Revisiting the Peacemakers Part 1
How Colt’s designs evolved and what it means to airguns
By Dennis Adler
You have to realize that the Colt Peacemaker was not Samuel Colt’s dream. In fact, he was dead set against cartridge revolvers, believing that his patented percussion pistols would endure throughout the duration of the Civil War and for years after. He actually had the opportunity to gain the rights from one of his employees, Rollin White, who had received a patent for the breech-loading bored through cylinder in 1855. Colt turned White down. Of course, in 1855 no one in the U.S. was making self-contained metallic cartridges that required a revolver with a breech loading, bored through cylinder. Colt’s revolvers, the only revolvers that were allowed to be manufactured in the United States at the time, used loose powder, cap and round balls or conical bullets, loaded into the front of the cylinder chamber, first with a measure of black powder, the ball or conical bullet, seated on top of it by ramming the bullet into the cylinder with the gun’s loading lever, and then placing a percussion cap on the nipple at the back of the cylinder corresponding to the chamber. A wise soldier or civilian also placed a little dab of lard over each chamber (before placing the percussion caps) to seal and protect each chamber from moisture, or worse, flash from firing that could ignite other chambers and cause a chain fire. This usually blew the gun apart and did little for the shooter’s hand. Other problems included using too much powder in which case the cylinder chamber could bulge and ruin the cylinder, or the cylinder could burst which again often did not bode well for the shooter’s hand. Rollin White saw a better way with a self-contained cartridge having a proper measure of powder and the bullet all in one, and the percussion cap at the back of the shell to be struck by the hammer. It was already being done in Europe and White, had, in fact, been “inspired” by European design patents when he drew up his own design and received a U.S. patent. Colt agreed to disagree, White took his idea to Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson, who were just forming their own arms-making company and they not only liked the idea, they purchased the patent rights for Smith & Wesson. Almost at the same time, Daniel Wesson was developing America’s first self-contained metallic cartridge, the .22 Short rimfire. As soon as Colt’s patent expired in 1857, S&W introduced their little .22 caliber Tip-Up, 7-shot revolver, the S&W No.1. No actual threat to Colt’s .36 caliber 1851 Navy cap-and-ball pistols, which beginning in 1855 were adopted as the nation’s standard issue military sidearm. Sam Colt would never look back at what White had offered him, or even regard S&W as a competitor once the Civil War began. Then to everyone’s dismay, Sam Colt died in January 1862 at the age of 47 after suffering a brief illness, never to know the outcome of the war or the depths of the burden he had placed on his company’s future by sending Rollin White packing. After the war, the Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Mfg. Co. would be prevented from manufacturing breech-loading cartridge revolvers until 1869 and the expiration of the S&W Rollin White patent.
It took Colt’s management and the company’s Superintendent of the Armory, William Mason, until 1871 to even begin manufacturing a viable cartridge loading revolver and until 1873 for Colt’s to start selling Mason’s brilliantly designed .45 Colt Single Action Army revolver. To the company’s newest good fortune the U.S. military adopted the SAA as its new primary issue sidearm, but the Colt had just barely surpassed the already in production .44 S&W caliber Smith & Wesson topbreak Model 3 American, a generally superior handgun design that facilitated much faster unloading and reloading compared to the Colt Peacemaker.
The government had been relying on Colt pistols since the War with Mexico in 1846, so it was really no surprise that the Peacemaker was chosen over the S&W. There were also a lot of old ruffled feathers in the military and in the White House over S&W preventing the manufacture of cartridge loading revolvers by any other U.S. armsmaker during the Civil War. Even when S&W and White applied for a patent extension in 1868 it was denied, and President Ulysses S. Grant left a bill (S-273) from Congress to aid Smith & Wesson unsigned. The Colt Peacemaker would remain the gun of choice for the remainder of the century, and would still be in use by the military well into the 1900s, even after adopting newer Colt double action models.
In the eyes of the government and a vast majority of men who ventured forth to settle the West in the 1870s and 1880s, Sam Colt’s Peacemaker was the Gun that Won the West, even though Sam Colt had nothing to do with it.
Flash forward 142 years
No argument that the Peacemaker personified the American West, as did the Winchester Model 1873. The Colt was the storied gun of movie and television cowboy heroes, it was the gun of real life heroes, and inspired decades of toy guns for America’s wide eyed youth in the 1950s and 1960s. It also inspired some heavy handed CO2 models from Crosman way back when, but in 2015 the Peacemaker inspired the most authentic single action air pistols ever made. And so we begin this journey looking back at what we have, before looking forward to what is coming.
The first BB and pellet models
When Colt and Umarex teamed up to build an authentic, Colt branded, .177 caliber Single Action Army revolver the first examples were utterly unprecedented, accurate in essential detail right down to the SEPT. 18. 1871 JUL 2.72 JAN.19.75 patent dates on the left side of frame and the Rampant Colt emblem. The first time I saw this air pistol I was not only amazed at the engineering that had gone into making this all-metal six-shooter, but how all of the famous Colt features had been duplicated including an authentic-style ejector housing, hammer spur and triggerguard. For those of us who grew up in the golden age of the television western this was the best thing to ever come along in an airgun. Umarex and Colt had a ready made market.
With an overall length of 11 inches and weighing 33 ounces, the original 5-1/2 inch models were about 4 ounces lighter than a .45 Caliber 5-1/2 inch barrel length Colt Peacemaker, but the Colt Umarex SAA had the same looks, except for the addition of a manual safety discretely hidden under the fame just forward of the triggerguard. The nickel pellet firing version soon added to the line was a dandy of a gun for Cowboy Action shooters to use for quick draw practice. On the negative side for Cowboy Action shooters was the airgun’s rebounding hammer feel, lighter because there is no actual Colt-style mainspring needed, and the hammer sits slightly back from the frame at rest. Instead of four clicks when the hammer is drawn back, you only get two. But cocking the gun still felt real, solidly rotating the cylinder to the next chamber. It was a way to get in handling practice for a fraction of the cost of live ammo for a .45 Colt.
The BB and pellet-loading cartridges were impressive, too, loading the round in the back of the shell like a primer, and with the Colt models developing enough velocity to send pellets downrange at close to 400 fps; reactive targets were in the game, too. Yes indeed, 2015 and 2016 were exciting years for western gun enthusiasts. And then it got better with a 7-1/2 inch pellet cartridge model.
In 2016 I had an idea, maybe a crazy one, that the Umarex Colt CO2 models were so close in appearance and dimensions to the 5-1/2 inch Colts that they could be engraved the same way as in the late 19th century. What I discovered was that engraving the guns that had a black finish (after Umarex’s attempt at bluing had failed), could not be done without being completely refinished, and thus was born the limited edition John Wayne Shootist model, which was hand engraved to match the guns Wayne carried in his last film, which weren’t actually Colts but a pair of Great Western models presented to Wayne back when Great Western started building Single Actions in the 1950s. They were filling the void left by Colt’s, which had discontinued them just before the U.S. was drawn into WWII. We should thank Great Western for getting Colt’s to resume production in 1955, ending the Peacemaker’s 15-year hiatus. The John Wayne commemorative was a success but a lot of work that was reflected in the increased price. What was discovered next was that the nickel guns that had been introduced could be engraved without damaging the finish, so long as the engraver, in this instance John Adams, Jr., of Adams & Adams, did not go too deep, just enough to get depth to the cuts but not enough to break through the thin nickel to the copper plating beneath. From that moment on, Pyramyd Air was able to offer both 5-1/2 inch and 7-1/2 inch pellet models with custom hand engraving in the classic Colt patterns of the period.
This series had a good run until the 7-1/2 inch nickel models went out of production. The only 5-1/2 inch engraved nickel model at present is a John Wayne commemorative. If you got into collecting the engraved guns, this would be a good one to add.
Throughout history guns have come and gone, few have remained, especially as long as the Peacemaker, even with a 15 year lapse in production, Colt still builds them after 147 years. Umarex is still building parts to make the 5-1/2 and 7-1/2 inch pellet models as well as the 5-1/2 inch BB models (and heck, there’s a bunch they sell in Europe we never see here including 7-1/2 inch BB models), but the idea of the Colt Peacemaker is timeless, even if the guns themselves are not always. And in that there is an underlying current that keeps them coming back whether from other manufacturers like Italian armsmaker’s A. Uberti and F.lli Pietta, and currently Standard Manufacturing in Connecticut, which builds an impressive, albeit expensive version of the c.1892 Colt Single Action with the transverse cylinder latch, the same design that is used by Colt and Umarex for the CO2 models! The Peacemaker keeps coming back.
Where am I going with this?
There is another lesson from Sam Colt’s past to be learned in Part 2 and that may well give you an understanding of why the Colt name endures. Sam Colt had a saying, Vincit qui patitur, “He conquers who suffers.”