Pietta’s Reproduction Colt 1860 Army Model Revolver
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- Last updated: 16/12/2016
Today’s percussion revolver shooters will, in the main, choose either a .36 calibre Navy size pistol or its larger cousin the .44 Army model. Back in the 19th Century a number of manufacturers catered for both camps, but the two major players were Colt and Remington. I would hazard a guess and say that, among modern shooters, the .44 is marginally more popular than the Navy pistols and that the two main contenders among the available reproductions are the Colt 1860 Army model and the Remington New Model Army, also known as the 1858 Model. Both of these pistols have their admirers and you need to use them both to decide which one is your preferred option.
The introduction of the Colt 1860 Army revolver, officially known as a Holster Pistol, as opposed to the Colt .36 calibre Belt Pistol, could not have come at a more opportune moment for Sam Colt. Within 12 months of the first guns rolling off the production line the North American continent was thrown into a bloody conflict that would last for four years and claim the lives of many thousands of its citizens.
The life-blood of arms manufacturers at the time was military acceptance and contracts for their products and Colt was not slow to take advantage of the situation in offering his services to equip the Union forces with his latest revolver. On 19th May 1860 a group of Army officers met at the Washington Arsenal to examine and test-fire two examples of Colt’s latest pistol, one with a 71⁄2-inch barrel and the other with an 8-inch barrel. Both pistols had a full-fluted cylinder and were to be pitted for accuracy and penetration against the Army’s current standard handgun, the Colt third model Dragoon revolver. The new 8-inch barrelled pistol was given the nod with the board’s final statement: “The board are satisfied that the new model revolver with the eight inch barrel will make the most superior cavalry arm we have ever had and they recommend the adoption of the new model and its issue to all mounted troops”.
Even before the Army placed its first order, Colt was satisfied that he was on to a winner and production of the 1860 model began in earnest. Much to the disgust of some Northerners, the first 2200 or so of the new pistols were delivered to companies south of the Mason Dixon line to fulfil back-orders. By March 1861 reports were coming back that the cylinders on some of these revolvers were bursting due to the thinness of the walls, so a modification was introduced by drilling the cylinders at a slight taper, but a total rethink brought about the familiar rebated cylinder that we are now familiar with. In all, around four thousand of the fluted cylinders were produced before the new design became standard.
In 1850 Colt produced two of his most popular percussion pistols in the form of the 1849 Pocket and the 1851 Navy revolvers, the latter being an enlarged version of the former. At that time the Union cavalry revolver of choice was the massive Colt Dragoon weighing over four pounds. By 1859 the company was advocating the new ‘spring steel’ which would allow the military revolvers to be made much smaller without sacrificing any power, and it was decided to modify the successful 1851 model to produce a suitable arm for the mounted troops.
The 1851 frame was used as a basis and by rebating the top flat a similarly rebated larger, .44 calibre cylinder could be used. The Navy size grip frame was elongated by a quarter of an inch to cope with extra recoil and a new ‘creeping rammer’ arrangement was designed for the loading lever under the round – as opposed to the 1851’s octagonal – barrel. Tipping the scales at a mere two and a half pounds, the revolver was a hit from the start and on May 4th 1861 the Ordnance Department placed its first order for new pistols, and by the end of 1863, when the Remington 1858 became the pistol of choice, Colt had supplied the Union Army with over 127,000 of their 1860 model revolvers. Production continued until 1873 when well over 200,000 units had left the factory.
The Pietta version of the Colt that we have here is a standard military model with an 8-inch barrel and rebated cylinder. The fore part of the cylinder is rolled with the same scene as that found on the 1851 model, a representation of the fight between the Texas Navy and the Mexican fleet which occurred on 16th May 1843. A nice touch is the inclusion of the “Engraved by W.L. Ormsby New York” marking which was found on the cylinders of many original arms. The frame is a ‘4-screw’ version which is designed to accept an optional shoulder stock, and along with cut-outs on either side of the recoil shield, the two extra screw heads act as location points for the brass collar at the front of the stock. A small bevel in the base of the back strap accommodates the hook which tightens the stock in place. When the stocks were discontinued by the Army the fourth screw was omitted, but many original pistols can be found with a standard ‘3-screw’ frame with cut-outs in the recoil shield. Pistols without these cut-outs are generally termed as ‘civilian’ versions.
Pietta have adhered to the original 19th Century finish for the pistol, which is a blued barrel, cylinder and back strap with the frame, loading lever, hammer and trigger being case hardened. The trigger guard is brass and the walnut grips are oiled. All screw heads are blued.
The blue, although very acceptable, is not the best I have seen on an Italian reproduction, with a couple of minor indications of the polishing showing through on the barrel. This is probably me just nit-picking, but it is there nevertheless. Case colours will obviously vary from pistol to pistol and this one shows strong blue on the frame while the lever is predominantly grey. The metal edges are nice and sharp, particularly those two ‘4th screws’ and were this my pistol I would have those screws taken down so that the heads were flush with the frame, as I find them a little uncomfortable under recoil. This will be down to the position of my hand on the grip and those with larger hands may be even more inconvenienced by this. The cuts on the rammer catch are also very sharp. The knurling on the hammer is no more than seven cuts across the top of the spur but still provides adequate grip. The walnut grips are nicely oiled, standing a shade proud of the trigger guard at the front edge.
All-in-all this is a handsome, well put together pistol that looks like it will give years of good service if you treat it well. But firearms are not judged merely on their appearance, so does it actually do what it says on the tin?
As stated earlier, this pistol and the 1858 Remington are probably the two most popular .44 revolvers used by today’s shooters and re-enactors. Remington fans will tell you that theirs is a stronger pistol as it has a top strap, and there may be some validity in this argument, but the large number of Colt 1860 pistols used during the American Civil War is a testament to its suitability for the rigours of combat, which are much greater than you or I will ever impart on the revolver.
Perhaps the most often encountered argument against the Colt and for the Remington is the ‘caps in the works’ syndrome. The closed frame of the Remington precludes spent caps from falling into the channel between hammer and frame as they sometimes do in the Colt. Colt fans will learn to live with this minor irritation, and those with larger hands will doubtless feel the benefit of that quarter inch of extra length in the Colt grip. I have used both variations and the Colt just feels a little bit more comfortable for one-handed shooting.
The timing on this pistol is very good with cylinder lock-up occurring only fractionally before the hammer reaches its rearmost position on cocking. There is a tiny bit of fore and aft play on the cylinder when on full cock, and this seemed to be caused by the cylinder arbour being a fraction too long. Taking .002-inches or so off the front end of the arbour would allow the barrel to seat further enough back to take up the play. Cocking the hammer requires the minimum of effort and the trigger broke cleanly at a little over 21⁄2lbs.
The sighting arrangement is the usual Colt percussion set-up of a v-notch in the top of the hammer combined with a front sight soldered into the barrel, in this case a tapered blade, and the combination provides a clear picture, although some may prefer to deepen the rear notch. Using a charge of 28gr of Henry Krank fine black powder behind a .454-inch lead ball proved to be both easy to manage in terms of recoil and reasonably accurate. Shooting only slightly to the left and a couple of inches high with the normal sight picture of the front blade level with the top of the rear notch, I could keep five-shot groups to under 4-inches – satisfying for me but others will be able to better this by a considerable margin. I could manage 25 to 30 shots before fouling slowed things down a little, then it was a case of slip the barrel and cylinder off, wipe and grease the arbour, run a patch through the centre of the cylinder and reassemble. I used Remington No. 11 percussion caps and in just short of one hundred shots I had two caps fall into the hammer recess.
The Colt open frame design pistols are particularly easy to clean when you can separate the main components. I usually pop the cylinder into a container of boiling water with a little washing up liquid while I scrub the barrel; a little grease on the cylinder arbour and a smidgen of oil on the nipple threads (facilitates removal next time) before reassembly and the whole job takes no more than 15-20 minutes. Every two or three outings, depending on how much you shoot, I would strip my pistol completely to remove the fouling that builds up in those awkward places – I’ve seen it in the channel between the back strap and the wood grip! Others will do this after every use but I never found the need.
Having studied, collected, bought and sold all manner of Colt handguns over the last 25 years I have a soft spot for their products and the majority of copies thereof. I have encountered some poor examples of Colt clones over the years but this is not one of them. The Pietta 1860 is a well-made, good-looking pistol which should provide sterling service given a little care and attention, and examples will doubtless be around 150 years from now, just like their 19th Century forefathers are today.
DISTRIBUTOR: Henry Krank 01132 569163 www.henrykrank.com