 1861 Navy Revolver in .38 Colt when you hold it in your hands.

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Tags: Very, Fine, Richards, Mason, Colt, Model, 1861, Navy, Revolver