Gun Review: The Walker Colt

Several States are attempting to follow the examples of Utah (Colt/Browning 1911) and Arizona (Colt Single Action Army) to name official State guns. A move is afoot to designate the Walker Colt as the official firearm of Texas. While surviving examples of the Walker Colt are rare, we can explore the firearm’s history and importance via the Uberti reproduction. First, the handgun’s genesis . . .

In 1836, Texas declared itself a republic. Its territory was enormous, even by Texas standards. The Republic claimed the Rio Grande as its southern border. Mexico begged to differ; they considered the Nueces River the demarcation. In 1845, the U.S. annexed the Republic of Texas. The change of sovereignty did nothing to end the conflict with Mexico. In 1846, the ongoing series of skirmishes between re-christened Americans and Mexicans turned into war.

By 1847, the so-called Mexican-American War was going full tilt. Samuel Walker was a former Texas Ranger turned Captain of the United States Mounted Rifles. Combat experience with Paterson 36 caliber handguns had convinced Captain Walker of the utility of the revolving pistol as a cavalry arm.

Walker turned to Colt to provide pistols suitable for his horse soldiers: a revolver capable of dispatching enemy soldiers and their horses. He envisioned a “… revolver half the length of your arm of 44 or 45 caliber….” with more robust features than those of the lightweight five-shooters of his day.

Colt owned patents that gave him exclusive rights to revolver development for the U.S. Army, as well as financial motivation to return to the arms trade. Eli Whitney Junior—a man with a nose for business and a well-appointed armory—was engaged in producing the 1841 Rifle used in the Mexican conflict. He fancied the new handgun contract.

In January 1847, the Army issued Whitney a contract for 1000 pistols and accoutrements. The resulting revolvers were .44 caliber, almost sixteen inches in length and weighed four pounds, nine ounces. They were larger than the 1837 and 1842 smooth-bore single shot pistols they replaced, but exactly in accord with Colonel Walker’s order.

In late October, Colonel John Coffee Hays of the First Texas Mounted Volunteers picked up 394 revolvers from Army headquarters in Vera Cruz. An additional 180 went to (now) Colonel Walker’s C Company, United States Mounted Rifles.

Colt had given priority to one hundred additional pistols for presentation and private sales. Thus, well in advance of this general issue, Jack Hays, Samuel Walker, Zachary Taylor and other officers had taken possession of the new revolvers. They were familiar with the gun’s capabilities.

Initial planning called for the Army to issue two pistols to each mounted soldier, along with a single powder flask, bullet mould, and a combination tool (screwdriver, cone wrench and spring compressor). The standard Dragoon equipages: two pistols mounted on either side of the saddle pommel.

It didn’t work out that way. The Army figured that a single Colt revolver provided triple the firepower of the two existing single-shot pistols (Aston-Johnsons). So the army changed the order. They afforded one new pistol per trooper—creating a shortage of accoutrements. Five hundred revolvers awaited arrival of powder flasks, combination tools and bullet moulds.

How The Legend Grew

Mexican citizens stumbling over the translation of  “revolver” believed that the bullets could change directions and chase them around corners and up stairways. Adjutant John S. “RIP” Ford recorded the unlikely observation that the Colts had the power of the 1841 Mississippi Rifle with greater range.

Army orders were that none of the revolvers would be issued to staff officers. This order went by the wayside when the revolvers arrived. Medical Officer and Adjutant Ford grabbed two of them for himself. He was on hand when the Walker demonstrated its capabilities at dealing with enemy equines. Walking through camp, Walker advised a green trooper to uncap his revolver. Moments later, there was a loud report and the trooper’s horse fell dead on the spot-neatly drilled between the running lights by a picket bullet.

The conical bullet cast by soldiers in the field was part and parcel of the Walker Colt mystique (though seldom mentioned in detail). The needle-nosed, flat-based picket bullet receives major “credit” for initial difficulties with the revolvers. RIP Ford wrote that soldiers unfamiliar with conical bullets assumed that the projectiles should enter the chamber sharp-end first and this almost invariably caused the cylinders to explode.

Correctly loaded, the bullets afforded a deep, wedge-shaped repository for powder accumulation from sloppy loading. This combined with canted or undersized bullets could easily result in multiple chamber ignitions. The incidence of exploded cylinders has been greatly exaggerated, with some sources saying that nearly three hundred blew up in service. It appears that a substantial number of revolvers that had not passed inspection were included in this number-even though they had been repaired and put into service at the first general issue.

The Volunteers returned 109 damaged revolvers at war’s end, including guns with ruptured cylinders. The major negatives of this early design: an inadequate loading lever catch and the revolver’s size, which made it impractical for belt carry.

The Walker Colt in Action

In November 1847, less than a month after receipt of the revolvers, the Texas Mounted Volunteers engaged a superior force of 1500 Mexican regulars at Izcar de Matamoros. The Americans charged the Mexican lines with their Colt revolvers blazing. The Americans routed the enemy from the field. The Walker Colts played a pivotal part in several other engagements, including a reprisal massacre in Mexico City. More than eighty presumably hostile inhabitants of the city died in that one—chiefly by agency of the Walker Colt.

“Some (Texas Rangers) wore buckskin shirts, black with grease and blood, some wore red shirts, their trousers thrust into their boots; all were armed with revolvers and huge Bowie knives. Take them altogether, with their uncouth costumes, bearded faces, lean and brawny forms, fierce wild eyes and swaggering manners, they were fit representatives of the outlaws who made up the population of the Lone Star State.”

-Observations of an officer of the United States Mounted Rifles.

The End of Active Duty

In spring 1848, a few months after the Mexican-American War ended, the Army released the 500 Walker Colt revolvers that had been languishing in the Baton Rouge arsenal The guns were dispatched to the western army and still-federalized Texas Rangers. now fighting desperados and Indians on the Texas Frontier.

Accompanying the second issue of 500 Walker guns into Texas: an unknown number of revolvers that had not been returned to the Army at the end of the Mexican Conflict. There was a strong tendency among the enlisted to retain any working revolver and report it missing or destroyed. Historians record that it was virtually impossible to get a Texas Ranger to turn in his Walker revolver; it was a losing battle to insist upon it.

Shooting the Walker

Recent literature makes much of the ability of the Walker Colt to accept maximum charges of 60 grains of black powder under a round ball. There has been little exploration of the performance of the more period-correct conical bullet load.

The original proof load for the Walker consisted of the designated bullet loaded over the maximum charge of 3Fg compressible below the chamber mouths of the cylinder. It is certain that the bullet was the major projectile of the Walkers used in Mexico and likely that the round ball came into play later on the Texas frontier.

With this in mind, I ordered the correct Pedersoli Mould from Dixie Gun Works and cast a number of the 170-grain bullets from pure lead. The bullet is of the size and shape of the frame opening to the loading lever (on the original and the replica). The sample revolver was a Uberti Walker replica manufactured in 2005.

As we can’t know the actual performance of period components, duplicating the gun’s original performance is problematic. There was no industry standard for black powder formulation; the appropriate screen sizes for rendering FFFg flakes varied from one maker to the next. In the interest of optimism, I used the extra-fast Swiss 3Fg for the bullet loads and explored the performance of Swiss, Goex and Pyrodex P loaded to equal volume from the same measure.

Unlike the earlier Paterson, the Walker has a positive provision for safe carry. A notch in the hammer nose fits over a single peg placed between two of the chambers of the cylinder when the hammer is all the way forward. The Walker retains the loading lever clasp used on the Paterson as well as the old-pattern U-shaped mainspring. The loading lever clasp is inadequate to the recoil of the heavily loaded Walker and almost always drops out of engagement after each shot.

Using common Dremel bits, I deep-coned the loading ram for an exact fit over the nose of the traditional bullet. The maximum charge under compression turned out to be 45 grains, which rendered the super-sonic average of 1158 fps (feet-per-second) with 506 foot-pounds of energy and a narrow extreme spread of 35 fps.

An essential step in preparing these bullets for firing: placing a slight bevel on the base of the bullet to further align the bullets for seating. The picket bullets barely fit under the loading lever. They are slow to load and difficult to align correctly.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this bullet has none of the qualities expected of an effective or accurate handgun projectile. The portion of the bullet swaged into contact with the chamber walls is very narrow and there is no bevel on the bullet base to assist in straight alignment in the chamber.

Nevertheless, the precise coning of the bullet ram allowed repeatable straight seating and the ease in loading and resulting accuracy that exceeded initial [low] expectations. Flying in the face of a century and a half of common wisdom, I unleashed off-hand Picket bullet groups from 30 yards which were about as accurate as round ball ammunition. The best cluster came in at four inches or a fraction more. The target signatures showed no signs of pitch or yaw in flight.

For round ball testing, I selected Speer swaged balls of .457-inch diameter (though .454-inch would work just as well). The maximum charge of Goex 3FG drove the round balls 1115 feet per second while the same volume of Swiss 3F crossed the screens at 1278 fps-508 ft/lbs energy.

Firing the revolver from the “duelist” stance, it was no problem to keep all of these load combinations comfortably under the “combat accurate” standard of performance at ranges of twenty-five, thirty, and fifty yards. The heavy Walker hung steady on target in spite of prevailing high winds. Recoil with all load combinations was essentially nil.

I had slightly widened the hammer notch to provide a more visible sight picture and found that the revolver hit several inches high with the Lee 200-grain bullets and ball loads, and virtually point on at 30 yards with the Picket Bullet. Taping the loading lever to the barrel prevented it dropping down with every shot.

The Walker experience affirms the big revolver as a very effective combat tool that significantly increased the fire power of soldiers previously equipped with relatively slow-loading single-shot and, in many cases-unsighted-smooth-bore weapons. It supports the often-printed assertion that the Walker was the most powerful handgun prior to development of the .357 Magnum in 1935.

Should Texas designate a state gun, I believe there could be no better choice than the Walker Colt.