On 16 May 1843, a gun battle raged in the bay outside the port of Campeche in the Gulf of Mexico. For three hours a combined force from the Republics of Texas and Yucatan traded fire with the Mexican navy. On the face of it this was an unequal contest. The allied fleet, that included the 600-ton sloop-of-war Austin and a squadron of gunboats, confronted a much larger, more powerful force incorporating the 1200 ton iron-clad steamships Montezuma and Guadaloupe. These leviathans, built in Britain at the Birkenhead shipyard, were the most advanced vessels of their day. They were armed with the latest Paixhans naval guns that could fire explosive shells, and crewed by highly experienced and battle hardened British seamen. Somehow the exchange ended in stalemate rather than the seemingly inevitable annihilation of the Americans.
Samuel Colt thought he knew the answer. This short but relatively unremarkable chapter in American naval history was notable for one thing. This was the first time his 1851 Navy Colt Revolver was used in action. While it is stretching credibility to suggest that the weapon won the war, it did wonders for sales of Samuel’s hand gun and saved Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company from bankruptcy. The relieved arms entrepreneur felt he owed his naval countrymen a debt of gratitude. So he employed the engraver Waterman Ormsby, founder of the Continental Bank Note Company, to imprint on the cylinder of the 1851 and 1861 revolvers a battle scene commemorating the event.
What was it about the 1851 Navy Colt that made it so devastatingly effective at Campeche? Speed of use was a major factor. It was one of the first handguns to dispense with the cumbersome and slow flint to set off a charge, using instead a percussion cap and hammer. A rotating chamber that could hold six rounds meant its user did not have to reload after every shot and could rapidly return fire. The lead ball cartridges weighing 80 grains (0.065 grammes) could travel at a velocity of 1000 feet per second, a power comparable to the modern .380 pistol cartridge. At just 2.6 pounds this handgun was universally easy to handle. Its 11 main components, including barrel, hammer and cylinder, could be easily deconstructed, making it simple to clean and maintain.
The fortunes of the company were sealed from that moment on. By the time America entered into bloody civil war the company was manufacturing the largest range of handguns on the continent from its factory in Hartford, Connecticut. The 1851 Colt became standard issue for troops on both sides of the conflict, from generals such as Confederate General Robert E. Lee down to the lowest ranking private. The company battled to keep pace with the twin demands of army ordnance depots and civilian clients. The Colt brand became the catalyst for a burgeoning arms industry that saw the establishment of other companies, notably Remington, and Smith and Wesson. In the space of nearly a quarter of a century over 255,000 of the 1851 Navy Colt handguns were manufactured.
After the civil war ended and the American West opened up, the 1851 Navy Colt become one of the most popular .36 calibre handguns in circulation. Both the famous, including Wild Bill Hickok and John Henry “Doc” Holliday, and the infamous, such as Ned Kelly, armed themselves with it. Most Texas rangers ‘packed’ the 1851 Colt, including fictional marshals such as Rooster Cogburn, played by John Wayne in the film True Grit. It has become a regular feature throughout cinematic history, from the 1962 classic western How The West Was Won to the more recent 2002 urban drama Gangs of New York.
No wonder the British, once they had recovered from being on the receiving end of its effectiveness at Campeche, allowed Colt to set up a London armoury near Vauxhall Bridge. By 1873, when fixed metal cartridges were introduced, Samuel Colt’s invention was being used with devastating effectiveness in Russia, Poland, Prussia and across the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many contemporary marksmen assert that the claims for its effectiveness have been overplayed, contending that the design was flawed and the ammunition used was crude. A controlled experiment in 2003 rebutted those claims, proving the 1851 Navy Colt was capable of putting 3 bullets in a 3 inch grouping at 25 yards. Today the weapon that arguably ‘won the West’ is still available, faithfully reproduced by companies such as Pietta of Italy.