Evolution of the Military Revolver


Today we are going to explore a family of weapons that was the latest thing in the 19th century, and still has quite a following today, even if they are, generally speaking, obsolete. We're talking about revolvers, specifically military and ordnance revolvers.

The revolver begins with a simple enough idea, back when most practical firearms were muzzleloaders: to get a higher rate of fire, add more guns. The earliest revolvers were match and flintlock firearms were multiple barrels that could be rotated manually. Some very nice examples even had revolving cylinders, as early as the 1580's. In the 1700's, two and three barreled flintlock pistols with rotating barrels became popular with the wealthy, each barrel having its own action. These kinds of early revolvers were all handmade, and between the complexity of the design, and the quality of craftsmanship needed to realize it, these guns were phenomenally expensive, and thus restricted to the very wealthy. As a result, they didn't catch on.

In the early 19th century, particularly after the invention of the percussion cap, multi barrel hand rotated revolvers called pepperboxes became popular civilian self defense weapons, particularly in England and America. These provided a higher rate of fire than single shot pistols, but had the drawbacks of increased complexity and the risk of chain fire, where all the barrels detonate at once.

In 1836 Samuel Colt patented his single-barrel, rotating cylinder, firearm, the Colt Paterson. Between Sam Colt's marketing skill, and the production capacity stemming from Industrialization, Colt's designs caught on particularly in the US and Britain. While prior types of revolvers were handmade and expensive, and thus not useful for general army issue, Colt's advanced manufacturing techniques helped to keep the costs down, and Colt designs saw widespread military adoption. Subsequent Colt designs, including the Walker, and 1851 Navy, and the 1860 Army were popular and widely used, in Texas, in the Crimean War, the US Civil War, and even the Franco-Prussian. These were percussion revolvers, using loose powder and ball, to distinguish from the later cartridge revolvers.


These types of revolvers, including the Colt 1851 and 1860, as well as the Remington 1858, are muzzleloaders, and as a result don't fall under the legal definition of firearms in US Federal law. Because of that, combined with the patents being long expired, these guns are still widely produced (as fully functional reproductions) and readily available for collectors and hobbyists.

The Colt Army Model 1860 is a 6 shot, percussion revolver in .44 caliber. It could be loaded with loose powder and ball, but it was also sometimes used with paper cartridges using highly flammable paper, to allow for quicker loading. In addition to the powder and ball, each chamber has a nipple on the hammer-side for a percussion cap for ignition. Reloading is complex enough that it is often faster to reload by disassembling the gun, removing the cylinder, and replacing it with an already loaded cylinder. In addition, the risk of chain fire, like in a pepperbox, is still present, but a chain fire in a Colt could cause the gun to explode with serious risk to the shooter (as opposed to the unplanned volley that a chain fire causes in a pepperbox). As a result, a shooter will generally attempt to insulate the powder charge with lubricated wad, or even filling the rest of each cylinder with grease after loading.

Colt revolvers, up through the Civil War, were limited by their lack of fixed, cased ammunition (although that was really because of patents), but the idea of using metallic casings dates back earlier. An early form of metallic casing revolver, that was very popular in Europe, although not quite so much in the US, was the Pinfire revolver. The Pinfire system was designed in the 1820's-1830's, cartridge design patented in 1836 by Casimir Lefaucheux. The metallic pinfire cartridges were developed in 1846, the Lefaucheux Navy Revolver was adopted by the French navy in 1858.


Pinfire revolvers became popular and widespread in the 1850's and 1860's, mostly in Europe, and remained in use through the turn of the century, despite obsolescence.

The pinfire system uses a metallic case, with a primer inside the case, near the base. A firing pin is included as part of the case, and sticks out the side at a 90 degree angle. When loaded, the pins stick out the sides of the cylinder, but are protected by a lip on the guns frame, in front of the pistol grip. The pin is only exposed when under the hammer, with the chamber lined up with the barrel.

To modern collectors, pinfire revolvers are kind of a curiosity; the ammunition is almost completely unobtainable, and complex to home manufacture, even to experienced reloaders, so surviving guns (which are not particularly uncommon) are mostly just for display.

At the time of the US Civil War, smaller caliber rimfire revolvers were starting to find some popularity with the civilian population, but centerfire cartridges had not quite been invented yet. That changed in 1866, with Hiram Berdan's centerfire cartridge design, and Edward Boxer's design in 1869. Reloadable and easily manufactured centerfire cartridges quickly rendered cap-and-ball and pinfire designs obsolete, and centerfire cartridge based variations and evolutions of existing designs quickly proliferated. In the US the most notable was the 1873 Colt Single Action Army, famed peacemaker of the Old West, and US Army sidearm for most of the rest of the 19th century.


In Europe, 10mm to 11mm ordnance revolvers replaced the earlier pinfire revolvers, and designs like the Reichsrevolver (1879), French Chamelot-Delvigne (1873), British Beaumont-Adams Mk II, and Italian Bodeo came into prominence. Much easier to reload and maintain than the earlier systems, many of these revolvers remained popular through the World Wars, just as the Single Action Army is still a popular design today, despite its deficiencies compared to modern semi-auto pistols.

The final development of military revolvers began after the stabilization of nitro-cellulose in 1886. Smokeless powder was first applied to rifles, but soon after was also used in handguns, allowing for smaller caliber pistols with the same power as the larger black powder guns had. Many of the initial smokeless ordnance revolvers were actually evolutions of the earlier black powder designs, including the Chamelot-Delvigne and the Webley.

The Model 1892 revolver, often referred to as the Lebel or St. Etienne 8mm, was adopted in 1892, and is basically a smaller bore, smokeless powder version of the 1873 Chamelot-Delvigne. A six-shot revolver, the cylinder flips out to the right for loading and unloading quickly. It saw extensive use in French colonial actions, both World Wars, and all the way into the 1950's with the Legion, including in Algeria and French Indochina (Vietnam).

Outwardly very similar to the Model 1892, the Russian 1895 Nagant revolver is typical of 1890's European ordnance revolvers (Swedish, Swiss, and Japanese revolvers are also quite similar, although each have their variations).

The 1895 is a 7 shot revolver, loading one round at a time from a loading gate on the right side. Chamber in 7.62mm (.30 caliber), the Nagant cartridges are strange, as the bullet is recessed half way into the case, intended to use the extended case to complete the gas seal during firing. Whether it made a difference is undecided, but the pistol remained in widespread use by Soviet forces through World War II, and can still be likely found in the hands of rural Siberian police today.

The Webley revolver had replaced the Beaumont-Adams in British service, chambered in a heavy .455 caliber cartridge, initially black powder but quickly updated to smokeless. Various Webley designs served through World War I, and the Mark IV was in service by World War II. With the Mark IV, there was a version in .455 Webley, but also a smaller version in .380/200, which is dimensionally the same as .38 Smith & Wesson.

Webley's are top-break revolvers, holding 6 rounds, and automatically ejecting spent casings when the cylinder is opened.

Revolvers saw their heyday of military service during the later half of the 19th century before being sidelined by semi-automatic pistols, although many, many, revolvers saw service in the World Wars, and later as police weapons almost to the present. Revolvers, both old and new, remain popular with civilian shooters, and as reserve carry or home defense guns.

Revolvers do have the advantage over semi-auto pistols of being capable of firing far more powerful cartridges, although the wisdom of firing a revolver in 45/70 may be questioned.


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