Sunday, June 27, 2010

Revolvers: Colt Paterson

After our discussions about early proto-revolvers such as pepper-boxes, it is time to start talking about true revolvers. In fact, we will start off with a discussion on the weapon that was the first to be described with the term "revolver". This honor belongs to the Colt Paterson revolver invented by Samuel Colt in 1836. The name "Paterson" comes from the fact that the factory that produced this weapon was located in Paterson, New Jersey.

Company lore has it that Samuel Colt originally got the idea for its mechanism during a sailing trip between Boston and Calcutta aboard the brig Corvo in 1830. He observed the ratchet-and-pawl mechanism used by the ship's steering wheel and noted how each spoke in the steering wheel came in contact with a clutch that could hold it in place if needed. He was inspired enough to carve a wooden model of a revolver on this voyage. A few years later, he applied for patents in the US, England and France and received his patents in 1836. He then built the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company in Paterson, New Jersey, to manufacture this weapon.

The Paterson revolver was the first repeating firearm that consisted of a revolving cylinder with multiple chambers that aligned to a stationary barrel. Until then, repeating firearms had multiple barrels. This revolver was a 5-shot model with a single action mechanism using percussion cap technology. A single-action mechanism means the user has to manually pull back the hammer to cock it. The act of pulling the hammer back also rotates the cylinder to bring the next chamber in line with the barrel and also locks it in place. When the user pulls the trigger, the hammer is released and strikes the percussion cap of the chamber that happens to be on top of the weapon, thereby discharging it.

Public domain image from (click to enlarge)

The above picture contains two models of Paterson Colts. The smaller model is an original model from 1836 and the two crossed revolvers are the 1839 models. The astute reader might note that the triggers appear to be missing on the two crossed revolvers and that none of the revolvers have a trigger guard. This is in fact a feature of the Paterson Colt models. The trigger is actually a folding one. When the user pulls the hammer back, not only does the cylinder rotate, but the trigger also drops out of the frame in firing position. This is why there is no trigger guard.

The astute reader may also have noted that the 1839 models have a lever under the barrel that the 1836 model doesn't have. We will study what that lever does in a little bit. First, let us understand how to reload the 1836 model revolver which will go into explaining the strange lever. The 1836 model revolver had a somewhat cumbersome reloading procedure that required the user to disassemble the gun. The procedure went as follows:
  1. Put the hammer at half-cock. This frees up the cylinder and allows it to be removed.
  2. Push the barrel wedge which is under the barrel and holding it in place.
  3. Now pull the barrel and cylinder from the revolver's frame.
  4. Load each of the chambers of the cylinder with enough gunpowder, leaving enough room to seat a lead ball into each chamber
  5. Push a lead ball into each chamber with a special ramrod tool. This took a bit of effort in the early models.
  6. Push the cylinder and barrel back into the revolver's frame and push the barrel wedge back into place.
  7. Place percussion caps on each of the nipples around the cylinder using the special Colt capping tool that comes with the revolver.
Since Colt often supplied spare cylinders with the revolver, many people would walk around carrying loaded and capped spare cylinders in their pockets for faster reloading. That way they could quickly pull out the barrel and cylinder, pull a fully loaded new cylinder from their pocket and put the revolver back together and ready to go. This practice was not very safe in case the loaded cylinders were accidentally dropped.

With a view to improving the loading time, Colt improved the model and the 1839 models featured an integrated loading lever and capping window. As the reader may have noted in the picture above, the 1839 models have a feature that the 1836 model doesn't have. Under the barrel is a hinged ramrod lever that is missing in the 1836 model. This way, the user could not lose the ramrod and ramming the lead balls into the chamber also became easier. Therefore, the 1839 model did not require the user to disassemble the weapon for reloading. This hinged loading rod feature was an innovation that was widely copied in future revolvers as well.

The Paterson revolver was sold with different barrel lengths from 2.5 inches to 12 inches long, with 7.5 and 9 inch barrels being the most common. The barrels were all rifled, so as to improve accuracy. Calibers varied from the original .28 caliber to the .31, .34 and the very popular .36 caliber. The barrels have a small projecting blade sight in front and the rear sight is a notch cut into the hammer lever, which aligns with the front sight when the hammer is cocked.

Despite being an innovative weapon, the Paterson revolver was not a success. It was expensive for its time, costing around $40-50 per piece. Colt managed to sell a few to the United States Army and they saw limited use, but the US Army considered them too fragile and prone to malfunctioning. However, the Republic of Texas (which was still not a part of the United States then) bought a number of them for their army and navy. The Texas Rangers found these weapons especially useful against the Comanche tribes and some of their key commanders such as Colonel Jack Hayes and Captain Samuel Walker began to push for military contracts to acquire more of them, especially in .36 caliber. This associated the name "Texas Paterson" to the .36 caliber model of these revolvers.

Due to the commercial failure of the Paterson revolver, the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company was forced to stop manufacturing in 1842. A creditor named John Ehler then acquired the factory and continued manufacture until 1847, when he was forced to close it down as well. However, the design was influential and innovative enough that its ideas were used in future models as well. Captain Walker, in particular, thought that the Paterson could be improved and therefore submitted several design improvement ideas to Colt. Therefore, when Colt opened a new factory in 1846, the new model was called the Walker Colt revolver. We will study the Walker Colt in the next post.

1 comment:

  1. The families estate firearms collection has a #5 colt Paterson in the collection. It has a 9" barrel with a flat back cylinder. The revolver has @75% of the original blue finish remaining, a wonderful bore and excellent condition wood grips. The pistol has a very low serial number, consisting of only two digits! There is a Paterson belt holster and a brass capping devise also with the gun. Your article was very informative. Thank you.