Samuel Colt's revolvers were, for the most part, well respected during the War Between the States. However, the longarm versions were not particularly popular. Although certainly a novel design their performance left most soldiers dissatisfied.
Colt's early model repeating rifles were produced in Paterson, New Jersey as early as 1836. Although, by today's standards Colt's name is synonymous with handguns, the long arms were the first models to be produced on the assembly-line. The arm's firing mechanism was protected by 1835 and 1836 patents. Subsequently the definite improvement of a ring loading lever was added to the Colt's basic design.
The 1839 carbines did away with the loading lever. The improvements to this weapon resulted in it being the most practical and best-selling Paterson Colt long-arm. Colt did not give up his effort in obtaining government contracts despite the fact that his arms were found undesirable by a U.S. government trial in June 1837 at West Point. Colt felt that the only way to prove the value of his arms was to put them in the hands of soldiers in active duty. He saw an opportunity to prove his point in Florida where the Seminole Indians, led by their chief Oseola had been waging the "small war" for two years. Lieutenant Colonel William S. Harney was persuaded to purchase 50 of the Ring Lever Rifles in 1838. Aside from this purchase government sales continued to go poorly.
To add insult to injury, while Mr. Colt was returning from the Everglades he fell victim to a boating accident. In addition to losing his luggage, Samuel Colt also lost the U.S. government check, which paid for the 50 revolving rifles. It took him months to get the government to replace the check.
The Texans seemed to appreciate the Colt Patersons more than anyone else. In addition to some pistols, the Republic of Texas acquired 100 Ring Lever Rifles, and 180 model 1839 Carbines. It is unknown how many citizens purchased the arms privately. Still these sales were not nearly enough to compensate for the lack of U.S. government sales or for the poor reputation that resulted from the West Point tests. In 1842 the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company was closed due to the stockholders losing their faith and a struggle between the inventor and treasurer of the company.
Samuel Colt did not lose interest in Military Arms contracts and was actually funded $50,000 by the government for an idea involving harbor submarine mines. However, in 1846 the Mexican War created a new demand for revolving pistols. This was largely because Captain Samuel Hamilton Walker came back singing the praises of Colt's repeaters.
The ensuing years were certainly more successful for Col. Colt. In 1855 he completed the construction of his 31/2 story H shaped building on the banks of the Connecticut River. In addition, he introduced a new line of firearms now known as the Sidehammer series. Among them were carbines, rifles, rifled muskets and shotguns.
The prominent design characteristic of the Sidehammers was a solid frame. They also included a spur-trigger, a creeping loading lever, and a hammer mounted on the right side of the frame. Although the sidehammer is the most easily identifiable characteristic of these arms, certainly the most important aspect is the solid frame.
A solid frame allowed the barrel to be screwed directly into it. This made it more important for the barrels to only be disassembled at the factory. This did not matter too much though, because most cleaning only required the removal of the cylinder. This was done with much ease as the pin that the cylinder revolved on could be pulled out from the back of the frame, thus setting the cylinder free.
The cylinder's chambers were turned for firing through the use of an internal hand attached to the hammer. To further align each chamber, a stop was designed utilizing slots on the back end of the cylinder pin. To access this mechanism a plate on the left side of the frame had to be removed and the stocks needed to be pulled off.
Serial production of the Model 1855 long arms was started in 1857. Soon after about 300 .44 caliber revolving rifles were bought to be used in field trials. Military rifle muskets were the best sellers of all the Model 1855 long arms. However, carbines and sporting rifles were also produced. The top selling military versions were of .56 caliber fitted with a six shot cylinder. The arms were finished in the white." The barrel lengths were 315/16 and 372 inches.
The Confederate states also purchased some rifles and carbines made prior to the war for state inspections. Among them was Virginia, which received eighty carbines in .44 caliber plus 160 rifles in various calibers on May 7, 1859. North Carolina also bought 120 rifles and 60 carbines in this spirit. On the same date Louisiana Purchased 10 rifles, while Alabama brought in 50. They were, for the most part unpopular, though. This stems from the arms complex and sometimes unreliable construction.
However, the repeating longarms were a disappointment to Samuel Colt in more ways then just poor sales. Following Fort Sumter, Colt proposed the creation of a regiment to Governor Buckingham. He offered to arm the entire regiment. According to correspondence between J.D. Williams of the Adjutant General's office to the Governor on April 25, 1861 it was "to be called the 1st Connecticut Regiment Colt's Revolving Rifles, to be officered by Army officers and West Point cadets of Connecticut origin, for the field, and as many captains as can be procured the regiment to be enlisted for the War and offered to the President. He can make 100 rifles a week after the second week, so that enough to arm the Regiment could be made in nine weeks, if authority is given for enlistments. He will furnish officers to drill the recruits as fast as they come in." 1
The Governor recognized a good deal when he saw one. He appraised the value of furnishing a regiment with such arms at costing over $50,000 cash. Thus, he accepted the offer upon receipt of the letter on April 26. On May 1 he addressed the legislature and mentioned that the arms would consist of two banded rifles and issued with saber bayonets. They could fire Colt's solid bullet or the mini bullet if necessity required. Ten companies would thus be equipped with 1,000 of these revolving rifles.
Enlistment for the special regiment began on May 14 and on May 16 Special Orders No. 83 from the Adjutant Generals Office stated "Sam Colt, Esquire, of Hartford is appointed Colonel 1st Regiment Colts Revolving Rifles of Connecticut." 2
In order to become part of this regiment, men had to be a minimum height of five feet seven inches, but many of the soldiers averaged five foot nine inches or taller. According to existing records, the regiment was to be trained as light infantry and thus would be skirmishers clearing the way for traditionally armed forces. Unfortunately Col. Colt's life-long dream of commanding a military unit was shattered only a month after it was formed. On June 20, 1861 General orders No. 307 stated, "The 1st Regiment Colt's Revolving Rifles of Connecticut is hereby disbanded and all commissions issued to offers in said regiment are revoked." 3
Still, Col. Colt's health was not such at this point in time that he could have possibly led the regiment in the field. Moreover, his skills were certainly in better use back in Hartford overseeing the production of a badly needed arsenal.
Perhaps the most famous unit to actually use the Colt Repeating Rifles was Hiram Birdan's Sharp Shooters. Despite Chief of Ordnance Ripley's desire for the new elite corps to be armed with the standard rifle muskets, Col. Berdan managed to coerce Randolph Barnes Marcy, McClellan's chief of staff, to put the order in. This apparently did not require a great deal of effort, because Marcy was friends with Colt and a fan of the revolving rifle.
Marcy put in a request for the arm to Secretary of War Cameron for the purchase of the rifles at a price of $45 each. Abraham Lincoln endorsed the letter personally. However, this was by no means the first time that the Yankee president made notice of the green clad regiment. He paid the Sharpshooters a visit at Camp of Instruction near Washington. After witnessing an impressive display of marksmanship, Lincoln said, "Colonel come down tomorrow, and I will give you the order for the breechloaders." Most likely, this statement was a precursor to the $45,000 purchase that would follow.
Col. Berdhan definitely preferred Colt's rifles for his troops. His troops did not speak quite as highly of the arms delivered to them between December 7 and December 31, 1861, though. Many of the regiment's roster had signed up believing that they would receive Sharps rifles. The 5 chambered 315/16 inch rifles weighing in at nine pounds fifteen ounces were not to their liking. This was especially true after California Joe purchased his Sharps, stirring much desire and dissension among the ranks.
Among the complaints logged against the weapons was that at times all five chambers would be discharged at once. The rifleman's forearm would fall prey to such a mishap, severing fingers. In addition the flash from escaping gasses had the tendency to also burn the forearm.
Still, the unit's historian, Captain Spencer, never alluded to any events of this kind. Some examples of the 1855 side hammer revolving rifles have hooks located on either side of the trigger guard. The supporting arm to steady the rifle used these.
Perhaps the greatest trouble with the arms, though, was their inherent complexity. The soldiers were accustomed to cleaning every moveable part of their weapons. Colt's revolving rifles had many small parts that were somewhat difficult to reassemble once taken apart. Some experts believe that the soldiers' dissections caused some of the Colt's problems.
At Yorktown, on April 5, 1862 the Sharpshooters saw their first combat. In this engagement, Captain Stevens actually gave the arm a very good review. He wrote: "The Wisconsin Company was finally assembled and marched to some buildings in a peach orchard on the left of the road, where they rested under arms an hour."
"From the peach orchard fence the Sharpshooters proved themselves. In a very short time they succeeded in silencing a number of cannon on their front, which the enemy were unable to load, so fast and thick did, Colt, Sharps, and target-rifle bullets come in upon them."
"There was but one Sharps rifle in the regiment at the time, which was the personal property of Truman Head, better known as "Old Californy," or "California Joe," a member of Company C…"4
Colt's Percussion Rifles were also used in a famous engagement at Chickamauga. There are a couple of engagements, which really stand out in the 21st Ohio 's History. The first of which is clearly Snodgrass Hill during the battle of Chickamauga, GA. General George Thomas owes much of his fame to this regiment because of the 21st brave actions and sacrifices as they withstood several Confederate Charges, he became known as The Rock of Chickamauga. The 21st Ohio held strong despite the fact that it suffered its greatest losses to wounds and enemy capture.
John Coxe, of the 2nd South Carolina described his encounter with the 21st and their Colts at 1 p.m. in September 1863, on Horseshoe Ridge. He said, "On the left, Lt. Col. Guillard's 2nd Carolina charged recklessly up the ravine between the second and third hills, expecting to meet no more resistance than they had in turning Harber's flank thirty minutes before. Instead, they found the 21st Ohio waiting for them behind hastily formed breastworks of fallen timber. Colt Rifles blazed, and the South Carolinians recoiled off the hill all the way down to the Viltetoe Road. There, protected from the terrific fire from the top of the hill, we lay down and for a while enjoyed a nice breeze passing through the woods, now and then blowing from the trees bunches of yellow leaves, which gently sailed down and settled on the ground among us. And I recollect that in my mind I compared those falling leaves to the falling men on that battlefield."5
Col Stoughton of the 21st Ohio underestimated the strength of the 2nd South Carolina believing that they were merely a reinforced skirmish line. So he ordered his men to pursue their foe down the hill. This was a serious mistake because when they reached the base of the hill the tides had turned leaving the 21st Ohio open to fire while the 2nd South Carolina were hunkered down in safety.
John Coxe further detailed this second meeting, "We had sufficient notice of their coming to be ready for them" Our officers commanded us to hold our fire till they got in short range, and then 'give it to them.' Here they came, armed with Colt repeating rifles and a shout. They were allowed to get within 20 yards of our position in the thick undergrowth along the road, then, before they visualized our presence, we rose up as one man and poured into them such a volley from our faithful Enfields as to make many of them bite the dust for the last time."6
Still, the 21st expelled 43,550 rounds in five hours of battle. Colt firearms could be easily loaded with loose powder and ball. However self-contained cartridges were made. A combustible paper, skin, or foil container contained the propellant powder and projectile. Because the cartridges were machine made, the powder charge was better controlled creating a consistency between the rounds that wiped out the concern of misloading a chamber.
This was one of the last engagements that the weapon saw active service as an official weapon. In August of 1863 the Ordnance department again set up a committee to review the Colt longarms as a result of the enlisted men's complaints. Upon further review the U.S. government decided to do away with the revolving rifles in favor of Spencer Repeaters. The Colt's were then sold off to the highest bidder who was only willing to pay .42¢ a piece for the arms. The rifles were still available for purchase on the private market, and some soldiers purchased their own Colt Revolving Rifles. But there were no longer entire regiments armed with the guns.
Samuel Colt certainly perfected the revolver and became an extremely wealthy man. Unfortunately, the ill-conceived design of the longarm versions resulted in a weapon that didn't match the quality of his pistols. The short-lived status of Colonel was certainly Colt's greatest disappointment. For this distress to come in the man's twilight years is particularly disheartening. Yet, perhaps it is fortunate that he did not live to see his armory burn.
1.William B. Edwards, Civil War Guns pg 305
2.William B. Edwards, Civil War Guns pg 306
3.William B. Edwards, Civil War Guns pg 306
4 William B. Edwards, Civil War Guns pg 315
5. John Coxe, Chiamauga, Confederate Veteran 30-2 (1922)
6 John Coxe, Chiamauga, Confederate Veteran 30-2 (1922)
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"Chicamauga", Confederate Veteran, By John Coxe, 30-2 (1922)
Great Century of Guns, by Branko Bodanovic and Ivan Valencak;1986 Gallery Books New York , NY. 280 pp.
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