It was overshadowed by Colt revolvers
The powerful .44- caliber cap-and-ball Walker Colt and its lighter-framed, shorter-barreled derivative, the Model 1848 Colt Dragoon revolver, were hits on the Western frontier after the Mexican War. But before that conflict and even after (well into the 1850s), a decidedly unglamorous single-shot muzzleloading percussion cap piece was making its mark west of the Mississippi. Although it kindled no legends and won no followings in either the contemporary dime novels or later cinematic celebrations of the winning of the West, the Model 1842 pistol filled the saddle holsters of many a dragoon and plainsman in the 1840s and ’50s.
The five-shot, .36-caliber Colt Patterson revolver had been tested by the U.S. Army back in 1840, but it would be another five years before it grudgingly purchased a small trial lot of 50 of the innovative handguns. No substantial additional orders were made, and Samuel Colt’s firm was bankrupt by the time Captain Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers and U.S. Regiment of Mounted Riflemen presented him with design ideas for a robust new model of .44-caliber six-shooter in November 1846. By then, the Model 1842 was seeing plenty of action. It was vastly inferior to the Colt revolvers in rapidity of fire, but it did awesome damage to an opponent at close quarters and gave the frontier soldier a hard-hitting backup to his rifle or carbine after that weapon had been emptied and the hostiles came within powder – burn range.
It was in 1842 that Springfield Armory adopted a new pattern of design for a standard service pistol. The weapon replaced the previous flintlock service piece with a percussion cap version sporting a robust brass-capped walnut butt and a half-stock housing an 81⁄2- inch-long smoothbore barrel whose .54-caliber load was chambered by using a swivel-mounted ramrod. For several years, the armory produced the Model 42 in small fits. But then contracts were issued to a pair of rival Middletown, Conn., gunsmiths, Ira Johnson and Henry Aston, and they began churning the pistols out in large numbers by late 1846. By 1852, the two Connecticut contractors had made more than 40,000 weapons.
Lieutenant James H. Carleton of the 1st Dragoons recorded that a dozen members of his regiment used percussion pistols to hunt buffalo on the Nebraska plains in June 1845. During the Mexican War, the U.S. government issued more than 8,500 handguns to the regulars and volunteers, but the Percussion Model 1842s might not have been issued until late in 1847 or early in 1848, well after the peak of the fighting had passed in Mexico. Arguments have been made, however, that the 2nd Dragoons serving with General Zachary Taylor’s army used Model 1842s in the Battle of Palo Alto in April 1846. Whatever the precise date of the pistol’s service debut, the weapon was also admired in the enemy camp, and a Mexican arsenal began fabricating close copies of the weapon for issue to its own troops. One modern firearms authority described the Model 1842 as “the finest single-shot martial pistol ever produced, and with minor modifications, was copied by several foreign nations.” In March 1849, the 1st Dragoons were using Model 1842s, and one officer said that the men preferred them to Colts. The 2nd Dragoons, however, were using Colt revolvers in Texas combat as early as August 1849.
On March 2, 1849, the U.S. Congress authorized the secretary of war to furnish arms and ammunition at cost to westering emigrants. An article in the March 14, 1850, St. Louis Republican described how pilgrims could purchase “percussion rifles, $13.25; percussion muskets, $15.00; percussion holster pistols, $7.00 each.” In Nebraska Territory in October 1849, a 1st Dragoon corporal named Cook pursued a hostile Indian on an island in the Platte River and fired his Model 1842 when the warrior made a stand under a tall cottonwood tree. The bullet, according to an account by Private Percival G. Lowe of the 1st Dragoon Regiment, “entered the Indian’s mouth without hitting a tooth and came out at the back of his head…. Cook was unhurt and sat coolly reloading his pistol.”
Even after the Colt Dragoon became common issue, the Model 1842 lingered in the horse soldiers’ saddle holsters. In an 1850 inspection of the Department of New Mexico, a senior officer found that while Companies H and K of the 2nd Dragoons carried Colt’s revolving pistols, two companies of 1st Dragoons still relied upon “the common holster pistols.” Three years later, an inventory of weapons held by units in New Mexico Territory revealed that 910 Model 1842s were still in issue along with 430 Colts. Even some of the companies in the more progressive 2nd Dragoons employed more Model 1842s than Colts. The dragoons’ sister unit, the U.S. Regiment of Mounted Riflemen, had been among the first to receive issue of the Walker Colt revolver, but veterans of the regiment’s Texas service recorded that they habitually carried both a Colt and a Model 1842 in their saddle holsters when enough were available for issue.
A detachment of the Coltheavy Company F of the 1st Dragoons joined the singleshot-favoring Company I in March 1854 in one of the most notorious 1850s Indian fights (along with the Grattan Massacre that August). On the 30th, Lieutenant John W. (later “Black Jack”) Davidson led 60 troopers against a village of Jicarilla Apaches in the highlands near Cieneguilla, New Mexico Territory (see related story, P. 38). The Indians swiftly turned the tables on the dragoons and harried them back down the slopes of Embudo Mountain, killing 22 men and wounding Davidson, the regimental surgeon and 21 others.
An archaeological survey of the battle site and troops’ route of retreat has recently confirmed the presence of Model 1842s as well as Colt Dragoons in a fight that territorial Indian agent Kit Carson described as “a closer set-to, of saber and pistol against lance and arrow.” Davidson’s men were lucky that any of them survived a battle that, according to the field evidence, became a panic-stricken flight.
The Battle of Cieneguilla might have marked the Model 1842’s recessional in New Mexico Territory, but two years later a soldier in Texas used a brace of the .54-caliber pieces to drop two Indians who were attacking him. As late as 1857, Company A of the 1st Dragoon continued to carry the Model 1842 pistols. The end was near, though, with Army Regulars increasingly using Model 1848 Dragoons and the lighter .36- caliber Model 1851 Navy Colts.
The Model 1842 saw limited service during the Civil War, mostly in the early years of the conflict, but the day of the muzzleloading pistol was over well before Appomattox. The rugged single-shot had never won a fair portion of glory alongside the vaunted Colts, but it had served faithfully within the inherent limitations of its design. Nevertheless, those who dared the Western frontier in the 1860s and afterward chose to put their faith in the lethal power of six loads in the cylinder.
Originally published in the February 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.