A Love Affair with the 1851 Navy Revolver

  • AUTHOR: mike
  • March 23, 2020
A Love Affair with the 1851 Navy Revolver

            Over the course of my life I’ve been told by a couple of women that I have commitment issues. I have to disagree. In the right relationship I can go the distance. As an example I’d like to point out that I’ve carried on a 37 year love affair with Colt’s 1851 Navy revolver. If that isn’t commitment, I don’t know what is.

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            Falling in love with the Colt Navy was easy for me. That pistol has supermodel good looks with its long, sleek, octagon barrel, color case hardened receiver and gorgeously proportioned grips. But good looks alone wouldn’t be enough to sustain a serious relationship into its fourth decade. I love the Navy because it performs as well as it looks. And because it has a history that I never get tired of.

            The first handgun I ever owned was a brass framed replica of an 1851 Navy revolver. It was a Christmas present from a girlfriend in 1972. It cost her $36, and it was one of the best Christmas presents I ever received. Through my college years I shot thousands of rounds through that pistol. Most of them were maximum loads, and that brass frame just wasn’t up to the challenge. It stretched something wicked. By the time I retired that Navy, the barrel cylinder gap was over a sixteenth of an inch wide. In fact, there was so much fore and aft play in the cylinder that, after I cocked the hammer, I’d have to pull the cylinder backwards so the bolt could engage the slot to lock up it up for firing.

            I know that sounds pretty bad, but I’ll tell you the truth; I loved that gun. It fit me like it grew out of my hand. The balance was superb. And it was my first pistol, which, like your first girl, is a feeling you never forget.  And, because of that, since I was 17 years old, I’ve always had at least one 1851 Navy in the gun cabinet. But ruining that first Navy did teach me one lesson; I’ve never owned another brass framed sixgun.

            For almost 10 years I shot a beautiful pair of steel framed Navy replicas imported by E.M.F. from the now defunct Italian firm of Armi San Marcos. I always thought the Armi San Marcos Navies had the most authentic geometry of any of the replicas. And those particular E.M.F. Navies were about the best cap and ball sixguns I ever owned. But, in the late 1990s the cartridge conversion bug bit me hard, and I had that pair of Navies converted to fire .38 Spl cartridges.

            I never regretted that decision. My Navy conversions are among my most prized possessions, but, if I’d been really smart, I would have bought two more Armi San Marcos Navies from E.M.F. while they were still being manufactured. That way I could have had two converted to cartridges, and still have kept two of them in cap and ball configuration.

            I do still have one Armi San Marco made Navy in cap and ball mode, but that one is in .44 caliber. Production runs of original Colt Navies were only made in .36 caliber, though I understand some prototypes were made in .40 caliber. So that makes my .44 caliber Navy an abomination to historical purists. And, while I can be a bit of a period-correct fanatic myself, I can’t help loving that .44 caliber Navy. It combines the great looks and outstanding balance of the 1851 Navy with the hard hitting power of an 1860 Army revolver. In my view Sam Colt should have chambered the 1851 in .44 caliber. He’d have had a winner in the market place.

            I like my Armi San Marcos .44 Caliber Navy so much that a few years ago I picked up a newly manufactured .44 Navy from Midway. The new .44 was built by Pietta and it is a good looking, solid sixgun, but it suffered from the Pietta Navy grip, which has a very odd geometry. I solved that with five minutes of work with a screwdriver. I simply swapped out the Pietta grip assembly for an Old Armi San Marcos grip frame that I had in the parts bin. The result is a pair of hard hitting .44s that feel and handle the same.

            I love my .44 Navies, but I just wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t have a set of Navies chambered for the period correct .36 caliber. Even though I had sent my Armi San Marco Navies off to be converted I still had a .36 Navy in the gun cabinet. Back 1982 I had sent to Dixie Gun Works for one of their house brand 1851 Navy revolvers. Though it proudly says “Dixie Gun Works- Tennessee” on the top barrel flat, The small “DGG” stamp under the barrel tells me that this revolver was built by Armi San Paolo, now known as Euroarms, in Concesio, Italy. They no longer export Colt replicas to the States, but back in the day, they made an attractive, solid 1851 Navy. I’ve been shooting this one for 25 years and it still looks good and shoots straight. My only gripe about it is that the grips are thicker than I like. But it hasn’t bothered me enough to slim them down over the 25 years that I’ve been shooting this pistol.

            During all those years the belt mate to that Dixie .36 caliber 1851 Navy was an even older gun. I purchased this .36 caliber cap and ball revolver in 1980. Like the Dixie Navy, that gun was also built by Armi San Paolo, but it isn’t an 1851. Instead it is the more streamlined 1861 Navy. This was Sam Colt’s attempt to translate the flowing lines of the then new Colt 1860 Army revolver into a .36 caliber configuration. Unfortunately for Colt, the ’61 Navy flopped in the market place. Shooters continued to buy the 1851 Navy in much larger numbers right up until Colt discontinued cap and ball production in 1873.

            Years ago I mounted a set of Eagle stag grips on the 1861 Navy and for awhile it was my most heavily used cap and ball sixgun. But after 27 years of black powder shooting it is showing its age. Just recently I convinced myself that I needed to give the 1861 a rest and pick up a new 1851 Navy to team up with my old Dixie gun. (I don’t know about you, butI never fail to amaze myself at the lengths I’ll go to in order to rationalize purchasing a new gun.)

            I decided this new Navy would be manufactured by Uberti. I’ve had a long standing beef with Uberti  because I really don’t like the brass grip geometry on their standard 1851 Navy replicas. But a few years ago I picked up one of their London model 1851s. Instead of the typical brass grip frame, the London model has a steel grip assembly that is interchangeable with their Model P, cartridge-firing, single action army clones. That Model P grip frame is a vast improvement.

            I really liked the London model Navy, but I sent it off almost immediately to be converted to .38 Long Colt by conversion wizard Kenny Howell. I wanted to recreate the type of pistol carried by Keith Carradine when he portrayed Wild Bill Hickok in the HBO series, “Deadwood”.

            You may be noticing a bit of a pattern here. Whenever I get an 1851 Navy that I really like, it seems like I send it off to be converted to fire cartridges. But this time I had learned a lesson from my past mistakes. So I ordered another London Model ’51 Navy from Taylor’s & Co., and this one will be staying in cap and ball condition.

           No pistol is really complete without its gun leather. After years of experimenting with different holster styles I settled on the perfect rig for the 1851 Navy.  I have a pair of El Paso Saddlery’s 1849 Californian holsters in basic black. This holster is an authentic, mid-ninteeth century style slim Jim design that conforms to the silhouette of the revolver. The top is a deep “S” curve that rises high enough at the top of the curve to protect the caps. The toe has a sewn-in plug with a vent hole. I had my holsters made with a slight cant for a butt forward carry. I use a cavalry style draw, also know as a twist draw for my 1851s. It tends to freak out cowboy action shooting range officers, but I love that draw. It is fast and safe, if you know what you’re doing.

            These days when we think of combat handunning, we think in terms of distances from seven to 25 yards. But when the 1851 Navy was developed they were sighted in for 75 yards. There are people who doubt that you ncan effectively shoot a gun with such crude sights at that distance. But, back in early ‘70s, when I started shooting Navy cap and ball revolvers, one of my favorite targets was an old 55-gallon drum. I’d  sit on the rim of a big gravel pit and shoot at it down in the pit, over 100 yards away. I loved hearing those round balls go “bong” when they hit that empty drum. I didn’t miss much.

I recently put the London Navy to the Dave Tutt test. As most of you know, Wild Bill Hickok drilled Dave Tutt through the heart at 75 yards across the courthouse square in Springfield Missouri in 1865. To see how difficult that was I put up a target, paced off 75 yards, and proceeded to put five rounds, off-hand into that target that would have hit Dave from collarbone to sternum, if he’d been standing there.             Today we’d rate the 1851 as a pretty puny fighting arm. The standard load I use is 22 grains of 3Fg Goex black powder, pushing a .375-inch round ball that only weights 76 grains to an average velocity of 817 feet per second. In the cartridge world the nearest equivalent would be a .32 ACP, which not many of us would choose as our primary self-defense round. But Dave Tutt probably wouldn’t agree with that. Maybe we could take a lesson from Hickok. Maybe it doesn’t matter how big the gun is. What matters is how well you can use it.

Points of contact:

Dixie Gun Works Inc.
P.O. Box 130
Union City, TN 38281

Taylor’s & Company, Inc.
304 Lenoir Drive
Winchester, VA 22603

Goex Inc.
P.O. Box 659
Doyline, LA 71023

E.M.F. Co. Inc.
1900 E. Warner Ave., Suite 1-D
Santa Ana, CA 92705
949- 261-6611

El Paso Saddlery Co.
2025 E. Yandell
El Paso, TX 79903


12 thoughts on “A Love Affair with the 1851 Navy Revolver”

  1. Nice article Mike! I love the ’51 as well. At first I scoffed at the .36 caliber bullet, but after years of reading about them in “action” back in the day and reading some ballistic reports, I think you’re right, Dave Tutt would agree they ain’t no slouch. I have them in .44 as well, along with other BP models of pistols, I pretty much like them all. The great thing about pistols is they won’t get upset if you try different ones out, or love different ones, unlike girlfriends and wives.

  2. Great read, I too am a Colt fan and own a few 1851 navies in 44 and 36 calibers but my 1860 army has stolen my heart…

  3. Mike, the 51 Navy has had the same effect on me. I’m not quite sure how many I own as you know I’m going to pick up more. I’m lucky enough to belong to a private range owned by some NSSA guys where steel targets are permanently set up. When shooting the Navies, the last thing I do each time is cylinder full at the 75 yard”Hickok Shot”. Great fun for a great gun!

  4. I enjoyed reading this article. I like the links you put with it. I think I might purchase a pair of those 1849 holsters, they look really nice. Thanks, Mike.

  5. Hi Mike, I see you can write stories as well or better than your videos. Congrats on your new website – it was sorely needed as your many fans can attest. Re: the ’51 Navy, I have only one, made by Pietta, in .36 caliber, and I love it. It’s among my favorites, which include a ’60 Army, a ’58 Remington 44, a ’58 Remington .36 and 2 Ruger Old Armies – 1 blued and one in Stainless and unfired since new in 2004.
    For comfortable, relaxed shooting, I take my ’51 Navy loaded with my homemade .380 balls and 23 gr Pyrodex…it’s just the best. When I want to make some real smoke and noise, It’s my Ruger Old Army with 35 gr Pyrodex under a 230 grain conical I make myself.
    I love black powder shooting – not an organized shoot like SASS – just the local outdoor gun range with targets to 50 yards on the pistol range.
    Continue with your videos and now with your new website. I’ll be a follower both places. Thanks

  6. Great read.
    I own one of those Armi San Marco Navies, and it was the first handgun I ever bought, and always loved it.
    What a suprise the day (back in 1996) I outshot two of my first sargeants at the range, trying to hit an empty soda can from 50 meters, with my ASM Navy against their modern service semiautos (I hit it at the second and subsequent shots, they never hit it).

    By the way, greetings from Spain.

  7. Mike, like you, started with an 1851 Navy cap and ball revolver in 1972 not long after I completed a year in Vietnam as an Army draftee.

    The first 1851 was a Euroarms, mail order purchased from Centennial Arms, more followed. Those Centennial 1851’s came in a cardboard box with no instructions! Wish I knew you back then.

    Several years later was able to purchase a new 2nd Generation Colt 1851 at a gun show. Still have it and other 2nd Generation Colt cap and balls and many Italian 1851 revolvers. Favorite Italian 1851’s are the Army San Marcos which were briefly available from EMF with a Colt barrel address.

    Your article and photographs perfectly illustrate how easy it is to love the beautiful Colt 1851 Navy.

    Thanks for what you do !

  8. Back in the ’80s I got quite interested in James B. Hickok’s biography, and subsequently the 1851 navy. I ended up with a pair, and I think they were EMF. Those were the revolvers I shouldn’t have let go. However they had incorrect hammers, the spur being too short, and at the wrong angle. I bought a pair of replacement hammers from Dixie Gun Works, and ended up taking the revolvers to a professional gunsmith to have them fitted properly.

    Incidentally (speaking of JB Hickok) who’s the Hickok impersonator? He sure has the look down.

  9. I like the ’51 Navy too. Points well and handles like a champ. I got to “play” with an original Navy some time ago. The hand spring was missing but was able to replace. Wish I had an original spring. I had to shoot it! Did well. I wanted to keep her but she belonged to my boss. Dammit!

  10. Hickock is a distant relative so I’ve been chasing down copies of Joseph Rosa’s books. Didn’t Hickock have a Williamson derringer among other “toys” ?

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