Whanganui Regional Museum digitisation officer Regan Davis looks very comfortable with an antique sidearm. There’s a certain something in his demeanour that suggests his choice of Vault item was no accident. He has chosen a .36 calibre 1862 model Navy Colt, made in New York and famous throughout the West.
“It is unknown how it came to the museum,” says Regan, “but it was found in the collection in 1959.” He says it’s a ‘cap and ball’, six-shot revolver, using paper cartridges, the forerunner of the metal bullet. “With a velocity of 1000 feet per second,” he says, “it’s comparable to the modern .38 pistol in power.” He says the 1862 model was used during the American Civil War and some of the famous users of the Navy were Wild Bill Hickok, Doc Holliday, Ned Kelly and Robert E Lee.
Regan made this easy by producing pages of research he had conducted into Samuel Colt and the development of the revolver. Regan is a self-professed fan of the old Western films and the actors who starred in them – Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Lee Van Cleef – their characters all appeal to the 19-year-old who says The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is his favourite movie. Eastwood uses a .45 model Navy Colt in the film, hence the appeal of this particular exhibit. The story of the gun and the evolution of the revolver is especially interesting.
Samuel Colt decided early in his life that he would become an inventor and, against all the odds, came up with the ‘impossible gun’, one that could fire a number of times before reloading. It was while he was on a sea voyage, learning the seaman’s trade at the age of 18, that he observed how the captain would use the ship’s wheel. Regardless of which way the wheel was spun, each stroke always came in direct line with a clutch that could be set to hold it … so the revolver was conceived. During the voyage, he made a wooden model of the ‘impossible gun’. His father, Christopher, a textile manufacturer, financed the production of two pistols of Samuel’s design. Unfortunately, believing the idea to be folly, Christopher hired poorly trained and cheap mechanics. One of the guns burst upon firing and the other did not fire at all.
History shows that despite many obstacles and government red tape, Samuel Colt eventually succeeded and his revolvers became the standard handgun. Having taken out a patent on the invention in 1832, Colt was able to build a factory at Hartford, constantly expanding it to keep up with demand.
Samuel Colt died in 1862 at the age of 48. The gun that Regan chose is incomplete and no longer functional, but it still looks impressive and in reasonably good condition.
Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in Juy 2011. Reproduced with permission from the Publishers.