WTW: Colt’s Missing Link, the “Open Top” Revolver of 1871-1872


Weapon Trivia Wednesday: Colt’s Missing Link, the “Open Top” Revolver of 1871-1872

Richard Kilgore

The study of handgun development is often a study in transitions and evolution. Often, long-forgotten designs and improvements from “also-rans” get us to today’s latest and greatest pistols.

Sometimes it was changing a flat spring to a coil spring, or incorporating a breech block or trigger safety. But one of the most important developments to get us that far was the cartridge-loading revolver. Western films and some history books could make the average person think we went from the front-loading black powder Colt Model 1860 to the cartridge-loading, solid frame Colt Single Action Army of 1873, when in fact there was another model in between.

Rollin White, a former Colt employee, had patented the cartridge revolver in 1851 and licensed the idea to Smith & Wesson. It was fine if you wanted to fire .22 Short or .32 rimfire, and that was basically all there was because his patent kept anyone else from developing a cartridge revolver. White was actually chastised by the US Government for this very point as it occurred during the Civil War.

In 1870 he requested an extension for his patent and Uncle Sam told him to pound sand. This allowed the Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company to develop their own cartridge revolver beyond the Richards-Mason conversions, which allowed front loading revolvers to take a rear loading cylinder.

Colt went with a proprietary .44 cartridge that took 23 grains of black powder and a 200 grain heel-based bullet. William Mason was at the helm of design once again. It should be noted that even though John Browning is often considered the greatest firearm inventor by most historians, we tend to give that credit to Mason. He patented over 125 designs for Colt, Winchester, Remington and the manufacturing industry as a whole, including firearm manufacturing machinery, steam pumps, bridges and power looms.

An engraving of William Mason shown from chest up. William Mason was a machinist and inventor who worked for Colt's.
John Browning? Never heard of her.

The trigger and hand were based on the earlier Colt revolver designs, but Mason designed a new frame, cylinder and barrel. He moved the rear sight from the hammer to the back of the barrel and added the loading gate and ejector rod.

Significant for Colt, none of this Model’s parts would interchange with their previous models, despite the similarity.

In 1872, Colt submitted the revolver to the US Army for the Service Revolver trials. That’s the revolver we’re looking at today, albeit in a replica form from Cimarron.

It has the basic look of the original Colt black powder revolvers, the most noticeable change being the ejector rod and housing instead of the loading lever. Closer inspection shows the rear loading gate and rear sight at the rear of the barrel.

As high-speed and low-drag as this might have been compared to earlier revolvers, the Army rejected the design. The “open top” frame didn’t fill them with a whole lot of confidence. So the Ordnance Department told Colt, “Thanks, but NO!”

Mason looked back to the front-loading revolvers he designed for Remington years earlier and incorporated the top strap, making it a solid frame revolver. He moved the rear sight to the rear of the frame, and while the first prototype was still .44 Henry, he developed a new round called the .45 Colt. This new revolver became the Peacemaker, Model P, Model 1873, Colt .45, Six Shooter, Single Action Army, etc.

The Open-Top of 1871-1872 is one of the rarest production models Colt ever made. It is estimated only 5,000 to 6,000 ever left the factory, and they command five figures in today’s marketplace from collectors due to this obscurity. Still, the .44 Colt cartridge for which it was designed, along with the dimensionally similar .44 Russian, played a role in the development of the better known .44 S&W Special which would evolve into the .44 Magnum some 85 years later.

Thanks to Cimarron, who imports and improves these replicas by Uberti, Pietta, etc., modern shooters can enjoy firearms from that era. We cut down old .44 Magnum and .44 Special cases to form the shorter rounds, but a number of companies are producing loaded ammunition and components for the .44 Colt round.

More importantly, thanks to William Mason for coming up with these sound designs and advancing the development of firearms and American manufacturing.
-Swinging Dick

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richard_magazineAbout the Author: Richard “Swingin’ Dick” Kilgore is half of the most storied celebrity action figure team in the world (and the half that doesn’t prefer BBWs). He believes in American Exceptionalism, America, holding the door for any woman (lady or whore) and the idea that you should be held accountable for what comes out of your fucking mouth. Swingin’ Dick has been a warrior gyrovague for many years now and is, apparently, impossible to kill — he once had a complete body transplant after an IED hit the gun truck in which he was riding. True story, one of the Cav guys mailed his head and arm home. Swingin’ Dick comes from a long line of soldiers and LEOs (his Great Uncle commanded an Air Cav battalion in Vietnam and his many times removed great grandfather was one of the few original Burt Mossman era Arizona Rangers). Swingin’ Dick detests Joy Behar and Chris Matthews almost as much as he enjoys traveling the world to crush crime vice and evil. He believes the opportunity to lead eeeelight team of Breach Bang Clear minions is the most improbably awesome thing an action figure has ever done and he’s immensely proud of his perfect hair.

Loyalty and respect should start from the top down.

Breach Bang Clear Mad Duo Richard Swinging Dick Kilgore

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  1. After being denied a patent extension, White lobbied Congress for relief in 1870, urging Congress to consider that he had not been fairly compensated for his invention; making only $71,000 while Smith & Wesson earned over $1 million for his idea. Furthermore White pointed out that the bulk of his earnings was spent on litigation as others infringed on his idea. Congress passed a bill granting White a rehearing. The act was styled: An act for the relief of Rollin White (S.273).

    The bill passed both houses of congress with no debate, but was vetoed by President Ulysses S. Grant, citing objections from Chief of Ordnance Alexander Brydie Dyer. Dyer claimed that White’s patent litigation during the American Civil War served as “an inconvenience and embarrassment” to Union forces for the “inability of manufacturers to use this patent”. Dyer went on to write that “its further extension will operate prejudicially to its interests by compelling it to pay to parties already well paid a large royalty for altering its revolvers to use metallic cartridges.” No further votes were held and the bill died. Rollin White continued his efforts with Congress, and by 1877 he finally gave up any possibility of extension.

  2. White’s patent was 10 years prior to the Civil War. But he may have been rebuked for expecting royalties from all companies, during the Civil War, rather than allow Colt and Remington to use the patent for free. Sam Colt wasn’t all that interested in cartridge guns, and then during the war he died and lost all interest in anything. Remington paid royalties and made some of their guns to fire rear-loaded cartridges but I’m not sure if this happened during or just after the war.

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