The Colt Revolving Belt Pistol of Naval Caliber (i.e., .36 cal), later known as the Colt 1851 Navy or Navy Revolver, is a cap and ball revolver. It was designed by Samuel Colt between 1847 and 1850. It remained in production until 1873, when revolvers using fixed metallic cartridges came into widespread use. Total production numbers were exceeded only by the Colt Pocket models in concurrent development, and numbered some 250,000 domestic units and about 22,000 produced in the Colt London Armory. (Wilson, 1985)
The designation “Colt 1851 Navy” was applied by collectors, though the popular name “Navy Revolver” is of early origin, as the gun was frequently called the “Colt Revolving Belt Pistol of Naval Caliber.” (ibid, Wilson) The cylinder was engraved with a scene of the victory of the Second Texas Navy at the Battle of Campeche on May 16, 1843. The Texas Navy had purchased the earlier Colt Paterson Revolver, but this was Colt’s first major success in the gun trade; the naval theme of the engraved cylinder of the Colt 1851 Navy revolver was Colt’s gesture of appreciation. Despite the “Navy” designation, the revolver was chiefly purchased by civilians and military land forces(ibid Wilson 1985).
Famous “Navy” users included Wild Bill Hickok, John Henry “Doc” Holliday, Richard Francis Burton, Ned Kelly, and Robert E. Lee. Usage continued long after more modern cartridge revolvers were introduced in 1873.
The .36 caliber Navy revolver was much lighter than the contemporary Third Model Dragoon revolvers developed from the .44 Walker Colt revolvers of 1847, which, given their size and weight, were generally carried in saddle holsters. It is an enlarged version of the .31 caliber pocket revolvers that evolved from the earlier Baby Dragoon, and, like them, is a mechanically improved and simplified descendant of the 1836 Paterson revolver. As the factory designation implied, the Navy revolver was suitably sized for carrying in a belt holster. It became very popular in North America at the time of Western expansion. Colt’s aggressive promotions distributed the Navy and his other revolvers across Europe, Asia, and Africa. As with many other Colt revolvers, it has a six round cylinder.
The .36 caliber (.375-.380-inch) round lead ball weighs 86 grains and, at a velocity of 1,000 feet per second, is comparable to the modern .380 pistol cartridge in power. Loads consist of loose powder and ball or bullet, metallic foil cartridges (early), and combustible paper cartridges (Civil War era), all combinations being ignited by a fulminate percussion cap applied to the nipples at the rear of the chamber.
Sighting consists of a bead front sight with a notch in the top of the hammer, as with most Colt percussion revolvers. In spite of the relative crudity of the sighting arrangement, these revolvers and their modern replicas generally are quite accurate.