Airguns of the American West Part 1
Colt, Smith & Wesson and Winchester – Delivering Western Justice
By Dennis Adler
Author’s note: This series of articles is based on the books Guns of the American West and Colt 175 Years, and chronicles the history of the original models that inspired these new western airguns, and how through their development a dramatic chapter in America’s history is being rewritten for airgun enthusiasts the world over.
There are three names in American firearms history that are known the world over: Colt, Winchester, and Smith & Wesson, but of all the legendary American armsmakers over the last 180 years, none embodies the genius or the history of Samuel Colt and the Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company. Colt is the American handgun.
Samuel Colt received his first U.S. patent for the revolver on February 25, 1836. Fourteen years later he received a seven-year letter of extension, thus providing him with the exclusive rights to build percussion revolvers based upon the fundamentals of his designs from 1836 through 1857 and total domination of the U.S. firearms market as it pertained to revolvers, whether handguns or longarms.
The underlying principle of Colt’s design was to enable the pawl, attached to the hammer of a percussion gun, to move as the gun was cocked, and through this movement turn the cylinder mechanically and lock it securely into battery. Prior to Samuel Colt’s patents for the revolver, American handguns were, for the most part, variations of European-style single shot pistols, first of the flintlock type and later using the new percussion lock. There were double barrels, swivel barrels, and even multiple barreled pistols known as Pepperboxes, but the revolver was at best a theoretical design before 1836. This is not to say that revolvers did not exist before Colt, they just didn’t work.
From 1836 until 1842 Colt built his early percussion revolvers in Paterson, New Jersey, but that company failed and Colt spent the next five years reinventing his design into a more powerful and easier to load firearm than the small .32 and .36 caliber Paterson cap-and-ball revolvers. In 1847 he introduced the massive .44 caliber holster pistol, later known as the Walker Colt, in honor of the revolver’s co-designer, Texas Ranger Captain Samuel Walker. On the success of that model Sam Colt launched his new Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Co. of Hartford, Connecticut in 1855. The rest is history, one that unfortunately Sam Colt would not live to see. He died January 10, 1862 at the age of 47 never to know the outcome of the Civil War or the future of his company.
The post Civil War era brought the Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Co. to the forefront of American arms making, and in 1873 the company would introduce what is irrefutably the greatest and most successful handgun in history, the Colt Peacemaker. With the design patents in hand Colt’s had already secured the most important government contract in the country for its “New Model Army Metallic Cartridge Revolving Pistol” in 1872. This rather cumbersome description was soon abbreviated to “Frontier Six-Shooter” or the often favored military contraction SAA for Single Action Army. The most popular name though was simply the “Peacemaker.” But no matter what you called it, the new Colt six-shooter was destined to become the most successful and longest-lived design in firearms history. There is virtually no other mid 19th Century revolver still being manufactured by its original maker more than 140 years after its introduction.
What makes a Peacemaker a Peacemaker?
The earliest technical description of the Single Action Army illustrated the differences from previous Colt black powder cap-and-ball and cartridge conversion single action revolvers. “The front of the frame was connected to the standing breech by a top strap over the cylinder, and the barrel was screwed into it. The cylinder was held in place by a removable pin passing through it and working in and out of the front of the frame under the barrel.” The architect of this new gun was William Mason, Colt’s Superintendent of the Armory, who received a patent for his design on September 19, 1871. A second patent was issued on July 2, 1872 and a third on January 19, 1875.
Over the last 144 years there have been very few changes to the fundamentals of the Wm. Mason design, and those principally concerning improvements in ease of operation and certain variations in frame and backstrap design to accommodate special models. With only a brief period between World War II and 1955, when the Peacemaker was temporarily discontinued, it has been built by Colt’s longer than any other revolver and remains the indisputable icon of the American West.
Not the only U.S. military sidearm
With the Single Action Army having passed Ordnance Department trials at Springfield, the government placed an order for 8,000 Colt revolvers to be issued to the United States Cavalry in 1873. In his summation of the National Armory trials, John R. Edie, Captain of ordnance wrote: “I have no hesitation in declaring the Colt’s revolver superior in most respects, and much better adapted to the wants of the Army than the Smith & Wesson.”
S&W was Colt’s largest competitor for military and civilian sales, and they had a head start having patented the cartridge firing revolver prior to the Civil War, albeit only in .22 Short and .32 caliber rimfire. By 1872 they were already well ahead of Colt’s in design, and had it not been for a misfortunate assumption on Smith & Wesson’s part, that the revolver could be chambered for their own proprietary .45 caliber cartridge, Smith & Wesson may well have won the day and displaced the Colt SAA as the government’s primary sidearm. The S&W could not chamber the longer .45 Colt cartridge (although the Colt could fire an S&W .45 caliber round!), and if there was one thing the U.S. military wanted, it was one standardized cartridge for use in the field, no matter who was making the gun. Despite Colt’s getting the largest military contract, both the 1872 S&W and the c.1874 model (as improved by U.S. Army Major George W. Schofield), as well as the later Remington Model 1875 cartridge revolver, were all adopted for use by the U.S. Cavalry, but the Colt Single Action Army would remain the dominant sidearm for the remainder of the 19th Century. The new Schofield air pistol pictured above is the first of its kind to recreate the second most famous handgun of the American West.
The Umarex/Colt Peacemaker design
Between 1873 and 1899 Colt’s made approximately 25 changes to the Peacemaker including variations in calibers, barrel lengths, front sight design, barrel address stampings, patent dates, and grips. Pre-1892 Colt models are generally referred to as the black powder frame, the distinguishing characteristic of the early Single Action Army being the use of a retaining screw threaded into the bottom front of the frame, where it tightened into a groove cut in the cylinder pin to secure it in place. Removing the cylinder required taking out this screw so the cylinder pin could be pulled forward and out allowing the cylinder to be removed. Beginning in 1892 the retaining screw was replaced by a transverse cylinder latch, which simply needed to be depressed in order to release the cylinder pin and allow it to slide out. This new design was also referred to as the smokeless powder frame, however, Colt’s did not formally announce that until 1900 by which time the more powerful and cleaner burning smokeless powder cartridge pretty much dominated the market. The 1892 smokeless frame design is used for the Umarex/Colt Peacemaker CO2-powered revolvers.
In Part 2 we examine and test the Umarex/Colt Peacemaker BB and pellet models.
A word about safety
Blowback action airguns provide the look, feel and operation of their cartridge-firing counterparts and this is one reason why they have become so popular. Airguns in general all look like guns, blowback action models more so, and it is important to remember that the vast majority of people can’t tell an airgun from a cartridge gun. Never brandish an airgun in public. Always, and I can never stress this enough, always treat an airgun as you would a cartridge gun. The same manual of operation and safety should always apply.