Colt Walker Revolver: Gun of the Week

Gun of the Week: Colt Walker Revolver
John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn in "True Grit" (1969).

Rooster Cogburn: What ya got there in your poke?

Mattie Ross: (Produces a huge revolver from a flour sack)

Rooster: (Taken aback and astonished) Why by God girl, that’s a Colt’s Dragoon. You’re no bigger than a corn nubbin. What are you doing with all this pistol?

Mattie: (With a sigh of sentimentality) It belonged to my father. He carried it bravely in the war, (with strident pride) and I intend to kill Tom Chaney with it if the law fails to do so.

Rooster: (Resting the revolver upon her shoulder and aiming at something in the distance) Well this will sure get the job done if you can find a fence post to rest it on while you take aim.

-”True Grit” (1969)

The first time I saw a Colt Walker was on television. I still remember seeing John Wayne rest a Colt Walker revolver on Kim Darby’s shoulder in “True Grit” (1969). I was too young to know what I was looking at and it didn’t matter much anyway, because Wayne had misidentified the Walker as a Colt Dragoon. (Jeff Bridges misidentifies it as well in the 2010 version). It wasn’t until 1976, when I saw “The Outlaw Josey Wales” on the big screen, when I really fell in love with the largest handgun Samuel Colt (1814-1862) ever made.

Gun of the Week: Colt Walker Revolver
Clint Eastwood as "The Outlaw Josey Wales" (1976).

Formally known as the U.S. Revolver Model of 1847, Colt’s four-pound, nine-ounce revolver has fascinated collectors and has become one of the rarest and most valuable of all American handguns. Its true value lies within the story of how it came to be and the significant impact it had on American history.

A Texas Ranger Named Walker

Samuel Hamilton Walker was born in Maryland in 1817. He was slight of build, stood 5 foot, 6 inches, and weighed approximately 115 pounds. He had eyes of steel blue and the tenacity of a gamecock. He accompanied his older brother to Florida during the Second Seminole War in the late 1830s and subsequently first encountered Colt’s newly patented revolvers. He lit off for Texas a few years later where he would become a celebrated Texas Ranger. He fought with Texas Ranger Jack Coffee Hayes and defeated a Comanche force of over 80 braves, thanks to the Ranger’s Colt “Paterson” revolvers.

Gun of the Week: Colt Walker Revolver
Samuel H. Walker (1817-1847).photo from the John McWilliams Collection

In 1846, during the War with Mexico, Walker and his fellow Texas Rangers were absorbed into the newly formed United States Mounted Rifles (USMR), and directed to take the war to the Mexicans in the manner that Mexicans had been fighting the U.S. regulars, that is to say, irregularly. This is the first time the use of the term “guerrilla” warfare came into the common usage. The Texas Rangers fit the bill perfectly as an irregular fighting force. General Zachary Taylor, who had been unable to organize and/or control the antics of the Rangers, sent them to General Winfield Scott to turn them loose on the Army of Santa Anna to wreck havoc as best they could.

Walker happened to be in Washington, D.C., in December of that year, recruiting for the USMR, when he received a letter from Colt asking him what he thought about the revolvers he had used previously on the Texas frontier. Walker soon asked Colt if he could deliver 1,000 revolving handguns to outfit his new fighting force within three months.

Colt, not one to pass up on an opportunity, wrote Walker and accepted the contract for the 1,000 guns. He then set about making a sample from wood for Walker to approve. Walker had asked that the gun be of .44 caliber (the Paterson was .36), that the gun be heavier than the Paterson, and that its loading lever be attached to the gun instead of being separate, as was common with most of the Patersons. Even a change to the front sight was sketched by Walker and incorporated into the new design by Colt.

There was just one small problem that Colt had--one he decided to keep from Captain Walker during the month-long exchange of letters. Colt had nowhere to build them. He was bankrupt. But why let a small thing like not having a factory spoil a good thing? He had a contract for 1,000 revolvers at a price of $25 each signed by the U.S. Government, and took the contract to his good friend Eli Whitney Jr. (1820-1895) of Hartford, Conn., and asked for his help to produce the guns. Whitney said he would.

The Cotton Gin/Colt Walker Connection Whitney was the son of the man who had gained a certain amount of fame as the inventor of the cotton gin back in 1794. Eli Whitney (1765-1825), however, should be a name forever associated with the American system of manufacturing, not just for a seed-picking machine. Whitney made great advances in manufacturing where all the parts were interchangeable and easily assembled. When Whitney agreed to help Colt, they perfected processes that became the foundation for the industrial revolution. Because of all this, the American industrial revolution began, and was perfected within, the firearms manufacturing field.

John Hall of Virginia, Simeon North of Connecticut, and Eli Whitney all worked to produce the machines that could manufacture firearms along this method of production. Production began just as soon as Walker approved the new design.

Gun of the Week: Colt Walker Revolver
The U.S. Model 1847 USMR Colt Revolver.photo from the National Firearms Museum Collection

Throughout the exchange of letters between Colt and Walker, Walker encouraged Colt to make more than the agreed upon 1,000 guns. He counseled Colt that he could sell at least 5,000 revolvers to the civilian trade if he produced them.

Colt had the initial 1,000 revolvers contracted by the U.S. government made within six months, and then produced another 100 guns to sell on the civilian market. The 1,000 revolvers for Walker’s USMR were numbered in batches of 220 or so with the Company A, B, C, D, or E designation stamped on the frames. The civilian models were numbered 1001-1100, and Colt shipped two of these revolvers, serial numbers 1009 and 1010, to Walker in July 1847 as gifts.

When Walker received them, he was elated with their craftsmanship and functioning. He wrote that not a man who had seen them didn’t desire a pair immediately.

Sadly, Walker would die from a shotgun blast delivered during the Battle of Huamantla on October 9, 1847 only a few scant weeks after he received the revolvers that would forever bear his name. It is said he used the two guns Colt sent him prior to the battle with great effect before his unfortunate death. Within a few weeks the rest of the USMR would receive their guns, and by early the next year the war with Mexico would draw to a close.

For the next 14 years, before his own death, Colt continued to build revolvers for the U.S. military and civilian markets. To this day, the Colt factory continues to produce firearms for the U.S. military in a string of contracts that has remained relatively unbroken since that fateful day in 1847, when a letter from a Texas Ranger set about a chain of events that changed history.

Gun of the Week: Colt Walker Revolver
Clint Eastwood used this rubber Walker Colt to perform the famous "road-agent's spin" during one scene in "The Outlaw Josey Wales" (1976)photo from author's collection