This past weekend, the 200th anniversary of Samuel Colt’s birth (19 July 1814) was celebrated by a bunch of Connecticut arts types, in nearly gun-free Connecticut fashion. If any of these professional irony enjoyers noted the irony, they didn’t say anything about it. But that’s got us looking at some of Sam’s accomplishments, and that brought us around to one of Colt’s least successful products: revolving carbines.
In the middle of the 19th Century, the best and greatest means of rapid fire was the revolving pistol. It seems like a natural idea to extend that to a revolving rifle or carbine; and this, Sam Colt did, as early as 1839. This brief (minute and a half!) video shows an extremely rare 1839 .52 caliber Colt that actually was one of a mere 360 acquired by the US Navy, and is now in the possession of the National Firearms Museum:
This Paterson Colt carbine was made from 1838 until 1841, and apart from the Naval guns, which may have been used by the Marines at the Siege of Veracruz in the Mexican War, too late to do that version of Colt’s company any good: the Paterson firm went bankrupt, and Colt had to start over. He retained his patents, so that whatever happened to his companies, the crown jewels were safe with him and his family. (This was prescient of him, for he was to die young).
The Mexican War not only gave the Marines a new direction (the landing at Veracruz was the first of what would become a standing Leatherneck specialty, amphibious landings on defended shores), but it resuscitated Colt, due to a military order for 1,000 revolvers, which were delivered before war’s end and are known as the Colt Walker revolvers.
The refreshed Colt Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company had a new, improved carbine by 1855, incorporating all of Colt’s new patents, and was producing it, and the more popular revolving pistols, in a new Armory building that was the marvel of Hartford, in a planned industrial community on an area of reclaimed land (note the berms or dikes in the image below). The area that encompassed all of the Colt factory, its workers’ housing, and Colt’s own grande manse was officially called the “South Meadow Improvements” but came to be known as Coltsville.
The carbine had two problems, both insurmountable from the military point of view. It was very expensive (the 1855 carbines cost the military $44 each, $1,189 in 2014 dollars), and, while it was safe if loaded and fired with care, a flash-over that was not usually that big a disaster with a revolving pistol had the potential for shredding a rifleman’s support hand. If there is a right way and a wrong way to load a weapon, no organization made of humans will ever be able to train 100% of its people to do it right 100% of the time.
When the Armory burned down in 1864, a $2 million plus ($54M plus 2014) loss of inventory, machinery and jigs to Colt, of which about $1.4 million ($38M) was excess to insurance carried, the remaining plant was used to manufacture pistols exclusively; the demand for Colt revolvers was inelastic, and repeating cartridge firearms on the horizon rendered the revolving rifle or carbine obsolete. The total production of the Colt carbines was very low; the 1855 was scarcely more produced than the 1839 version.
After the Civil War, Remington produced a version of its revolver as a carbine, also finding it disappointing in sales, although not as much so as the Colt version had been.
Since the 1960s, several versions of replica Colt and Remington carbines have been made. These are more frequently collected, from what we’ve seen, than fired; used ones usually have far more handling marks than they do indicia of firing.
The great Cap and Ball Channel from Hungary has posted three great videos on two carbines, an original Colt and an Uberti copy of a Remington.
Part 1, about the Colt (~6 minutes). The music is pretty awful, especially when it isn’t ducked under the voice, but the analysis of the unique mechanics of the gun makes it well worthwhile:
Some of the unique features of this .44 caliber Colt 1855 include progressive depth rifling, and a cylinder that is rotated by a ratchet on the rear end of the cylinder pin. This gun may be a bit off the military norm, as it appears to have been a sporting gun originally sold in Europe (it bears English proofs).
Part 2, about the Uberti clone of the Remington (~3 minutes):
Part 3, both are taken to the range (yes, even the very valuable original Colt) and shot for accuracy. If you’re only going to watch one video, this is the one. It also shows loading with loose powder and conical bullets, but also with period-style paper cartridges, which is how the real Billy Yanks and Johnny Rebs would have done it. (Not to mention everyone else who went to war with percussion, like the British, French and Russians in the Crimean War, all manner of 19th Century naval riflemen, and the British in the Afghan Wars). This one’s about six and a half minutes.
The Capandball.eu site and associated YouTube channel is a real find, but we didn’t want to wait for a TW3 to show it to you. If we have any beef with the chance to watch the two percussion revolver carbines on the range, it’s that he didn’t quantify their accuracy. But they look like fun, and one’s a sample of a moment in time that will never be repeated — the other shows us that the artifacts can be repeated, even if the times can’t be.
These firearms were an interesting evolutionary dead end (sure, there are cartridge versions, even a Taurus Judge carbine, but these are dead ends, too — curiosities). They came about because they were the logical progression combining proven examples of a known technology (the percussion rifle and the percussion revolver) into a hybrid that seemed like it had a bright future. (After all, if you were a cavalryman, or a Pony Express rider, another customer for the Colt ’55, wouldn’t you rather have six shots before facing the difficulty of reloading on horseback than one?). But unbeknownst to Sam Colt, and to his designer and right-hand-man Root, a technological disruption was on its way: new cartridge repeaters were coming that would eliminate all the disadvantages of the revolver carbine.
Root kept Colt relevant with cartridge revolvers, and even before the Colt family sold the company in 1901 new managers were embracing the novelty of the automatic pistol. Like Apple 100 years later, the company had a knack for grabbing hold of a technology that was about to take off in time, before its customers even knew that that was what they would want. But you don’t get to that kind of position without tripping down a few blind alleys. And thus, we have the Colt Revolver Carbine and its clones and imitators, a novelty for collectors and curiosity seekers.