Long guns upstaged by Colt revolvers.
When Samuel Colt patented the first practical revolving pistol design early in 1836, he kindled the torch of legend for what became one of the most famous firearms in Western history. The Paterson Colt revolver and its descendents through the classic Model 1873 Single Action Army .45 won international repute and became fixed in the popular imagination. Few people today realize that after securing his initial patent for revolving-cylinder firearms, Colt began production in 1837 of Paterson rifles a few months before making the Paterson revolvers. He started producing revolving shotguns in 1839.
The earliest documented appearance of a Colt handgun or long arm in frontier Texas did not occur until the summer of 1838, when a diplomat returning home from service in the States introduced the Paterson revolver to the arms-hungry embattled young republic. Between 1839 and 1841, the Republic of Texas obtained nearly 300 Paterson Colt rifles and carbines for issue to its armed forces. Scores of others were sold to private citizens such as Captain Micah Andrews of the Bastrop County Ranging Company, who used a rare 10-shot Paterson Colt rifle (most of them had eight shots) in a November 1840 fight with the Comanches. Captain Jack Hays’ Texas Rangers were using the long Colt Patersons in battle against Mexican bandits near Laredo by the spring of 1841, and that summer Paterson Colt rifles were included in the arsenal of a band of government-sponsored freebooters who made a vain attempt to annex New Mexico to the republic. Hays’ Colts helped repulse a September 1842 invasion by Mexican General Adrian Woll at the Battle of Salado Creek on the outskirts of San Antonio.
Early in 1851, Lieutenant Edward Burleson and seven Rangers were armed with Paterson Colt revolvers and Paterson Colt carbines when 14 Comanches attacked them outside the south Texas hamlet of Los Ojuelos, near Laredo. The lawmen cut loose with their long Colts, and all but two of the braves were killed or wounded. Comanche raiders subsequently looted a Colt rifle from the Jacob Huffman homestead near Castroville, Texas.
U.S. Army officers posted on the Texas frontier sometimes used Paterson Colt rifles, which were only made until 1841. In 1853 at least one officer of the 1st U.S. Infantry Regiment at Ringgold Barracks on the Rio Grande carried his own Paterson rifle on patrols with his mule-mounted troopers, who had to rely upon their single-shot muzzleloading
U.S. Model 1842 muskets. Captain John G. Walker of the U.S. Regiment of Mounted Riflemen carried a Colt revolving rifle while stationed at Fort Inge, west of San Antonio.
In 1855 Sam Colt had gunsmith Elisha K. Root refigure the revolver mechanism from center hammer into solid-frame side hammer, and the Root Model 1855 Colt revolving rifle was born. Warriors on occasion used these new weapons. (The rust-scaled remnants of a Root Model 1855 Colt rifle were found at a former Indan site at Spanish Fork, Texas, in the early 1970s.)
Army surgeon Albert J. Myer carried a Root Model 1855 Colt rifle while serving at posts as far west as Fort Davis during his tour of duty in Texas. The U.S. Army, though, purchased only small trial lots of Colt rifles and carbines for issue to troops in the West. Ordnance officers objected to the lack of durability of the revolving rifles and the possibility of multiple discharge (which could damage the shooter’s forearm or hand), even though the long Colts offered formidable firepower.
Soon after the end of the Civil War, merchant Reading Black, pioneer founder of Uvalde, Texas, was on the road west of San Antonio with some companions when they came under Comanche attack. Black shouldered his Colt revolving rifle and dropped a brave’s horse on the dead run with a head shot at more than 100 yards. That feat slaked the other warriors’ desire to continue the fight.
Colt revolving rifles were also used outside of Texas, of course. Santa Fe trader Josiah Gregg carried an eight-shot Paterson Colt rifle with spare cylinders on a trip to New Mexico in 1839. Eleven years later, when Waldo, Hall and Company initiated a stagecoach mail service along the Santa Fe Trail, the stagecoaches were guarded by eight men. “Each man,” according to the Missouri Commonwealth, “has at his side, fastened in the stage, one of Colt’s revolving rifles, in a holster below one of Colt’s long revolvers, and in his belt a small Colt’s revolver, besides a hunting knife, so that these eight men are ready, in case of attack, to discharge 136 shots without having to reload.”
In December 1859, Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart of the 1st Cavalry ordered a Root Model 1855 Colt rifle for delivery at his post of Fort Leavenworth, Kan. At about the same time, the federal government issued 10 of the weapons to the New Mexico territorial militia for use against the Apaches.
Long Colts were also popular in the Rocky Mountains. Colonel Randolph B. Marcy obtained some of the revolving rifles in the fall of 1857 for issue to troops bound for the “Mormon War” in Utah Territory. Late in 1868, a frontier posse mustered in Colorado included a Colt revolving rifle in its ranks. In the early 1870s, Sioux warriors stole a string of horses from some white buffalo hunters camped on the northern bank of the Missouri River near present-day Ellis, Mont. The hunters gave chase and killed one of the raiders, but not before the Sioux had brought down one hunter with a .36-caliber Colt revolving rifle. As late as 1878 a Colt revolving rifle saw use against fugitive Cheyennes, and a decade later the owner of a Model 1855 Colt ordered a replacement front sight for his weapon from the firm.
Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.