An Old West fantasy started by photo parlors, Wild West shows and later Hollywood is that cowboys always went around with big “hog legs” holstered at their sides. Staged photos usually showed cowboys sporting various handguns, bowie knives and long guns, most of which were studio props. Eastern and foreign audiences expected to see cowpunchers armed to the teeth, and no self-respecting Silver Screen cowpoke would be caught dead without a low-slung sixgun. However, a review of period photos of cowboys out on the range doing their day-to-day chores invariably shows them unarmed or, if they were packing iron, it was concealed in a pocket or wrapped in the “hot roll” behind the saddle.
When Samuel Colt got back into the percussion revolver business during the Mexican-American War, his Walker and later Dragoon revolvers were big “horse pistols” meant more for the saddle pommel than the hip. Colt quickly realized that there was a big civilian market for more portable hardware in smaller calibers, and thus was born the Baby Dragoon in 1847 and the Pocket Model of 1849, both with five-shot cylinders in .31 caliber. Barrel lengths varied from 3 to 6 inches, with a weight of 21 to 28 ounces and an average overall length of some 8¾ inches. This made for easy carry, usually in a pocket, and for that reason these models were Colt’s biggest sellers, with over 325,000 manufactured.
A variation of the Pocket Model of 1849 has come to be known as the Wells Fargo model. Like it’s immediate predecessor, the Baby Dragoon, the Wells Fargo model did not have the Model 1849’s under-barrel rammer. Instead, the base pin had a cup-shaped end to perform as a ramrod once the cylinder was removed for loading. Needless to say, this was a slow process at best, so you either made do with your five shots or carried a second gun. Like many of the early Colt revolvers, the name given to this gun was a complete misnomer, as there are no records of Wells Fargo ever having placed an order for any of these handguns. The name was somehow attached by collectors, much the same as the 1851 Navy, which was first made in 1850. It’s estimated that around 8,300 Wells Fargo models were made during the Pocket Model of 1849’s production span. The first 2,200 of them were based on leftover Baby Dragoon frames and are known to collectors as “short frames.”
Wells Fargo History
Henry Wells and William G. Fargo, who were founders of the American Express Company, created Wells Fargo. Following the gold rush, both wanted to expand their operations to California, but the other officers in the Eastern-based American Express balked, so Wells and Fargo went on alone. They formed Wells Fargo to provide banking and express services in California in 1852, with offices in key communities bordering the gold fields. They bought and sold gold dust and other monetary instruments, and offered freight service between California and New York. After a banking collapse in California, Wells Fargo emerged in 1855 and expanded its operations, forming a stagecoach line that handled the overland mail. By 1866, they had a virtual monopoly in the stagecoach and overland mail business that stretched from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean and even participated in the Pony Express. The organization gobbled up its competition and expanded to the point that the banking and express sides were separated in 1905.
Naturally, the Wells Fargo operations attracted highwaymen looking for big, easy scores. The Adams Express Company, one of Wells Fargo’s competitors, contracted with the Pinkerton’s Detective Agency for protection, but Wells Fargo used its own agents. The Wells Fargo chief detective for some 30 years, starting in 1873, was James B. Hume. Hume came to the attention of the company when he was the El Dorado County, California, undersheriff. In 1864, he chased Confederate robbers who had waylaid a Wells Fargo stagecoach and later recovered $1,000 cash stolen from a Wells Fargo shipment. Captain Hume was a persistent officer and a “company man” who took his responsibilities seriously. The fact that Wells Fargo went all out to catch and prosecute criminals who preyed on its stagecoaches led to the company’s slogan: “Wells Fargo Never Forgets.” Company figures show that between November 1870 and November 1884 there were 378 robberies and burglaries with 240 criminal convictions, amounting to an amazing clearance rate of 63 percent. Most of the robberies were of stagecoaches, with only four train robberies. Thirty-three deaths resulted from criminal activity, including those of stagecoach drivers, guards and passengers. Five robbers were killed at the scene, 11 more while resisting arrest and seven hanged by “citizens.” Hume and Wells Fargo were involved in more violent crimes than any other single person or organization in the American West. Captain Hume passed away in 1904, a true Old West hero.
Captain Hume was assisted by just three special officers, and two of them—Bob Paul and Fred Dodge—became legendary lawmen of the Old West. While in Tombstone, Wyatt Earp was also briefly a Wells Fargo agent. Two murders and the attempted robbery of a stagecoach guarded by Wells Fargo set in motion events that culminated in the gunfight at the OK Corral. Bob Paul, a truly courageous figure, later became the Pima County sheriff, and then was a special officer for the Southern Pacific Railroad before being appointed as the U.S. marshal for the territory. Wells Fargo also induced the cooperation of local law enforcement by offering generous rewards for the capture of bandits who made off with money or mail under their protection. These rewards varied from $200 to $750 and sometimes an additional fourth of the recovered loot went to the officer who captured the offender.
Besides special officers, Wells Fargo employed armed “messengers” who acted as guards on stagecoaches and trains. Stagecoach drivers were in charge of the team of horses who pulled the stage, while the messenger’s sole responsibility was to defend the stage and strongbox against robbers or sometimes even attacks by hostile Native Americans. Early on, Wells Fargo found that the best protection was afforded by a short, double-barreled 10 gauge loaded with 21 buckshot pellets in each shell. Wyatt Earp described the Wells Fargo shotgun as “the homely weapon that makes the messenger the peer of many armed men in a quick turmoil of powder and lead.” The barrels were “not more than two-thirds the length of an ordinary gun barrel. That makes it easy to carry and easy to throw upon an enemy…as the gun has to be used quickly or not at all.”
Special officers and messengers were also armed with handguns of the day, and most likely there is some historical link as to why the diminutive Colt .31 cap-and-ball revolver was called the Wells Fargo model. It would certainly span the time period of Wells Fargo stagecoach and express operations; if not in the percussion form it may also have been converted over to metallic cartridge use after the Civil War, when the use of fixed ammunition became more prevalent. During the 1870s, Colt had lots of leftover parts for percussion revolvers and used the Richards conversion to allow them to shoot rimfire or centerfire cartridges. As the Pocket Model of 1849 and its variations were the favorites, its cartridge conversions were sold all the way up until 1880. Most of the ones converted by Colt were done in .38 caliber, but many conversions were performed by local gunsmiths. As these small revolvers were originally in .31 caliber, some conversions could have been done in .32 S&W, as this cartridge was introduced by Smith & Wesson in 1878.
Taylor’s & Company is now importing replica Wells Fargo models made by Uberti in Italy. This revolver comes with a 4-inch barrel, which was actually somewhat rare, as the most popular barrel length was 3 inches. My test gun demonstrated superior craftsmanship, with a beautiful deep-blue finish on the barrel and cylinder contrasting an attractive color-casehardened frame and hammer with hues of blue, gray and rust. There’s also a polished brass triggerguard/grip frame, and the one-piece European walnut grips have a varnished “piano” finish. An external examination disclosed no flaws or blemishes. The junctions of metal-to-metal and wood-to-metal were outstanding, and Samuel Colt himself would have been proud to claim this product as his own. The cylinder has a roll-engraved scene of a stagecoach holdup, and the front sight is a brass, cone-shaped bead. The rear sight is a simple notch cut into the hammer nose that can be lined up with the front sight when the gun is in full-cocked mode. The only difference between this gun and the real thing is original’s silver-plated triggerguard/grip frame.
Taylor’s is also offering the Wells Fargo with a conversion cylinder that allows it to fire .32 S&W cartridges. Like the Richards conversion offered by Colt back in the day, this conversion is a two-piece affair with a ring that has five firing pins and a bored-through cylinder with five .32 S&W chambers. This unit replaces the .31 caliber percussion cylinder, which is removed by punching out the key that locks the barrel to the cylinder base pin and frame. The conversion cylinder can then be loaded with cartridges and the ring fitted on the rear of the cylinder. This ring is fitted via a pin imbedded in the rear of the cylinder that mates to a hole in the ring. This arrangement assures that the five firing pins are properly aligned with the chambers. As the firing pins could impact the cartridge primers, causing an inadvertent detonation, the cylinder has an additional locking bolt cutout indicating where the hammer nose can rest between chambers to prevent an accidental discharge.
I took the Taylor’s & Company Wells Fargo model out for some range testing to see just what kind of performance the .31 caliber percussion cylinder could provide. I loaded it up with 15 grains of Goex FFFg black powder behind a 51-grain round ball, activated by a CCI #11 percussion cap. Out of curiosity, I shot a cylinder full over my Oehler 35P chronograph, and the average velocity was 632 fps. I then fired three 5-shot groups at 10 yards using a sandbag rest. The little five-shooter was hitting a tad high, so I adjusted my point of aim about 3 inches below the center aiming point of the target. Suffering from the “4+1 Syndrome” my best four-shot group measured 2.16 inches until the fifth shot opened it up to just over 4 inches.
Next I removed the .31 caliber percussion cylinder and loaded up the .32 S&W conversion cylinder. I had both Remington and Winchester factory .32 S&W cartridges, both of which feature an 88-grain LRN bullet. The Remington load produced an average velocity of 734 fps, while the Winchester load shot a bit harder with a 771-fps average. Again from a sandbag rest at a distance of 10 yards, I shot three 5-shot groups with both of the .32 S&W loads. I found that both cartridges were shooting some 12 inches below the point of aim as the first shot whistled over the target stand. I compensated by drawing an aiming point on the cardboard a couple of inches below the target and my shots started going into the 10 and X rings. My best five-shot group with the Remington cartridges measured 2.21 inches, and the Winchester load went into 2.29 inches—not bad considering the rudimentary sights on this tiny revolver.
Next I did some shooting at a hanging steel plate to get some idea of the revolver’s practical accuracy and reliability. I used both cylinders again and, shooting at about 3 to 4 yards with a one-handed, point-shoulder position, I found it rather easy to keep the steel disc jumping and turning. With the percussion cylinder I had the usual bugaboo of cap pieces falling down into the gap between the cylinder and breech face or into the action itself, so it’s best when cocking the gun to raise it up almost perpendicular while cocking so the cap pieces can fall out. This, of course, was negated when firing the .32 S&W ammunition using the conversion cylinder, and I could tell the 88-grain bullets had much more impact power than the little .31 caliber, 51-grain rounds.
Related Stories: Gun Test: Taylor’s & Company 1885 High Wall .45-70
While I can’t authenticate Wells Fargo agents using one of these converted .31 caliber revolvers, I have found an anonymous photo while surfing the internet of a Richards-type conversion on a Colt Pocket Model of 1849 in .32 S&W caliber. An agent or messenger with Wells Fargo might very well have carried one of these diminutive revolvers, the Detective Special of its day, as a backup to the double-barrel coach gun. With a 3- or 4-inch barrel, the little five-shooter would easily ride in a coat pocket, and the .32 S&W creates about 116 foot-pounds of muzzle energy, so it could get the job done with proper shot placement. Most of all, however, the Taylor’s & Company Wells Fargo model revolver is just plain fun to shoot in .31 caliber percussion form or using the .32 S&W conversion cylinder. It provides a nexus with our history and the romantic days when Wells Fargo stagecoaches rolled across the plains of the American West. For more information, visit taylorsfirearms.com or call 540-722-2017. ✪
Specifications: Taylor’s & Co. Wells Fargo
Caliber: .31 • Barrel: 4 inches • OA Length: 9½ inches
Weight: 24 ounces (empty) • Grips: Walnut
Action: SA • Finish: Blued, casehardened
Sights: Fixed • Capacity: 5-shot • MSRP: $329
This article originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.