Guns made by Portsmouth, Virginia-based Thomas W. Cofer are some of the rarest examples of Confederate revolvers. Based on the Whitney Navy, estimates put total production numbers somewhere between 86 and 140; less than 10 are known to exist today. The biggest visual differentiation between the Whitney and Cofer revolvers is that Cofer’s gun features a spur trigger with no guard, while the Whitney has a traditional trigger and guard.
Cofer’s first introduction to gunsmithing came before the Civil War in the form of an apprenticeship to his cousin, Pembroke Gwaltney, who was already an established gunsmith.
Sometime before 1861, Cofer went into business for himself and started making guns. The earliest examples of Cofer-marked guns are shotguns bearing his name on the lockplates that were made before the Civil War.
Despite having relatively little formal education, Cofer has the distinction of holding one of the first patents issued by the Confederate States of America. His patent was for a revolver with a bored-through cylinder that successfully evaded Rollin White’s patent held by Smith & Wesson. The drawing that he submitted with the patent application shows a revolver that looks very different from a Whitney Navy. Why he chose to abandon the design from the patent is unknown.
Cofer’s gun fired metallic cartridges that had thimbles at the rear of them, designed to fit down into the cylinder channel created by the removal of the percussion cones. A special plate is fitted on the back of the cylinder to which the percussion caps are seated on the relocated cones.
Three distinct types of revolvers were made by Cofer. The first model utilized a cylinder that only fired Cofer’s patented metallic cartridge. The second model was designed to function with either the patented cylinder or the more conventional percussion cylinder. The third model utilized only a percussion cylinder and had an added shoulder to fill the space between the barrel and cylinder that existed in the absence of Cofer’s special cylinder.
A government order for 82 revolvers was completed and delivered by Cofer in May 1862; this was his one and only contract with the Confederate government. All of those guns were delivered to the 5th Virginia Cavalry.
By January 1864, Cofer’s property in Portsmouth had been seized by the Marshal of the United States and was sold at auction to Samuel Freedley of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Cofer relocated to Richmond and worked at the Arsenal there until 1865.
Cofer and his family returned to Portsmouth after the war. He was able to buy his home back and he resumed his work as a gunsmith until July 1875 when he died at the age of 57.
Logan Metesh is a firearms historian and consultant who runs High Caliber History LLC. Click here for a free 3-page download with tips about caring for your antique and collectible firearms.
Kind of looks like a forebearer of the Colt Richards-Mason conversion cylinder.
Interesting back story. Keep ’em coming.
The lines of that revolver are reminiscent of a Webley design from many decades later. Could Webleys have been directly inspired by a Confederate gunmaker?
actually the brits had already been producing double action cap and ball revolvers before the civil war started. This revolver pictured looks like it was heavily influenced by the brits designs.
I am the 6th great granddaughter of Thomas Withers Cofer. I would love to have a copy of this article and the design submitted for patent for my records I do geneology and it always fun to share the accomplishments of our ancestors.
Thanks for your consideration
Cofer’s middle name is WRENN not Withers! Stay tuned for a more detailed article to appear perhaps in early 2019 in North South Trader Civil War Magazine on Cofer, not so much on his revolvers since much as been written, but instead on his rifle and shotguns. Also, grand daughter should know his family burial site which has his full name on the marker. (Author of pending article would appreciate contact with family member since there are missing pieces of information in T.W. Cofer’s life. that need exploring.)