It was called “the gun that won the West”. It was the first really practical revolver, used by many of the most famous gunslingers and outlaws in the American West, and was such a successful design that it is still being manufactured today. It was the 1873 Colt .45 Peacemaker.
1873 Colt .45 Peacemaker. Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History
From the time that the firearm replaced the sword and spear on the battlefield, in the 1600’s, most guns, both muskets and pistols, were flintlocks. These were single-shot weapons that used flint chips to create hot sparks to fire off the gunpowder, and had to be laboriously reloaded through the muzzle after each shot. They were not only the standard military weapon of the day, but were vital as hunting weapons, especially in the rugged frontiers of colonial America.
In 1820, a technological breakthrough finally occurred with the introduction of the “percussion cap”. This was a small metal cup filled with mercury fulminate which replaced the bulky flintlock mechanism. Now, when the trigger was pulled, the gun’s hammer fell onto the percussion cap, setting off the explosive inside and touching off the main powder charge which fired the bullet. The percussion cap had the advantage of being easier to use than the flintlock, and also working in any weather conditions (flintlocks did not work in the rain), but it still limited the gun to one shot before reloading. What was really needed was some sort of repeating mechanism that would allow someone to load a number of shots at one time, then fire them off one at a time without pausing to reload between shots.
In 1832, a mechanically-inclined 18-year old apprentice named Samuel Colt, from Connecticut, was serving aboard a cargo ship. While studying the mechanism of the ship’s steering wheel, which used a clutch device to hold it in place, Colt realized that a similar device could be used to turn a cylinder inside a gun, and if a number of hollowed-out chambers were bored into the cylinder, each could be lined up in front of a single barrel, fired, then the next chamber turned and locked into place to fire the next bullet. Within a short time, Colt had carved a wooden model of his “revolver” idea, and began to work with a number of local gunsmiths to make a working prototype.
In 1838, Colt obtained a patent for a revolver that could fire five shots before needing to be reloaded, formed his own firearms-manufacturing company, and opened a factory in Paterson, New Jersey. The “Colt Paterson Revolver” was originally made in .40 caliber, and was later also made in .36 caliber. Although it was the most technologically-advanced handgun of its time and was purchased for use by the Texas Rangers, it was not a commercial success, and Colt was forced to close his Paterson factory in 1842.
In 1846. however, the Mexican-American War broke out, and the US Army was looking for a repeating pistol. Captain Samuel Hamilton Walker, a former Texas Ranger who had carried a Colt Paterson, now met with Colt to design a new pistol. The result was the six-shot 1847 Colt Walker, a .44 caliber revolver with a 9-inch barrel. At four pounds, the Walker was too long and heavy to carry on a belt, but was designed for cavalry use and was carried in a saddle holster. Colt received a contract to make over 1,000 Walker revolvers for the Army, and opened a new factory in Hartford, Connecticut. He became a master of self-promotion, and often traveled around the country to donate elaborately-engraved presentation models of his guns to military officers, politicians, and other influential people.
In 1851, Colt introduced a smaller and lighter revolver, a “belt gun”, weighing only 42 ounces with a 7.5 inch barrel, but still holding six .36 caliber shots in its cylinder. Because the prototype guns were engraved with a scene depicting the naval Battle of Campeche from the Texas Republic, it became known as the Navy Revolver. It proved to be Colt’s most popular gun to date, and was adopted by many law enforcement officers as well as Western settlers and US Army Cavalry units, especially in the US Civil War. Among those who carried the Colt Navy were Confederate Generals Robert E Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest, and western gunslingers Wild Bill Hickok and Doc Holliday.
1861 Colt Navy. Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.
The Paterson, Walker, and Navy models were all “cap and ball” pistols, which used loose black powder, lead ball bullets, and percussion caps. To load the revolver, a charge of powder was poured into each chamber in the cylinder, then a lead ball was placed into the chamber and a loading lever was used to push it down against the powder. Finally a percussion cap was placed into the rear of each chamber. All of these pistols were “single action”, which meant that after the gun was fired, the shooter had to manually pull back the hammer for the next shot, which allowed the used percussion cap to fall away and advanced the cylinder.
During the Civil War in 1861, Colt modified the Navy Revolver to fire paper cartridges, in which the lead ball and pre-measured powder were wrapped in flammable paper which could be more easily inserted into the chamber. This system was also used in the 1860 Army Model Revolver, which was a bit longer than the Navy Model. But around this time a major change appeared in firearms ammunition–the metallic cartridge. In this design, the cap and ball was replaced by a one-piece cartridge that contained the primer cap, the powder charge and the conical bullet, all inside a brass metal cartridge casing. Now, to load the revolver, all one had to do was pop open the cylinder and insert a single cartridge into each chamber. After Smith and Wesson’s patent on the system expired in 1870, the US Army offered a contract for a .45 caliber six-shot revolver using metallic cartridges.
The Colt Company’s entry was called the 1871 Single-Action Army Model. It weighed 2.5 pounds, and measured 11 inches overall with a 7.5 inch barrel. It was adopted by the Army as the M1873, and was sold to civilians as the “Peacemaker”. A number of the civilian versions were chambered for the .44-40 cartridge, the same one used in the popular Winchester lever-action repeating rifle. Other versions were sold in .38 and .32 caliber. But by far the most popular was the Colt .45 .
Sadly, Sam Colt had just died, and never saw the success of this pistol. It quickly became the most popular handgun in the US, used by cowboys, outlaws, sheriffs and deputies, and gamblers. Among the people who carried the 1873 Peacemaker were Buffalo Bill Cody, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Wyatt Earp, and Theodore Roosevelt. “God made men,” the slogan went, “but Sam Colt made men equal.”
The Peacemaker was issued to the US Army from 1873 until 1892, when it was replaced by the Colt M1892 .38 double-action revolver, in which pulling the trigger automatically recocked the hammer and readied the gun to fire again. But the Peacemaker remained in the stockpile, and was heavily used during the Spanish-American War in 1898. It did not disappear from the US arsenal until World War One, when the Model 1911 Colt .45 automatic became the standard US Army sidearm. In all, 357,859 “First Generation” Peacemakers were manufactured.
In 1941, the Colt company stopped production of the civilian model Peacemakers to focus on war production. When the war ended, the Single Action Army design was viewed as old-fashioned and obsolete, and it was decided to drop it from the catalog. But popular demand for the model, fueled by numerous Hollywood and TV Westerns, prompted Colt to renew manufacture of the Peacemaker again in 1956. The single-action Peacemaker remains in production, in numerous barrel lengths and calibers, today.