Sixguns and a pair of parallels

Sixguns and a pair of parallels

Has Europe always been ahead of us?

By Dennis Adler


As a nation, the United States has always been in the shadow of European armsmakers, some of whom have been manufacturing guns longer than the U.S. has existed. Early American gunmakers were nearly all Europeans who brought their venerable skills to the Colonies and helped establish the various schools of gun making in America during the 1700s. Samuel Colt was the first great American entrepreneur and inventor to set off on his own course in the 1830s, and even he had the foresight to make sure his U.S. Patent designs were also registered and patented in Great Britain and France to prevent European gunmakers from copying them.

During the Civil War the Colt 1860 Army was regarded as the most advanced handgun on the field of battle. It was, in fact, the best and ounce for ounce, the most powerful revolver Samuel Colt had invented.

Find a Hawke Scope

While the sixgun may have been born here, it evolved in Europe at almost the same time. By the 1860s and 1870s Europe was technically ahead of the U.S. (Colt’s et. al.). Airguns also evolved in Europe, long before America, so there is something of a constant taking place here.

Sixguns, five and seven-shooters

Sam Colt’s first successful patent for a revolver was a single action pistol in 1835. Almost 30 years later, Colt was still selling single action revolvers, while in Europe and Great Britain the double action revolver was already a well established design before the American Civil War. These were percussion revolvers just like Colt’s 1851 Navy and 1860 Army, only they were double action guns. The most famous was the British Adams Patent Repeating Pistol, a true double action (self cocking) percussion revolver. The design was manufactured by Adams (designer Robert Adams), Beaumont-Adams, Deane, Adams & Deane, Adams & Tranter, and other Adams Patent licensees in London, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, England and Liège, Belgium. Keep that last one in mind!

In 1855, British arms designer Robert Adams and Lieutenant F.E.B. Beaumont designed a new double action revolver, based on Adams earlier DAO designs, that was not only a double action but had a hammer and internal mechanism that allowed it to be manually cocked with the hammer to discharge single action.

Like other British revolvers of the period, the Adams was a five-shot pistol, as opposed to a six-shooter like the Colt. The original Adams Patent revolvers had two disadvantages, the early models could not be cocked or fired single action, and there was no loading rammer. Both issues were addressed with the Adams-Beaumont model patented by Adams and Lieutenant F.E.B. Beaumont in 1855, and mind you, this was the same year that New York armsmaker E.T. Starr developed a DAO revolver, the first in America, and later used by troops on both sides of the Civil War. It was, however, a clumsy gun to handle for men trained on single actions, and mostly regarded as a failure. Quick studies, the new Adams double action models added a thumb spur to the hammer and an altered mechanism to allow the guns to be cocked and fired single action. A bullet rammer was also added on the left side of the barrel, as pictured in the example above. Conversely, in 1863 the U.S. Ordnance Department requested that Starr redesign his gun into a single action revolver, which was something of a success becoming the third most commonly carried sidearm by Union troops. Yet, in light of that revelation, both the North and South began importing Adams Patent double action revolvers during the Civil War! How significant was this? Colt wouldn’t develop a double action revolver until 1877.

New York armsmaker E.T. Starr developed a double action percussion revolver in 1855 but his design was not a true double action like the British Adams, and it could not be fired single action. Trying to cock the hammer could lock up the entire firing mechanism, making it very unpopular with soldiers who had learned to shoot using single actions. During the Civil War, Starr was asked by the Ordnance Department to redesign his topbreak revolver into a single action, thus erasing his great achievement of developing a revolver that could be discharged as quickly as one could pull the trigger.

The Peacemaker

William Mason designed and patented the Colt Single Action Army in 1872 and it became the U.S. military’s primary sidearm for nearly the rest of the 19th century. It was Colt’s first all-new metallic cartridge loading revolver (as opposed to Civil War era Colt single action percussion models that were converted to cartridge guns beginning in 1870-71, with conversion parts designed by William Mason and Charles B. Richards).

After the war, with so many surplus 1860 Army and other Colt models available, and the popularity of the self-contained metallic cartridge introduced with guns imported from Europe during the war on the rise, Colt factory designers William Mason and Charles B. Richards designed a conversion to remake 1860s and other models into cartridge-loading models. The first was with the 1860 Army and sold as the Richards-Mason conversion. The guns were introduced in 1871-72.

Remington had begun doing this in 1868-69 with their single action Army and Navy models as well, but by then the Europeans were already manufacturing large caliber metallic cartridge-loading double action revolvers, many of which were being imported into the U.S. just as the new Peacemaker (and S&W American) single actions were being hailed as the most modern handguns in America. Throughout the mid to late 19th century, and even into the early 20th, with German armsmakers developing semiautomatic pistols in the 1890s, America was always playing catch up to European gunmakers.

It took Colt until 1873 to introduce the all-new Peacemaker designed by William Mason. This eclipsed Colt’s own conversions (which were still being made until the early 1880s) and became the most preferred handgun in America. The single action pictured has a modified hammer screw with a mushroom head (on the left side) allowing the pistol to fit the innovative Bridgeport Rig, which suspended the revolver in the open allowing it to be drawn lighting fast by simply sliding it forward off the forked mount, or for those adept at handling a gun mounted to a Bridgeport, simply swiveled up and fired without removing the gun! 
But here’s the thing, in Europe, at the same time as the Colt Peacemaker, sturdy 6-shot, double action, single action cartridge revolvers were being manufactured. Patented in 1874, the Manufacture d’Armes, Saint-Étienne was being hailed in Europe as the most practical military sidearm, just as the Peacemaker was in the U.S. It was chambered in 11mm, roughly a .45 Colt short. Quantities of these guns, and others from British armsmakers all found their way to America in the 1870s and 1880s as most British guns were readily available in Canada.

There is, however, an historical parallel within the air pistol market. The original cartridge loading guns, upon which the Umarex Colt Peacemakers and the Gletcher Nagant CO2 models are based, go back to the 1870s when Colt began manufacturing the SAA, and European armsmakers began manufacturing double action cartridge revolvers.

This finally brings us to today’s CO2 models of the Colt Peacemaker, like the Deluxe Nimschke model (bottom) based on classically engraved 19th century models like the .45 Colt at top. The CO2 models, blued, weathered, nickel, or hand engraved, represent the best of the Old West in air pistols. But there is another story here.
The 7-shot Gletcher Nagant (right) is a close cousin of the Saint-Étienne (left) and represents a CO2 version that, while slightly more modern (1895) is, in overall design, a contemporary of the Peacemaker.

The parallels today are historically close, at least for the eras of their designs. The Umarex Colt Peacemaker c.1873 and the 7-shot Gletcher double action Nagant c. 1895. Yes, there is a two decade gap there but the Nagant is impressively similar in appearance to the Manufacture d’Armes, Saint-Étienne 11mm (.45 Short) double action revolvers introduced in 1873 and 1874. The Saint-Étienne design is a close cousin of the Nagant, developed by Leon and Emile Nagant, and manufactured at their armory in Liege, Belgium. The 1895 Nagant was adopted as the standard issue Russian sidearm and the Nagant brothers later sold the design to the Russians who continued to build them for decades. The Nagant revolver was still being carried during WWII. Was the Nagant an anachronism? Perhaps not, lest we forget that the Colt Peacemaker was being carried as a preferred sidearm during WWII by some senior U.S. officers, including General George S. Patton who wore a brace of Colt Single Actions.

Here for comparison is a .45 Colt Peacemaker (top) an Umarex Colt Peacemaker (weathered finish 7-1/2 inch NRA model) a Saint-Étienne and a Gletcher Nagant. Something to think about when you consider what is and isn’t a Western gun! And once again, Europe had them first.

A gun of the American West?   

Pairing up the Umarex Colt SAA and Gletcher Nagant models as period guns from the late 19th century is not by any means a stretch, and perhaps one of the most interesting comparisons you can make. After seeing the Saint-Étienne, a gun that found its way West to the American Frontier in the 1870s and 1880s, you’ll never look at the Gletcher Nagant in quite the same way, especially if you lay it next to a Peacemaker.

The Airgun Experience will return on Tuesday, October 15. 

2 thoughts on “Sixguns and a pair of parallels”

  1. Although a fun of the 1858 Remington, reliable function being my first priority in a gun, I must admit that there is no other revolver more beautiful than the series 1851/1862 even the 1860 perhaps. And please keep in mind that I am a European

Leave a Comment