Which Army revolver is better, Colt or Remington? That’s the kind of “Ginger or Mary Ann” question that us cap-and-ball shooters can get passionate about. I just wish it was as easy to choose between Colt and Remington Army revolvers. They both have a lot to offer.
By The Numbers
If we look at sales, without a doubt, Colt’s .44-caliber 1860 Army model was the more popular of the two during the 1860s and 1870s. Produced from 1860 until 1873, Colt built a total of 200,500 Model 1860 Army revolvers. The majority of them—156,000—were made during the Civil War years.
Remington, on the other hand, produced 122,000 New Model Army revolvers during its 1863 to 1875 production run. But the New Model Army was the last of Remington’s .44-caliber cap-and-ball revolvers. It was the end of a gradual evolution that started with the Remington-Beals revolver, of which 1,900 were made from 1861 until 1862, 80 percent of which went to the Union Army. The Remington-Beals model differs from the New Model Army in that the barrel threads are completely concealed by the frame. Also, there are no cylinder safety notches, and only a minimal web is evident under the loading lever. The front sight on the Remington-Beals Army revolver is a German silver cone.
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The Remington-Beals was quickly followed by the Model 1861, which was actually made in 1862. It’s known as the Remington Old Model Army (OMA). A total of 6,000 OMAs were made; all went to the Union army. The OMA was a transitional model. It started off looking like the Remington-Beals, but by the middle of the production run we see exposed barrel threads, an enlarged web and safety notches in cylinder. One unique OMA feature was a channel cut in the loading lever so the cylinder could be removed without dropping the lever. This proved to be a bad idea, and it disappeared when the New Model Army model was introduced a year later.
Even when you add in all the precursors, there were fewer than 130,000 Remington .44s produced, compared to 200,500 Colt 1860 Army revolvers. And that is despite the fact that a Colt 1860 Army model cost $25 compared to the $12 cost of the Remington New Model Army.
But that really doesn’t say much about which one was the best. After all, Colt had over a decade of brand recognition behind it, while Remington was a relative newcomer to the handgun game at the time.
So let’s compare the features on each gun and see if one of them ticks off more boxes. Both models are nominally .44-caliber guns with six chambers and 8-inch-long barrels. They are actually .45-caliber guns with 0.454-inch bores. They fire the same-sized balls, and the military used the same 30-grain powder charge in each of them. But there are some substantial differences.
Of the two, Remington definitely has the stronger design. Colts are modular guns. Their grip assemblies, barrels and loading levers are not permanently affixed to the revolver’s frame. The grip assembly is a bolt-on affair that is attached to the frame by five small screws. These guns are called open-tops because there is no frame enclosing the top of the cylinder. The barrel assembly is held onto the gun by a wedge that passes through the Colt’s massive base pin, which is known as an arbor. All of that combines to give cap-and-ball Colt revolvers an archaic look to modern shooters.
In contrast, the frame on the Remington is a much more robust unit. The Remington New Model Army revolver has an integral grip frame, and it has a solid frame, with a topstrap over the cylinder. The barrel is solidly screwed into the frame, just as
you would see on a modern-made revolver.
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Remingtons have the sort of conventional sights that you would expect to find on a revolver. The front sight is a pinched post that is fixed on the end of the barrel, and the rear sight is a channel milled into the top of the frame. The front sight on the Colt 1860 Army is a fixed brass blade, but, as a consequence of its open-top design, the rear sight on the Colt is quite different from what modern shooters are used to. Without a topstrap to work with, Colt made its rear sight by notching the nose of the revolver’s hammer. This seems like a pretty crude design, but it absolutely works.
The only real knock on the Remington design is that it is affected by fouling to a much greater degree than the Colt. The thin base pin and lack of any cylinder bushing or gas deflection ring means that nasty blackpowder fouling builds up on bearing surfaces very quickly. If you fire 10 rounds without cleaning through most Remingtons, you will start experiencing noticeable drag when you cock the gun. Colts, on the other hand, will run smoothly for as long as you care to shoot them.
When it comes to strength of design, the Remington clearly bests the Colt. But does that translate to better performance for the Remington? A trip to the range was in order.
I secured a couple of modern-made replicas of these classic guns from Dixie Gun Works. Pietta made our test guns, and they both showed very good quality. I take every new cap-and-ball revolver completely apart and clean up any burrs and polish all the action parts. These guns were both very cleanly machined inside, and they required the bare minimum of effort to get them operating smoothly.
In terms of accuracy, these guns performed very similarly. I loaded each of them with 30 grains of 3Fg Goex black powder topped with a lubricated felt wad and then a 140-grain round ball of pure lead. With the Remington New Model Army, this load averaged 887 fps, while the Colt 1860 Army tossed rounds downrange at 883 fps. Both guns were capable of sub-2-inch groups from the 25-yard bench.
A quick look at the scoreboard shows Remington as the clear winner in terms of the strength of its design, though Colt takes the point for handling fouling. And both guns finished in a tie for accuracy and ballistic performance. So which gun is better?
I put that question to the 2,400 people who follow my writer’s page on Facebook, as well as to the cap-and-ball enthusiasts on the most popular cowboy shooting and blackpowder discussion boards, including the SASS Wire, CAS City, The High Road and The Firing Line, and the Cap and Ball Revolver Group on Facebook. Overall, Colt came out on top by a narrow margin. Colt was preferred by 53 percent of respondents, versus 47 percent who preferred Remington.
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The detailed results of the poll tell a more interesting story. First of all, 80 percent of the respondents owned both guns, often several copies of each. So we can assume that these people are fairly experienced cap-and-ball revolver shooters. Of the 20 percent who only own one of the guns, they preferred Remingtons by a wide margin: 81 percent to 19 percent.
But, when we go to the 80 percent who actually own both guns, the story is quite different. For those shooters, 61 percent prefer the Colt 1860 Army, compared to the 39 percent who prefer the Remington New Model Army. But even that doesn’t tell the whole story. In the comments section, quite a few people who said they thought that Remingtons were better guns for technical reasons also told me that they actually preferred to shoot their Colts because of the ergonomics.
That is exactly the case for me. I recognize the technical superiority of the Remington design, but nine times out of 10, if I’m shooting a cap-and-ball sixgun, it will be a Colt design. For me, and for many others, they just feel better, point better and hit better. If I’d been out West in the 1860s, you can bet that I’d have been packing a pair of Colt 1860 Army revolvers. But don’t take my word for it. Shoot them both and decide which gun you think is better. For more information, visit dixiegunworks.com or call 800-238-6785.
PIETTA 1860 ARMY
Barrel: 8 inches
OA Length: 13-6/8 inches
Weight: 41.6 ounces (empty)
Finish: Blued, casehardened
PIETTA NEW MODEL ARMY
Barrel: 8 inches
OA Length: 13-5/8 inches
Weight: 43 ounces (empty)
Finish: Blued, brass triggerguard
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This article originally published in the Winter 2016 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.