January 27, 2021
For years, I read stories of how the Walker Colt changed the Texas frontier and transformed fighting on horseback. Its six-shot cylinder gave a Texas Ranger unprecedented firepower, and its .45-caliber ball carried power to disable man and beast. Weighing almost five pounds, it was the last of the great “horse pistols” as well as the first of the great revolvers.
This is all very well, and when you read it quickly, it sounds pretty easy: Drop the powder into the chamber, put a ball on top, ram it home. When the chambers are charged, put a percussion cap on each nipple and you’re ready to go.
It has been my long experience that storytellers—especially those who spin yarns about the West—glorify some things and gloss over others. One of the supreme gloss jobs of all time has to do with the Walker. Not its firepower, nor its smashing power, nor its efficacy as a club if all else fails—that’s all true. But the ease with which all of this can be done? Loading on horseback at a full gallop while dodging Comanche arrows? Please.
Just for fun, I got my hands on a couple of Walkers, one made by Colt as part of its “legendary Colts” series of the 1970s and one a Cimarron Arms replica made to look like all surviving Walkers look today: gray and craggy but ready to go at it again should the need arise. Of 1,100 original Walkers made in 1847, only 175 are known to still exist. The finest survivor sold at Rock Island two years ago for $1.8 million. Even the roughest Walker sells for big bucks, but Cimarron allows you to experience a Walker without mortgaging the house. For a handloading enthusiast, the experience is well worthwhile. And it’s educational.
The early Colt cap-and-ball revolvers are the technical link between muzzleloaders and the modern handloader. Every Walker was shipped with its own tools, including a powder flask, bullet mold, and nipple wrench. Its integral loading ram (reportedly Ranger Samuel Walker’s idea) is the ancestor of the modern loading press. The “bench” tools of the later 1800s are merely revolver loading rams on a separate base.
As with most things, practice is required, and not just a little. According to Sam Gwynne’s history of the Comanche wars, Empire of the Summer Moon, when the first 150-odd, Texas-Navy-surplus Paterson Colts came into the possession of Captain Hays’s band of cutthroats in 1843, they spent considerable time practicing with the newfangled things. Patersons had no loading rams but came with several spare cylinders. When one cylinder ran dry, you replaced it with a loaded one, and this could be done on horseback, flying arrows notwithstanding. The cylinders themselves could only be recharged under controlled conditions, such as behind a stockade, with tools, components, and time to spare.
The massive, durable Walker was several steps ahead, but each had one cylinder only, and you were expected to reload on the run.
Powder? Not much problem, once you got the hang of the powder flask and its tricky measuring spout. The ball? Trickier, since it was balanced on the chamber mouth and rotated under the ram. The ball was 0.456+ inch, the cylinder 0.452 inch, and lead was shaved as it was pressed home for a tight fit. Until you get the ram on it, though, it’s precarious. On a galloping horse? Good luck.
Finally, the percussion cap. With gloves on? Handling that finicky thing the size of a primer, getting it aligned and pressed onto the nipple? Apparently, caps come in two sizes: too big and too small. I have trouble with them on a workbench in good light. In the wind and dust and chaos of a running fight with mounted Comanches?
The thing is, those encounters were not prolonged fights. The Comanches were hit-and-run artists who did not believe in siege warfare. Giving a Ranger two Walkers in his saddle holsters—12 hammering shots—seemed plenty, and it changed the whole face of the conflict on the Texas frontier.
Texas Ranger historian Walter Webb called the Walker Colt “their own sweet weapon,” and sweet it was. But no one should think it was an easy, quick fix—western storytellers notwithstanding.