November 30, 2017
By Joseph von Benedikt
Without a doubt, 2nd and 3rd Generation Colt percussion revolvers provide shooters the least expensive route to owning a bona fide single-action Colt. Made during a short but glorious production run in the 1990s, the 3rd Generation Signature Series 1860 Army shown here is an archetypal example.
Never heard of Colt's 2nd and 3rd Generation percussion revolvers? Wondering if they are honestly authentic Colt guns? The best source of information I've discovered is found in Black Powder Revolvers—Reproductions & Replicas by Dennis Adler. Adler addresses modern-made blackpowder wheelguns ranging from Colt's traditional models to Ruger's Old Army. Chapter one is dedicated entirely to Colt's latest runs of percussion guns.
According to the Blue Book of Gun Values, "Although parts for the Signature Series were cast in Italy, they were fully assembled and hand-finished in the United States using the proprietary Colt formulas for bluing and color-casehardening." The Italian origin of the raw parts for these revolvers is no doubt the cause of some disagreement on their authenticity, but the Blue Book further states, "Colt Blackpowder Arms Company Signature Series revolvers are regarded as authentic Colt pistols."
Importantly, these revolvers bear only Colt markings—no import or proof marks—settling the issue rather emphatically.
The 2nd Generation versions were manufactured during the 1970s and '80s; the 3rd Generation versions were made during the 1990s and into the very early 2000s. Between the two generations, pretty much every original variation was reproduced, and several unique commemorative models were built in limited quantities. The primary, most easily recognized difference is the "Sam Colt" signature engraved on the backstrap of almost every 3rd Generation Signature Series gun.
The elegantly styled 1860 Army model was originally introduced as political tensions escalated and became the Civil War. Out of around 200,000 of early manufacture, almost 130,000 went to U.S. troops. It was the first truly practical .44-caliber revolver, being literally pounds lighter and much sleeker than the earlier .44-caliber Colt's Walker revolver. In size it's about equal to Colt's .36-caliber 1851 Navy revolver that was made famous in the hands of Wild Bill Hickok. Not only is the 1860 significantly more powerful, it incorporates notable mechanical improvements.
The 1860 Army features an open-top frame; a stepped, six-shot cylinder; and a sleek, 8.0-inch-long, round barrel. Bore diameter is typically 0.451 inch. Today, we'd term it a .45 caliber, but the practice of the era was to name the caliber for the bore diameter measured from the top of the rifling lands, not from the bottom of the grooves.
Appropriate oversize round balls usually measure 0.454 inch in diameter. When a ball is seated, the sharp chamber mouth shaves off a thin ring of lead, giving the ball a snug, well-sealed fit that helps avoid chain fires and provides an adequately tight fit to prevent balls from creeping forward during recoil and locking up the cylinder.
While spending a therapeutic half-hour in a nearby Cabela's Gun Library, I discovered the Signature Series Colt 1860 spotlighted in this article. What the specific gun's background is I don't know, but I have a long personal history with the model and with Colt's authentic reproduction 1860 Army.
Knowing it would teach me the internal mechanics of firearms and gunpowder-propelled projectiles as well as frugality with my shots, my father allowed me a Uberti-made 1860 replica early in my youth. I tuned the action, fired literally thousands of self-cast round balls through it—wearing out and replacing more than one part and spring—and packed it while working cattle in southern Utah's rugged desert country.
At one point my father found and purchased three 2nd Generation Colt 1860s—an unfired boxed cavalry commemorative set and a well-used standard version that he fired a fair amount. I won't call it envy, but I looked with great longing on those fine percussion revolvers. When this lovely 3rd Generation example turned up at Cabela's, I couldn't resist.
I put the fine revolver through its paces with a box of Hornady 0.454-inch round balls, 100 grease-impregnated wool felt wads, a sufficient quantity of Goex FFFg blackpowder, and a tin of Eley percussion caps. Interestingly, the spout/measure of the powder flask that came with my revolver only measures 19 grains—by weight—of the blackpowder.
Recalling that I'd typically shot 30 grains through my Italian 1860 Army, I velocity-tested the Colt with 19 grains, 25 grains, and 30 grains. Predictably, speed jumped from around 750 fps to well above 900 fps. I got carried away by the delightful thunder, rolling recoil, and aroma of blackpowder smoke, and before I knew it, I was down to 18 round balls and still had to perform accuracy testing.
Starting with a clean barrel, I fired three consecutive six-shot groups with the 25-grains powder charge at 15 yards, choosing that distance because of the 1860 design's tendency to hit quite high. Sure enough, even with a 6 o'clock hold on an 8-inch bull, my shots impacted at 12 o'clock, averaging about 7 inches above point of aim.
Although they are pretty rudimentary, the 1860's sights provide a precise sight picture, assuming good light and a contrasting target. However, in low light or on a muddled background, they're nearly useless.
Unlike many of the Italian versions I've shot, my Signature Series Colt 1860 Army has a crisp 4-pound, 4-ounce trigger pull, making shooting even more fun. However, groups opened up as the revolver got dirty. The first measured a tidy 1.6 inches, the second 2.8 inches, and the third 3.7 inches, bringing the average to 2.70 inches, which is still plenty adequate for combat use.
Function was stellar, as far as pure mechanical reliability. A couple of times expended caps got stuck and caused the cylinder to hang up until shaken loose, but that's a byproduct of the percussion-cap era.
Carefully wiping the fine revolver down with oil after a detailed cleaning, I reflected that I hadn't had so much fun shooting in a good long while.