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Guns of the Gunfighters Stocking the 1860 Army

by Dennis Adler

Although intended to be the Cavalry’s new sidearm in 1860 the new .44 caliber Colt revolver turned out to make a pretty decent carbine

Shoulder stocked revolvers had been in use by the U.S. Cavalry since the 1850s when the 3rd Model .44 caliber Colt Dragoon was made available with a detachable carbine breech.

Shown with a handcrafted presentation case for paired, shoulder stocked 1860 Army revolvers, are a trio of F.lli Pietta models with original-style fully fluted cylinders, as they were issued to the U.S. Cavalry in 1860. The fluted cylinders failed several Ordnance tests by bursting or bulging and were replaced late in 1861 by the improved rebated cylinder. Modern Pietta fluted cylinders would have passed those Ordnance tests in 1860!

After the 1851 Navy was adopted by the U.S. military as a standard issue sidearm in 1855, it too was offered by Colt’s with a shoulder stock.

And at the time of its introduction, the first .44 caliber Model 1860 Army revolvers issued to the U.S. Cavalry came in pairs with one detachable shoulder stock

The 1860 Army

A year prior to the Civil War, Samuel Colt presented the most advanced and powerful medium frame handgun of his career, the .44 caliber New Model Army of 1860. The secret to building a smaller framed revolver to handle the powder charge required to fire a .44 caliber ball was in Samuel Colt’s use of a new type of metal developed by Colt and his chief engineer Elisha King Root.

It was named “Silver Spring Steel,” a lighter yet stronger metal that allowed .44 caliber loads formerly limited to the heavier Dragoons, to be fired from a revolver that weighed just 2 pounds, 8-1/2 ounces, almost half that of a Third Model Dragoon, which tipped the scales at 4 pounds, 2 ounces. Not only was the 1860 Army lighter, but smaller, measuring 13-5/8 inches overall but with an 8-inch barrel as compared to the Third Model Dragoon at just under 14-inches with a 7-1/2 inch barrel. The extra 1/2 inch in barrel length gave the 1860 Army a bit more weight up front and a longer sight radius. When fitted with a detachable shoulder stock, the military version of the 1860 made a reasonably accurate six shot carbine, albeit with a rather short barrel.

More than a new handgun, the 1860 Army was a metallurgical breakthrough, as described in the June 13, 1860 edition of the Valley Spirit, published in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. “We have just witnessed at the establishment of Col. Colt the operation of making what he calls Silver Steel, of a vary superior quality, for gun metal.

It possesses all the qualities of the most refined cutlery steel without the brittleness; it will receive the most perfect polished or burnished surface of the brightness and reflective powers of a mirror. Tests by hydraulic pressure and gun powder explosion in closely sealed tubes, have proved it at least three times stronger or tougher than the best cast-steel heretofore made; hence its great superiority for rifle and pistol barrels, and the cylinders of revolving breech-pin arms.”

The shoulder stock gave the .44 caliber 1860 the improved accuracy of a carbine, making the revolvers far more versatile weapons in the hands of the U.S. Cavalry. Approximately 4,000 fluted cylinder models were manufactured all with frames cut for mounting a shoulder stock. The majority of military 1860s with the later rebated cylinder were also supplied cut for a shoulder stock. The U.S. government purchased a total of 127,156 Army models during the Civil War from Colt’s and another 2,200 on the open market.

The 1860 was a work of art, a slim firearm with a tapered round barrel, compound curves, a trim, shallow frame, easily actuated loading lever and a long, contoured grip.

Not surprisingly, at the start of the Civil War the United States government became the single largest purchaser of 1860 Army revolvers, eventually purchasing more than 127,000.

Unfortunately, the great Colt factory fire of February 4th, 1864 (barely two years after the death of Samuel Colt in January 1862), not only destroyed the original structures erected by Colt in 1855 along with the original Colt Dome, but the buildings where revolvers were manufactured and completed for delivery.

The fire also consumed the company office, which was the depository for factory sales records (shipping books) and design drawings dating back to 1847. The loss was total, amounting to $1 million in firearms alone. The destruction of the massive, three story, 500 foot long building, and most of the tooling it contained, added more than another $1.5 million.

Samuel Colt’s 1859 patent for the third variation “Stock for Fire-arm” shows the details of the design and ease of mounting. Illustrated in the accompanying photo, the process required aligning the clamps over the back of the grip and engaging slots cut into the bottom of the recoil shield (C) with the prongs of yoke (C), resting the cutout in the yoke (D) on the protruding fourth screw (D) and then securing the stock by turning the round knurled nut (A) to draw the hook (B) tight into the cutout in the base of the pistol grip.

With new assembly hastily arranged in a nearby tobacco warehouse Colt’s delivered fewer than 3,000 additional revolvers before the end of the war in April 1865.

The 1860 Army military versions generally had notched recoil shields, a protruding fourth screw in the frame and a cut out in the base of the pistol grip to permit mounting of a detachable shoulder stock, whereas Civilian models had full recoil shields and no provision for the shoulder stock.

There were also two cylinder types, rebated and fluted, the latter being the earliest and rarest. It is estimated that Colt’s produced only around 4,000 fluted models (some noted in factory records as the “cavalry” model).

Of the first 1,000 Army Models built, barrel lengths were 7-1/2 inches like the 1851 Navy and then changed to 8-inches. Additionally, Colt had problems with the fluted cylinders which, in random occasions failed Ordnance Department testing, almost always as a result of bursting or swelling of the chamber.

Silver Spring Steel wasn’t quite as strong as expected when it came to cylinders, particularly the fully fluted 1860 Army’s, which had too little steel around the chambers, particularly under the bolt stops where many of the problems had occurred. Elisha King Root’s solution was to make the bore conical (tapering) leaving more steel around the chambers and bolt stops.

An original c.1860 cased Cavalry set with full fluted cylinders, shoulder stock, and accessories. Also note the package of Colt’s .44-100 paper cartridges in the compartment at left.

This required a different cylinder shape, the now familiar rebated (or stepped down) design, which was put into production between July and September of 1861. The transition in design is believed to be the reason 1860 Models with fully fluted cylinders were referred to as “cavalry” models, as most, if not all were issued to the U.S. Cavalry. The new rebated cylinder was also interchangeable with the earlier fully fluted version, thus making original 1860 Army sets scarcer.

The shoulder stock for the 1860 was an improved design patented by Samuel Colt in 1859. It was the latest (third) in a series of designs dating back to 1848. Interestingly, the impetus for adding a shoulder stock may have come from former U.S. Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, who held the cabinet position from 1853 to 1857.

It is believed that Davis suggested the idea of putting shoulder stocks on the 1851 Navy as well as developing canteen style shoulder stocks. An 1828 West Point graduate, Davis served in the Mexican-American war from 1846 to 1847 attaining the rank of Colonel. After leaving the Army he sought public office and was appointed by the Governor of Mississippi to fill a Senate vacancy in December 1847.

Reelected in 1851, Davis was called upon to run for Governor of Mississippi but was defeated, loosing by less than 1,000 votes. A year later, President Franklin Pierce appointed Davis Secretary of War. In 1861 with continuing calls for secession in the air and tensions growing between Washington and the Southern States, Davis accepted the Presidency of the Confederate States of America on February 18, 1861, two weeks before Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration!

Taking Aim

As a sidearm the 1860 was regarded as one of the finest revolvers of its time, but the shoulder stock made it much more than a handgun.

With a shoulder stocked 1860 a cavalryman could shoot from the saddle with greater accuracy, and better still from a rested position. The stock design was much improved from the first 1851 styles which had two prongs extending from the yoke to engage corresponding slots in the backstrap, much like the shoulder stock on the Cavalry’s Springfield Model 1855 single shot pistols

Per il 2013 F.lli Pietta celebra la commemorazione del 150esimo anniversario della guerra civile con due speciali modelli del 1860 Army. Il primo è un revolver in due tonalità con incisioni a laser in una combinazione dello stile tradizionale di Gustave Young con una scena sul tamburo composta dalle bandiere dell’Unione. Le armi sono anche disponibili con un calcio da spalla insieme a una forcella in ottone lucido.

L’ultimo design usato sui modelli 1851 Navy e 1860 Army (tra altri modelli) era più facile da montare usando una forcella che si trovava sul retro dell’impugnatura, inserendo gli slot della parte inferiore dello scudo di rinculo appoggiandosi all’ampia estremità di una vite sporgente che passa attraverso il castello. Il calcio era poi bloccato in posizione facendo ruotare un dado rotondo zigrinato nella parte superiore della forcella che stringeva un gancio inserito alla base dell'impugnatura.

Ci voleva meno di un minuto per attaccare o rimuovere il calcio dalla pistola, rendendo il passaggio da revolver a carabina tanto facile da agevolare sul campo. Il calcio poteva essere messo in sicurezza in una bisaccia da sella, o con il perno girevole a fionda agganciato sotto la forcella, fissato ad un'imbragatura a scatto girevole come una carabina.

Nel 1861, Colt vendette il nuovo modello della fondina per il modello 1860 calibro 44 per 25$. La bascula attaccabile della carabina consisteva in ulteriori 8$. Riproduzioni moderne sono vendute rispettivamente per 295$ e 225$.

SIDEBAR: F.lli Pietta’s Engraved Civil War Commemorative 1860 Army Models

As maker of the greatest variety of Civil War era revolvers used by both the Union and Confederacy, Pietta is no stranger to producing commemoratives and for 2013 to observe the Battle of Gettysburg the Italian armsmaker is offering a deluxe two-tone 1860 Army.

The special limited edition model has the later rebated cylinder in high polish blue with matching blued barrel, a polished white steel frame, hammer, and loading lever, accented by an engraved, polished brass triggerguard. The gun is deep laser engraved in a combination of vine scrolls and bordering on the frame and barrel; the hammer is engraved in the famous Gustave Young inspired dog’s head design, and a special cylinder scene is draped with Union flags.

La seconda arma commemorativa della guerra civile dei F.lli Pietta è una riproduzione incisa a mano di una famosa arma di presentazione Ulysses S. Grant. Basato sul design originale di Gustave Young, la Pietta commemorativa vede l’unione tra il banner unico inciso che attraversa la parte superiore della canna con le parole Unione sul lato sinistro, E Libertà sul lato destro. Il lavoro è stato realizzato dai mastri incisori italiani Sergio e Mauro Dassa.

The 1860 commemorative models can also be ordered with a detachable walnut shoulder stock.

The second commemorative 1860 model for 2013 is a hand engraved (by Sergiao and Mauro Dassa) version of the famous Ulysses S. Grant presentation gun.

The original, was embellished with elegant vine scrollwork and a banner crossing over the top of the barrel with the words Union along the left side, And Liberty on the right. The Grant gun had ebony grips rather than select walnut as used by Pietta. The original, though never carried by General Grant, remained in his family for generations.

For prices and availability contact Dixie Gun Works at 800-238-6785 or visit

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