During a recent visit to my local gun shop, I was having a look through one of their cabinets when I spotted something interesting. A Webley-Bentley Revolver from the mid-1850s.
The Webley-Bentley was a double-action only, or as it was then known ‘self-cocking’, percussion revolver and a contemporary of the Adams revolver. Based on lock-work designed by Joseph Bentley the revolver was offered in a series of calibres. The Webley-Bentley was introduced in the mid-1850s and continued to be produced into the 1860s. This particular pistol was sold by R. Jones of Liverpool – remarkably the gun has stayed local for 160 years.
The pistol is a .36 calibre open-top revolver, with a 5-shot percussion cylinder and a hexagonal barrel. On the left side of the pistol is a James Kerr-style rammer for loading. It’s hammer is spurless and the action is double action only. The revolvers also came in larger calibres like .40 and .45.
The overall condition of the revolver wasn’t great, but it had that worn patina of a gun that’s seen some use, which is a charm in itself. The cylinder pawl was a little worn and the timing was a little off, but it still worked and the main spring was strong. On the left side of the revolver is a flat spring catch, held to the frame by a screw, that enables the hammer to be set at half cock, for loading. In this example the post that interfaces with the hammer has long since worn.
My thanks to the Cody Firearms Museum, at the Buffalo Bill Centre of the West, for allowing me to film the revolver. I am very lucky to have handled it as it is normally on display.
The US Patent Office granted Samuel Colt a patent for his ‘Revolving Gun’ in February 1836 (US #9430X). Colt had already patented his design in Britain in October 1835 – at the age of just 21. He subsequently patented his design across Europe and worked with Baltimore gunsmith John Pearson to build a number of prototype revolvers. Colt’s pistol was not the first revolver but it did embody a number of important features combining the use of percussion caps and a bored-out cylinder with a single action trigger mechanism and cylinder locking bar.
With backing from his cousin and other investors Colt established the Patent Arms Company, building afactory in Paterson, New Jersey in late 1836. The Patent Arms Company produced a variety of revolvers in different sizes including pocket, belt and holster models. The .28 calibre Pocket Model No.1 being the smallest and the .36 calibre No.5 holster revolver being the largest. The company produced approximately 2,300 – 2,800 firearms (sources have various estimates on just how many revolvers and revolving rifles were manufactured) before the company collapsed, due to insufficient sales, in 1842.
The Colt Paterson
It was the No.5 which saw the greatest sales with small numbers being purchased by the Texas Rangers, Texan Navy and private citizens. The US Army reportedly tested Colt’s revolver in February and June 1837, finding a number of weaknesses to the design. Despite the approval of President Andrew Jackson the US military remained largely uninterested in the Paterson.
Small numbers of the revolvers were purchased by the U.S. government including 100 for the Navy in 1841 and 50 for the Army in 1845 after the company had collapsed. The Republic of Texas also purchased 180 revolvers for its navy in 1839.
The Paterson has a number of interesting features and lacks some components that would become standard on Colt’s later revolvers. The Patersons had octagonal barrels and were sold in a number of barrel lengths ranging from 2.5 to 9 inches, with 7.5 and 9 inches being the most popular. The barrel assembly attached to the receiver via the cylinder axis pin which was locked together by a wedge – a method which would be used in Colt pistols for over 30 years. They had a small front sight and a notch cut into the hammer that acted as a rear sight. The pistols had no trigger guard, instead they had a folding trigger, which deployed when the weapon was fully cocked. Initially, the Patersons lacked a loading lever beneath the barrel. Instead the cylinder was removed to enable loading and capping with a separate loading tool. Another characteristic of the belt and holster Patersons was their flared pistol grips.
Despite this Colt’s .36 calibre No.5 revolvers proved popular with Texas Rangers, so much so that workers often referred to it as ‘The Texas Arm’, who were frequently engaged in skirmishes with Mexicans and Native Americans. During one engagement with a large Comanche warriors along the Guadeloupe River one ranger recalled: “They were two hundred in number, and fought well and bravely, but our revolvers as fatal as they were astonishing, put them speedily to flight.”
Despite the Patterson’s relatively small calibre, lack of an integral loading arm and the frailties of the design (such as a bent axis pin) the revolver’s five round cylinder offered the men wielding them five times the firepower of their muzzle-loading, single shot pistols.
Despite the limited success of Colt’s revolver the design still needed improvements and Colt became determined that the path to success was through military contracts. Sadly, for Colt there weren’t forthcoming and the Patent Arms Company collapsed in 1841/2.
It was the Mexican–American War (1846-48) that revived Colt’s fortunes. Captain Samuel Walker, of the Texas Rangers and the US Army’s Regiment of Mounted Riflemen, was an admirer of Colt’s revolver having carried them in the field for a number of years. So much so that he wrote to Colt in 1846 saying:
“The pistols which you made… have been in use by the Rangers for three years, and I can say with confidence that it is the only good improvement I have seen. …Without your pistols we would not have had the confidence to have undertaken such daring adventures.”
Subsequently, the US government contracted Colt to produce 1,000 large calibre revolvers, the Model 1847. These huge, robust pistols had a fixed trigger and a loading lever as standard.
In 1847 Colt began manufacturing what has since become known as the ‘Colt Walker’, a large, .44 calibre revolver with a six-shot cylinder, that weighed 4lbs 9oz (2.07kg). He subcontracted the production to Eli Whitney Jr. who set up tooling to manufacture the new pistols. These were issued to the US Army’s mounted regiments including the Texas Mounted Volunteers, the US Mounted Riflemen and Dragoons. The success of the Colt Model 1847 Army Revolver paved the way for Colt’s future success.
Adapted Colt Paterson with Loading Lever
The Colt Paterson was an expensive item when it first appeared on the market, costing between $40 and $50 – well over $1,000 today. So then, as now, it makes sense that people who invested a considerable amount in a revolver would adapt and upgrade it if they could.
Below is another example of a Colt Paterson which was adapted. A No.5 Holster model, serial number 951, which had had its barrel cut down to 5 inches. This was done after it left the factory as the cut interrupts the original factory marker’s markings. The pistol also has a new cone front sight added.
The pistol we are examining in this blog/video, is part of the Cody Firearms Museum’s collection – serial number 954. It had a number of alterations to the revolver, principally the addition of a captive loading lever and a new rear sight. While the Patent Arms Company had begun adding a loading lever to their revolvers in 1839, these were of a different style and shape. Below we can see two original examples of Patent Arms Company factory loading levers.
It appears that loading levers of different designs were used on the post-1839 Patersons. The top revolver appears to use a lever similar to the one later utilised in the Model 1847. Both of the examples above differ significantly to that seen on serial number 954 (below), which is more akin to the loading levers seen on the Colt Model 1848 Percussion Army Revolver (or Colt Dragoon) and the later Model 1851 Navy. The profile of the levers and design and location of the pivot point differ. They both also lack any retention point near the end of the lever. This would suggest that #954’s lever is not a factory addition but something which was added later, copying the 1851 Navy’s retained lever which was patented in September 1850 (US #7,629). On close examination the cap cutout at the rear of the cylinder and the cut into the barrel assembly just in front of the cylinder to facilitate loading appear to differ from Patersons with factory loading levers.
A similar retention latch system can be seen in Colt’s 1850 patent:
As with other Colt percussion revolvers with loading levers, the rammer acts on the 6 o’clock cylinder. To load, the revolver was brought to half cock, powder was poured into the chamber, followed by round ball projectile. This was seated enough to allow it to line up with the rammer and the lever could then be pulled to ram the ball home. The cylinder could then be capped. The 1839 Paterson’s had a scalloped cutout to allow caps to be placed on the cylinder nipples without removing the cylinder.
Interestingly the revolver has a slightly bent rammer but seems to function fine despite this. This is perhaps an indication of hand-fitting by the gunsmith who adapted the revolver.
At some point, perhaps at the same time as the fitting of the lever, a new set of sights were fitted. With a more prominent front sight and a rear notch sight added to the top of the barrel, just in front of the cylinder. This was a feature that the 1851 Navy did not have, and no Colt revolver would have until decades later. The gunsmith appears to have cut the dove tail for the sight though the original decorative scroll engraving surrounding the maker’s mark.
More Photographs of the Adapted Colt Paterson:
Adapted Colt Paterson No.5 Holster Model with contemporary holster (Photo: Matthew Moss, Courtesy of Cody Firearms Museum)
Close up of the Colt Paterson’s brazed on loading lever retention catch (Photo: Matthew Moss, Courtesy of Cody Firearms Museum)
Close up of the serial number, 954, on the CFM’s Paterson No.5 (Photo: Matthew Moss, Courtesy of Cody Firearms Museum)
The revolvers produced at the Patent Arms Company’s Paterson factory in the late 1830s and early 1840s date from a fascinating period of American history, on the cusp of an era dominated by Samuel Colt’s revolvers. While the exact circumstances of the adaptations/upgrades made to the revolver we have examined at the Cody Firearms Museum are unclear it tells us that Colt’s revolvers, even early examples, were highly prized.
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Specifications (for No.5 Holster model, #954):
Overall length: 13.5 in (35cm)
Barrel length: 8 in (20cm)
Capacity: 5-shot cylinder
Weight: ~2lb 10oz (1.2kg)
‘Revolving Gun’, S. Colt, US Patent #9430X, 25 Feb. 1836 (source)
‘Improvement in fire-arms and in the apparatus used therewith’, S. Colt, US Patent #1304, 29 Aug. 1839 (source)
‘Improvement in revolving chambered fire-arms’, S. Colt, US Patent #7629, 10 Sep. 1850 (source)