Colt’s Great Experiment

The post-Civil War era not only brought sweeping changes in America, but also the end of the percussion revolver as the primary sidearm for U.S. soldiers, lawmen, and just about anyone with enough money to purchase a newfangled metallic cartridge gun or converted Civil War era cap-and-ball revolver. During the quarter century since Sam Colt had patented his first Paterson revolver in 1836, only a handful of noteworthy improvements in the design had been made, most relating to capacity, from five to six rounds, and increases in caliber, from diminutive .28 and .31 caliber chamberings to the massive .44 introduced in 1847 with the Walker Colt and the trio of Dragoons that followed between 1848 to 1851. During that time, and up until 1858, Samuel Colt had guarded his patented designs with an iron hand pursuing litigation against all infringements by American arms makers frustrated by Colt’s 22-year domination of the U.S. civilian and military revolver market.

Rollin White

During that period a Colt employee named Rollin White had invented and received a patent for the bored through, breech loading cylinder, which he had intended as an alteration for Colt’s percussion pistols. White had been inspired by advancements in European arms design and the development of metallic cartridges, but Samuel Colt would have none of it, believing, and for the time rightly so, that there was little future in America for the self-contained metallic cartridge when almost every handgun in the country was a Colt’s percussion revolver.

Undaunted, White visited Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson who had just established their own arms making business and were anxiously awaiting the expiration of Colt’s patent in 1858. They had designed a small, tip-up revolving pistol chambered in what would come to be known as the .22 caliber short, a cartridge that D. B. Wesson had developed and patented. White’s bored through cylinder patent was their only impediment, so they purchased the rights to it and secured for S&W the same exclusivity for breech loading revolvers that Samuel Colt had enjoyed for percussion revolvers since 1836.

White had been issued U.S. Patent 12,648 for his R. WHITE REPEATING FIREARM in April 1855, giving S&W singular control of an emerging market for cartridge revolvers. To their fortune, the start of the Civil War even made their little .22 short S&W No. 1 a highly desirable sidearm for soldiers and civilians. A larger .32 caliber rimfire model introduced during the war became so popular that S&W would be back-ordered well into the late 1860s, by which time the importation of European cartridge guns and metallic cartridges by both the Union and Confederacy had firmly established the market for Smith & Wesson’s cartridge guns. In addition the Henry and Spencer rifles used by the Union Army during the conflict further validated the advantages of metallic cartridges over loose powder and ball.

Samuel Colt had passed away before the end of the Civil War leaving the company to be run by his wife Elizabeth’s brother, Richard Jarvis, whom Colt held in high regard. Jarvis and the Colt family inherited an arms making empire, one that had been inadvertently hobbled by Sam Colt’s dismissal of Rollin White’s patent in 1855, which was now the key to arms making in the postwar 1860s.

During the war small manufacturers had sprung up to build guns for both the Union and Confederacy and there was now a glut of surplus percussion firearms on the open market, nearly all of which were rendered obsolete by the metallic cartridge and S&W’s stranglehold on the only practical means of loading them into a revolver.

The solution was simple enough; convert percussion arms to fire metallic cartridges, and Colt designer Charles B. Richards knew how to do it, as did his protégé William B. Mason. A lot of talented gunmakers actually knew the rudimentary steps necessary to adapt a percussion revolver to handle self-contained metallic cartridges, and many had done it during the war, only to be forced out of business by Smith & Wesson. By 1865 no U.S. armsmaker dared produce a breech loading cartridge gun for fear of swift and damaging litigation.

Interestingly, White was very much a student of Samuel Colt’s business shrewdness and following Colt’s precedent of requesting a patent extension, just before his was about to expire, White applied for an extension in 1868. To his dismay the Commissioner of Patents refused. White then ap-pealed to Congress, which drafted a Bill (S-273) “An act for the relief of Rollin White” that passed both houses but was retuned unsigned by President Ulysses S. Grant. The former Union General knew all to well that White and S&W had been an obstruction to Union arms manufacturing throughout the war, and he was not about to reward them by extending their patent. The failure to get an extension opened the door for the development of both metallic cartridges and breech-loading revolvers in the United States after 1869, but during the last two years of the White patent a great deal happened in the American arms making industry.

Testing The Waters

Colt’s and Remington both decided to test the waters. Remington took the high road and simply appealed to S&W for the rights to use a bored through cylinder in order to convert their old Civil War-era percussion guns, offering to pay a royalty of $1 per gun (roughly 8.5 percent of the sales price). S&W agreed and Remington cartridge revolvers sold in 1868-69 bore the White patent stamping on their cylinders. Colt’s took a more clandestine approach. Prior to the expiration of the White patent, the Hartford armsmaker built a number of experimental cartridge guns including a 3rd Model Dragoon chambered for the .44 caliber Henry rimfire cartridge, and another in the Thuer style for .44 centerfire. Both were viable designs, the .44 centerfire more so, but neither was put into production and the actual numbers built remains unknown. Between 1868 and into the early 1870s, numerous conversions were done on 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Model Colt Dragoons, the largest caliber American percussion arms of their time, and though outdated by the end of the Civil War, the use of 1850’s era Dragoons by Union and Confederate forces kept these hefty .44 caliber revolvers popular until the advent of the Richards and Richards-Mason Army and Navy cartridge conversions in 1871-72. Civilians still carried converted Remingtons, Colts and other percussion era revolvers strapped to their hips throughout the 1870s and even early 1880s.

Among the few Dragoon conversions known, only a handful can be traced directly to Colt — a 3rd Model (in the 12300 or 12400 serial number range) converted to fire .44 Thuer centerfire and decorated in the large donut scroll style of engraving by Gustave Young, and a factory experimental conversion, No. 15703, chambered for .44 caliber rimfire. This example used a specially manufactured cylinder of two-sections silver soldered together, combined with a wide, channeled breechring. The right recoil shield was also dished out to permit the loading and unloading of the cylinder without removing it from the gun, although there was no ejector to push out spent cases, leaving it up to the user to use a small metal rod (usually secured on a lanyard), to expel used cartridge cases. The two-section silver-soldered cylinder was a common link among most early Dragoon conversions, probably all of which were done by gunsmiths and blacksmiths as a way to use metallic cartridges in older Civil War guns. All, however, were variations of the Colt experimental guns built between 1868 and 1869.

There were two common variations, one with the hammer milled flat to strike an internal floating firing pin held in the breechring and those with firing pins riveted to the hammer like the example shown; which is a reproduction of the Colt experimental model built around 1868 and engraved by Gustave Young. As with the original Colt, the contemporary example, built on a Colt 2nd Generation 3rd Model Dragoon, uses a percussion cylinder with the back cut off and replaced by a bored through cylinder plate silver soldered into place.

Most Dragoon conversions were chambered in .44 centerfire, two of which changed hands in the December 2008 Rock Island Auction in Moline, Illinois. Several others have been pictured in books by R. L. Wilson; the late R. Bruce McDowell (pages 381, 389, 390, 391 of A Study of Colt Conversions and Other Percussion Revolvers) and in the author’s 2006 book Metallic Cartridge Conversions (page 76). Needless to say, Dragoon conversions are rare.


The reproduction of the Colt conversion circa 1868 pictured was engraved by John J. Adams Sr. in the Gustave Young large donut scroll style used on the Thuer experimental model, combined with the cylinder modifications on the .44 rimfire conversion. A somewhat intricate and temperamental firearm, the 3rd Model Dragoon conversion copy has been chambered for the later .45 S&W caliber rather than .44 rimfire like the No. 15703 experimental. For our range test Bernie Rowles of Old West Bullet Moulds, handloaded 230-grain and 250-grain flat nose black powder cartridges (based on original UMC .45 S&W) using FFG American Pioneer powder, 18 grains and 20 grains, respectively. The 230 grain rounds passed through our chronograph at 650 fps (feet per second) from the Colt’s 7.44-inch octagonal to round barrel; the 250-grain a might faster at 770 fps; both leaving billows of white smoke in their wake.

Shooting this legendary conversion with old style cartridges is like stepping back in time, and along with it discovering the considerable accuracy that comes from shooting a heavy gun with a long barrel and a modest, albeit smoky recoil. The Dragoon conversion nailed the target from 50 feet with a best group of five rounds measuring 2 inches with four almost overlapping; more than accurate enough to make the old Colt a good gun to have on the American Frontier of the late 1860s.

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