The revolvers and longarms in use by the United States military prior to the beginning of the Civil War in 1861 were divided proportionately between Northern and Southern states. The majority of these weapons were older designs manufactured by Colt’s and E. Remington & Sons in the 1850s, and as such, former Federal troops who had taken an oath to the Confederate States of America and President Jefferson Davis, (the former U.S Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce and U.S. Senator from Mississippi ¹), were mostly armed with Colt 1851 Navy or Remington’s .44 caliber Army or .36 caliber Navy models, and older .44 caliber Colt Dragoons. Colt’s latest model, the 1860 Army, which would become the new standard issue Union sidearm, was not in general use when the Civil War began. There had been issues with the early fluted cylinder design and changes were being made to the Army model’s cylinder between July and September 1861, although a number of the guns, issued in pairs with a single, detachable shoulder stock, were already in use by U.S. Cavalry troops. The South had also procured 1860 Army models, the last 500 shipped from Colt’s to Richmond just three days after the Confederate attack on Ft. Sumter.
Arming A Nation
As a nation, the new Confederacy, comprised of 11 mostly agricultural states, was simply not the equal of the industrialized North when it came to manufacturing firearms. Thus the issue that faced Jefferson Davis and his generals in the summer of 1861 was that there simply were not enough arms or regular soldiers in the South to fight a war. Volunteers filled out the ranks, but weapons were another issue altogether. By 1862 Davis appealed to the patriotism of anyone who could contribute to the production of guns to arm its regulars and volunteer forces.
Among the handful that quickly came to the aid of the Confederacy was Samuel Griswold, owner of a large cotton gin mill. Working with Arvin Gunnison, who had begun making revolvers for the Confederacy in 1861 at a pistol factory in New Orleans, Gunnison converted his mill in Griswoldville, Georgia, into an arms factory and established Griswold & Gunnison Company in 1862. The Griswold was based on Sam Colt’s 1851 Navy and the general design of the .36 caliber revolver was copied, however, with none of the fine attention to detail that had been the hallmark of the Hartford percussion pistols. The Griswold & Gunnison cylinder was similar to Colt’s and the frame, made of brass, rather than steel, featured a rounded triggerguard like the third model 1851 Navy. Earlier first and second model Colt Navy revolvers had a squareback triggerguard, the later fourth model a larger, more ovoid triggerguard. All three designs were eventually copied by Southern armsmakers.
Griswold & Gunnison, like many quickly organized Confederate armsmakers during the war, was plagued with material shortages and appealed for help from Richmond. The Confederacy asked that churches donate their steeple bells for arsenal purposes and those bells allowed Griswold and other Southern gunmakers to continue production throughout the early years of the war. Griswold & Gunnison continued to manufacture guns, reaching a total of around 3,700 by November of 1864, when the factory was razed during the Battle of Griswold Station². A fine reproduction of the Griswold & Gunnison revolver is made today in Italy by F.lli Pietta.
In the winter of 1861-62, J.H. Dance & Brothers, located east of Columbia (first capital of Texas), and 10 miles away from Angleton, Texas, started production of revolvers also based on the design of the 1851 Navy. Although similar in shape to the Colt Navy, Dance & Bros. further simplified the revolver by eliminating the recoil shield, thus creating a flat-sided frame. The Navy’s octagonal barrel was also replaced by a simpler half round half octagonal design similar to that of the 1848 Colt Dragoon. The guns were produced in .36 and .44 caliber; the .44 models with an 8-inch barrel length, the .36 with a 7-3/8-inch barrel.
The company’s location on the Gulf Coast of Texas put it within range of Union gunboats and in 1863 the factory was burned by federal troops after the battle of Velasco, which enabled Union gunboats to go up the Brazos River to Columbia. Approximately 500 guns were produced before the factory was destroyed. Dance relocated to Anderson, Texas, where the surviving machinery was set up by the Confederacy. It is not known how many guns were produced in Anderson but totals for all Dance & Bros. models are believed to be 135 revolvers in .36 caliber and as many as 450 chambered in .44 caliber³. A reproduction of the J. H. Dance revolver that remains very true to the original .36 caliber model is manufactured by F.lli Pietta.
There were hundreds of individual revolvers of varying designs manufactured in the South throughout the war, and it is literally “hundreds” because so many small companies never managed to make more than 100 or 200 guns before ceasing production. Among the smaller but memorable makes were Colt 1851 Navy style revolvers built by the Augusta Machine Works in Augusta, Georgia, and the Columbus Fire Arms Mfg. Co. in Columbus, Georgia, which built fewer than 100 guns. A handful of other Southern makers also contributed fewer than 100 guns apiece, mostly copied from the Colt’s 1851 Navy design.
Leech & Rigdon
Not every Confederate made handgun looked exactly like an 1851 Navy—the Leech & Rigdon resembled a scaled down .36 caliber version of the massive .44 caliber Colt 3rd Model Dragoon with octagonal to round barrel, and round triggerguard. Of all the various gunmakers who answered the South’s call to arms, Rigdon and his associates, wrote Civil War arms historian William B. Edwards, “…were probably the best-manufactured mass-production revolvers of the South.” These were sturdy, well crafted firearms, but like most produced in the South too few in numbers.
Leech and Rigdon, with manufacturing in Columbus, Mississippi and Greensboro, Georgia, added another 1,500 revolvers to the Confederate effort between 1863 and 1864. Afterward, another 1,000 models were produced by Rigdon, Ansley & Co. in Augusta, Georgia, before General William T. Sherman and the Union Army’s historic March to the Sea in November and December of 1864, which left everything from Atlanta to the Savannah coastline under Federal control.
Other Southern gunmakers produced revolvers based on different designs, such as Spiller & Burr whose guns resembled a brass-framed Remington-Beals Army. One of the most famous Confederate revolvers, Spiller & Burr produced guns in Atlanta, Georgia, from 1861 to 1864, but by comparison, no one influenced Southern armsmakers more than Samuel Colt and his 1851 Navy, truly the gun of the gunfighters.