A Popular Defense Gun of Yesteryear

Sheriff Jim reminds us that you don't know where you're going until you know where you've been.

posted on June 19, 2022
Sheriff Jim Wilson

As most of you know, I am a student of Old West history. However, my main area of focus is the frontier era following the Civil War, and I’ve never done any sort of in-depth study of percussion and muzzle-loading guns that predate the early cartridge revolvers. Recently though, while doing research for another article, I took the time to study up on the Colt 1851 Navy revolver. Without a doubt, the 1851 Navy was one of the most popular defense guns of the 19th Century.

Manufactured from 1851 to 1873, the Navy was a 2 1/2-pound, single-action revolver with a 7 1/2-inch barrel. It was chambered in .36 caliber and could be loaded with conical bullets or round balls. In the 22-year period of manufacture, Colt produced over 200,000 of the guns, making it one of the most popular Colt revolvers ever.

What is amazing, too, is the number of serious shootists who used the Navy revolver. It was the handgun of choice for Texas Rangers Jack Hays, RIP Ford, Ben McCulloch, and others. It was also the preferred handgun for mounted service during the Civil War, for both regular and irregular forces...Jesse, Frank, Cole & The Boys all liked the Navy. British explorer and ace fighting man Sir Richard Burton favored this particular Colt as well. Of course most students of the Old West know that the 1851 Navy was a favorite of James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok, who carried a pair of engraved Navy revolvers with ivory stocks.

In 1865, Hickok had a difficulty with Davis Tutt in Springfield, Missouri. Some say it was over a woman, while other suggest it was caused by a gambling debt. Regardless, they met one morning on the town square. Tutt took a shot at Hickok as soon as Wild Bill came into view, and Tutt missed. Hickok raised his 1851 Navy and fired one shot, hitting Tutt in the heart at approximately 75 yards.

Now, serious defensive shooters know that a vital zone hit at 75 yards can be done if the shooter stays calm, knows his gun, and applies the principles of basic marksmanship to the problem at hand. All of which sounds easy until one remembers that there is someone on the other end trying to kill you. Regardless, it was good shooting and an indication of why the Colt 1851 Navy was such a popular defense gun.

In my ignorance, I have always equated the .36 caliber Navy with the standard velocity .38 Special cartridge as far as power and performance goes. Well, excuse me!  Further study shows that the 1851 Navy would send an 80 grain ball downrange at somewhere between 900 and 1000fps. My friends, that is .380 ACP performance. Nevertheless, the Colt 1851 Navy was a grand old sixgun and the choice of serious gunfighters of that day.


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Colonel Rex Applegate

For me, one of the many bonuses of this gunwriter business has been the opportunity to meet and become friends with a number of the firearm enthusiasts of an earlier generation; legendary figures such as Frank Hamer Jr., Bill Jordan, Bill Toney, Col Walter Walsh and the subject of this column: COL Rex Applegate.


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