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A History of United States Military Sidearms

A History of United States Military Sidearms

Part One: The American Revolution to the Civil War

Introduction

Throughout history, the United States military has equipped its soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen with a variety of different sidearms.  Some performed well and were in use for decades, while others had short and unique roles in the history of the US military.

In this five part series, we will be looking at different eras of government issued sidearms and how they played a role in developing the United States military we know today.  The first article will be exploring the period from the Revolutionary War through the end of the Civil War in 1865.

Flintlocks

In the early years of the formation of the United States of America, we were dependent on technology from other nations to arm both our citizens and military forces.  This all changed when American manufacturing began to take shape, and Virginia's Rappahannock Forge began producing the very first sidearm that would be issued to our armed forces, the Model 1775 Flintlock. 

The M1775 was copied from the British model M1860 flintlock pistol.  The M1775 was a smoothbore, single shot pistol that fired a .62 caliber ball.  In time, production of M1775 copies would begin at the Harpers Ferry armory, and this model, though now dubbed the Model 1805, would continue to be the pistol of choice through the war of 1812.

Over time, various Flintlock models were issued with slight changes, including the M1799 and M1816.  The final flintlock issued was the Model 1836, which was released the same year that Colt unveiled its new revolving pistol.  While the M1836 was utilized during the Mexican-American war, the days of the Flintlock were numbered due to the introduction of Colt's revolver.

Revolvers

The switch from single shot flintlocks to multi-shot cap and ball revolving pistols was a giant leap forward for the United States. Revolvers provided more shots at your disposal and were far more reliable than flintlocks as far as weather conditions go.

The Colt M1847 Walker Revolver was a massive pistol that was only in use for a short time, but helped to usher in a new age of military firepower.  Holding 6 rounds and utilizing a .44 caliber ball, the Walker was a tremendous upgrade over the flintlock. However, it did have some complications and was only issued for two years, from 1847-1848.

The Colt M1848 Dragoon replaced the Walker in service from 1848-1860.  After undergoing some design changes and a switch to higher quality materials,, the Dragoon was more reliable and performed well.  The main drawback was its enormous size and weight. While the Colt M1848 was only issued until 1860, it did see widespread use throughout the Civil War.

In 1851, one of the most famous revolvers of all time was released: the Colt Model 1851 Navy.  The M1851 was a smaller design than the M1848 and was much easier to maneuver, shoot, and carry on a daily basis.  It fired a .36 caliber ball with little recoil. The Navy became extremely popular, with over 250,000 being produced from 1850 - 1873. Popular with both officers and enlisted men, the M1851 saw extensive use from both sides during the Civil War.

The Colt M1860 Army replaced the M1848 Dragoon as the standard issue Army sidearm starting in 1860.  The M1860 was similar to the M1851, but had a longer grip and was chambered for a .44 caliber round.  While not as robust as the M1848, the M1860 was much thinner and lighter than its predecessors, and like the M1851 saw extensive use during the Civil War.

A secondary sidearm was also issued to the US Army during the Civil War: the Remington Model 1858.  Remington's revolver was quite different from the M1860 in many aspects.  The top of the revolver was much larger, with a thick top strap that aided in protecting the frame.

The M1858 also included notches to lock the hammer into place between cylinders, rather than resting the hammer on top of a live round.  Most Colt users would only load 5 rounds and keep the hammer lowered on an empty chamber for added safety. The Remington eliminated this issue.  While never the main sidearm of the US, it was used in service until 1875.

Up Next: 1865 - 1910

Cap and Ball revolvers were the mainstay of the US Military from 1847-1873, when new metallic cartridge revolvers would replace the old cap and ball models.  .45 caliber single action revolvers would be the mainstay of the US Military for the next 20 years.