A Brief History of US Military Sidearm, Part Two of Three: The Percussion Cap Era: 1837 to 1870

This is Part Two of a three part “A Brief History of the US Military Sidearm” by Bentley Gates. This second part covers the Percussion Cap Era, 1838 to 1870. Next week, Part Three will review the handguns of the Modern Period, 1860 to Present. The intent of this article is not to be all-inclusive, rather as representative of the firearms selected as sidearms for issue during each period.


In 1800, the discovery of fulminates would give rise to the invention of the percussion cap. First patented in 1807, it was over thirty years before it gained general acceptance by the US military as a reliable substitute for the flintlock ignition system.

Despite this slow acceptance, conversion to percussion cap became the norm for many older flintlock weapons. Usually only a few parts such as the hammer, frizzen and flashpan required replacement with the new percussion hammer and nipple assembly to complete the renovation to the newer ignition system. Therefore, some older sidearms remained in military inventory long after their official replacement.

Developing simultaneously, revolvers were the natural outgrowth of the need for more than a single chamber to fire. The pepperbox design did not prove reliable enough to garner military support, often firing all barrels at once, becoming as dangerous to the user as to the target. Carrying braces of pistols into battle was unwieldy, so demand arose for a multiple chambered pistol.

As the industrial revolution brought about standardization, it also reigned in tolerances in order to achieve dependable interchangeability. Once such close tolerances were consistently achievable, then reliable manufacturing of mechanical devices to turn and then lock a cylinder precisely in place is possible.


Better, more consistent, steel production allowed these new revolvers to use higher gunpowder loads increasing muzzle velocity. Rifling of handguns becomes standard as the automatic grooving machine makes accurate cutting of grooves inside the barrel possible thereby improving accuracy of the handgun as well.

People often credit Samuel Colt for inventing the revolver, though in his lifetime he never claimed that distinction, deferring credit to Elisha Collier as the inventor of the modern revolver. By 1837, Colt designed a percussion cap, five-shot revolver and began trying to sell it to the military. His unique design featured a trigger hidden until cocking the revolver, Colt claiming the weapon safer than those with exposed triggers. However, trigger guards were already commonplace so his initial reception was cool at the War Department. The eruption of the Second Seminole War intervened and Colt was able to persuade the Army to purchase several thousand of the .36 caliber “Paterson Colts” for the conflict. Unfortunately, this was insufficient  to save his company and in the harsh economic downturn, Colt’s Paterson, New Jersey plant closed in 1843. Still issued during this period was the Waters Flintlock M1836, manufactured until about 1844.

In 1847, Captain Samuel H. Walker of the Texas Rangers approached Sam Colt about a new sidearm. The Rangers had acquired a thousand of the Paterson Colt models left over from the Seminole War and although Walker liked the design, he wanted more firepower. Captain Walker provided specifications for a .44 caliber, larger framed, six-shot handgun to reach over long distances in fighting in Texas and Mexico. Colt working with Walker designed a revolver to meet the specifications and secured the signed order from the Texas Rangers. Colt commissioned Eli Whitney Jr. to manage production of the Walker-Colt in Colt’s new Hartford, Connecticut factory. This contract with the Texas Rangers revived the Colt company. Tragically, Captain Walker died in battle in the Mexican-American War in late 1847 shortly after receiving a brace of the new pistols bearing his name.


The US military was particularly fond of this new Colt design, adopting subsequent redesigns through the 1850’s as the 1st Dragoon, 2nd Dragoon, and 3rd Dragoon designs, each with subtle changes to improve the serviceability of the sidearm. These were still large caliber, large frame muzzle loading percussion cap revolvers. Colt produced roughly 18,000 from 1848 until adoption of the .44 caliber Colt Army Model 1860.
 In 1851, the US Navy adopted a Colt .32 caliber design. This design was smaller and lighter weight than the Dragoon models. Colt employed a new auto-engraving machine to engrave a scene of the Texas Navy’s victory at the Battle of Campeche on the cylinder. Samuel Colt chose this battle scene to honor Texas for their order of Walker Colts that reinvigorated his company. The revolver became widely known simply as the Colt Navy, and the company produced over 250,000 from 1851 to 1873. The pistol was a standard on the Civil War battlefield.

Frederick Remington renowned for expensive sporting rifles, also produced handguns during the war in both .44 caliber and .32 caliber, designated as “Army” and “Navy” respectfully. These were high quality well designed guns but the War Department was hesitant about adoption of the design. Only when Remington began saying he could produce his revolvers for half the price of the Army Colt, which then cost about $25 to US government, did he receive any notice and the contracts. Samuel Colt had to drop his price significantly to compete.


The .44 caliber Remington Army was widely favored for the ability to exchange quickly one loaded cylinder for a discharged one. Soldiers, particularly cavalry troopers could carry extra loaded cylinders rather than entire revolvers to gain greater firepower. The Remington revolvers were mass produced and common on the Civil War battlefield, but not as much as the Colts, which had a ten-year head start with the M1851 Navy and Dragoon models.

A pistol never adopted by the US Army, yet in regular service during the Civil War was the LeMat. Although the US Army declined the handgun, it deserves mention as a popular and unique official CSA sidearm. The LeMat, is a muzzle-loading, nine-shot revolver with an extra shotgun barrel under the main barrel. Dr. Jean LeMat, a New Orleans physician patented the firearm in 1856. After the opening of hostilities, the Confederate Ordinance Department ordered five thousand LeMat revolvers. Originally designed as a naval boarder’s handgun, the Confederate Cavalry enthusiastically embraced it. J.E.B. Stuart and P.G.T. Beauregard among other notables carried the LeMat into battle.

Another popular sidearm during the War Between the States was the Smith and Wesson .32 caliber rimfire pistol. The use of metal cartridges was just beginning when the conflict broke out. The S&W .32 rimfire metal cartridge was fast and easy to load making it popular with the troops. However, the .32 rimfire was a small round, and didn’t hit with the force of the larger caliber handguns, so the military brass were less than impressed and did not adopt this design. Inexpensive, it held popularity with the troops on both sides but ammunition availability was a continual problem.


The Smith and Wesson rimfire was a watershed in that it ushered in the modern age for handguns. Rifles using the metal cartridge such as the Henry, the Sharps and later the Winchester gained rapid fame. The Confederate Infantry in reluctant homage referred to the Henry Lever Action Rifle as “That damned Yankee rifle you can load on Sunday and shoot all week.”

The US military recognized by the end of the Civil War that paper cartridges were as obsolete as flintlocks had been just twenty years earlier. The era of the metal cartridge would usher in new standards of workmanship, accuracy and reliability. We’ll look at the Modern Period for the US military sidearm in next week’s conclusion of A Brief History of US Military Sidearms.

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