Today we take for granted the many lightweight carry guns out there on the market. Lightweight polymers and alloys combined with high quality steel makes for guns that are as small as ever, yet able to handle potent cartridges. This might seem new, but today’s carry guns are part of an evolution that started with one little handgun, the Colt 1849 Pocket.
A Brief History
Pocket guns existed before the 1849 Colt, but the most practical of these were single and double barreled small flintlock or percussion cap handguns like those made by Henry Deringer. But there was, and always will be, the desire to have a gun that fires more rounds without having to reload. With a deringer or muff pistol, it is one and done.
But the world was changing. Colt’s revolvers had been on the scene since 1835. The earliest, the Patterson, was a commercial failure, but it worked. The big 44 caliber Walker and Dragoon series of pistols really got Colt back into the business for good. These guns were meant for war, but they did find some use with civilians. However, they were huge and heavy. The guns were made of wrought iron and they needed a lot of it to withstand 44 caliber pressures. If Colt was going to survive in peacetime, he needed a small handgun to market to civilians. In the era before economical steel manufacture, the only way was to reduce the caliber.
In 1848, Colt put out the Baby Dragoon revolver. It was a shrunken version of the 44 caliber Dragoon in Army service at the time. It was a 5 shot 31 caliber revolver, but it was a pain to load. Most of these little guns did not have a loading lever, so the gun had to be disassembled in order to load. After adding a loading lever and some other minor improvements, the Colt 1849 was born.
With rapid Western expansion and the California Gold Rush in full swing, the little gun sold like hotcakes, often selling for a few hundred dollars out West. But, it was worth it for a five shooter you can stick in your pocket. And the fan base kept growing, to the East Coast.
The fledgling police departments in the US at the time carried no firearms, but that changed when the Baltimore Police Department began issuing the 1849 Colt to each of their officers. No longer did a policeman have to rely on a club or a cheap single shot pistol. Other departments, would inevitably follow suit.
Colt’s new revolver also proved popular in other corners of the world thanks to Colt’s factory in London. They would see use with adventurer and civilian alike in all corners of the British Empire.
But when one thinks of a percussion revolver, often it brings up images of the American Civil War (1861-65). However, the little 31 was never considered for military issue. The guns were privately purchased by men on both sides and were well regarded, though not as powerful as the 36 and 44 caliber guns in service.
Despite the lack of a military endorsement, the Colt 1849 is still Colt’s most popular percussion revolver with over 330,000 made when production finally ended in 1873. Colt occasionally reissues the gun, but Uberti has taken up the helm to produce this classic.
With so many Colt 1849s out there, even 150 years after their heyday, they are a collector’s dream and came in quite a few different types. They generally came with a 3-6 inch barrel and with or without a loading lever.
Uberti’s 1849 Colt features a blued 4 inch octagonal barrel complete with a steel loading lever and open top frame that is case hardened. The stagecoach engraved cylinder is also blued steel and has a five shot capacity with a single safety pin that allows the hammer to rest in between chambers to prevent accidental discharge.
The 1849 is a single action revolver that requires the hammer to be cocked all the way back for each shot. Cocking the hammer exposes a notch rear sight on the hammer face that is lined up with a brass bead front sight. The gun has a single piece walnut grip inlayed in the brass grip frame.
The barrel is held in with a screw tensioned wedge that mates with the robust cylinder pin.
The 1849 is all things typical for a Colt percussion revolver, but is much smaller, at just 23 ounces. That does not seem lightweight now, but at the time, that was a big deal.
Loading and shooting the 1849 Colt was a fun experience, but it also gave me and anyone else who enjoys percussion revolvers, a sense of what people had to go through in the 19th century beyond just historic writings.
Loading the 1849 Colt is a little more cumbersome than larger percussion revolvers just due to the small size, especially without the convenience of paper cartridges these revolvers were designed to accept. Loading goes as follows:
1) Pull the hammer back to half-cock so that the cylinder can rotate freely.
2) Drop a premeasured charge of black powder in each chamber, rotating the cylinder as you go along.
3) Drop a lead round ball on the mouth of a chamber and rotate it under the loading lever. Unlatch the lever and push the ball into the chamber. If you happen to have a conical bullet, it should be started slightly in the chamber mouth before ramming. A ring of lead should be shaved off, indicating a tight ball fit. This tight fit prevents chain firing, a condition in which an undersized ball is used and flame from another cylinder would make its way into other cylinders and past the ball, resulting in detonating multiple chambers at once.
4) Putting some form of grease or shortening over the chamber mouths or using wads beneath the ball is an optional step in the loading process. This does not prevent chainfires, like what is often stated, but it keeps black powder residue soft and allowing for easier cleaning and the ability to fire far more shots.
5) Place a No. 10 percussion cap on each of the nipples snugly. At this point, the gun is ready to fire by simply pulling the hammer back to full-cock.
Loading in 15 grains of FFFg was a little awkward, due to the small 32 caliber holes, but it seems there is plenty of room left for the ball, which is easier to load, despite the short length of the loading lever. The lever also has a positive catch on the barrel so it will not fall down under recoil. For the long term shooting I had planned, I greased the chamber mouths with Crisco after seating all the balls.
Seating the percussion caps proved to be tricky. The recess in the recoil shield where I can get my fingers in to slide caps onto the individual nipples was, in a word, small. But with some fumbling on my part, they were seated. I like to push the caps further onto the nipples with a dowel rod for sure fire ignition.
The 1849 feels excellent in the hand, with a similar grip used on the 1851 Navy, and later the Colt Peacemaker. For a small gun, it is downright pointable with little need for the sights.
Speaking of the sights, like all percussion revolvers, they are very fine just do not jump out. Cocking the hammer takes instinctive effort and it reveals the rear notch on the hammer nose. Line it up with the small brass bead front sight and squeeze the trigger.
Trigger pull on my particular example comes in at 4 lbs. 2 oz.
Firing was done at 7 yards on paper and 25 yards on steel 8 inch plates. First, I took to steel scoring just 2 shots out of 10 with most of the rounds sailing well over the plate without that satisfying metallic ping.
I should have gone to paper first, which I eventually did. At a more appropriate 7 yard distance, the little gun put the balls where they needed to go in a six inch group, some fifteen inches from where I was aiming. This is typical for percussion revolvers to be sighted for 75 yards, even the pocket models! I thank the very mild recoil of the 31 caliber defensive load and a good trigger pull for the group.
How about power? My chronograph picked up my 3 shot average using 15 grains of Graf’s FFFg and a cast .321″ 50 grain round ball traveling at a leisurely 717 feet per second. About 22 LR in power, yet effective in its time.
Loading and shooting was fun, but what else did I learn?
1) Cap jams suck.
2) The Colt keeps on working.
Cap jams are a common failing of Colt’s open top system of revolvers. Spent caps have a tendency of falling into the action under the hammer, creating failures to fire the next round or worse, gumming up the action. This is because the notch in the hammer face intended for the safety pins pull the caps off the nipples after the firing pressure back the caps into that space. This is solved with good aftermarket nipples or a bit of epoxy to fill in the gap on the hammer face. An old fix was to raise the pistol over the head and cock the gun, so the spent cap falls clear of the action. Quite unnatural, if I do say so myself. I am only interested in how the gun performs. Out of the box. So no mods. So, some cap jams happened.
Despite this, the Colt revolvers were more popular in the American Civil War than the more closed action Remington and others. Why? Well, part of it was Samuel Colt’s nack for business and another part of it was that the open design was more tolerant of black powder fouling. All that black powder shooting makes a lot of soot and that does bad things to guns over a period of shooting. The little Colt 1849 kept chugging at round 60 as it did on round 1. I never fired so many rounds out of a percussion revolver at any one time, but the 1849 took to prolonged shooting well.
A Note About Bullet Selection and Safety Pins
31 caliber revolvers will take a 32 caliber bullet and as a general rule, oversized bullets are best for good accuracy and preventing those chainfires I mentioned earlier. In general, a .321″ or .323″ diameter projectile will work with a shaving of lead being produced by each seating of the bullet. The maximum charge of black powder used in these little 31s will be 15 grains of FFFg or an appropriate substitute powder. Why? Because the chambers are simply too small for anymore. These little guns sacrifice powder capacity for their size. A lead round ball of about 50 grains is the most common fodder today, though a 70 grain conical bullet was offered in the past and in some current bullet molds that you can cast yourself. By far, the lead ball offers the most velocity and it is quite easy to buy. Simple O buckshot used in shotguns is great food for the little 31.
Now that we have safe loading out of the way, safe carrying is next. Because there is no hammer block safety like on modern guns, the 1849 should be carried on an empty chamber. If you insist on loading all five chambers, there is a single safety pin set in between two chambers that allows the hammer to drop on it and interact with a notch in the face of the hammer. This locks up the gun and prevents the hammer from striking a cap and accidentally setting off the pistol.
Despite that the 31 caliber has little power and sensitivity to cap jams, it is easy to see why a traveling lady or a Civil War guerilla would want such a diminutive little pistol and Uberti brings that brilliance to modern shooters today with their fine replica. Given, that more Colt 1849 pockets were sold than any other percussion revolver, says that the gun must have gotten something right. It was the first true pocket or vest gun that gave you more ammunition and was more reliable than the alternatives.
Despite never seeing official military use, the little Colt Pocket worked and endured with many still around today. The Uberti Colt 1849 lived up to the originals in aesthetic beauty and performance. It turns heads at the range and its accuracy is on par with any modern pistol. Small game hunting and reenacting are a no brainer, but enjoyment is where the Uberti Colt 1849 really is. It is just plain fun and a reminder that in our quest for a smaller gun that holds more ammo is still on today, a trend started by the humble little five gun.