Colt’s hefty Dragoon revolvers arrived on the scene in 1847, and, despite competition from lighter .44 caliber six-guns, they were still in demand well into the 1870s. A traveler on the Western plains in 1868 wrote home to say, “The plainsmen who possess a pair hold them in very high esteem.” I understand how they felt. I hold them in pretty high esteem myself.
Colt’s first revolvers, made in the Paterson, New Jersey, factory, did not generate the sort of demand that you would expect for the first truly practical revolving-cylinder handguns. There are any number of causes for the failure of Sam Colt’s first firearms production company. Often the blame is attributed to the fact that the United States was experiencing a prolonged period of peace, and that the lack of military contracts doomed Colt’s first venture.
That may have played a part, but despite the lack of a declared war, the frontier was still a dangerous place, and men in the 1830s still engaged in violence upon each other. The 1850s were also a period without a formal war, but Colt’s firearms sold hand over fist during that decade. Personally, I think a bigger reason for the demise of the Paterson plant was the inadequacy of the Colt Paterson design.
Sam Colt may have been a great businessman, but he wasn’t a fighting man. Despite the success of the Texans with their Colts, the Paterson was a delicate and somewhat impractical design. Luckily for Colt, Samuel Walker, a young Texas Ranger captain, helped to get Colt back into the gun business to supply the army with sidearms for the Mexican War. Walker most definitely was a fighting man, and he knew what fighting men wanted in a sidearm.
As a result of Walker’s collaboration, Colt produced a powerful, .44 caliber revolver capable of firing six shots before reloading, each with the power of a muzzleloading rifle. And, unlike most Paterson revolvers, the Colt Walker could be reloaded without disassembling the gun. Unfortunately, Captain Walker suffered from a common failing among warriors. He wanted the Colt Walker to be the most powerful weapon on the battlefield. But that power comes with a price.
Things haven’t changed much in the last 165 years. When I worked for the Navy, one of my teams provided logistics support to Navy SEAL teams. The SEALs’ official sidearm was the massive Heckler & Koch Mark 23 in .45 ACP. I have shot this pistol many times on the Navy’s range at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, Indiana, and it is an awesome shooting machine. Unfortunately, it also weighs a ton. So, most SEALs switched to 1911s for combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Colt Walker suffered from the same problem. With its 9-inch barrel and massive cylinder, the Colt Walker tipped the scales at 4.5 pounds. It takes a strong man to effectively shoot a Colt Walker while managing a horse. Sam Walker wanted the new revolver to be the primary battle weapon for the cavalry; as a result, the gun’s chambers held a massive 60-grain powder charge, making it equivalent in power to many muzzleloading rifles. Unfortunately, the state of 1840s metallurgy wasn’t equal to the task of containing that power. Many Colt Walker revolvers burst their cylinders during firing.
Immediately following the Mexican War, Colt began redesigning the big .44. The result was the Dragoon series. With the Dragoon revolvers, the barrel length was shortened from 9 inches to a manageable 7½ inches, and 0.3 inches was trimmed from the length of the cylinder. You could cram 50 grains of black powder into the chamber, but, practically, 40-grain powder charges became the norm, which set a standard that later manifested itself in the .45 Colt cartridge. These changes didn’t turn the Dragoon into a lightweight pocket pistol. A Dragoon revolver still tips the scales at 4 pounds. So, if you like shooting cap-and-ball guns one-handed, you’ll need to eat a full bowl of Wheaties for breakfast.
Colt’s Dragoon revolvers were the first guns built by Sam Colt since the failure of the Paterson company. The Walker revolvers were actually built by Eli Whitney under a subcontract. But, with the profits from the sale of the Colt Walkers, bolstered by a $5,000 bank loan, Colt bought Whitney’s Walker tooling and opened his own manufacturing plant in Hartford, Connecticut, where he set about rectifying the Walker’s deficiencies.
Colt built four models of the Dragoon revolver, starting with the transitional Whineyville-Hartford model, and proceeding through the 1st, 2nd and 3rd model Dragoons. Each model incorporated improvements until the Dragoon revolver reached its final form in the 3rd Model. Replicas of all three major Dragoon models are manufactured in Italy by Uberti, and they are imported by Taylor’s & Company in Winchester, Virginia.
The 3rd Model Dragoon was reputed to be Sam Colt’s favorite sixgun, and I can see why. I’ve owned a 3rd Model Dragoon since 1990, and over those 24 years I’ve shot it a lot. During one afternoon, a few months ago, I had the Dragoon out at the range where I was blasting away at water-filled plastic bottles, which explode beautifully when you whack them with a round ball propelled by 40 grains of black powder. And the thought jumped into my head, “Wouldn’t this be fun with a Dragoon in each hand!” I couldn’t shake that thought. The only cure was to call Taylor’s and order one up.
Taylor’s 3rd Model Dragoon is a beautiful replica of Sam Colt’s creation. As with the originals, the blued barrel is 7½ inches long, and it is has an octagon-to-round profile with a brass blade front sight. The color-casehardened loading lever is secured under the barrel by a small latch. This latch is a big improvement over the T-spring catches on Colt Walker revolvers, but it is not as secure as the latch used on Colt’s 1851 Navy and 1860 Army model revolvers.
The blued, six-shot cylinder on the 3rd Model Dragoon is 2.19 inches long. It is roll engraved with a battle scene between mounted Texas Rangers and Comanches. The 1st Model Dragoon had the same oval cylinder stop slots as you’d find on the Colt Walker, but the 2nd Model and 3rd Model both had rectangular slots with leads that are still the standard for revolvers in the present day. The nipples are recessed in rectangular cuts in the rear of each chamber to prevent flashover, and there are safety pins between each chamber.
The Dragoon’s frame is nicely color casehardened. For years I have complained about Uberti’s poor color-casehardened finishes, but I have to admit that the company has upped its game over the past couple of years. The color casehardening coverage on the Dragoon’s frame is almost 100 percent, and the colors are vivid. Deep blue swirls predominate over a slightly amber background. The finish is excellent in every respect.
The triggerguard and backstrap started off as polished brass, but, after six months of shooting this gun, the grip frame has taken on the warm, mellow tones of well-handled brass.
Dragoon revolvers were originally carried on saddles in pommel holsters, but since I ride the range in a pickup truck, that really isn’t an option for me. Not everybody makes belt holsters for these big horse pistols, and for me, the field is more limited because I think a revolver like this deserves a period-correct piece of leather, so, for me, Dave Carrico of Carrico’s Leatherworks is the man to see. Dave’s gun leather and saddles have been featured in many of the best Westerns over the last 20 years. I first came across his work in the movie Ride with the Devil, and I’ve been a fan ever since. More recently he made saddles for The Lone Ranger and True Grit, and he made the gun leather for Josh Brolin in Jonah Hex.
For my Dragoons, I use Dave’s civilian Half-Flap holster. This holster has a contoured fit, like a Slim Jim design. I like Dave’s “Style A,” which comes up quite high on the gun, providing lots of protection. As the Half-Flap designation implies, a flap of leather that covers the hammer and the frame secures the revolver but leaves the grips uncovered. My holster is black with two rows of border stamping for decoration and a sewn-in toe plug. This is the best way I’ve found to carry 4.1 pounds of gun on a belt.
Taylor’s 3rd Model Dragoon is a shooter. Despite its size, it balances well for one-handed shooting, and its weight is useful for soaking up recoil from those 40-grain powder charges. I tested the Dragoon from the 25-yard bench with both cast round balls and with conical bullets. Both shot well, but the nod, in this case, has to go to the conicals. With 148-grain round balls and 40 grains of Goex 3Fg powder, the average velocity was 877 fps. My best 25-yard group with that load was 2.75 inches across, but most groups were 3 to 3.5 inches with the round balls.
Conicals performed just a bit better. I was shooting 200-grain conicals powered by the same 40-grain charge of 3Fg Goex powder. With that load the average velocity out of the 7½-inch barrel was 850 fps. My best group measured 2.5 inches, but, as with the round balls, most of my conical groups were 3 inches. For me, that is good shooting.
These are big guns, and they aren’t for everybody, but if you want to experience the gun knowledgeable plainsmen preferred, Taylor’s .44 caliber 3rd Model Dragoon is the gun for you.
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