The Colt Dragoon Revolver is a strangely romanticized gun. While it is exciting as ranking among one of the first true six shooters, its true history, brutal intentions and grim design are no Wild West fantasy. And yet it shows up in John Wayne and Clint Eastwood Westerns,
Charles Portis’ True Grit,
Cormac Mccarthy’s Blood Meridian,
and on and on. It is a sexy-ugly gun in our pop culture it seems.
A collaborative creation between Captain Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers and Samuel Colt, the Walker Colt – the Dragoon’s forefather – was commissioned for the Rangers to use in close range battle without dismounting.
Captain Walker needed a handgun that was extremely powerful in close quarters, could be carried in a saddle holster like a pistol, but it must be a revolver to allow its wielder to fire multiple shots without reloading. He wanted to increase the weapon’s caliber from .36 to .44 or .45 if possible so as to destroy both the enemy the horses they rode on. In 1846 the world saw the first 6 shooter. Named after the man who commissioned it, the handgun was known as the Colt Walker.
It was as powerful as Captain Walker could have asked for. In fact it was more powerful than any other handgun in existence, using nearly twice the gunpowder charge of any handgun in each of its chambers. The Walker Colt was the most powerful handgun bar none between 1847 and 1935 when the first .357 magnum came on the stage.
Of course there were design flaws. The loading lever, a slim hinged rod attached beneath the gun barrel that tamped each round into its chamber over gun powder, was not secured well. With the recoil of each shot the lever often fell, jamming the action and necessitating a “Walker slap” to return the lever to place. The cylinders, the barrels containing the bullet chambers, were extremely long and prone to overloading with black powder by troops who had never seen much less used a revolver before. All of this combined with Rangers often loading the new conical bullets backward and the untrustworthy metallurgy of the time led to a wide spread problem of ruptured cylinders. Not to mention they were simply enormously heavy, weighing in at 4 lbs 9 oz.
Nevertheless the popularity of the original Walker Colt and its slight variation (the Whitneyville Colts) as it found a method of “mass production” through a subcontract with Eli Whitney Blake, was rampant. Blake was nephew to the cotton gin inventor. But Whitney senior went far beyond that first invention to pioneer in manufacturing, inventing the modern assembly line, and promoted the concept of interchangeable parts. His nephew assisted him in building their gun factory at Whitneyville, Connecticut.
With the great success of the Whitneyville Walker Colts, the Colt reputation was made and Samuel was later able to build his own Colt factory. Over the next few years Colt would refine the weapon that made his name. Between the Walker and the first model Dragoon there were roughly 240 improved models produced, all between 1847 and 1848. The Dragoon itself began life as the Colt Model 1848 Percussion Army Revolver. It solved many of the problems of the Walker. The loading lever catch was redesigned to clamp it tightly through the hardest recoil. The barrel was reduced from 9 to 7.5 inches to lighten the gun’s weight and make it less unwieldy. The chambers were smaller, allowing about 15% less gunpowder to reduce the issue of ruptured cylinders. Originally ordered for the United States Mounted Militia (known as “Dragoons”) this model was popularly known as the Colt Dragoon.
Now don’t go imagining this was the six shooter as we know it today. These handguns were much closer in the family tree to muskets than the high noon quick draw pistols we think of as revolvers. Just prepping this baby for combat was an exercise in patience. The Dragoon’s 6 chambers had to be carefully loaded, one at a time with the correct amount of gunpowder, count those grains – too much powder and cylinder goes boom in your hands.
Believe me I’ve watched this done – it’s excruciating and what comes next is even worse. Each conical bullet can now be placed into the chambers over the powder, making sure that they face pointed tip out – tip pointed wrong way and it jams – cylinder goes boom in your hands. Once the cylinder is loaded and rolled back in place, the loading leaver is unclipped from the barrel and used to tamp each bullet firmly into its chamber. After this is done 6 mind-numbing times the lever is clipped back in place and caps are placed on the nipples that protrude behind the rotating chambers. Now the hammer can be locked back in placed. Yee Hah! You are now ready to shoot em up. Better make those 6 shots count. How the hell you’re going to reload in the heat of battle is way beyond me.
The Dragoon would go on to evolve at least twice more before Colt moved on to develop the next handgun series the Colt Model 1860. But here I’ll stop with the handgun history. I’m really only interested in the early Dragoons and our fascination with them in fiction. I’ll be honest I like the rough, almost vulgar directness they seem to imply with just the way they look. The plain pitted iron attached to a simple wooden butt – no fancy carving or curlicues for this weapon. This tool is for one thing only, killing.
Which is weird because I’m not a gun person. I don’t own any. I don’t shoot them. They sort of scare me on most levels. But reading about them in books and watching Westerns or any combination of Western/Sci-Fi/Horror movie…love it. What is that about? Fertile soil for all you self-styled shrinks out there.
So of course this leads to Evangeline. You didn’t think I’d fill my brain with all of this stuff for general gun enthusiasm purposes. She’ll be using some firepower in her fight against evil. A matched pair, a la just about any Clint Eastwood Western I can think of. I chose the Colt Dragoon for its plainness, its ruthless power, and because it was a gun that was roughly period appropriate. Yeah I’m tweaking things a bit but I’ll try to make the tweaks part of the story whenever possible.
It just feels like a weapon Evangeline would choose. Something no nonsense to get the job done, and boy does she need to get it done. Of course the bullets she’ll be using will be special order. But that’s something I’ll be saving for the book.