WTW: Colt Model 1878 and the Pistol Caliber Carbine

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Weapon Trivia Wednesday: Colt Model 1878 and the Pistol Caliber Carbine

Mike the Mook

Colt’s Model of 1878 was the firm’s second double action revolver and went on to become a military issued handgun for a brief period some 25 years after its invention. It was also the second handgun in Colt’s lineup to be manufactured in a caliber that could interchange with lever-action rifles of the day. Almost 150 years later it’s one of the reasons shooters clamor for “Pistol Caliber Carbines” (’cause interchangeability).

Samuel Colt had tinkered with double-action revolvers when he founded his company in 1847, but found the design to be lacking and unreliable. Thirty years later, Colt’s Patent Firearms would turn out their first double-action revolver: the M1877, better known as the Thunderer or Lightning model, depending upon caliber (41 Colt and 38 Colt respectively).

This was a graceful small frame revolver best suited for concealment, but the trigger and lock work were considered to be fragile. It proved popular enough that Colt’s clientele clamored for a larger frame version and in 1878 William Mason, Colt’s factory manager, and Charles Brinckerhoff Richards, Superintendent of Engineering, developed a more robust design based on their first large framed effort: the Model 1873, better known as the Single Action Army (SAA) or “Peacemaker”.

Essentially a strut was added to connect the hammer and trigger to the design of the SAA. The lock work was more closely related to their previous M1877 design but the parts were larger, making for a more robust handgun. Some of these parts are interchangeable with the SAA.

The M1878 went by the catalog name of “Frontier Six Shooter” when chambered in .44 WCF (44-40). Other calibers offered included the .45 Colt, .38 WCF (38-40), .32 WCF (32-20), .455 Webley and .476 Eley. Colt manufactured 51,210 Model 1878 revolvers between 1878 and 1907, including 4,600 for the US Ordnance Department in 1902.

These revolvers went off to arm the Philippine Constabulary under Brigadier General Henry T. Allen during the Philippine Insurrection. They were chambered in the Army’s .45 Colt round and had a modification which leads to confusion and misinformation that persists to this day.

Fourteen years of complaints about the heavy and still somewhat fragile trigger system prompted the Army to demand a longer trigger for more leverage and a heavier mainspring to handle the harder primers of military ammunition. A new and larger trigger guard was designed to accommodate this. The appearance of this large trigger guard has led to the incorrect assumption by collectors and historians alike that it was to allow the revolver to be fired while wearing heavy winter gloves; this misconception yields the patently false name of the “Alaskan Model” for these variants.

Sadly, many of these old revolvers haven’t survived. Huge numbers were melted down in the 1940s for the World War 2 effort, many more were given to children to play with as the ammunition became something of a rarity in the 20th century.

Yet their legacy lives on, to the detriment of shooters.

Remember when we said they were chambered in .44 WCF and .38 WCF? Those were two low-pressure rifle rounds Winchester used in various lever-action rifles of the day. The earlier Single Action Army revolver had been chambered in these rounds as well, so shooters could interchange ammunition between handgun and carbine. Just like the myriad of PCC’s that feed from Glock mags right now.

This had more merit 140 years ago, particularly if you were driving a herd across open range, prospecting for gold or making your way west. Supply chains back then were not what they were now and you had limitations on what you could haul by mule or pack horse. The other factor was that loaded ammunition was coming into its own, and the invention of smokeless powder in 1898 would make these combinations mostly obsolete. They hung on for a few years and they’re fun for recreational shooters today, but for the most part the pistol caliber lever action carbine started to trail off after rounds like the 30-30 Winchester and .38-55 came along.

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If you are toting a seven-pound long gun, would you want its effective range to be around 200 yards or closer to 600 yards, particularly when you’re not limited to what you can load on the back of a mule?

-Mike



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Mike Searson

Mike “the Mook” Searson is a veteran writer who began his career in firearms at the Camp Pendleton School for Destructive Boys at age 17. He has worked in the firearms industry his entire life, writing about guns and knives for numerous publications and consulting with the film industry on weapons while at the same time working as gunsmith and ballistician. Though seemingly a surly curmudgeon shy a few chromosomes at first meeting, Searson is actually far less of a dick and at least a little smarter than most of the Mad Duo’s minions. He is rightfully considered to be not just good company, but actually fit for polite company as well (though he has never forgotten his roots as a rifleman trained to kill people and break things, and if you look closely you’ll see his knuckles are still quite scabbed over from dragging the ground). You can learn more about him on his website or follow him on Twitter, @MikeSearson. [huge_it_gallery id="19"]


Mike Searson has 94 posts and counting. See all posts by Mike Searson

One thought on “WTW: Colt Model 1878 and the Pistol Caliber Carbine

  • March 29, 2017 at 5:49 pm
    Permalink

    “Maybe your friends get me in a rush, but not before I turn your head into a canoe.”

    “He’s bluffing.”

    “No, he ain’t.”

    I liked this Colt even before it was used in the movie.

    Reply

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