Throughout the storied history of Colt's, there has been a succession of illustrious models, from the innovative Paterson revolvers of the late 1830s to the 1860 Army--the principal sidearm of Civil War Union officers--to the1873 Peacemaker and Model 1911 A1, the most distinguished military sidearm in American history. One of the more interesting footnotes in the company's story, however, began in 1971, when it made the unprecedented decision to re-introduce a model it had last built in 1873. With the reintroduction of the legendary 1851 Navy--a gun made famous by James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok--Colt's embarked on an 11-year odyssey that would result in one of the most popular and collectible series the Hartford, Connecticut, armsmaker would ever produce.
The tale of the 2nd Generation Colt black-powder line actually began in the late 1950s with Val Forgett, founder of Navy Arms, and Italian gunmakers Vittorio Gregorelli and Aldo Uberti. They chose the Colt 1851 Navy as the first percussion revolver to be reproduced in Italy in 1958.
After a dozen years and thousands of Colt reproductions, the success of the Italian-made '51 Navy--which Aldo Uberti frequently supplied to filmmaker Sergio Lione and Clint Eastwood for early spaghetti westerns--had finally come to the attention of the company that invented it.
There have been countless tales how Colt's dusted off the old tooling from the 1851 and began manufacturing new guns at Hartford, which would have been very interesting had the tooling not been destroyed when a fire razed most of the factory on Feb. 4, 1864. As for the tooling used to make the later percussion models produced through 1873, it was simply discarded over the years, so Colt's could never have brought back the 1851 Navy, or any other percussion era model had it not been for Forgett, Uberti and, ultimately, Lou Imperato.
Imperato, who founded Colt Blackpowder Arms Co. in 1993 (which produced the 3rd Generation Colt Blackpowder line through 2002), recalls that Forgett sold Colt's the components (rough castings) to build the first 2nd Generation 1851 Navy revolvers, which were completed at the Hartford factory from 1971 through 1973. The first C Series 1851 Navy repros included the now collectible Grant and Lee Navy sets. However, late in 1973 Colt's decided to seek a new supplier of components and the following year Lou Imperato, its largest American distributor, took over.
The company's enthusiasm for the percussion revolvers was obvious in its decision to place the new Third Model Dragoon on the cover of its 1974 sales catalog. The Dragoon and Navy models were listed along with the Python, Detective Special, Cobra, Agent, Diamondback, Trooper MKIII, Official Police MKIII, Lawman MKIII, 1873 Peacemaker Single Action Army models, and semi-autos. Unfortunately, labor disputes delayed the Dragoon in 1974, causing Colt's to take the unprecedented step of re-announcing the Dragoon model in 1975, when deliveries actually began.
The relationship with Imperato continued until Colt's discontinued the first series of percussion revolvers in 1976. This, however, was not the end of the black-powder line.
In 1973 Lou Imperato had purchased the Iver Johnson Arms Company in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. A year after Colt's discontinued the black-powder line, Imperato moved the Iver Johnson works to Middlesex, New Jersey, and approached Colt's with the idea of producing an entire line of black-powder pistols, which the Italians had been doing successfully since the late 1950s. He came in with both barrels blazing, so to speak, reprimanding Colt's management. "[They're] your guns and everyone else is getting rich on them and you're not out there." He showed them a display of various black-powder models and they were once again intrigued--but as before, had no way of manufacturing. The timing could not have been better for Imperato. He signed a deal with Colt's and Iver Johnson to produce a new line of black-powder models.
It was in Middlesex that all F Series standard production models were manufactured as The Authentic Colt Blackpowder Series. These new F Series 2nd Generation models came in black cardboard boxes with dark gray foam rubber inserts and featured Sam Colt's portrait and signature on the lid and end label.
Unlike their first arrangement, Imperato was now responsible for the entire production of Colt black-powder models. "They were all hand-fitted. There was no way to do mass production," explains Imperato. "We had the barrels, cylinders and backstraps cast in Italy (as Forgett had done), but we finished them off in-house. We made the frames, the center pins, nipples, all of the screws, springs, and built every F Series gun at Iver Johnson Arms. We even used the old style color-case hardening method with the charcoal and bone meal, and Colt's exclusive Colt Blue Finish. They turned out pretty good. In fact, I think our finishes were actually better than Colt's single actions being done in Hartford."
Under the subcontractor agreement to produce 2nd Generation percussion models, Imperato's responsibilities were to manufacture the revolvers to Colt's strict specifications, then ship the finished product to its Hartford facilities. Colt's then performed final inspection and shipped the revolvers to distributors. This is why Colt historical letters for 2nd Generation percussion revolvers contain exactly the same type of information one finds in letters for original percussion models, Single Action Armys and other models.
Somewhat out of historical sequence, Colt's skipped the First and Second Model Dragoons (later introduced in 1980), and following the 1851 Navy and Third Model Dragoon, next brought out the popular 1860 Army model in November, 1978.
Sam Colt designed the original 1860 Army to be nearly the same size as the 1851 Navy, but in .44, with nearly as much punch as a Dragoon. Colt used the same basic frame as the Navy, but with a slightly longer backstrap and grip, a new rebated cylinder (milled larger in diameter approximately three-quarters of an inch forward of the breech to allow for the larger caliber), and a beautifully contoured, round 8-inch barrel. Bearing the same roll-engraved battle scene as the '51 Navy, it was an immediate success.
"Approximately 129,000 Model 1860 revolvers were issued to U.S. troops for Civil War service--several thousand of them equipped with an attachable shoulder stock, an accessory to allow firing the arm as a carbine," says Colt historian and author R. L. Wilson. "The U.S. government purchased more 1860 Army revolvers than any other model of Colt or any other make of black-powder revolver. This was the staple handgun of the Civil War, and played the same role in the Plains Indian wars, until succeeded by the Colt Peacemaker .45...in 1873."
Some 200,500 1860 Armys were manufactured, making it the third-highest production Colt up to that time.
The Colt black-powder 2nd Generation reprise of the 1860 Army remained in production until 1982 and was offered in a variety of models. The original 1860 style with rebated cylinder was manufactured from November 1978 to November 1982; also with an electroless nickel finish in 1982; with a fluted cylinder from July 1980 through October 1981; and in stainless steel from January 1982 to April 1982.
Colt's also produced a number of special edition Army models. One series was commissioned by the Hodgdon Powder Company in 1979 to commemorate the Butterfield Overland Stage. This was limited to 500 guns with a shortened 51⁄2-inch barrel, and came with an extra cylinder in a French book-style case. Another dozen 1860 Armys were finished in bright nickel and fitted with ivory stocks in 1984. A total of 3001 U.S. Cavalry 200th Anniversary double pistol sets, cased with a shoulder stock and accessories, were produced beginning in 1977. In 1979 a series of 500 cased 1860 Army models were built, and in 1980 a special Interstate Edition of 200 guns, making the Army the most varied of the 2nd Generation.