By Dennis Adler
Firearms historians often disagree about which of Samuel Colt’s designs are the most significant. Many consider the most important handgun to be the 1860 Army which arrived just in time to play its historic role in the Civil War; others believe it was the Paterson which launched Colt’s first arms making business in 1836, while a great many strongly favor the 1847 Walker, but in terms of actual use by soldiers and civilians alike, the 1851 Navy has a far greater and longer history than any of others.
The 1851 Navy had a production life that spanned the period from the post Mexican American War era (early 1850s) to the post Civil War Western Expansion of the 1870s. Introduced by Samuel Colt in the fall of 1850, as the 1851 Belt Model revolver, the six-shot, .36 caliber pistol was to become one of the most important single action percussion revolvers in firearm’s history.
The medium frame revolver with an overall length of 14-inches (with the standard 7-1/2 inch barrel) and carry weight of just 2.6 pounds, was the ideal size for either belt or holster carry, though many simply tucked the gun inside their pant’s waist, behind a leather belt used for carrying a knife sheath, or tucked butt forward behind a waist sash as Wild Bill Hickok often wore them.
Despite the numerical success of Colt’s 1849 Pocket Model, which accounted for 331,000 sales from 1850 to 1873, the 1851 Navy remains the more famous of the two in Western firearms lore, with sales totaling 215,348 by 1873. This does not, however, include another 42,000 Navy Models built in London, England, between 1853 and 1856 and more than 3,800 Navy cartridge conversions to .38 caliber rimfire and centerfire from around 1872 through the early 1880s. (Production for the 1860 Army only totaled 200,500 between 1860 and 1873, again not accounting for factory-built cartridge conversions, with approximately another 9,000 Richards and 2,100 Richards-Mason models in .44 Colt.)
As a military sidearm the U.S. Ordnance Department began ordering the 1851 Navy in 1855 for both the Army and Navy (.36 being designated as Navy and .44 as Army calibers. Army and Navy were used to designate a firearm’s caliber and not the make of gun, as Remington and other manufacturer’s handguns used by the U.S. military were also specified as either Army or Navy models).
At the start of the Civil War, the 1851 Navy was the standard issue sidearm, thus U.S. soldiers who resigned and swore allegiance to Jefferson Davis and the Confederate States of America in 1861 were also mostly armed with the 1851 Navy. The example here, however, has a military history that dates back to 1856; just one year after the Navy Model was officially adopted by the U.S. military.
This unusual factory built 1851 Navy was the sidearm of U.S. Army Captain F.B. Schaeffer, a veteran of the Mexican American War (1847-1848) and commanding officer of the Marion Rifles, 2nd Brigade, California Militia, headquartered in San Francisco. The volunteer division was organized on May 14, 1852, making it one of the oldest volunteer companies in the State.
Captain Schaeffer was the militia’s first commanding officer. His unique 3rd Model Navy revolver has a factory outfitted 3-1/2 inch barrel with matching shortened loading lever, and full factory engraving by Colt’s master engraver, Gustave Young, circa 1856. The Navy model has a cone front and hammer groove rear sight, the one line New York City address on the top flat of the barrel, the standard Texas Navy battle scene roll engraved cylinder, and COLTS/ PATENT on the left side of the frame.
Young’s engraving on the barrel, loading lever and frame is near full coverage with punch dot backed scrollwork, floral accents, a dog’s head on the left side of the barrel immediately above the loading lever screw, and Young’s signature wolf head motif on the sides of the hammer. Additional scroll engraving is present on the triggerguard and backstrap, with a bordered panel on the backstrap suitable for inscription.
Rather than using the panel on the backstrap the bottom of the ivory grips are inscribed Captain F.B. Schaeffer on the right panel and Wm. J. Whitney on the left. Both inscriptions were later covered over by a silver plate with the word Sime engraved down the center. The meaning of the inscription is unknown, nor the identity of Wm. J. Whitney on the left grip panel. F. B. Schaeffer, however, is listed as commanding officer of the Marion Rifles, and served in that capacity from 1852 through 1855. Thus the pistol may have been a presentation gun since it was not built until 1856.
Captain Schaeffer remained with the Marion Rifles as a senior officer after his tenure as commanding officer ended and was commended by the California Adjutant General in his 1859 report proclaiming Captain F. B. Schaeffer as “…one of the most brilliant military men in California.” The Marion Rifles became known for their extensive time spent on the target range, consistent attendance at drills, and dedicated service to the State of California.
The militia’s main purpose (like today’s National Guard) was to be called out in time of need, and soon after their organization the Sheriff of San Francisco, former Texas Ranger Captain John Coffee “Jack” Hays, requested that the Marion Rifles act as guards during the controversial December 10, 1852 public hanging of convicted murdered Jose Forni. This was the first hanging under the color of law to take place in San Francisco. The city was fraught for years with politically motivated vigilante groups illegally lynching criminals. These organized lynch mobs were finally put to rest by the Marion Rifles in 1856.
All of the State’s militias also served in a number of ceremonial roles, marching in parades, and attending public receptions for ranking military officials. In San Francisco, the Marion Rifles were well known for their elegant annual military ball. The Marion Rifles was a very well rounded group of men, many of who were also volunteer firefighters.
In the end, the last official document on record in the Adjutant General’s Office, dated March 18, 1860 was a report by a special committee of the State Senate in answer to a request made by Captain Edwin A. Rigg (then commanding the Marion Rifles) regarding the military standing of the militia. After the start of the Civil War, Captain Rigg with four other Captains offered the services of their companies to the United States Government to protect the Overland Mail Route. In 1861 the Marion Rifles disbanded with many of its members entering Federal service in defense of the Union.
There are several Schaeffers noted in Union Civil War records (as well as in Confederate records), but it remains unclear if one of them was the Marion Rifles’ celebrated Captain F.B. Schaeffer. Whatever happened to Schaeffer after he left the Marion Rifles, he is survived to by this very special Gustave Young engraved 1851 Navy.
The pistol first came to light at the Rock Island Auction Co. Premier Auction in December 2008, when the fully documented Navy Model sold for $6,900.