Horse pistol. Smoke wagon. Hog leg. Shootin’ iron. The words carry potent symbolism, and conjure images of both the real and the Hollywood versions of the American West, with names like Sam Colt and Wild Bill Hickock, Jack Palance and Randolph Scott (or “Raaa-aaan-dolph Scott” for us Mel Brooks fans). If there’s such a thing as the grumpy, cantankerous Grandpa Gun of the Wild West, it’s got to be the 1847 Colt Walker.
The Walker was the first commercially-produced large caliber revolver, and it spawned a lineage of almost-as-huge pistols that bore the ominous, yet very cool title of Colt Dragoon. Its basic operating system eventually gave rise to the Colt 1873, also known as the Peacemaker, the quintessential old West pistol.
Samuel Hamilton Walker, of the United States Mounted Rifles, wanted a big honkin’ handgun for the war with Mexico, and sent the specs back to Sam Colt, the designer of the 1836 Colt Patterson revolver. The Patterson was a graceful little thing in .28 and later .36 caliber. It had a complicated, delicate trigger that dropped down into firing position only when the pistol was cocked.
But Sam Walker wanted something bigger and better. Allegedly, he requested a revolver that would kill a man or his horse at 100 yards. So Colt put his gun-design genius to work, and voila, the behemoth .44 caliber Model 1847 came into being, and Colt christened it after Captain Walker.
The original 1847 Walker saw only about 1100 copies produced, and like the first model of any other product, it did have its problems. First, it was just a little too big, even for a Texas Ranger and cavalry officer like Captain Walker. The modern reproduction Colt Walker by Uberti weighs the same 4 ½ pounds as the original.
That’s right, a revolver that weighs just short of a bag of sugar from the grocery store. The barrel is 9 inches long and the entire gun, from the tip of the stocks to the end of the muzzle is 15 and a half inches. That’s almost the length of a Biblical cubit, the span of a man’s forearm from the point of the elbow to the tip of the longest finger.
And yea, verily, doth the Walker speak with a mighty shout, like a great host of the mighty men of old. Not only that, but it makes my Smith and Wesson 629 .44 Magnum look downright diminutive in comparison.
The Walker’s size has made it a star on the silver screen. Even though the original novel has Mattie Ross toting her father’s Dragoon pistol, the 1969 film version of True Grit featured a Walker, probably just because of how impressive it looks on screen. In the TV mini-series Lonesome Dove, Robert Duvall, as aging Texas Ranger Augustus McCrae, carries a Walker. McCrae uses his Walker to correct the attitude of a saucy bartender by liberally applying its bulk to the bridge of his nose.
The metallurgy of 1847 caused the thin chamber walls of some Walkers to explode upon firing, which is a rather negative outcome when each chamber might be stoked with as much as 60 grains of black powder. How much is 60 grains of black powder? Here’s some perspective.
Ever hear of the .45-70 rifle cartridge? Yep, it’s called the .45-70 because it’s a .45 caliber bullet over 70 grains of black powder. It was a US military cartridge, and commonly used to hunt buffalo, and it held only 10 more grains of powder than the Walker handgun. A fully-stoked Walker will hold 360 grains of powder, or 60 grains in each of the six chambers. Imagine that exploding in your hand in the middle of a hot fight against rampaging Comanches, or while facing a charge of Mexican lancers.
Even if the gun didn’t explode, the recoil from a fully-charged chamber going off would usually cause the loading lever to drop, sending the ram back into a chamber’s mouth, effectively jamming the gun. You had to remember to always check the loading lever, and lift it back up after every shot before you could cock the pistol again. The original Walker shooters learned to slip a little loop of rawhide or leather over the barrel and to hold the loading lever in place.
Yes, the Walker had its problems. But lots of people saw the potential and utility of a six-shot handgun with that kind of power. Captain Sam Walker carried his namesake revolvers a lot, and died at the battle of Huamantla with a Walker in each hand, as the legendary story goes. John “RIP” Ford, a Texas Ranger who eventually became a Texas state senator, was known to carry a pair of Walkers on a belt holster. That was nine pounds of horse pistols hanging off Ford’s waist.
Sam Colt listened to the feedback from his end users, and redesigned the Walker, releasing the 2.0 version in 1848, renaming it the Dragoon. The 1st Model Dragoon was essentially a Walker with an inch and a half trimmed off the barrel, a better latch to hold the loading lever in place, and a cylinder shortened to hold only 50 grains of black powder to reduce the chance of explosions.
I have looked longingly at modern reproductions of the various Colt Dragoons. But when it came time to lay my hard-earned cash on the barrel head, I opted for the Walker instead. Yes, it’s huge. Yes, the loading lever still drops when I shoot it with a full charge of powder. Yes, it’s heavy. But it’s a Walker.
There is something primal and elemental about hefting that much blued steel and wood. There is something heady about the dull throaty boom and thick rich clouds of sulphury smoke that smell like a hundred 4th of July firecrackers just went off in my hand.
The frame is color-case hardened with blue and gray swirls and whorls, and the cylinder is engraved with “Model U.S.M.R” encircled with scrollwork and flourishes. Etched around the rest of the cylinder is a detailed scene of US cavalry fighting against Comanches armed with shields and buffalo lances–horses charge, pistols blaze, wounded litter the ground.
Shooting the Walker is an exercise in boomstick atavism. It takes several minutes to load each chamber with loose black powder, followed by a .457 inch diameter round lead ball. Like smoking a fine Cohiba, it’s a process that cannot be rushed. The slow load time is why historical shooters of cap and ball pistols carried three, four, or even as many as six guns, so they could grab another loaded pistol after shooting one dry.
After the gun is stoked with powder and ball, some shooters like to seal each chamber’s mouth with lube. I like Bore Butter, which is a commercial lube with a faint menthol odor. I know of shooters who use Crisco shortening, which makes a blackpowder shooting session smell like movie popcorn. Putting lube over each ball helps the powder fouling stay soft, and easier to clean out. Lots of folks say that it also helps prevent chainfires (all six chambers firing simultaneously, which would be sort of like crossing the energy streams in Ghostbusters) although there is credible research that suggests chainfires are actually caused by sparks getting under loose-fitting percussion caps.
When I cap my Walker, I use a bit of deer antler to really press the percussion caps onto the nipples to keep stray sparks out. There’s nothing quite as annoying as having your caps slip off your nipples right in the middle of a session. Wait, can I write stuff like that on TTAG?
Recoil on the Walker is like all other black powder guns. It’s not a snap or jolt like a modern smokeless powder arm gives. It’s a big, slow push. The sound a Walker makes is a big, deep boom that you feel right down in the pit of your stomach. Part of the beauty of blackpowder guns is that you can adjust the powder charge. With smaller charges, like 25 grains, the Walker hardly kicks at all.
So why bother with a modern copy of a quirky, troublesome design from 1847? Why do some people like to collect and drive Ford Model Ts? Why do some people still buy India ink, pen nibs and heavy cotton bond paper? Because it’s fun. Pick up a Walker and touch off six fully-charged chambers, and then take one good deep breath of that gray smoke. But do so with the knowledge that it may prove to be a lot more addictive than nicotine.