Colt Open Top 1871-82

When you think of revolvers, odds are good your mind immediately jumps to some sort of Dirty Harry-inspired scene involving a heavy magnum gun. Before there were 44 Magnum, heavy-framed revolvers, there was a technological progression from hand cannons to flintlocks to fixed cylinder revolvers. In fact, early revolvers had cylinders that had to be manually rotated to fire each shot. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the “wheel” was really put into wheel guns, and part of that design journey included the 1871-Colt Open Top.

One of Rollin White's patented cylinder designs
One of Rollin White’s patented cylinder designs. (Photo credit: Military History Fandom)

The Rollin White Patent

It was a man by the name of Rollin White who made strides in converting revolvers to breech-loading. In 1849, White was working for Colt when he got to work on his theory it was possible to make a breech-loading revolver. There are various accounts of what occurred between White and Colt, but regardless of the why, by 1854 he’d left the then-new gun maker and struck out on his own. That same year he filed a number of patents including Patent 12648, “Improvement in Repeating Firearms.”

White’s design was basically an attempt to make a cylinder and a magazine work together, and it was an utter failure. Despite it not working, his invention was a step in the right direction for the gun world. His patent stopped other gun makers from trying their hand at it for a while, but in 1870 the United States government denied his request for an extension on the patent. That was all Colt needed to tackle the breech-loading cylinder themselves.

Colt open top revolver
An 1871-72 Colt Open Top that was auctioned off by Rock Island Auction. (Photo credit: Rock Island Auction)

Colt Open Top History

As soon as White’s patent expired, Colt’s engineers went to work. The two men that made the greatest advances in this design were Charles B. Richards and William Mason. Richards got the first patent through in 1871—of course—for an Open Top. His invention involved altering the 1860 Army, a cap-and-ball used during the Civil War. Changes made included the cylinder and hammer to make a centerfire, breech-loading pistol. To make that work, Richards removed the rearward portion of the cylinder and created a conversion ring. In addition, he created an angled ejector rod to take the place of the loading rammer that was necessary for the original cap-and-ball. A great deal of work and invention went into the shift from cap-and-ball to centerfire, breech-loading revolvers.

Other changes were made as well, and the end result was what is known as the Richards Conversion. There were some downsides to his creation, though. The biggest issue was related to the fact that those were still the days of black powder—smokeless gunpowder wouldn’t be officially patented until 1891—and residue from the powder regularly clogged up the gun’s firing pin.

By 1872, Mason, then Colt’s armory superintendent, found a way to improve on the Richards Conversion. This was also important because the company was running out of 1860 Army barrels to use for Richards’ design. It was clear the issue with the barrel had to be fixed, and Mason solved that by making an entirely new barrel that was contoured and didn’t need a rammer hole plug (Richards’ design used the old 1860 barrels, meaning they had to be plugged to be used for centerfire).

The spring-loaded firing pin that was so prone to failure due to black powder residue was corrected with a modified conversion ring. A fixed firing pin attached to an 1860 percussion hammer worked with the new ring, officially doing away with the biggest problem the Richards Conversion had. Mason also altered the ejection rod tube by lengthening it.

The Richards Conversion of 1871 was quickly replaced with the Richards-Mason Conversion of 1872, but neither was a permanent solution. Both models were chambered in 44-caliber. Colt had been manufacturing these new versions by utilizing old gun parts, and they were running out fast. At the same time, the United States Army was looking for a new service gun.

1871-72 Colt Open Top revolver
An antique 1871-72 Colt Open Top revolver. Only around 7,000 of these guns were made. (Photo credit: Guns International)

Colt’s New Model Holster Pistol was the company’s answer to the Army’s search for a new revolver. It wasn’t cobbled together from old parts but used all-new components, and it was the first model they’d made only to fire the new self-contained cartridges. Gone was the conversion ring featured so prominently on the Richards Conversion and Richards-Mason Conversion; in its place was a cylinder of its own design. The only detail that remained on the brand-new cylinder was the engraving of the old W.L. Ormsby 1843 Naval Scene from the 1851 Navy and 1860 Army pistols.

This is the gun that would end up being called the 1871-71 Colt Open Top. It had a straight-sided, six-shot cylinder chambered in 44 Henry Flat and was made with two grip options styled after the 1851 and 1860 guns. The gun was typically manufactured with a 7.5-inch barrel but occasionally an 8-inch barrel would appear (good luck finding one to collect today).

Uberti reproduction of the 1871 Army Conversion Open Top.
Uberti’s reproduction of the 1871 Army Conversion Open Top. (Photo credit: Uberti)

Colt Open Top — A Short-Lived Design

In the end, the 1871-72 Colt Open Top wasn’t around for long. Although it was fairly revolutionary for its time and fascinating in that it was chambered in the same cartridge that was being used for lever guns of the time, the Army announced they wanted a different caliber.

Understandably not willing to lose out on the opportunity, Colt opted to change their gun yet again. That meant the invention of a top strap, effectively ending the era of the Open Top. The new revolver also had a more durable ejector rod housing and loading gate, and it was chambered in 45 Colt. That was the arrival of the Single Action Army and the end of a brief moment in the sun for the 1871-72 Colt Open Top.

Approximately 7,000 1871-72 Colt Open Tops were made, but despite their somewhat limited availability they saw wide use in the Old West.

Replicas

If you’re interested in owning this model today, it’s a lot more cost-effective to get a replica. A number of gun makers produce solid replicas of the 1871-72 Colt Open Top including Uberti, Cimarron, and Traditions Firearms. These guns are a great way to not only broaden your gun collection but improve your shooting skills. And if you’re a hunter, you can use them for smaller game and varmints.

This model came about during an era when the advances made in firearms technology seemed to happen with lightning speed. It might have been a rather short-lived design, but it was an important step along the way to the modern revolvers we so enjoy today.

Kat Ainsworth Stevens is a long-time outdoor writer, official OGC (Original Gun Cognoscenti), and author of Handgun Hunting: a Comprehensive Guide to Choosing and Using the Right Firearms for Big and Small Game. Der Teufel Katze has written for a number of industry publications (print and online) and edited some of the others, so chances are you've seen or read her work before, somewhere. A woman of eclectic background and habits, Kat has been carrying concealed for over two decades, used to be a farrier, and worked for a long time in emergency veterinary medicine. She prefers big bores, enjoys K9 Search & Rescue, and has a Master's Degree in Pitiless Snarkastic Delivery.

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