Over the course of my life I’ve been told by a couple of women that I have commitment issues. I disagree. In the right relationship I can go the distance. 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.
Falling in love with the Colt Navy was easy for me. That pistol has “supermodel” good looks with its long, sleek octagon barrel, color casehardened re-ceiver 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 it also has a captivating past I love to learn about.
My First Love
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 presents I ever received. Throughout 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 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 and that’s something not easy to 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.
In the 19th century no Navy revolvers were chambered for .44 caliber, but author really likes reproduction Navies in that chambering. The bottom .44 Navy was made by the now defunct firm of Armi San Marcos in the mid-1990s ordered from EMF. The top revolver was made by Pietta, but fitted with an Armi San Marcos grip assembly so both guns would feel and handle the same.
For almost 10 years I shot a beautiful pair of steel-framed Navy replicas imported by EMF 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 EMF 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 Special 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 EMF 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 Marcos-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. 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 marketplace.
These are Beliveau’s .36 caliber cap-and-ball 1851 Navies. The brass grip-framed specimen at the top came from DGW in 1982. The London Model, with its blued steel grip frame was ordered from Taylor in 2008.