Palmetto Arms Company 1855 New Model Sidehammer
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- Last updated: 14/12/2016
Those of us who have been shooting black powder revolvers for some time will have noticed one or two hybrid copies of nineteenth century Colt models which were never originally manufactured by the factory. There have been .44 calibre examples of the 1851 Navy, along with short barrelled ‘sheriff’s model’ Navy and 1860 Army revolvers, the latter also turning up with a brass frame. I also seem to recall a .44 calibre 1860 Army utilising an 1862 Police type cylinder. To this list can now be added the Palmetto .36 calibre copy of the famous Colt Roots revolver.
Elisha King Root
Elisha K. Root was forty one years old when, in 1849, Sam Colt offered him the post of superintendent of the Hartford armoury. During the next five years Root designed much of the machinery that was used to produce Colt percussion revolvers along with cartridge making machines. His most important inventions were the drop hammers that became the industry standard for many years.
On Christmas Day 1855, Elisha Root was granted a patent for the New Model Pocket Pistol, as opposed to the 1849 ‘Old’ model, although it is generally accepted that Sam Colt himself designed this revolver. This was Colt’s first, and only, percussion revolver with a top strap as opposed to their usual open frame design. The frame and grip were forged as one piece with the barrel being screwed into the frame. It would be almost another two years before the pistol was put on the market and during its life span over forty thousand examples were made. It was produced in .28 (actually .256) and .31 calibres although larger calibres were made experimentally but not put into production, presumably because of the success of the existing large calibre Colt pistols.
When Sam Colt died in 1862 Root was elected to be president of the company, a position that he held until his own death in 1865.
The mechanism of the Root revolver is considerably more complex than the rest of the Colt single action models and with more moving parts the chances of a breakage due to black powder fouling were increased, particularly if the pistol was not cleaned properly after use. It was also more difficult to repair and for these reasons many of these original pistols are found today in poor mechanical condition and broken parts would have to be made from scratch. It is likely that for the same reasons the European gun makers, who have produced reproductions of most of the common handguns used in the expansion of the American West, have steered clear of this unusual little revolver. That is until the Palmetto Arms Company came on the scene. They are to be congratulated on making this pistol once again available to the shooting public.
There are three options for those wishing to avail themselves of a Palmetto Root pistol. The .31 calibre version comes with a plain round cylinder and a three and a half inch round barrel. The .36 calibre model has a fluted cylinder and a choice of three and a half or five and a half inch round barrel. The octagonal barrel offered on the original Colts is not available in this reproduction. While the large calibre and longer barrel of the test pistol are historically incorrect, it is nevertheless a very interesting combination and could prove popular with those wanting a little more punch from a pocket pistol.
I cannot think of a modern reproduction percussion revolver that does not have its origins in a product of nineteenth century America, although I stand to be corrected. The ubiquitous .36 and .44 calibre copies of Colt, Remington, Rogers & Spencer revolvers are a common sight on many ranges here in the UK but the smaller pocket models are much scarcer. This is probably partly due to the licensing system whereby shooters do not want to buy a pistol which may not be used too much but is taking up a valuable ‘space’ on a firearms certificate. There is also the possible lack of competition for this type of weapon. As I have advocated elsewhere the British Western Shooting Society could remedy this situation with side matches for the smaller calibre guns. I am sure that there are enough fertile minds out there to come up with something interesting and challenging. Should this happen then the Palmetto 1855 revolver would offer a viable alternative to what is already available.
There is no doubt that this revolver offers something different and will stir everyone’s emotions. You will either be a fan of the design or scoff at its ugliness as there seems to be no middle ground amongst those who see it. Before you write it off I would advise that you handle it or, if the opportunity arises, try shooting it, as it may provide a pleasant surprise.
At first glance the Palmetto 1855 revolver seems to be nicely proportioned but looks as though it should be larger. Indeed, next to a normal .36 calibre pistol it is actually quite small. The combination of a small frame, five and a half inch barrel and the .36 calibre make it a kind of ‘half way house’ between a pocket revolver and a holster pistol. The metal finish is nearer to black than blue and contrasts nicely with the walnut grips, although on the test pistol the wood to metal fit could have been a little better. The sights are on a par with most percussion revolvers being a groove in the top strap for the rear and a conical brass post for the front. While the sight picture is not up to target pistol standards it is more than adequate for the job which this weapon will be required to do. The grip on this pistol will feel a little too short for all but the smallest hands. Perhaps the lady shooters would prefer this to a Navy sized revolver? The hammer cocked smoothly and easily and the lock up was very good.
The 1855 In Use
If the Cowboy Action Shooters do decide to use pocket pistols in competition then targets will probably be no more than fifteen yards from the shooter, probably even less. With this in mind I used an indoor range to test this revolver at a distance of twelve metres. I chose a .375” swaged lead ball and used a charge of fifteen grains of Henry Krank’s fine black powder, the two separated by a lubricated wad, with Remington No. 11 percussion caps for ignition. Even though this is a relatively small cylinder capping by hand was quite easy as the nipples are angled slightly away from the centre axis. Recoil was quite mild although the short grip makes the five pound trigger pull seem a little heavier. The pistol shot a few inches high at this distance but as I was not trying for high scores, making adjustments between the point of aim and the point of impact helped to keep the shots comfortably on the paper, even when trying to shoot “against the clock” with two hands. I fired sixty shots and the pistol ran faultlessly with only one percussion cap falling into the hammer slot. The revolver was not cleaned or oiled during the test and once again I have to marvel at the fact that there was no sign of binding due to black powder fouling. This is the third Palmetto revolver that I have reviewed and each one has been the same. I have not encountered another black powder revolver that can run as long without some attention.
As mentioned earlier the mechanism of the sidehammer pistol is fairly complex so when cleaning it I only removed the cylinder and the grips. The cylinder arbour enters from the rear of the frame and is released by depressing a spring loaded button on the front left of the frame and drawing it out. You will notice that there are no cylinder bolt notches on the outside of the cylinder and no ratchet on the rear face of the cylinder. Both the locking and the rotation of the cylinder are performed through the arbour. There is a rectangular section close to the front of the arbour which fits into a corresponding slot inside the cylinder and the pair turn together as the hand, which pulls downward rather than pushes upward, engages the ratchet on the arbour. The circular portion at the rear of the arbour has the locking notches cut into its perimeter and the bolt rises at the top of the backstrap to lock the unit in place. Getting everything lined up correctly when re-assembling the pistol did prove awkward on one occasion but I’m sure that it just needs a bit of practice.
The Palmetto Arms 1855 New Model revolver is an unusual, value for money pistol and should find favour with those looking to shoot something that is just bit different. I would like to thank Henry Krank for supplying the pistol for review.