Big Iron: Development of the Colt 1848 Dragoon Revolver

Sam Colt’s first foray into firearms manufacturing did not end well – after 6 years, he went broke and shut down production of Paterson revolvers and revolving long guns. His guns were too expensive, too fragile, and too underpowered to become a commercial success. They did make an impression on some people, however, and a few years later Colt would work with Captain Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers to develop a much larger and more robust revolver. The US military purchased 1,000 of these Model 1847 “Walker” revolvers, and this set Colt back on the path to financial success.

Colt contracted with the Whitneyville Armory to produce his Walkers, and part of the contract was that Colt would own any tooling developed for the manufacturing process. The Walker was successful enough that it spurred a second 1,000-pistol order form the government, and Colt used the Walker tooling along with his newfound capital to set up shop in Hartford CT producing guns himself. He immediately made a number of changes to the Walker pattern, primarily making is a bit shorter and lighter (4lb 2oz, with a 7.5 inch barrel), reducing the powered charge to 50 grains (the Walker had used 60 grains), and improving the loading lever retention latch. This would become known as the Model 1848 Dragoon revolver.

Between 1848 and 1860, a total of 20,700 Dragoons were made, 8,390 of them for the US military. There would be three main variations, called the first, second and third types today. In today’s video, I will show you all three and explain how they differed from each other – and we will also take a look at a rare long-barreled version as well as one with an original shoulder stock.

Cool Forgotten Weapons merch!

Forgotten Weapons
PO Box 87647
Tucson, AZ 85754

Hi guys, thanks for tuning in to another video on I’m Ian McCollum, and I’m here today at the Rock Island Auction Company along with A whole mess of Colt Dragoon revolvers. So we have the whole developmental series here. First, second, third, stocked, special long barrel, All of them. So we’re going to go ahead and discuss The history and development of the Colt Dragoon. Now to start at the beginning, Samuel Colt invents the revolver. Yes, there were revolving cylinder firearms that existed previously. What Colt does is turn them into a truly practical weapon by combining The cocking action of the hammer with an automatic rotating of the cylinder. So that when you cock the thing, it automatically moves the next chamber into position ready to fire. It was a truly revolutionary advancement (sorry!). And he patented this in 1836, and went to work at a factory in Paterson, New Jersey, Manufacturing revolving pistols, rifles, and shotguns. Now in 1842 he went broke and went out of business, Having produced less than 3,000 pistols, and half as many rifles, and just a small number of shotguns. The problem was his Paterson revolvers were a little bit fragile, underpowered, … small calibre, and also relatively small powder charges, and really expensive. And they just … didn’t sell well. He did sell a handful of rifles to the US military, they were used in the Seminole Wars. Didn’t do so great down in the Florida jungles, in the Everglades. So Colt goes out of business. And he is financially saved only in 1846 when Captain Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers … well, I should back up a second. These Paterson pistols did make an impression with some people, especially down in Texas, Where there were a number of incidents of guys fighting off vastly superior Indian forces With small groups of men with repeating revolving Colt pistols. So Walker knows about these, but he also knows their problems. And he approaches Colt and basically says, ”Hey, I like the concept. I need a gun that is a heck of a lot more powerful, and it ain’t going to break.” And Colt designs the 1847 Walker model revolver in collaboration with Captain Walker. And they get a government contract to make 1,000 of these guns

To equip five companies of troops, two guns per man. And an extra 100 guns for commercial sale. And the idea is this is going to be Colt’s ticket back into financial viability. He gets paid for the 1,000 guns that he makes, He’s left with another 100 that he can sell for a higher profit margin. And here’s the key element of this as it applies to the Dragoons, Part of his deal is, well, he doesn’t have a factory anymore. So he contracts with Eli Whitney, Eli Whitney Jr. I believe, To use the Whitneyville Armoury to actually produce these Walker revolvers. And part of the deal is that … Colt gets to keep the tooling that is created to make his revolver. So 1847, contract is fulfilled, they make the 1,100 guns, and the Army likes them. There are some problems with the Walkers, they’re not perfect, they occasionally explode. Like, a third of them came back to the factory for repair for one reason or another. But it’s good enough that the Army orders another 1,000 guns. And at this point Colt is ready to take that next step, And try and re-establish himself, rather than contracting out to Whitneyville. So … late 1847 into 1848 he is moving his, now ”his”, Tooling out of Whitneyville to set up his own shop again. He starts producing Walker pattern revolvers (these are called the … Whitneyville … transitionals …) While he’s moving to a new shop in Hartford. And then when he fulfils the bulk of this order, They’re not exactly Walker model pistols, he’s made a number of improvements. And that would lead us to the First Model Dragoon. That first Dragoon would carry over most of the general design elements of the 1847 Walker, But it did make a couple of substantial changes. So the most substantial change, probably, is the fact that the cylinder has been reduced in length. You can get a good view of that right here. The reason for that was, frankly, the Walker was a little too powerful. The Walker was designed for a 60 grain charge of powder. … That is a greater powder charge than the .45-70 Trapdoor Springfield carbines would be issued. That’s almost as much powder as the Trapdoor Springfield rifles would be issued with. It was a tremendously powerful charge of powder, and it occasionally blew up the cylinders. So with the Dragoons the cylinder was shortened a bit,

The powder charge was reduced to only 50 grains. Which is, by the way, what they eventually would just recommend in the Walkers. The next substantial change was to the loading lever. On the Walker revolver the loading lever is held in place By this little flat spring reaching up inside here. And that’s a neat idea, but it didn’t actually work all that well. And these had a tendency for the loading lever to fall down under recoil, Leading to people either modifying them like this eventually, Or doing things like tying leather straps around the barrel to hold the loading lever up. That was obviously a problem, and they would remedy that By adding a little spring-loaded catch to keep the loading lever properly in place. In addition, the barrel was shortened slightly. The Walker had … a 9 inch barrel, they cut that down to 7.5 on the Dragoons. And you can see that there as well. So, a number of features did stay the same. Notably the oval cylinder stop holes remained the same. The square-backed trigger guard remained the same, and the general construction. Alright, a couple of specific features we can point out here. There is a manufacturer’s mark on the top that says ”Address Samuel Colt, New York City”. These were actually made in Hartford, Connecticut, But Sam Colt’s business and correspondence was run out of New York City. There will be a little ”Colt’s Patent” mark here on the bottom of the frame, Which may or may not have a ”US” under it. That US stamp indicates military property. The earlier in production you are, the more likely that a gun is a US military contract gun. As it got towards the end, there were more and more commercial guns being made. These are serialised on a bunch of parts, but one of the easiest places to look Is here on the bottom where you have the barrel, the frame, And the trigger guard all side by side. This is a very early one, serial number 2,557. (Or, yeah, it’s either 57 or 51 in there.) To put that in perspective, these are in the same serial number range as the Walkers. So the original Whitneyville Walkers were 1 to 1,100. There were then approximately 240 … Whitneyville-Hartford transitionals. And then they started the first pattern Dragoon at serial number 1,341 or thereabouts.

So this is only about 1,000 guns in. Something to point out here is that relatively early in production They actually changed from a small stamp To a little bit larger stamp for those serial numbers. So 5,100 here has a larger and easier to read set of serial number stamps. They would keep this larger font basically through all the rest of production. Give you a little bit of a closer look. This is the early version of ramrod support latch. … Just a little catch there to hook into this lug under the barrel. In total, production of the First Model Dragoon would run from 1848 until 1850, With serial numbers running up to approximately 8,000. So a total of … just under 7,000 First Model Dragoons manufactured. The Second Model Dragoon is actually the rarest of them all. There were only about 2,700 of these produced, we have a Second Model right down here. These were made in 1850 and 1851, And their serial numbers will range from 8,001 to about 10,700. Now the distinguishing features of the Second Pattern Is that they kept the square-backed trigger-guard, But they improved these … … cylinder stop notches. They changed from the oval shape to this squared off shape because, well, this worked a lot better. And this would go on to be the standard design for all of the later Colt revolvers. It just worked better. So this is the one that people kind of expect. But it’s also the thing that, combined with the square-backed trigger guard, Really distinguishes the Second Pattern. So this particular one is number 9,968. And it has one other interesting addition. Late in the Second Model Dragoon they added a roller to the hammer. So you can see nothing there, there’s a little roller here. That hammer is … rolling across the mainspring of the gun. And adding a roller here reduces friction, And just generally … makes it an easier gun to operate. At about the same time, they changed from a … V mainspring inside the grip To a simple, single piece, flat spring.

Which was easier to make, more reliable, easier to fix should it break. And they would … carry along … the flat spring And the hammer roller through the rest of production. Continuing to move along, we then of course have the third variation of the Dragoon. And this is distinguished by its rounded trigger guard. Which you would come to expect on most of the rest of Colt … revolver production afterwards. So Third Pattern is round trigger guard, has the same square cylinder stop notches. And they introduced a slightly better ramrod support latch. Where the early version operated vertically in the ramrod, This improved pattern was horizontal, and this would also go on to become the standard. And this guy is from the very end of Dragoon production overall, serial number 19,033. Total serial numbers would run from 10,700 up to 19,600. And these Third Patterns were manufactured from 1851 right up until 1860. You will notice there is the ”Colt’s Patent” mark here, but there’s no ”US” on it. This was a civilian sale gun, not uncommon by the end of production. And at this point some other things would start to creep in, So there started to be a little bit of availability of custom orders. You could custom order a shorter barrel than 7.5 inches. There was a small number made with 8 inch barrels like this one. There had been a very small number of Dragoons made with Stock attachments from fairly early on. But it was towards the end of the Third Model that they finally really standardised on What would be the final and … by far the most common stock attachment method. So we have one here with that setup. To accommodate the stock, there are two cutouts on the bottom of the recoil shields here. You’ll notice on the standard gun we don’t have that. And then you have an extra set of lug screws right here above the trigger, Those stick out a bit from either side. And then there is a notch cut in the bottom of the grip. The stock is going to attach with two hooks here that go up into those notches, And then this lug that tightens down into the bottom of the grip. So if I pivot that right in here. You can see how that fits in. And then the lugs act as stops right there. And then this guy is loose until I take this screw and tighten it up.

You can see that hooking into the bottom of the [grip] there. That is going to tighten up like so. And you have a legitimately very stable, nice stock if you want to do some more accurate shooting. Note that while the standard rear sight Was this little notch on the hammer, For guns that were sold with shoulder stocks You could get a better sight attached to the back of the barrel itself. So we have a couple of extra flip-up leaves there. You can fold them both down, although this one’s … that one’s pretty tight. You’ve got three notches there. I’m honestly not entirely sure what ranges they were meant for, But I suspect something like 50, 100, and 200 yards. Now these weren’t quite as heavy or expensive as the Walkers, But they were still pretty darn big, heavy, and expensive guns. So just to put them in context, the Dragoons weighed 4 pounds 2 ounces, That’s just under 2 kilos each. The price originally started at $28 when production began. It dropped over the course of production, by 1860 these had dropped to $20 apiece. However, to put that in context, A typical average individual salary was something like $8 per month. So, even at the end of production, you’re talking two and a half months of your total gross income Required to purchase one of Colonel Colt’s fine Dragoon revolvers. So in total there would be 20,700 Dragoon pattern revolvers manufactured, Including the transitional … Whitneyville-Hartford guns. The production of these basically ends by 1860. They’re not actually around all that long because they’re quickly surpassed by Newer, better, lighter, more efficient models of pistol. So anyway, of that 20,700, 8,390 of them are manufactured specifically for the US government, the rest are commercial. Of course, as the production went along it went more commercial and less military. By 1860 these were relegated to the designation of the ”Old Model” pistol, Being effectively replaced by the Model of 1860 Army. Which was the same calibre, and a substantially lighter gun, A much more elegant gun, really a truly excellent cap-and-ball revolver. Where the Walker was Sam Colt’s breakout ticket, it was the Dragoon,

As well as the pocket pistols that he was doing simultaneously with the Dragoons, That really cemented Colt as a successful … inventor and manufacturer of revolving handguns. And he would of course go on to develop the 1851 Navy, which was very well liked, The 1860 Army, and then on into centrefire cartridge guns. So hopefully you enjoyed the video. It’s really cool, and really quite scarce to be able to get all three … major patterns Of the Dragoon here in the same place to show you. If you’d like to follow Rock Island Auction Company more, You can check the description text below for a link to their YouTube channel, As well as a link to their Instagram page. Everything they’ve got going on is accessible there. And thanks for watching.

Learn More →