Gun-makers like Colt and Remington did a good job of covering the two extremes of the handgun market. At the small end, both firms offered .31-caliber pocket pistols that found a ready market among civilians interested in covert protection. And on the big end, both companies offered full-sized, big-bore revolvers for holstered belt carry. That left a big hole in the middle of the spectrum.
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Savvy gunmen may have appreciated the small size of Colt’s Baby Dragoon revolvers, but they knew that the 51-grain round ball was hardly a man-stopper. In fact, a modern .25 ACP is more powerful than a .31 cap-and-ball sixgun, and that’s not saying much. Big-bore .44s, like Colt’s 1860 Army revolver or Remington’s New Model Army, were effective fighting handguns, but their 8-inch barrels made them able for city dwellers and others who needed to carry discreetly.
I’m a little surprised that a marketing genius like Sam Colt didn’t step in to fill that market, but nature abhors a vacuum, and, if corporate America wouldn’t meet the need, there were plenty of people who were willing to take matters into their own hands.
Almost from the day Colt’s big .44-caliber Dragoon revolvers hit the streets, there were people lopping off their long barrels to make them more concealable. These shortened, full-power revolvers were often called “belly guns.”
The list of people who were known to carry belly guns includes a host of lawmen. In 1877, Deputy U.S. Marshal William Stokes arrested John D. Lee. Lee was the leader of the Nauvoo Legion, which, in 1857, wiped out the Baker-Fancher wagon train in a fight that became known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
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Lee was the subject of a 20-year manhunt that ended when Marshal Stokes found him hiding in a pigpen on a family farm. Two of John Lee’s family members pointed their guns at Stokes. But Stokes wasn’t dissuaded. He wrote in his report, “I instantly drew two pistols from my overcoat pockets, taking one in each hand…Then I put one pistol through the crack in the roof of the pen, with the muzzle within 18 inches of Lee’s head.”
Lee immediately said. “Hold on boys. Don’t shoot. I will come out.”
The guns Stokes pulled from his coat pockets were Colt’s First Model Dragoon revolvers with their barrels bobbed back to 21⁄2 inches. New front sights were dovetailed onto the short tubes. With one of those snub-nosed cannons in his face, it’s no wonder that John Lee surrendered quickly.
Orrin Porter Rockwell, James Hume and Dallas Stoudenmire were all lawmen who carried belly guns. But you didn’t need to wear a badge to pack a belly gun. All manner of folks carried these pocket howitzers. John Browning, father to the famous gunsmith, carried a .44-caliber Colt 1860 Army revolver with a 2-inch barrel. Even the Wells Fargo Company had some .36-caliber Police revolvers with the barrels shortened to 2 inches for issue to its express agents.
I’ve been interested in belly guns for over 20 years. And, like the old-timers, I made my own. One of the first belly guns I made was based on an Armi San Marcos 1860 Army revolver. To make the belly gun, I cut the barrel back from 8 inches to 3 inches. Then I made a new blade front sight and dovetailed it onto the shortened barrel. Finally, to aid in concealability, I outfitted the pistol with bird’s-head grips. I dubbed the resulting belly gun the 1860 snub-nose Thunderbolt, and it is my favorite belly gun.
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In the last year, Pietta began making a factory-made version of my little powerhouse. So, if you aren’t handy with tools, you can still have a snub-nosed Colt just by contacting Dixie Gun Works and ordering one of its 1851 Yank Snubnose revolvers. Dixie’s gun differs from my homemade Thunderbolts in only two respects. Dixie’s gun has a 3-inch, octagonal barrel rather than the round barrels on my homemade versions, and the bird’s-head Thunderer grips on Dixie’s Yank are nicely checkered where my grips are smooth. All in all, the Yank Snubnose is a wicked-looking, highly effective belly gun.
The Yank’s 3-inch, octagonal barrel is topped by a typical Colt 1851 cone-shaped front sight. There is no room on the truncated barrel for a loading lever, so Dixie provides a brass ramrod, but it is not easy to start oversized lead balls with just hand pressure. I find that I need to tap the brass rod with a plastic mallet to seat the balls. Rather than do that, I prefer to use a Dick Dastardly Tower of Power loader, a device that lets you load cap-and-ball cylinders easily and safely off of the gun.
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Belly guns were usually intended for use across the width of a card table, but they are capable of surprising accuracy. I loaded the Dixie Yank snubbie with 30 grains of 3Fg Goex black powder topped with a lubricated felt wad under a .454- inch diameter, 148-grain round ball. That load exits the 3-inch barrel at 520 fps.
Shooting off-hand from 7 yards, the Yank easily turned in 1.25- to 1.5-inch groups. That was hardly surprising, but when I moved back to the 25-yard bench, the Dixie snubbie turned in groups that ranged between 2.5 and 3 inches. That is accurate shooting from a snub-nose revolver, especially a cap-and-ball model with notably crude sighting equipment.
Full-sized Colt and Remington .44-caliber revolvers are a joy to shoot out in the field, but if I’d been a townie, you can bet I’d have a pair of cut-down Colts in the pockets of my frock coat. For more information, visit dixiegunworks.com or call 800-238-6785.
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– Caliber: .44
– Barrel: 3 inches
– OA Length: 8 inches
– Weight: 32 ounces (empty)
– Grips: Walnut
– Sights: Fixed
– Action: SA
– Finish: Blued, casehardened
– Capacity: 6-shot
– MSRP: $395
This article originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.