The Continental Congress authorized the first purchase of sidearms for the U.S. Army in 1775. Rifle ammo and pistol ammo at the time were the same: black powder, a musket ball, and a paper wad.
Since these early black powder days, the sidearm has evolved so that the sidearm carried by today’s soldier gives him the equivalent firepower of a dozen or more fighters from the Revolutionary War era.
The muzzle-loading flintlocks carried mostly by officers of the Continental Army used a .62 caliber round fired through a smoothbore barrel.
The weapon was an almost exact copy of the flintlocks used by the British Army at the time. The Rappahannock Forge in Virginia made these first weapons issued to the fledgling U.S. Army.
After the Revolutionary War, the Army replaced the 1775 flintlock with an American-manufactured French version, chambered for a .72 caliber ball.
Several different models followed, although all had mostly the same operating mechanism.
U.S. soldiers carried flintlocks until after the Mexican-American War in 1846.
The U.S. Army’s Military Police or MPs use a pair of crossed flintlocks as a symbol of their branch, and the U.S. Navy Seals have a flintlock memorialized on the unit’s Navy Trident symbol.
Colt M1847 Walker
The first of many Colt firearms used by the U.S. Army was the percussion cap pistol, the Colt M1847 Walker.
Before the Walker, the U.S. soldiers during the Second Seminole War used .36 caliber Paterson Colts, single-shot weapons that hid the trigger in the frame until the user cocked it.
At the end of the war, the gun fell into disuse.
However, in the 1840s the Texas Rangers asked Colt to create a pistol based on the Paterson principal but with greater range.
Colt developed the .44 caliber, six-shot percussion Walker.
The M1847 Walker was used extensively in the Mexican-American War. Unfortunately, the gun often malfunctioned, rupturing the cylinder or exploding due to over-use of powder.
However, the additional firepower gained compared to the one-shot flintlock made it a very popular gun.
After the war, Colt addressed the problems and created a new, improved version of the Walker, the Colt Dragoon.
Infantry soldiers on both sides of the Civil War used the Colt Walker and the Colt Dragoon.
By 1864 he Colt factory in Connecticut could not produce enough of the .44 caliber sidearms to meet the Union Army demands. The government authorized the purchase and issuance of a similar percussion revolver, the Remington Model 1858.
The Confederacy, since they could not resupply themselves with Colts or Remingtons, imported sidearms for Europe and then replicated them in Southern factories.
By 1865, self-contained brass cartridges began to replace percussion cap ammunition.
Colt Army Model 1860
The U.S. Army issued Colt Model 1860s, another Colt percussion or cap and ball pistol, from 1860-1873.
The guns cost $20 each, and after complaints of the “excessive” cost, Colt reduced the price to $14.50!
Smith & Wesson Model No. 3 Schofield
The Army adopted the Smith & Wesson Schofield in 1870.
This was the first gun to use a metallic cartridge rather than paper cartridges with cap and ball ammunition.
Using metallic cartridges made the ammunition less susceptible to weather and moisture.
The primer, propellant, and bullet, all contained in the brass cartridge, made sidearms more reliable, more durable, and permitted a soldier to reload quickly.
Soldiers used the Model 3s during the Indian Wars, Spanish-American War, and the Philippine Insurrection.
Colt Single Action Army and the Colt M1892
Another gun, made famous by dime-store novelists at the time and later the movies was the Colt Single Action Revolver or “The Gun that Won the West.”
Custer carried one at the Little Big Horn.
Politics and other factors eventually caused the other official sidearm, the No. 3 Schofield, to go out of service by the late 1870s.
The Army continued to issue the Colt Single Action until 1892, when another Colt, the M1892, replaced it.
The M1892 incorporated a lot of design changes, such as a cylinder that swung sideways instead of loading it from the top, ejector rods, and more.
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