The Colt Peacemaker is probably the most renowned of American pistols and perhaps the world’s most iconic revolver. But I think this particular pistol — a Model 1851 Colt Navy revolver, serial no. 1 — is the single ultimate example of an Old West pistol. The quintessence, if you will.
It lives in a museum right now, but you can see by the wear marks that it lived a long, useful life before it became a collector’s item.
The .36 caliber Colt Navy, along with its larger brother, the .44 caliber Army model (sometimes called the Colt Dragoon), and their smaller sibling, the .31 caliber “Baby Dragoon,” were produced by the hundreds of thousands. The Navy and Army models, as the name indicates, were designed for military use (although they were available on the civilian market, too). The little Baby Dragoon, never intended for the military, was a popular self-defense pistol for Americans from all walks of life. These were cap-and-ball pistols; metallic cartridges came later. In the image above, you can clearly see the cone-shaped nipples on which a percussion cap was placed.
During the classic Old West period (roughly from the end of the Civil War to about 1890), these pistols and others like them were widely available and frequently carried by those who went west. When metallic cartridges became the standard in the late 1860s/early 1870s, the cap-and-ball cylinders were frequently converted to fire the more reliable new ammunition. In Pale Rider (one of my favorite Western movies), you can see great examples of cylinder conversions. And Sunny Jim, my favorite FAR Western playtesting character (possibly my favorite out of any character I’ve ever played) carries a cartridge-conversion revolver, too. The Peacemaker seems to get all the press, and it definitely was popular, but these would have been far more common.
Anyway, back to the point. Why would an 1851 Colt Navy be the ultimate? And why this one?
Well, there’s that serial no. 1. For collectors, that’s always a Holy Grail type of thing. But add to it the fact that this gun was the exemplar that Samuel Colt used to set up his London manufacturing plant AND the fact that it belonged to William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody (and has his name on it) and was probably personally given to Buffalo Bill by Sam Colt in London, you begin to see why it’s a uniquely emblematic firearm.
It’s currently on display in the NRA Firearms Museum, on loan from its unnamed owner. You can read more about it at the NRA blog. If you’re interested in learning about guns and gun culture in general, I recommend also checking out The Truth About Guns (it’s my favorite website, and where I first heard about this particular gun).