By Dennis Adler
In May of 1861, after North Carolina became the 11th state to join the Confederacy, the South was already engaged in the task of evaluating its armaments. Prior to the war, all the revolvers and longarms in use by U.S. troops, including those in the South, were divided equally among the states and soldiers in the newly created Confederacy had a proportionate number of arms to the North.
In regard to handguns, nearly all were of older designs dating from the 1850s, and thus many Confederates were armed with Colt 1851 Navy revolvers and c.1858 Remington Army and Navy revolvers. Others simply carried whatever handgun they owned and it soon became incumbent upon the government in Richmond to acquire or produce as many new arms as possible. There were a number of manufacturers in the South who took up the cause but the Confederacy also had to rely on importing firearms and ammunition from England, France and Belgium.
The North followed a similar course of action as the war carried on and manufacturers such as Colt’s, Remington, Starr, and a handful of other gunmakers located in the New England states began reaching their limits.
The State of Affairs in 1861
While Southern States had their own militias, along with former Federal troops who offered their allegiance to the South, the odds were simply not in favor of the Confederacy. Comprised of mostly agricultural states, many of which were approachable from the sea (either by the Gulf of Mexico or along the Atlantic coast) the newly formed government of Jefferson Davis was up against a superior force better than twice its number.
One could argue the 13 Colonies had stood against an entire nation in 1776 and prevailed, but this was the heart of those very same Colonies taking up arms and turning them on themselves. The greater issue in 1861 was that there simply were not enough arms or soldiers in the South. In 1862 the Confederacy appealed to the patriotism of anyone who could contribute in the production of guns.
Among a handful of Southern manufacturers answering the call was J.H. Dance & Bros., located east of Columbia (first capital of Texas) and just 10 miles from Angleton, placing their factory close to the Brazos River and seaports in the Gulf of Mexico.
James Henry Dance and his family moved to Texas in 1853. Originally from North Carolina, J.H. and his brothers George and David established J.H. Dance & Co. (later J.H. Dance & Bros.) to manufacture gristmills and cotton gins but when the Civil War began they decided to try their hand at making revolvers. In the winter of 1861-62 they began developing their first model with the prototype presented on April 22, 1862. A few months later a .44 caliber Dance revolver was in production.
This gun closely resembled a 3rd. Model Colt Dragoon. A second design, based the on the Colt 1851 Navy, became eminently more popular and was further simplified for production by eliminating the recoil shield, thus creating a distinctive flat sided frame. Though based on the Colt design, the Navy model’s full octagonal barrel was replaced by a simpler half round half octagonal design similar to that of the 1848 Colt Dragoon. The Dance also used the later-style (Third Model) Colt 1851 Navy rounded trigger guard.
Initially, Colt had used a square back triggerguard on the First and Second Model 1851 Navy. The round triggerguard was introduced in 1855 (the same year the 1851 Navy was adopted by the U.S as a military issue sidearm), followed by a larger ovoid rounded triggerguard in 1858. The Dance design was somewhere between the two rounded styles for size and shape. The slab-sided revolvers were made in both .44 and .36 caliber, the .44 with an 8-inch barrel length, and the .36 with a 7-3/8 inch barrel.
Originally Dance had anticipated turning out 50 guns a week, but they soon realized that figure was not realistic. Despite slower than anticipated production, their .44 and .36 caliber revolvers were well made. The Houston Tri Weekly Telegraph lauded the Dance revolver as “superior to Colt’s best” in its September 5, 1862 edition.
The Last Dance
To the Confederacy’s despair, the Dance brother’s factory near the Gulf Coast of Texas was within range of Union gunboats in 1863 following the Battle of Velasco. The Union attack breached the fortifications at Fort Velasco which guarded the Texas coastline, enabling gunboats to proceed up the Brazos River to Columbia and raze the factory and its contents.
During Dance’s brief existence approximately 500 guns were produced, making original models very rare today. Dance relocated to Anderson, Texas, but arms manufacturing was not resumed, thus ending a short but promising chapter in the history of Civil War gun making.
The Dance brothers returned to East Columbia after the Civil War and began manufacturing gristmills and cotton gins once again. Their factory remained in operation until the buildings were destroyed in the September 1900 hurricane that hit the Texas coast at Galveston.
Among the handful of models produced in the South during the Civil War, the Dance was considered one of the best and remained popular for years after. Famous owners included Geronimo (at least he was pictured with one, but it may well have been a photographer’s prop), and infamous highwayman Bill Longley is said to have killed his first man with an 1862 Dance.