This month begins an analysis into the history of firearms in law enforcement. The first obstacle I had to address was when I would start looking at weapons that law enforcement personnel carried. I repeatedly came back to the period following the Civil War. As with most, if not all, armed conflicts throughout history there was an enormous advancement in the field of weaponry during the war between the North and South. Many refer to the Civil War as the first “Modern War” due to some of the innovations that resulted. Also, following the war, we see a large number of unemployed armed men traveling far from their homes in search of fortune. Some of these men went into law enforcement while others took a different turn. Both sides of the law had one thing in common however… the firearm.
Of the innovations introduced during the Civil War perhaps none were as important as a rifled barrel. This, along with the advancement in the Mini Ball changed the face of modern warfare. To keep things moving along in an orderly and expeditious fashion, we are going to examine the side-arms developed or widely used during the war (and thereafter by law enforcement). The majority of these pistols were muzzle loaded cap and ball type. Of these, the most prevalent was the Colt Army Model 1860.
This pistol was used on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Using a .44 caliber ball in front of 30+ grains of loose blackpowder and fired using percussion caps, it was far from quick to reload this six-shooter. Muzzle velocity varied from the mid-500s to 1000 FPS (feet per second) out of the 8 inch barrel. Colt also produced a 7.5 inch barreled model (in case you run into one, then email me). The 1860 was also produced in .36 Caliber for the Navy but many a .44 Army would also be taken to sea.
Approximately 200,000 1860s were manufactured by Colt from 1860-1873 but most were made during the war. There was an accessory shoulder stock available for the 1860 Army which effectively turned the pistol into a carbine. That’s pretty handy if you’d like to shoot someone before you get into range of their pistol. One interesting fact was that Colt saw fit to engrave a naval battle scene on the cylinder of the 1860 Army revolver. I’ve yet to see a plausible explanation for this oddity. Due to the popularity and timeless profile of this sidearm you’ll see more of these in television and movie depictions of the old west than any other, even if it isn’t appropriate.
While the 1860 Army may have been the most popular sidearm during (and following) the war, the 1848 Colt Dragoon was the choice of the southern veteran of the Mexican-American War. Another six-shot, .44 caliber, single action ball and cap revolver, the Dragoon was produced to alleviate some of the inherent problems of the Colt Walker pistols (The Walker, weighing 4.5 pounds and being 15.5 inches long made a great club when empty). The Dragoon was issued to the Army’s mounted corps and holstered on the saddle. The later Dragoon was a predecessor of the modern mini pistol with the Baby Dragoon or 1848 Pocket Pistol. It was marketed in California to great success during the Gold Rush days.
Lest you think that only Colt was producing revolvers back in the day, I give you the Remington Model 1858. Offered in .36 (Navy) and .44 (Army) calibers, the Remington was manufactured by Eliphalet Remington & Sons, Ilion, N.Y., for the Union Army. Due to a fire at the Colt factory in 1864 the Remington became the pistol of choice. Previously the Colt was the sidearm to have but the Remington gained favor when it was realized that by swapping out cylinders (something the Colts were unable to do) you could reload much quicker (and while on horseback).
It must be noted that the Remington was far more expensive to produce which is why the Colt received the bulk of the Union Army’s business prior to the 1864 fire. The Remington 1858 will show up later in this column when we talk about cartridge fed revolvers. Remington licensed the Rollin White patent from Smith & Wesson to convert the 1858 to .46 Caliber Rimfire making it the first large bore rim fire pistol available.
Not to be outdone, in 1856 Smith and Wesson teamed up to develop the S&W model No. 1. As Samuel Colt’s revolving cylinder patent had just expired and having purchased Rollin White’s bored-through cylinder patent, S&W was ready to introduce a .22 caliber rim fired cartridge handgun. This 7 shot revolver was loaded via a tilting barrel that pivoted just in front of the cylinder. This .22 fired a 29 grain bullet pushed by 4 grains of black powder and would eventually be the same approximate size as what we refer to as a .22 Short. Admittedly this caliber doesn’t have to power of a .44 ball round but the mere fact that it could be reloaded quickly and was easy to slip into a pocket makes it worthy of a look. Many a lawman and criminal alike carried the 1856 in a pocket or boot.
About The Author:
Charles Bennett was born in our Nation's Capital and grew up in the Maryland suburbs. Mr. Bennett has been working in all aspects of the publishing industry since the late 1980s primarily in the fields of commercial photography and magazine production. Moving to California in 1992 to attend college resulted in B.F.A and Masters degrees. California also supplied Mr. Bennett with his wife. The two of them are avid sports persons and participate in shooting, scuba diving, surfing, running and bicycling. As a long time hobby Mr. Bennett has studied the legends of American law enforcement which led to his writing these columns.