Cabela's 1851 Navy .36 Percussion, $120
Wild Bill had a pair. Sam Bass used one, and so did Frank James and Cole Younger. Elmer Keith liked his very much. In fact, Elmer’s 1851 Navy Colt was one of his first handguns, and it undoubtedly influenced the grand old master all his life. With all this popularity Gun Tests Magazine thought it would be a good idea to inform its readers where to go to get today’s best copy of the breed.
Here's what they found:
It ought not to be all that hard to produce a decent copy of the Colt 1851 Navy, the popular octagon-barreled .36 percussion precursor to the famous Single Action Army Colt Model P of 1873. Today, when you can get really good copies of nearly any firearm ever made, we’ve yet to see a perfect job of copying the Colt Navy. Many factories or importers give us truly excellent clones of the Colt Model P, but they all fall a bit short in producing a good, modern 1851 Navy. We wonder why that is. This may sound like a simple gun to emulate, but apparently it is a problem for the several companies which still produce either the parts or whole guns today. In our testing, we’ve encountered rounded corners, wavy barrel flats, improper shapes and finishes to gun trigger guards, backstraps with the wrong configuration, soft parts, loading-lever latches that don’t work like they should, latch lugs loose in the barrel, failures of barrel wedges, and even one complete failure of a gun after only 36 shots.
The Navy Colt, which got its name from the naval battle scene roll-engraved onto its cylinder, had a one-piece stock of walnut surrounded by a silver-plated brass grip strap and trigger guard. A notable exception was the London-made Navy, which had a blued iron guard and backstrap. The 1851 Navy Colt had a blued octagonal barrel of .36 caliber, and a color-case-hardened frame. It had a cone-shaped brass front sight and a notch in the hammer for the rear. Colt also produced many engraved presentation pieces with different finishes, but the most common Navy was as described.
We believe the makers today are trying to produce guns that are too inexpensive. If a shooter doesn’t balk at spending over $500 for a good clone of a SAA, why would he want a poorly made copy of a Navy?
We tested the $120 Cabela’s 1851 Navy (made by Pietta in Italy).
We first disassembled the gun into its three major components by pulling its barrel pin, removing the barrel assembly, and taking the cylinder off the base pin. We then cleaned out all the oil from the chamber and wiped the gun all over with solvent, and then rubbed the entire gun, inside and out, with Ox-Yoke Originals’ Wonder Lube 1000 Plus, a black-powder lubrication that in our experience has proven to be a superior product for all muzzle-loading firearms. It gives easy cleanup and fine protection for all parts of all muzzleloaders. We greased the base pin with Lubriplate, then assembled the gun for our shooting and evaluation.
The usual recommended method of loading percussion revolvers today makes for a big mess, and is entirely unnecessary. It consists in seating the balls firmly over the powder charge, then filling the remaining space with grease to prevent cross-firing. The grease attracts all manner of dirt. If the powder charge is light, there’s up to half an inch of grease within each chamber, and if the gun gets hot that grease will run out, creating an even bigger mess.
Long ago Elmer Keith wrote up the correct method of loading cap-and-ball revolvers in his book “Sixguns,” and we adapted his method using modern and very effective components. We used only GOEX FFFg black powder in 15-, 20-, and 25-grain loads. We covered the powder with a pre-lubricated No. 3600 Ox-Yoke Wonder Wad, then rammed the ball down tightly on top of that. We used NO grease over the ball. We’ve loaded all of our personal collection of original and 2nd Generation Colt percussion revolvers that way for many years, and can shoot as long as we like with no tying-up of the gun from fouling, no leading, easy clean-up, and excellent overall results. Accuracy is generally improved with the Ox-Yoke wads, too.
We used CCI brand number 11 percussion caps with all loads. They worked well and gave a proper fit. Note that a loose cap can recoil back against the recoil shield and detonate, and that is probably one common cause of “cross-firing.” If the cap is too tight it won’t go on all the way and the cylinder won’t turn. We used Speer swaged lead balls of 0.375-inch diameter.
By the end of our testing we much preferred the 20-grain load as our standard. It gave enough room in the gun for the Ox-Yoke wad and the ball with a little room to spare for clearance. It shot well in the gun. We tried lighter and heavier loads, but shooting was erratic. We tried a load as light as 10 grains, but there was too much room left over in the cylinder, and because black powder requires a compressed charge for proper burning, we had to stack the Wonder Wads sometimes three deep to get compression. Grouping was poor, so we quit that light load.
We didn’t try conical bullets because they have to be cast, and that induces another variable. Swaged lead balls generally give better accuracy, are easy to load, inexpensive, and from what we’ve read they performed better in service. Most shooters, we feel, will go this route also.
All our test shooting was done at 15 yards. All the manufacturers recommended loading only five chambers, but we loaded all six for our testing, and fired the gun immediately.
The Cabela’s version was worth the money. It offered lots of fun, looked almost right, and didn’t break the bank. More details on the guns follow:
Our recommendation: For $119 one ought not to expect too much, and with that in mind the shooter may find this gun will provide all the fun he wants. The gun was tight, shot well but high, and went bang every time. We liked this one a lot, especially when factoring in its affordable price.
The Cabela’s Navy was made by Pietta and imported from Italy. The unplated brass grips were at the wrong grip angle. Every person who grasped this handgun said it pointed too high, and the grip didn’t feel right. There were no hog wallows between the sides of the nicely case-colored frame and the trigger guard or back strap. However, there was some pronounced waviness on the left side of the frame and trigger guard.
The roll-engraved battle scene was very lightly impressed, and buffed to non-existence at the front edge of the cylinder. The hammer had serrations, not the correct checkering on its gripping surface. This gun had a loading lever that latched correctly, snapping easily back into its notch under the muzzle with finger pressure. Little things like this make a big difference in a day’s shooting.
When we attempted to disassemble Cabela’s 1851 prior to shooting, we were unable to get the barrel wedge out without resorting to a hammer. The wedge was too tight in its fit in the frame and cylinder base pin. Also, the barrel wedge came apart when we took it out. We put it together and it stayed that way for the remainder of our testing.
With the hammer of the Pietta/Cabela’s gun at full cock, there was very little rotary movement to the cylinder. All the other test guns had varying amounts of slop, indicating their chambers were not lined up perfectly with their barrels. This causes poor accuracy and accelerated wear. By comparison, three genuine old Colt Navies we examined had less cylinder shake than three of our test guns, so this was a feather in the Pietta/Cabela’s hat.
This gun shot high, though it shot quite well. Average groups with all loads were 2.5 inches. The best group we fired (with 25 grains of FFFg) put five of six into 1.25 inches, but one shot expanded the group to 3.25 inches. We suspect a bad chamber, because we often got five shots into a tight group with one wide flyer. In fact, four groups averaged 1.4 inches for five of the six shots. Barrel roughness caused some leading. This gun shot more than well enough to give the shooter lots of fun for his money, though most groups were 4 to 6 inches higher than the point of aim.
We wanted the word of an expert on today’s Colt Navies to see if we’d overlooked anything in our test. We spoke with Kenny Howell, head man at R&D Gunshop in Beloit, Wisconsin. Howell made the guns for the character Jim West in the current movie, Wild, Wild West, and last year R&D Gunshop made more than 1,200 cartridge conversions of percussion handguns for Cowboy Action shooters. We thought if anyone would know where to get a really good Navy Colt, Howell would.
Howell told us what we didn’t want to hear. In his opinion, no one makes a good Navy today. He used to spend about 10 hours fully converting a 2nd Generation Colt 1851 Navy. Today his time to convert a Signature Series Colt is nearly twice that. He has to rebuild much of the existing gun. He rehardens many parts, draw-files the barrels, drills and replaces the bolt cam in the hammer, rehardens the hammer, and performs other work. He told us he would much rather work on 2nd Generation Colts or originals than on any of today’s copies. He told us the Wild, Wild West guns were a major chore to rebuild.
Gun Tests recommends: Cabela’s 1851 Navy by Pietta, $119. This gun will give the shooter a decent taste of history. We were unable to break the gun during our limited shooting, and as well fitted as it was it ought to last a long time. It would be our first choice for value received and for cheap fun.
We think that if someone made a really high-quality copy of a Navy— all sharp edges, correct profiles, parts properly heat-treated to last forever, good fit and finish—and sold it for around $400 to $500, they’d sell a lot of guns. However, we have no idea how large the market is. Surely some Cowboy Action shooters want reliable, well-made percussion revolvers and would be willing to pay a fair price for top quality. We’d rather spend $2,500 for the real thing than $250 for something that just isn’t right—and there’s a lot not right in the current crop of Navies.