Colt Revolvers and the US Army’s Transition to the Metallic Cartridge

Fort Phil Kerney guarded the middle of the tenuous Bozeman Trail that snaked through the uplands of northern Wyoming. The fort protected settlers chasing gold in the Dakotas and sat on land owned by the Crow and encroached upon by the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho. Although it was a fort in name, Phil Kerney was little more than a cluster of buildings surrounded by timbered walls within which men grew frustrated by the monotony. Perhaps no man was more frustrated than Captain William Judd Fetterman.

Fetterman, like the other officers of the 18th Ohio Infantry Regiment, were seasoned combat veterans who had acquitted themselves during the Atlanta Campaign. A man of action, Fetterman languished at the isolation and alcohol-tempered routine of garrison duty and chaffed under the command of Colonel Henry Carrington, a man with no combat experience who had led the regiment in name only during the war and was now personally in charge. Fetterman was the type to come to grips with the enemy and the low-level attacks by the Lakota on hay and wood-cutting parties sent far afield from the fort was a source of grave frustration.

For every raid, Fetterman and his men would drive the enemy away and protect the civilian workmen. But once the field was ceded, the enemy always came back. What Carrington and Fetterman did not know was that these attacks were purposeful tests that Chief Red Cloud used to size up his opponents. Through December 1866, Red Cloud had mustered a large force of braves to deliver a crippling blow.

On December 21, 1866, the woodcutters came under attack and Carrington allowed Fetterman to lead the response. Carrington ordered Fetterman to go no further than Lodge Trail Ridge. Fetterman led elements of the 18th Infantry and 2nd Cavalry over Lodge Trail Ridge and away from the protection of the fort as he chased a party of natives, which was a decoy led by a young warrior who would later take the name Crazy Horse.

fetterman massacre 1866
A stylized depiction of the Fetterman Massacre painted by C.D. Graves in 1901.

Chasing the sounds of an epic unseen gun battle, Col. Carrington came over the ridge to find Captain Fetterman and all 82 of his men dead and their native opponents nowhere to be found. Carrington relayed news of what would become known as the Fetterman Massacre to Washington and pleaded for reinforcements, and above all, repeating arms.

A Great Calamity on the Western Frontier

The Fetterman Massacre was the Army’s greatest calamity on the Western frontier until the Little Big Horn in 1876. But the Army and the US government were keen to erase all memory of it and ultimately concluded a peace treaty with Red Cloud and abandoned the Bozeman Trail. But the fight did spur the US Ordnance Department into accelerating the transition from muzzleloaders to cartridge guns. Fetterman and his men were armed with muzzleloading rifles and handguns but were wiped out in an ambush sprung by opponents with bows and melee weapons. The jump from muzzleloader to cartridge guns was a painful decade-long period of government regulation, hard economic realities, and scapegoated tragedies.

The Colt 1860 and 1873 revolvers are two iconic six-shooters. These beautiful examples come from Cimarron Firearms in Fredericksburg, Texas.

The Cartridge Era Begins

Most firearms throughout the history of firearms were muzzleloaders. They are simple and reliable designs, but the process of loading was time-consuming. It required powder and ball to be pushed down the bore to the breech and then a priming element was added to set off the main charge in the barrel. Breechloaders did exist but also loaded with loose components and were generally expensive to produce in an era before modern machine tool technology.

But the introduction of the percussion cap in the 1820s would, in the long run, lead to the first viable breechloading cartridge guns. In 1853, the US Army purchased their first stocks of the new .54 caliber Sharps carbine for the cavalry. This was a percussion-cap falling-block breechloader that was fed with a paper cartridge from the rear. It had a rate of fire three times greater than the Army’s new rifled muskets.

Paper cartridges sped up reloading considerably but were somewhat fragile and not water resistant. The paper also did nothing to seal the breech against hot gases. Gas leakage was a common problem of early breechloaders. In hindsight, going for a metallic cartridge was the way to go, but the roadblock to that was not technical innovation but another piece of paper–Rollin White’s patent.

Colt At the Forefront

In the 1850s, Rollin White was an engineer at Samuel Colt’s manufacturing facility in Hartford, Connecticut. Colt made a fortune through his invention of the revolver. These handguns were cap and ball handguns that required loading from the front of the cylinder and percussion caps placed at the rear. Rollin White developed a bored-through cylinder that could accept a paper cartridge. The concept did not work, and Colt was not interested in pursuing the idea, so White filed with the US Patent Office in 1855. Although the concept likely existed in Europe thanks to the work of gunsmiths like Casimir Lefaucheaux, White was granted a patent on the bored-through cylinder.

rollin white patent 1855
Rollin White’s patent illustration for the bored-through cylinder.

In 1857, White licensed his patent to Horace Smith and D.B. Wesson, who turned around to produce the first American cartridge handgun in the form of the Smith & Wesson No. 1 revolver. It had White’s bored through cylinder but used a metallic cartridge now known as the .22 Short. The exact source of how the cartridge came to be is more of a mystery. Elongated percussion caps packed with powder and ball were already in use in Europe and the .22 Short was a natural evolution of that.

The Army had the latest and greatest in outmoded handguns as well. The US Cavalry adopted Colt’s New Army .44 caliber revolver in 1860. It was made of spring steel instead of iron and it had similar hitting power to the previous Dragoon pistols but was physically smaller and lighter to facilitate belt carry. But it was still a cap and ball design loaded with paper cartridges and percussion caps.

For their part, Smith & Wesson produced No. 1 and No. 2 revolvers as quickly as they could be made, but these were underpowered for general issue. Furthermore, they aggressively litigated against firms coming into the market to produce a modern revolver. The Army later purchased stocks of Colt Navy, Remington New Model Army, and Starr percussion revolvers instead.

colt 1860 army loading
The Colt 1860 Army revolver is the pinnacle of percussion revolvers. During the American Civil War, it was loaded with paper cartridges, as shown here.

The Post-War Crunch

Over 2.5 million men served in the Union Army during the Civil War, but after April 1865 it was only a matter of months before it would be reduced to a small constabulary force. The war had put the North deep into debt and few had the appetite to maintain a large Army or give Reconstruction a fair shake. The US Army could plainly see that cartridge guns were the way of the future but they would have to upgrade on a budget. That involved converting existing rifled muskets to breechloaders. The US Cavalry dropped the scads of single-shot breechloaders and kept the Spencer repeater.

Col. Carrington appreciated the firepower that the Spencer could give his small force. The elements of the Ohio 2nd Cavalry that arrived at Fort Phil Kerney at the end of the war were armed partially with Spencers. But Carrington assigned these carbines for the defense of the fort and was not present during Fetterman’s stand.

Most of the firearms available were Model 1861 Springfield muskets, as well as Colt 1851 Navy and 1860 Army revolvers. Captain Fetterman was seen riding into the confrontation with a brace of 1860s on his belt. Two men at the fight were armed with repeating rifles. Isaac Fischer and James Wheatley were well-to-do civilian contractors. They accompanied Fetterman and each was armed with their personal 1860 Henry rifles, a 14-shot lever action rifle chambered in .44 Henry Flat. The pair inflicted the most damage on their attackers before being overwhelmed as they were found on top of a pile of cartridge cases.

colt 1860 percussion cap
Based on Lakota testimony, the men with revolvers futilely counterattacked. Unfortunately for them, accomplishing a reload was impossible under combat conditions. Often, percussion revolvers were carried in multiples as it was easier to drop the empty gun and reach for another.

Carrington’s plea for help after the fight did go answered. In the months of quiet that followed, the US Army withdrew their muzzleloading rifles from the front and the infantrymen were now armed with the Model 1866 trapdoor rifle. It was made from spare musket parts but had a hinged breechblock and chambered the .58 rimfire round that was identically powerful to the musket’s paper cartridge. This was backed up by more Spencer carbines and revolvers.

wagon box fight
This print titled “Good Marksmanship and Guts” depicts the Wagon Box Fight.

The Lakota prepared another assault in August 1867. Their cover was blown and an isolated woodcutting party under Captain James Powell had time to box their wagons and prepare for the onslaught. Powell had 26 infantrymen armed with the M1866. The six woodcutters that accompanied them all had Spencer carbines. This force managed to repel a force of at least 300 in what became known as the Wagon Box Fight.

The result of this fight led the Ordnance Department to drop the .58 Rimfire round in favor of a flatter shooting cartridge in the .50-70 Government cartridge. The search for a new handgun would drag on for a few more years and the Colt 1860 Army revolver would continue to soldier on.

1873: Transition Complete

Smith & Wesson was not idle during and immediately after the Civil War. The company had made a fortune selling No. 1 and No. 2 revolvers in .22 Short and .32 rimfire. But an upgrade that could rival the power of the Colt 1860 Army proved elusive. But that upgrade finally came in 1870 in the form of the No. 3 revolver.

The No. 3 used a .44 caliber cartridge and had a top-break mechanism for rapid loading, as well as simultaneous ejection of the empty cases. As it happens, the No. 3 was introduced the year the Rollin White patent expired. This compelled Colt to develop a new revolver and to develop the .44 Colt cartridge to convert the Model 1860 revolver. Ultimately, the No. 3 was deemed too fragile in its first interaction and Colt was able to enter its new revolver into the 1872 Army trials.

colt 1873 revolver
This Cimarron US Cavalry revolver is a faithful functional adaptation of the 7 1/2-inch barreled six-shooter adopted in 1873.

This new Colt Army revolver would become popularly known as the Colt 1873 because the Army adopted it that year. The 1873 dispensed with the open-top frame and larger grip of the Colt 1860 in favor of a solid frame and a smaller Navy-style grip. It had a six-shot cylinder that loaded and unloaded via a gate on the right side. This new cartridge revolver chambered the powerful .45 Colt cartridge. It fired the same diameter bullet as the 1860, but it used a heavier 255-grain bullet backed by 40 grains of black powder.

paper cartridge vs. cartridge
A .45 Colt cartridge [left] next to an opened .44 caliber combustible paper cartridge. Both were loaded with black powder and both were effective. But reloading is easier with the metallic round.
1873 also saw the adoption of an all-new rifle, the Trapdoor Springfield in the .45-70 cartridge. This single-shot breechloader displaced the .50-70 and, controversially, the Spencer repeater in the cavalry’s service. Together, the Trapdoor Springfield and the Colt 1873 would serve the Army for another twenty years. But between then and their rehabilitation as Western icons in the 20th century, their presence loomed so large that, in a soft repeat of the past, newer designs and newer styles of shooting were inhibited.

Terril is an economic historian with a penchant for all things firearm related. Originally a pot hunter hailing from south Louisiana, he currently covers firearms and reloading topics in print and on his All Outdoors YouTube page. When he isn't delving into rimfire ballistics, pocket pistols, and colonial arms, Terril can be found perfecting his fire-starting techniques, photographing wildlife, and getting lost in the archives.

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