The Colt 1860 Army Revolver: The Union’s Sidearm of Choice

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Boston Corbett stood ready, Colt 1860 Army revolver in hand, and had a split-second decision to make that would determine whether his fellow troopers would live or die. After a lifetime of sin, he would be the one to render judgement. It was a long climb up after finding religion and his way into the Union Army at the outbreak of the Civil War. War’s end found Sgt. Corbett and the men of the 16th New York Cavalry Regiment in Northern Virginia. But within days of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, the 16th was put on high alert and sent to patrol the countryside, milling around roads teaming with civilians and paroled rebel troops in search of one man.

That search came to an end in the early morning hours of the 26th of April 1865, with their target held up in an old tobacco barn. The man they were seeking was John Wilkes Booth, the great thespian who had been on the run for 12 days after assassinating President Abraham Lincoln. Booth was joined by co-conspirator, David Herold.

With torches lit and pistols drawn, the 16th New York surrounded the barn and demanded Booth’s surrender. As flames consumed the structure, Booth allowed Herold to give himself up. But Booth himself was prepared to shoot his way out. Through slats between the boarded walls of the barn, silhouetted against the glare of the flames, Boston Corbett saw Booth drop his crutch and raise a Spencer carbine. In that moment, Corbett leveled his pistol between the slats and fired.

Booth dropped to the ground and was dragged out of the barn. Booth died several hours later from a shot through the neck, which had severed his spine. Corbett claimed he intended to disarm booth with a shot to the arm, but he had made previous statements about wanting to avenge the fallen president.

As what had marked the final hours of Lincoln’s life, souvenir hunters stalked the 16th for any tangible piece to history in the making. Pages from Booth’s diary went missing. In a matter of days, Corbett’s Colt 1860 Army revolver also disappeared, but it likely was not missed.

Colt’s 1860 Army revolver, otherwise known as the New Army revolver, was the most common sidearm issued during the American Civil War. The U.S. Cavalry adopted it readily in 1860 and it remained the Army’s standard issue handgun until it was replaced by the famous Colt Peacemaker in 1873. It never gained the sales status of the earlier Colt 1851 Navy model, and it lives permanently in the shadow of its successor. I always preferred the Navy, but I decided to purchase a new Cimarron Colt 1860 to see if I could be persuaded.

colt 1860 army revolver with holster, cartridges, caps, and knifecolt 1860 army revolver with holster, cartridges, caps, and knife

How the U.S. Army Arrived at the Colt 1860

In the mid 1850s, Samuel Colt and the Colt Manufacturing Company were facing the problems of aging designs and an expiring patent that enabled competition in a market Colt had created from the ground up. Colt invented his first revolver in 1835 and after the Mexican War, the U.S. Army was a reliable buyer of .44-caliber revolvers.

The .44 caliber was deemed powerful enough to stop a horse at 75 yards, while the smaller .36-caliber guns proved lacking. Unfortunately, the .36-caliber Colt 1851 Navy was light enough to carry on a belt. The existing .44-caliber Walker and Dragoon pistols were designed to be carried in holsters on a horse.

colt 1860 army cappedcolt 1860 army capped

Colt spent the 1850s trying to cut down the Dragoon, when a solution was found to simply upscale the Navy. The Colt 1860 Army model that handily won the cavalry trials that year featured a Navy frame and internal lock work, but the cylinder frame is relieved for a flared cylinder that could accommodate six rounds of .44.

The hinged loading lever and octagonal barrel of the Navy were switched for a lighter and more economical rack and pinion loading lever and an 8-inch round barrel. The Colt 1860 was also made of the latest silver steel alloys made possible by the new Bessimer process that made steel production cheaper. Although Colt had issues getting the new alloy initially, the final product was as light and pointable as the Navy but was stronger and had the hitting power the Army wanted.

The first Colt 1860 revolvers hit arsenal shelves on both sides of the Mason Dixon line just as the succession crisis reached its fever pitch. Ultimately, more than 127,000 units were delivered to the Union Army before a fire put Colt’s plant out of commission for the duration of the war. By the end of its total production run in 1873, over 200,000 were made, making it an everyman’s gun in its own time. Samuel Colt, however, would not live to see it as he died in January 1862, making the Colt New Line the last handguns Colt himself worked on. But his last revolver would be the mainstay of the Union through the Civil War and see the post-war Army through until the Colt Peacemaker was adopted in 1873 at the height of the Indian Wars.

Cimarron’s Colt 1860 Army Revolver

Cimarron calls their Colt 1860 Army revolver a “civilian” model because of its brass trigger guard and grip frame, but most 1860s have this. But the casehardened loading lever and cylinder frame, as well as the laser engraving on the blued cylinder are refinements you likely won’t find on military contract handguns.

Otherwise, Cimarron’s 1860 is functionally identical to an original down to the size and shaping of the lock work up to the basic features. It wears a one-piece walnut grip that is similar in shape to the Navy’s grip, but longer for bigger hands. The 1860 features an 8-inch round barrel with a fixed brass front sight to pair with a rear sight that consists of a notch in the hammer face.

colt 1860 army sightscolt 1860 army sights

Like most Colt cap and ball revolvers, it is an open top design and uses a captive wedge to retain the barrel or remove it for cleaning. The 1860 is a single-action revolver and is a six-shot .44-caliber revolver. There is no safety on the 1860 except for a set of pins that allow you to safely lower the hammer in between cylinders so you can carry the revolver fully loaded.

Historically, Colt converted some of their 1860s to fire .44 Colt cartridges in the 1870s, but almost all originals and replicas, including this one, is in the original percussion configuration that requires powder and ball to be loaded from the front of the cylinder and percussion caps installed from the back. As it happens, Kirst and Howell produce ready-made conversion cylinders to shoot .45 Colt ammunition.

Quick Specs

  • Model: 1860 Army
  • Caliber: .44
  • Capacity: 6
  • Barrel Length: 8 in.
  • Overall Length: 13¾ in.
  • Weight: 2 lbs., 11 oz. (unloaded)

Loading the Colt 1860

Cap and ball revolver replicas tend to come out of the box as a kit gun in more ways than one. Although finished and ready to shoot, many require some minor work or modifications to run smoothly and reliably. But Cimarron seems to vet the revolvers that come in. Out of two Cimarron 1860s I’ve owned, neither required work to get onto the range. This particular 1860 has gone over two hundred rounds with sparce cleaning and no malfunctions of any kind. But shooting percussion revolvers is just as much of the journey to that round count than the end result.

Percussion revolvers were generally sighted to hit to the point of aim at 75 yards. But for most of us, we will be shooting at much closer ranges so, these revolvers tend to shoot quite high. After taking some offhand shots to get reacquainted, I set up a target at 20 yards and settled in at the bench to put the gun on paper.

colt 1860 ammunitioncolt 1860 ammunition

The U.S. Army loaded the 1860 almost exclusively with combustible paper cartridges that included powder and bullet in one package that was rammed wholesale into the chamber. But just about all of these replicas require the loading port under the loading lever to load in such a way. So, I loaded like most modern shooters do, with loose powder and ball.

colt 1860 loadingcolt 1860 loading

Loading starts by thumbing the hammer to half-cock so the cylinder will spin for loading. Then you can introduce a measure of powder, followed by the bullet. Rotate the bullet under the loading lever and push it home. If you plan to shoot much or are going for best accuracy, some grease over the bullet or a wad between bullet and powder will help keep the fouling soft for prolonged shooting. With the cylinder loaded, you can then place a percussion cap on the cones, or nipples, at the back of the cylinder. With all that out of the way, you can shoot.

On the Range

I shot my first group using 25 grains of FFFg blackpowder and a 143-grain .454-inch round ball. The balls were easy and fast to load and recoil was minimal, although there was plenty of smoke. I put five rounds into a 3-inch cluster about 4 inches above my point of aim. Using the same charge, I switched over to a cast 200-grain Lee conical bullet. These longer bullets had to be started into the chamber mouths, but otherwise seated just as easily. Recoil was more pronounced and these heavier bullets struck about 8 inches high, but all within a respectable 2-inch group. Both loads also shot about an inch and a half to my right. This is close, which is fortunate because there is no way to adjust the sights for windage.

colt 1860 accuracy colt 1860 accuracy

I later upped my powder charge to 30 grains, which is the prescribed Army load using a conical bullet. I shot the round ball and conical over my chronograph and got an average velocity of 764 feet per second with the round ball and 728 feet per second with the conical. Although there was a gain in power, my groups and accuracy with both rounds inverted. Still, a six-o’clock hold on any target gave me a hit as started shooting offhand. Whether I was shooting 8-inch plates at 10 yards or ½ size steel silhouettes at 35, the hits came easy as long as I remembered my hold.

The sights are low profile, but finding the front brass blade is easy enough to do quickly, although lining it up with the rear notch does take an additional split second. Fortunately, the 1860 is one of the more balanced guns Colt made, and it points like a finger would. The trigger, although thin at the shoe, was light, breaking at just over 3 pounds. All of this combined to make the 1860 a more shootable gun than it ought to be by modern standards.

The Colt 1860 Army Revolver: An Underrated Six Shooter

The Colt 1860 Army revolver was a paradox of its time. It represents the pinnacle of Colt’s cap and ball revolvers alongside the Colt 1861 Navy and 1862 Pocket Police that came out in the same year. It took advantage of the latest steels and was wholeheartedly adopted by the Cavalry. But it lacked the solid frame that modern shooters have since become familiar with on the contemporary Remington New Model Army and the Colt 1873. It was also a percussion revolver adopted just as cartridge handguns were coming onto the scene.

Still, it served hero and villain alike amongst those who could get one and keep one from the earliest days of the Civil War for decades onward, well after the cartridge gun became truly viable. It was safe to carry with all six rounds loaded, had the perfect power to size ratio and was as pointable as a finger—and it still is. Although an authentic cartridge conversion might deliver a lot of the satisfaction, when it comes to reliving the Civil War shooting experience, there is nothing quite like a Colt 1860, and Cimarron is bringing an excellent one to our mitts.

 

Check out Ammo To Go, the ammunition retail sponsor of TTAG gun reviews.

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