3 Confederate Handguns of the Old West

Confederate arms hold a special place among Civil War collectors both for their rarity and the romanticism that still surrounds the men that rallied to the Southern cause and fought so bravely and successfully at the start that it seemed secession might actually succeed by force of will alone. The reality was that the Confederacy was doomed from the start, lacking as it did a suitable industrial base to support a sustained major war effort and miscalculating the lengths that President Abraham Lincoln and the populations of the North would go to preserve the Union.

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I recently had the opportunity to study three examples of Confederate-made revolvers from the collections of the Frazier History Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. While handling them, I was transported back in time momentarily as I thought of the rebel cavalrymen that carried these weapons in combat nearly 150 years ago. Before they made their way to the battlefield, Southern artisans, including some slaves, struggled to make them with inadequate resources. The whole subject of the arms industry of the Confederacy, and even revolver manufacturing, is beyond the scope of this short article. For the latter, I recommend William A. Albaugh III, Hugh Benet, Jr. and Edward N. Simmons’ masterpiece on the subject, Confederate Handguns. With this article I hope to use the revolvers I studied to illustrate some significant points.

Griswold & Gunnison

The Griswold & Gunnison had the largest production numbers of any Confederate handgun. It had the reputation of being the best of the Confederate pistols. It was made in the industrial complex of Samuel Griswold at Griswoldville, 9 miles north of Macon, Georgia. Before the war, he operated a highly successful cotton gin manufacturing factory as well as candle, tallow and soap factories on the site. The contract for these pistols was a manufacturer’s dream come true. At a time when a Colt 1851 Navy sold for around $13, Griswold was getting $40 and later $50 for each of his guns with a standing order for as many as could be produced. Unfortunately for him, production never topped 3,700 revolvers in the approximately three-year production run. Called “brass-framed Colts” in period documents, they were a close copy of the .36-caliber Colt 1851 Navy.

The Griswold shares a common trait with most Confederate pistols in the use of a brass frame. Colts were made of graded steel strengthened by heat treating. The steel mills were in the North, which forced Confederate gun-makers to seek other materials. Brass wasn’t abundant, either, but a source of it was found in the many church bells “loaned” to the Confederacy for the war effort. The congregations knew that the bells would be melted down and had no expectations of their return. These frames are not actually brass (an alloy of copper and tin), but bronze alloys called “red bronze” or “gun metal” that had small amounts of zinc added for greater strength. Though not as strong as steel, the bronze frames were quite serviceable, offered great corrosion resistance and were easier to work into shape than steel or malleable iron.

The cylinders were made of a twisted iron, created by hammer welding and twisting iron bars together. The laminating and twisting process, similar to the process used to make Damascus steel barrels, added strength to the metal. Twist lines were visible on the Griswold cylinder I examined. The cylinders were bare, un-blued metal when they left the factory, which may have been a cost-saving measure. The use of a round barrel rather than Colt’s octagonal barrel definitely saved manufacturing time and material, as did the use of a simplified barrel wedge that deleted the small flat spring found on Colt guns.

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Though the iron parts of the Griswold I examined were terribly corroded from rust, there was still evidence of care in its building. It is serial number 3394, which puts its manufacture in 1864, near the end of the production period. The factory was destroyed by Union troops on November 22, 1864, as part of General Sherman’s punitive march to the sea. Griswolds commonly had the full serial number hand-stamped onto the frame, barrel support and cylinder, and the last digit of the serial number stamped on the triggerguard, loading lever and other parts to keep the parts of an individual pistol together during production. This was a quality-control process that I also found on the Spiller & Burr and Dance Brothers revolvers I examined.

Spiller & Burr

The Spiller & Burr 2nd Model was built sporadically from 1862 to 1864 in Atlanta and Macon, Georgia, first by a private partnership and then by the Confederate government after it bought out the factory. The private partnership produced 763 revolvers after a rocky start plagued by factory moves and shortages of manufacturing expertise, materials and skilled workmen that led them to repeatedly and dramatically fail to reach the production goals needed to fulfill their 15,000-piece contract. Under government control, the factory made another 689 pistols, and less than 1,500 were completed in total before the Civil War ended.

The Spiller & Burr was a copy of the Union’s Whitney 2nd Model revolver and shared that design’s advantages over the open-top frame Colts. The cylinder was easily removed for cleaning by rotating a rectangular switch on the left side of the frame and removing the entire loading lever and cylinder pin as a unit. Though one might feasibly reload the pistol with a fresh cylinder in this manner, the 1858 Remington was far more suited to this since no parts needed to be removed from the frame to facilitate the exchange of cylinders. I examined serial number 517, which was in excellent condition from grip to bore. It showed workmanship that we would be happy to encounter on a modern revolver. The serial number range (and lack of a “C.S.” stamp on the frame) indicates this was one of the privately produced handguns. It is estimated that 66 percent of Spiller & Burr revolvers were delivered to the Army of Tennessee.

Dance & Brothers

The J.H. Dance & Brothers revolver was the idea of a group of patriotic Texas brothers and cousins who operated a machine shop in Columbia, Texas. They had no experience in making firearms but produced a well made but simplified copy of the Colt Dragoon pistol in .44 and .36 calibers. Overall production of the pistols never topped 500 units, most of which went to Texas cavalry units. The Dance brothers themselves enlisted and served in Texas cavalry units but eventually most were detailed to the factory along with about 24 of their fellow cavalrymen to serve as workers. The Confederacy needed arms-makers more than it needed cavalrymen. Like the Spiller & Burr company, the Dance Brothers had to move their factory for fear of Union attack and the Confederate government eventually bought them out. I examined revolver serial number 216, which is one of the finest examples extent. It showed very good workmanship, and matching numbers were in evidence on major parts. The slab-sided iron frame characteristic of the Dance pistol would have greatly simplified manufacturing since the frame could be simply cut from a solid bar versus forging or casting the frame with the recoil shields in place. The downside of this design is the lack of protection for the percussion caps on the nipples.

As I handled these three historic pistols, my thoughts were not that these were second-rate weapons. Instead, I was somewhat awed that they were as good as they were in light of the tremendous difficulties the Confederacy faced.

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This article originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.