Colt’s .36 “Navy Revolver” & The Lesser-Known Tips from Sam Colt Himself
Updated: Jan 24
From Wild Bill Hickok to an Endless Array of Frontiersmen, Outlaws, Soldiers, and Various Rugged Individuals; the Most Historically Prolific Revolver of America's Frontier West has Many Tales to Tell.
I chose the title ‘most prolific’ not because Colt’s Navy revolver was produced in the greatest numbers; it wasn’t. That recognition goes to the 1873 ‘Single Action Army’ 357,859 produced from 1873-1940 without even mentioning post-war production. Second place goes to the .31 caliber Colt’s pocket revolver with 340,000 made between 1849 and 1873 without counting production at the London facilities.
However numerous the production of Colt’s pocket revolvers may have been, the anemic .31 caliber round was suited for little more than talking a knife-wielding footpad out of fancying one’s pocketbook or keeping a game honest at the local gambling hell. The 1873 SAA is perhaps the most iconic firearm of the American West, but its heyday was in the waning twilight of the ‘Frontier era’ and by 1890 when the US Census Bureau announced that the frontier was closed, only 130,000 units were made.
Colt’s Navy Revolver was introduced during the early days of the California Gold Rush and over the following decades, it earned legendary status in conflicts around the world. On the frontier, it saw service from the Barbary Coast to legendary towns like Bodie, Los Angeles, Denver, Tucson, San Antonio, Deadwood, and Dodge City. It left its mark on every town, county, and territory in the hands of dangerous men with names like Bill Hickok, John Coffee Hays, ‘RIP’ Ford, and Jonathan R. Davis.
Dimensions and Years of Manufacture
Samuel Colt did not invent ‘revolving firearms’ but his improvements were nothing short of legendary to the firearms industry. In addition to owning multiple pepperbox revolvers, Colt was a student of the many attempts made by previous gunmakers, what they did right and where the design needed much improvement. In his 1855 treatise on rotating chambered breech firearms, Colt cited his observations of early 4-chambered rotating flint-lock designs on display at Warrick Castle and at the Tower of London along with other locations on the European Continent during his travels in 1835. He took a special interest in Collier’s 1818 patented flintlock arm with its chambered breech as a good example of a great idea that needed improvement.
Colt’s ‘Patent Arms Company’ (1836-1842) was not a commercial success. An estimated $132,000 dollars was “expended without any beneficial result except in gaining experience, both in the arms themselves and in the machinery required for their manufacture.” Early supporters however were people like Commodore Moore of the Texas Navy and Col. Jack “Coffee” Hayes who contributed greatly to the reputation of Colt’s arms through their patronage, use, and endorsement. Early attempts at a repeating pistol resulted in Colt’s “Patterson” revolver. Although the .36 caliber round was not tremendously strong per se, it was still a man-killer and served the Texas military effectively in their numerous military encounters against the Mexican military forces as well as hostile Indian tribes. During the Mexican-American War, the call went out for a stronger design capable of dropping an enemy cavalryman and his horse in a single shot. Colt received the backing to resume production and his answer was the Walker-Revolver.
This ‘dragoon-revolver’ would be of a .44 caliber with a rifle-sized powder charge backing the ball. With the lessons learned through these two previous designs and the following 'Pocket' and 'Dragoon' models, the next step was to create something bigger than a pocket '5-shooter' but not as dramatic as the large revolving horse-pistols. The Walker was over 4 ½ pounds in weight. This new 'belt-revolver' design would weigh less than 2 ½ pounds and would carry six of the smaller .36 caliber rounds just like the Patterson. It was aptly named Colt’s “New Ranger” revolver.
The New 'Ranger-Sized' Revolver
Although the name was short-lived, it was implied to be the improvement over the ‘old ranger revolver’ which was the 5-shot Patterson. This new design carried six shots and with all the lessons learned in the Dragoon revolver design. Very soon, it will be known as ‘Colt’s Belt Revolver’ or it’s more familiar name, the 'Colt Navy Revolver' or as many frontier types took to saying, ‘the Navy Six’. As a nod to his early Texian friends John Hayes, and Commodore Moore, who had helped him in the beginning, a scene of the 1843 Texas Naval Battle of Campeche was engraved onto the cylinder.
A Long Legacy
With its legendary reputation, Colt’s revolvers soon found their way onto the battlefields of the world’s conflicts. In his work ‘Life in the Trenches Before Sebastopol’ Whitmouth Porter gave this account of his experience using Colt revolver against Russian troops in the Crimean War. He followed the quote below with the assurance that neither he nor any officer with whom he was acquainted would ever dream of going into action without one of Colt’s revolvers.
“My subsequent experience in the trenches before Sebastopol led me decidedly to the opinion that Colt’s arms were, on the whole, superior to any other maker. In the first place, I consider them less liable to accident; in the next place, they are more simple in construction, and less likely to get out of order, and what is more, should they become defective, are more easily repaired.”
-Lieut. Whitmouth Porter, RE (1856)
Colt’s Navy-Six saw an impressive manufacturing run through the climactic years of the western frontier and was carried by a who’s-who of western legends. They fired their rounds on virtually every battlefield of the American Civil War and were seen in the hands of cavalrymen and tribal warriors on both sides through the bitter conflict upon the plains, deserts, mountains, and forests during the years of the Indian Wars. They were the preferred tool of bushwhackers, robbers, and desperadoes as they were favored by the lawmen and private citizens willing to stand against them.
Below are the Manufacturing years and their serial numbers as listed in The Colt Heritage Book (1979)
Year / SN#
Year / SN#
Ammunition for the 'Navy Six'
The .36 caliber or 36/100 inch opening of the bullet chamber requires a round that is a bit larger for the purpose of hermetically sealing the chamber from moisture or from the hot gases released when the gun is firing. For this reason, the bullets are actually .375 to .380 so that they trim their edges when rammed. In the case of the Confederate Ordinance Department, it was .390! Traditionally, the chambers were loaded with powder and ball which was then capped. This required carrying a powder flask and a pouch full of bullets for reloading.
By 1857, Colt developed a more convenient way to reload. Soon, the Colt's Cartridge Works were producing a 'foil cartridge'. This was a thin tinfoil packet containing a measured amount of Hazard's gunpowder (about 15-20 grains) crimped onto the base of a bullet. It did a good job against the elements and instructions recommended pricking the base with a pin to allow sparks from the exploded cap to set off the charge. Each round was then paper-wrapped and put into a tin (see image) or they were packaged in quantities typically of 5-6 so that they could be easily carried in a shirt or waistcoat pocket.
The tinfoil variant would later be replaced by the 'combustible envelope cartridge' which was of nitrated paper and finally the 'skin cartridge' which was of nitrated animal intestine (same stuff sausages are made from). Although loading loose powder and ball continued to be the most cost-effective way to shoot, these cartridges remained a favorite source of reloading quickly right up to the advent of the metalic cartridge ammunition we know and still use today.
Exact Reproduction Bullets are Available to Modern Shooters
'Round ball' and 'conical' molds are quite common BUT an authentic mold for the combustible envelope cartridges has not been available until now. Eras Gone Bullet Molds produces a variety of bullet-molds for authentic reenactors and nostalgic shooters. Two of their designs bring back the best-known variations of ammunition for Colt's Navy Revolver.
The Colt's Factory bullet mold - This is the tried and true design carried since their introduction in the late 1850s until presumably through the production years of the Navy-Colt at least. Packages of these rounds were found in the pockets or travelers, adventurers, soldiers, and any other individual in need of a quick way to reload.
Richmond Laboratory .36 "Type III" (CSA) - This well designed round was extremely common in the hands of Confederate Military Officers and Cavalrymen of the eastern theater from the mid-war until its conclusion. This bullet meets CS Ordinance specs. (.390) and is perfectly suited to Colt's or Whitney's Navy design as well as the 'Confederate Colt' Copies made during the war.
Loading Colt's Navy Revolver
This is the original way it was done in the old west. For information about new propellants, methods and accessories, there are other articles out there.
In this article, I have enclosed an original instructions brochure (scroll-up) for loading Colt's revolver but here are the quick cheat notes to summarize it all. First, check the revolver to ensure it is in good working order; the barrel & chambers are clean and the base pin around which the cylinder turns is properly lubricated.
Load - Bring to half cock with the cylinder openings facing up, pour in about 15-20 grains of (FFg or FFFg, your preference)
(Optional-wads) - many use a felt wad for 'safety' but Colt's instructions expressly tell you not to do this so personally, I don't but I don't fault you if it's your preference. I know many experienced shooters who swear by their greased-felt wads. If they work for you, keep on doing it. There is no harm in this way either.
Seat the round-ball or conical round - Use the loading lever to ram the round home so that it's completely inside the chamber and will not obstruct the cylinder's rotation. (*Note: Personally I don't grease the chambers but many shooters do.)
Prime (cap the cones) - Put your percussion caps on the cones (never tap or force with a hard press); close your hammer down on the pins between the chambers.
Now holster your revolver and prepare for the trail.
*Note: never remove your cylinder during the loading process. especially if it's capped. It's dangerous. If you fumble and drop a loaded cylinder, it's about to get real.
Special Tips for the Frontier Shooters
Chain-fires & Do you 'Lube'?
Chain-fires or 'cross-firing' is where the ignition of one cylinder-chamber sets off the other chambers. There are a lot of reasons why this happens but if you are properly instructed and experienced in loading, there is little to fear. Modern black-powder pistol makers recommend 'lubing' or slathering grease over each of the chambers to keep them from chain-firing, presumably for liability purposes. If you want to do this, fine, but I choose to follow Colt's instructions here and I never do the greasy-gun dance at the shooting range. There was such thing as Lubricating Composition but that is meant to wipe the base groove of a conical bullet so that it will help clear fouling from the barrel when firing. It isn't for slathering all over the chambers and the instructions confirm this.
Author's note: I absolutely do lube the conical rounds as stated in the instructions from the photo.
Nope! I never grease the chambers & I don't use wads either. (*Disclaimer, do what you want with the grease and wads if that's what the manufacturer says; this is my personal practice.)
As a historian and as an avid shooter with over 30 years’ experience firing uncounted thousands of rounds, I don't grease and have never suffered a single chain-fire. Actually, I am convinced that lubing the tubes of a C&B revolver is far more dangerous. After the first shot, hot-melted grease splatters everywhere turning a loaded gun into an unwieldly ‘greased pig’.
I also live in the Southwestern desert so with summer temperatures consistently over 110°, any kind of grease will liquify and go everywhere. Grease/lube also picks up sand and other airborne particles even while riding up on a saddle. I once ruined a good barrel on a Uberti when a small grain of sand found its way into the chamber of a holstered revolver with greased chambers. After shooting, I noticed it had gouged one of the lands in the rifling.
The cause for chain fires are either because a ball that is misshapen or too small will allow hot gas and sparks can get around it; or a cap has fallen off the cone allowing fire into the chamber. Another way is if loose powder has collected near the capped- cones and its ignition will heat up the cap's until the fulminate hits its flash point. Most interesting, is that (according to some shooters) if there is grease residue in the chamber, and it attracts fine particles of unburnt black powder from previous shots, there may be a possibility of a 'powder-train" burn through occurring. This latter theory has been written about by fellow shooter, John L. Fuhring in an online article and I am inclined to agree with him on its likelihood.
The prevention of chain fires - According to Colt’s factory loading instructions, you should never grease your chambers like modern shooters normally do. If your bullet is properly formed* & larger than the tube’s circumference, then (insert Colt’s quote here) “…if the ball fits the chamber, it is then hermetically closed and the powder protected from water, damp, and sparks of fire.” If you are loading about a .455 round on a .44 or a .375-.380 round on a .36, it will shave and the seal is complete. Also, clear away any spilled gunpowder an make sure your caps fit properly.
*Note: The average temperature for casting lead bullets is around 750°F. If you cast your lead when it is a lower temperature that is closer to lead's melting point (622°F), the bullet will ripple and form an uneven surface. This may create an opening for a chain-fire and will also hurt accuracy. An easy way to test is to stick a strip of writing paper into the molten lead. If it smokes and ignites, the lead is too cool. If the paper instantly combusts, you are ready to cast. I find fruitwood, cedar, hickory, or ash to be best for maintaining a high casting temperature. Willow charcoal (easy to make in camp) is best overall. If fuel is limited, use a blowpipe to keep the lead's casting heat high.
Capt. Sir. E. Belcher, RN observed that while he was in Texas, the "American troops used Colt revolvers with great effect and precision and (he) had never heard of an accident occurring from simultaneous explosion of the chambers. They were generally used by the Mounted Rangers who appeared to rely on them for their effective attacks on the enemy."
-Letter to Samuel Colt, published-1855
Waterproof your Colt's Revolver
Drip some melted bee's-wax onto the sides of the cones so that it will run around & coat the exterior without obstructing the vent. When you cap the revolver, the percussion cap seals into the wax. Since a well-seated ball presents a hermetic seal, your revolver will be serviceable in wet weather or even after a brief immersion in water.
Quick Cleaning in the Field
Go to half-cock and remove (loosen) the wedge or 'key' as it was commonly called then. Separate the barrel assembly; and lastly, remove the cylinder. Run a spiral brush on a thong through the bore from end to end a few times with warm water. Wrap a dry patch around the bristles and run it again to remove excess water. Next, run an oiled patch in the same manner. Do so similarly with the cylinder chambers after the cones are removed and cleaned with warm water. Clean, dry, and oil the base pin, cylinder, barrel assembly before reassembly.
Why load only 5 chambers when there are 6?
I know a lot of shooters who load 5 of the six chambers resting their hammer on the empty chamber for safety purposes. This is good advice but if you are using a real colt, you can load all 6 and place the hammer between the caps/chambers. There are pins on those spaces that will fit into an opening on your hammer. It will keep the hammer from accidentally contacting the caps. The text above states that the revolver is now safe enough to carry in the pocket without discharge but I still prefer the added safety of using a holster.
Aiming & Shooting Tips
Pointing - Colt's revolver is designed to be an extension of your pointing index-finger so it may be easily aimed to hit the mark from a comfortable stance with both eyes open. Practice pointing with your finger directly at your mark before taking your first shots in a like manner from a 10-foot distance.
Ranging - Notice that the ball hits high of the mark at close distances & that you'll need to adjust your aim accordingly out to 25 yards where the ball should hit about 1-inch high from the aim point. Level line of sight will be after that point for several yards beyond before a trajectory drop below the aim point is noticed.
Rise-not-Fall- Raise your pistol up to the aim point. Never drop your gun hand down into position while aiming. It looks dramatic to drop your arm into the aim position like a duelist but your shot will hit low.
Finger Placement - The middle of your finger-pad should rest on the trigger and pull, don't jerk. Jerking the trigger will destroy your aim. Pulling with the fingertip or too far toward the first-joint will deviate your ball to the right or left of its mark.
Accept No Imitations!
With the huge success of Colt's design, a plethora of imitators were soon to follow. Some like the Manhattan Arms Company made high quality knock-offs. There were many 'pirate' copies made in European workshops that ranged from close to very poor quality. These European guns came to be known as 'Belgian Colts'. With the coming of the Civil War, the Southern Confederacy tried its hand at producing its own Colt copies through a network of arsenals and manufactories. Once again, the testimony of how great an arm was, would be evident in its imitation.
Although 'the gun that won the west' is more of a marketing catchphrase than a historically factual statement, Colt's Navy still earns the claim of being arguably the most historically prolific revolver of the American Frontier. It arrived in the midst of a turbulent time and in huge numbers. It was heavily active from the expansionist era through our greatest conflict until the 'closing of the frontier' and continues to be immortalized by modern writers and cinema. Newer, better arms such as Colt's 1873 SAA would inevitably replace the aging percussion-cap pistol but by then, times had changed as well. Railroads had linked the coasts; telegraph wires carried news across the states at lightning speed; and the wild spirit of the untamed western plains was rapidly giving way to ploughed fields, skilled hands, and iron will. The next generation of arms would stay in production long enough to see a world more similar to the one we know today. Although the wild west continues to live on in our spirit, the original 'six-gun' of the wild plains has slipped away along with those bold souls who blazed the trails that a new industrialized nation would widen and pave over.