“The mid-1850s was a revolutionary time for small arms development around the world, and the United States was no exception. The US Army had already adopted the percussion revolver in limited numbers for the US Mounted Rifles and US Dragoons by acquiring Colt “Dragoon”, .44 caliber “holster” (as in pommel holster) revolvers in 1848.
The US Navy, however, remained steadfast in their belief single shot, muzzle-loading pistols were sufficient for the use of their seamen.
In 1851 Colt introduced his “belt revolver”, a slimmed down, lighter weight, 6-shot .36 caliber handgun that would become known by its year of introduction as the M-1851 revolver.
The number of Colt’s .36 caliber M-1851 revolvers purchased by the US Navy was rather limited. While Colt had vigorously lobbied the Navy to purchase his revolving pistols during the early 1850’s, he met with significant resistance. He did manage to secure an order for 100 revolvers in June of 1852 for the use of Commander Perry’s command on his voyage to Japan.
However, the general belief of the Naval Ordnance Department was that pistols were only of use while boarding an enemy ship, and in those circumstances edged weapons such as sabers or axes were of more use to the typical seaman. In fact the chief of Naval Ordnance,Commodore Morris wrote to Secretary of the Navy James Dobbin on June 21, 1854, noting in part:
“It has not been considered advisable heretofore, to purchase Colts revolvers for general service……….Pistols can seldom be used with effect in the Navy, except when boarding vessels, with the view to their capture, which very rarely occurs. At such time,
the contest soon becomes hand to hand when sword or boarding hatchets could be used by seamen, with equal, if not greater certainty and effect than pistols.”
Colt was not to be discouraged, and ever the consummate salesman, he did manage to sell the Navy 50 of his M-1851 revolvers in June of 1856 and an additional 50 revolvers in May of 1857. In September of that year, the Navy finally placed a large order for M-1851 revolvers. They purchased 2,000 (less the ones that had been previously ordered), which were delivered starting in November of 1857. The first 615 were delivered for inspection at the Norfolk Naval Yard on November 9, 1857. The next batch of 667 were delivered to the Boston Naval Yard on December 6, and rest of the guns were delivered to the New York Navy Yard later that same month.
The Navy placed a second order for an additional 600 M-1851s in August of 1859. With half of the guns delivered to the New York Naval Yard and the other half delivered to the Boston Naval Yard.
The USN purchased Colt M-1851 revolvers were unique in that they were specifically ordered with iron backstraps and trigger guards. This is particularly interesting because the standard production revolvers had brass backstraps and trigger guards, which were less likely to be damaged by the corrosive salt air environment the revolvers would be exposed to in service.
By 1860, Colt M-1851 revolvers were listed in the small arms inventories of nearly 30 US Naval vessels.
In 1873 General W.B. Franklin, Vice President of Colt, offered to upgrade existing stocks of M-1851 and M-1861 Navy revolvers to centerfire cartridge via the Richards-Mason conversion system for $3.50 each. In a July 10, 1873 letter to Franklin, USN Chief
of Ordnance William N. Jeffers accepted the offer from Colt and noted that he had “…advised the Commandant(s) of the Boston, New York and Philadelphia Navy Yards to send to your
manufactory 100, 400 and 300 pistols respectively for alteration".
Thus began the process by which some 2,097 US Navy owned .36 caliber Colt percussion revolvers were altered to metallic cartridge by the Richards-Mason system. The guns were all altered to .38 Long Colt.