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.