The collecting of really old Colt revolvers can easily threaten the bank account, or even shatter it. Not only is collecting the early Colts a costly pastime, you end up with guns not many would want to shoot, especially the black-powder percussion handguns from the Civil War or earlier periods. Of course there are many modern cap-and-ball guns made to satisfy the cravings of those who want to make lots of noise and smoke. But with most of them there’s something missing, as I’m sure many will tell you. The modern guns just are not Colts, though they may look the same. Our Technical Editor Ray Ordorica used to own an original Colt 1860 which, as might be expected, he shot on a regular basis. He shot a six-shot group at 15 yards with the gun that measured 1.4 inches center to center of the widest two, and four of ‘em made a hole less than half an inch between centers. Who says the old guns won’t shoot? The load was 29 grains of FFFg Goex, loaded as described below, using Remington caps, but the full load of the original 1860 was 40 grains, quite a bit more than the 2nd-Gen. will hold. That gun was traded off, but because he very much liked the 1860, Ray bought a genuine Colt Second-Generation (2nd-Gen.) 1860, and went happily on his way.
Today the 2nd-Gen. Colts are scarce, but do turn up from time to time at gun shows. They are not cheap, but sell for a fraction of the cost of the original models, and are considered to be “real” Colts. The 2nd-Gen. Colts took up where the old serial numbers left off, and were in most respects real hand-fitted Colts, though the manufacture of the parts may have been done by a different company. Shooters recognize the differences in the aura of the gun in their hand. And it goes beyond that. For instance, the original 1851 Navy had the identical grip to that on the famous 1873 Frontier Six Shooter. Some modern versions of the 1851 that don’t bear the Colt name have an abomination of a grip that in the words of one old cowboy, “just ain’t right.” The backstrap flares out and generally looks as wrong as it feels.
The 2nd-Gen. Colts are classified as antiques, so they can be purchased online without the need to go through a dealer. Occasionally they are found in unfired condition, and those can be expected to bring higher prices. The prices for used ones vary all over the place, as do their condition, as we’ve noticed over the years. These guns were made in the 1970s or a bit earlier. There will never be any more Second-Generation Colts made. A batch was made with a signature on the rear grip strap, and these were called Third-Generation Colts. The few we’ve seen are not quite as satisfying to the eye as the 2nd-Gen. ones, or so we think.
In this report we look at three 2nd-Gen. Colts, a Second Model Dragoon, an 1860 Army, and an 1851 Navy, all bearing the Colt name and appropriate Colt serial numbers. Here in Idaho we loaded them all the same way, with either Goex or KIK black powder and occasionally with Elephant Brand powder, which doesn’t seem to give the performance of the other two. The powder is put into the chamber with a dispensing measure, which gives the correct volume or weight of charge. For the 1851 Navy we use 25 grains of FFFg. For the 1860 it’s 30 grains of FFg. For the Dragoon, the charge is 50 grains of FFg. Over the powder we put a single Ox-Yolk Wonder Wad, pre-lubricated at Ox Yoke’s factory with their Wonder Lube 1000 Plus yellow grease. A Speer swaged lead ball is rammed down on top of the wad with nothing over the ball. We used 0.375-inch balls for the Navy and 0.457-inch balls for the other two. For several decades now, that is how we load the old boomers and we’ve never had any crossfires. Cleanup is very pleasant with Ox-Yoke’s Liquid Wonder Competition Bore Cleaner, followed by doping with Wonder Lube 1000 Plus. We used CCI percussion caps mostly, but occasionally Remington’s. These latter didn’t light Pyrodex reliably in past tests, but do a bang-up job of lighting real black powder.
The prices given are best guesses, because we could not find many of these for sale online. Also, all three of the guns tested here have been shot extensively and slightly modified to please the owner, as noted below. It must be said, in today’s great gun-buying frenzy when you just can’t find any suitable modern handgun, any of these old percussion-cap firearms can still be valuable as protectors of the household. While a quick reload is not easy, a second gun might well suffice. Here are our findings.
Colt 2nd-Gen. 44 Cal. Second Dragoon, about $800
This big gun came about to replace the great Walker and also address some of the Walker’s failings. The capacity of each Dragoon chamber is 50 grains of black, and as noted above, the owner uses FFg in it. Some may want to use triple-F, but one ought not to use four-F in an attempt to magnum-ize the old gun. This gun is big and heavy. The upgrades from the Walker include a reduced chamber capacity (Walkers held 60 grains), a badly needed latch at the front of the ramming lever, rectangular slots for the bolt instead of round ones, and a shorter barrel. There were a few minor internal modifications as well. The First Dragoon had the Walker’s rounded bolt stop, but was otherwise much like the Second Model. The Third Model Dragoon had a rounded trigger guard.
The gun was really well finished. The brass grip frame was cleanly made with no rounding over, and carried the last four digits of the serial number. The cylinder, frame, grip strap, and barrel extension all bore the full five-digit serial number. The lockup was exceptionally tight. The few modifications done by the owner include gently beveling and polishing the fronts of the cylinder outlets so the seated ball does not get its lead shaved off, but rather gets it swaged inward as it is rammed home, which aids sealing. This was done to all three handguns in this report. On the Dragoon the owner had trouble with the latch for the rammer. It used to come loose every shot. He cut the notch sharper with a graver and increased the strength of the spring, and now the loading lever stays reliably in place. Also, the original nipples were on the too-large size for easily obtained #11 caps. The owner carefully turned the outside diameters of the nipples slightly so they would accept the #11s. He removed a small amount of the top of the hammer, which serves as the rear sight, to lower the point of impact. There was also some firelapping done, which he said improved accuracy.
The bluing was excellent, a deep rich color that set off the beautiful case coloring. So many modern guns seem to have a painted-on look to the case coloring, but this job looked just right. Also the roll engraving on the cylinder was sharp and clean, with no overstriking and with all the figures visible including the hair on the horses, the bridles, and even the expressions on the men’s faces. The grips were one-piece decent walnut, with an oil finish. They fit perfectly and had enough figure to be interesting. Some recent copies have had what looked like red-stained pine for the grips. The metal around the loading port had its edge broken enough so that it would not cut the fingers. All the edges where parts joined were clean with no rounding of the corners. In short, this was clearly and obviously a well-made piece of goods. The rifling twist was quite slow compared to a newer gun we examined a few years ago made by an Italian maker, and that one also had shallow grooves by comparison.
At 50 grains of powder per shot, this gun eats up the powder. A pound of powder will let you shoot all six chambers only 23 times with a bit left over. That’s about 140 shots. The hammer was mighty stiff. The owner had at one time put a leather washer under it to reduce the force, but he found the fired caps tended to blow the hammer backwards enough to let the spent caps drop into the hammer’s raceway and tie up the gun. So the leather washer was removed and the hammer force is once again very strong.
Our Team Said: On the range the big gun did excellent work for us. A group of six shots had all six touching, forming a ragged hole in the paper at 15 yards. It was a joy to shoot a gun that had been well set up and finely tuned over time by its owner. The recoil was not bad because of the great weight, but was still noticeable.
Colt 2nd-Gen 1860 Army 44 Cal., about $650
This handy and powerful gun represents one of the best weapons of the Civil War. It is far lighter than the Dragoon, more powerful than the 1851 Navy, and somewhat more graceful looking. This one had the original blued backstrap and brass trigger guard of most of the original ones. It also had the cuts in the back plate, protruding frame screws, and a notch on the bottom of the backstrap for the accessory stock. The grips on this one were absolutely stunning. Again, the grip straps, frame, and barrel extension held the serial number. The cylinder had only the last three digits of it. The fitting of the various parts was excellent, with sharp corners, matched planes, no rattling, and generally the feel of a precision instrument.
The 8-inch barrel did not have the gain-twist rifling of an original, but it did have deep, slow rifling in the same left-hand direction. Incidentally, the way to get the barrels off these guns is to tap the key out of its slot so that it hangs in place on the left side, and then put the hammer on half-cock and line up the web between two chambers with the ramming rod. A gentle push should get the barrel off the cylinder pin. Then the cylinder comes off, and that’s as far as you need go. When you reassemble it, be sure the key goes through far enough to hook in place on the right side. Also be sure the barrel is snug against the cylinder so the cylinder turns freely with no rattling fore and aft. That gives best accuracy.
Like the Dragoon, this 1860 had some modifications. The obvious one was extending the front sight upward and to the right to get it on target. It had formerly shot way too high, about 9 inches at 15 yards. This gun did not have enough material on the hammer to be able to cut it down, as was done on the Dragoon, so the front sight had a block of shaped brass soldered to it. This was durable, and by means of some careful filing managed to look acceptable, we thought. While such work does nothing for the resale value of the gun, the owner did not care, as he has no intention of selling it and wanted very much to be able to hit with it. In that respect we could not argue. Our shots landed on the target exactly where we aimed. The cylinder mouths were gently broken to ease loading. The action internals had also been slightly slicked up, we were told. Lockup was tight, and the hammer was far easier to cock than that of the Dragoon. The case coloring was again richly done and brilliant. The roll marking on the cylinder was excellent, but the color of the barrel was a touch on the purple side. The gun still had its original nipples.
The owner had loaded as much as 35 grains, but reduced that to 30 grains for easier loading and less strain on the loading lever. On the range we got groups on the order of an inch and a half at 15 yards, and did so with ease. One clump of four shots went into half an inch, as good as the Civil War gun had done. We very much liked the feel and handling of this handgun. Recoil was not an issue. In fact we only noticed recoil to any extent with the big Dragoon, and that despite its great weight.
Our Team Said: We would be happy to own two of these and would have no qualms about keeping them fully loaded as home-protection guns. The 1860 Colt was deadly during the Civil War and will still go a long way toward keeping the bad guys civil.
Colt 2nd-Gen. 1851 Navy 36 Cal., about $650
The classic 1851 Navy, choice of Wild Bill and many other old Westerners, also did yeoman service in the Civil War. We suspect the great feel of the grip, same as on the later Peacemaker, helped this gun achieve its lofty place in history. It sure wasn’t because of an excess of power. An 80-grain lead ball ripping along at about 850 fps isn’t going to have the smash of a 144-grainer at nearly the same speed out of the 1860, or at 950 or more fps out of the Dragoon. That may be one more reason why Wild Bill carried two of ‘em.
The test gun had silver-plated brass grips. The trigger guard was a bit pinched for us. We’d prefer the London Navy or any of the oval-guard versions which have more room for the trigger finger. Despite this guns’ obvious extensive use, the silver plate on the grips retained its unity. The gun had been fitted with Uncle Mike’s stainless nipples that took #11 CCI caps perfectly. Other changes included the beveling of the chamber mouths and the insertion of a screw into the front sight position. The rear sight opening in the hammer had been enlarged, and the height of the hammer cut down slightly. Whatever was done, it was done right, because our shots landed exactly dead center at 15 yards. When compared with many of the current flock of b/p handguns, we found this kind of regulation well worth the effort.
The fitting was as good on this gun as on the other two. The octagonal barrel had flat flats and sharp corners. The dark walnut grips showed some figure and again looked like they had grown into the metal grip panels. The bluing on cylinder and barrel were deep and rich. The case coloring was dark but rich looking. Of all three of the tested 2nd-Gen. guns, this one felt the most precise to cock. Lockup was again very tight. There was a fitted wood case for this gun, complete with flask and brass bullet mould with cavities for round and conical ball. There was also a period-style holster by Old West Reproductions (OldWestReproductions.com) that was made for the gun. All in all, it was a mighty nice package.
We shot groups from 1.4 to 2.5 inches at 15 yards, and they hit precisely in the center. The purist may not want to alter the guns from factory original to make them hit properly, but the shooter will. We thought this gun was the owner’s favorite, but he had actually shot the 1860 more. The key showed some bluing wear, and there were a few scratches on the barrel, but inside the gun it was pristine. We were mighty pleased with the feel of this gun in the hand, with its balance so very like that of the later 1873 Colt.
Our Team Said: We don’t believe the few modifications, mostly hidden, made on this gun or the others would hurt their values, except the obvious front-sight addition on the 1860.
The question is, if you encounter one that is in outstanding and still original condition, should you alter it? Probably not, although beveling the chamber mouths is an excellent idea if you plan to shoot the gun. We think changing the original nipples for stainless ones is a very good idea. Just keep the originals. If you choose to alter the front sight you’re on your own, or your gunsmith is. For best investment purposes, an all-original gun will beat the altered ones, and unfired ones are perhaps even better. But then you miss out on all the fun of shooting a real Colt cap-and-ball revolver, which has what none of the clones can legitimately have, and that’s the impressed name on the barrel: “Address Sam’l Colt New York City.”
Written and photographed by Ray Ordorica, using evaluations from Gun Tests team testers.