In recent years, the Crimean Peninsula in southern Ukraine has been frequently in the news due to the Russian occupation of Crimea starting in 2014 and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War. The peninsula has been hotly contested many times throughout its history, including in an important war that erupted in the 1850s between mainly the Ottoman Empire, France, and the United Kingdom on one side and Russia on the other. The conflict started with a Russian attack based on claims of protecting Eastern Orthodox Christians within the Ottoman Empire while also clearly serving Russia’s geo-political objectives by extending its territory in the southeast. Sound familiar?
Samuel Colt tried to increase business in Europe, and this cased pair of presentation Colt Model 1851 revolvers was part of that effort, presented to French General Aimable-Jean-Jacques Pelissier. Colt planned on building an armory in France at one time. Colt made several presentations in hopes of earning military contracts at the start of the Crimean War.
The Crimean War (October 1853-February 1856) in part broke out due to religious tensions within Ottoman territory, particularly between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians in Palestine. Russia’s Tsar, Nicholas I, asserted his responsibility to protect the rights of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and Napoleon III of France argued on behalf of the Catholics in the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman troops, supported by the British and French that wished to contain Russian expansion (sounding familiar again?), responded to a Russian invasion of Moldavia and Wallachia by sending in their own forces to push back the invaders in Crimea.
The Russians faced stiff resistance and enormous casualties. They also faced a revolt in Kiev. French and British troops worked with the Ottomans to attack the Russian naval base at Sevastopol, and the allied forces met the Russians on the field in several battles. One most the most recognizable is the Battle of Balaclava which included the famous-yet-suicidal Charge of the Light Brigade as well as the valiant “thin red line” of Highlanders holding their ground against Russian cavalry.
In the end, the Russian Empire accepted a humiliating defeat that prevented its expansion and ended its claims on the protection of Eastern Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire. Despite the allies capturing Russian territory, including Sevastopol, Balaklava, Kerch, and Kinburn, the war ended with an agreement essentially of antebellum territorial boundaries.
The Colt London Model 1851 Navy Revolver
By now you might be asking, “What does Samuel Colt and the 1851 Navy revolver have to do with all of this?” The Crimean War was the first major European conflict since Samuel Colt’s revolvers took the world by storm at the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in 1851, the first World’s Fair. Colt debuted his new revolvers in a large display at the fair, including the Model 1851 Navy which was known originally as Colt’s Belt Model. This was to be Colt’s most significant revolver on the international market.
The Observer of London on November 23, 1851, under the heading “Colt’s Revolvers” noted, “No weapon has attracted more attention than the American revolvers of which several specimens were exhibited during the recent Exhibition…” They stated that U.S. Ordnance tests that showed the ‘51 Navy could be fired 1,500 times a day with only one cleaning. It also reported that they had been used in the Mexican-American War, referencing Colt’s earlier Paterson revolvers, and that the British government had approved the Colt for officers in Africa and India and that this sanctioning had, “not only served to clear the shelves and counters of the American department of the Exhibition, but has been the means of obtaining a large number of orders to be executed for persons in this country.”
French General Aimable Pelissier’s cased pair of Colt London Model 1851 Navy revolvers are among the few French presentation Colr revolvers known. Another pair previously sold by Rock Island Auction Company were made for Napoleon III. They are rare examples of Colt’s attempt to market his revolutionary revolvers to the French.
Clearly Colt was on the path to success in 1851 prior to the Crimean War, but he wanted to secure the market and worked to open his own factory in London to supply the British market. While his London factory is well-known to Colt collectors, many may not know that Colt also hoped to establish another factory in France for the French and Continental European markets. European armies were significantly larger than the U.S. Military in the period and arming them could be particularly lucrative. The French force alone during the Crimean War totaled over 309,000 men. Colt manufactured around 215,348 Model 1851 Navy revolvers in Hartford and another roughly 42,000 in London, so a contract with such a large army could certainly have led to substantial sales.
Colt had to push hard in order to get his revolvers adopted and worked to earn the approval and favor of influential figures just as he was doing simultaneously in the U.S. by presenting them with lavish examples of his latest designs. Other historic pairs of Colt revolvers have previously been sold by Rock Island Auction Co. that were presented by Samuel Colt during this period to figures involved in the Crimean War, including the Napoleon III pair sold by RIAC in 2019 and the cased pair sold to Lord Cardigan, British Commander of the Light Brigade, sold by Rock Island Auction Co. in 2021. He also worked to solicit positive testimonials from officers who had actually used his weapons in combat.
Samuel Colt’s London factory may have closed shortly after the Crimean War thanks to stiff competition from British designs like the Adams revolvers but he wasn’t done with the British markets. He contnued to ship Model 1851 Navy revolvers like this one across the Atlantic to his sales office in London.
When the Crimean War broke out in 1853, Colt seized the opportunity and presented revolvers in an effort to secure lucrative war time contracts. Thanks to production at his modern factory compared to the hand filing and fitting of English manufacturers, Colt was the only one in a position to supply large numbers of revolvers in a short time. Herbert Houze in Samuel Colt: Arms, Art and Invention on page 9 notes that The British Board of Ordnance contracted with Colt for 25,540 Model 1851 Navy revolvers mainly for the Royal Navy, and Colt also sold an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 revolvers to officers. During the war, Colt also sold smaller numbers of revolvers to the Ottoman Turks and even armed their adversaries in Russia. Two thousand of the Russian contract 1851 Navy revolvers hidden in bales of hay were seized in shipment by officials in neutral Prussia during the war, and 1,000 were kept for use by the Prussian Navy. Some revolvers did make it to the Russians, and they also produced their own knockoffs of Colt’s design.
Colt certainly wanted to sell many more of his revolvers, especially to the French. Europeans were famously nationalistic and tended to favor their own homegrown designs, so Colt had to compete with the Adams and Beaumont-Adams in England which ultimately out competed him and forced the closure of his London factory. In the 1850s, the French were still mostly using single shot pistols, so their market was ripe for the picking but Colt had less success with the French, though not for a lack of effort.
French General Pelissier’s Samuel Colt Presentation 1851 Navy Revolvers
Samuel Colt presented a cased pair of revolvers to French General Aimable-Jean-Jacques Pelissier (1794-1864), one of the most powerful and influential figures in France in the mid-19th century. He had been an officer in the French military since 1815 and rose from a second lieutenant in the artillery to a major-general (general de division) by 1850 and military commander of Oran. Pelissier was ruthless. He ordered mass executions of resisting tribal peoples in Algeria, driving the Ouled Riah tribe from their settlements and then suffocating them in caves in 1845. The incident brought public scrutiny but also earned him a promotion to brigadier-general. He was the interim governor of Algeria in 1852 during Napoleon III’s coup d’état.
During the Crimean War, Pelissier took command of an army corps in January of 1855 and then commanded the French forces at Sevastopol that May. He successfully captured the important port city on the Black Sea after his men captured the Tower of Malakoff. He was made a marshal of France and Duke of Malakoff as rewards. The latter was the only victory title bestowed during Napoleon III’s reign. Pelissier was also the vice president of the French Senate, a member of the Privy Council, commander in chief of the Army of the East, grand chancellor of the Legion of Honor, and governor general of Algeria.
French General Aimable Pelissier is seen during the Crimean War in this photo at left. On the right is the Battle of Malakoff painted by Adolphe Yvon depicting Gen. Pelissier’s French troops capturing the Russian fortifications leading to the fall of Sevastopol. Note the French officer aiming a pair of single shot percussion pistols. The French were much slower to adopt revolvers than the British.
The date of the presentation to Pelissier is not given. It is known that some revolvers remained in Colt’s London Armory for extended periods after being produced, such as the London Dragoons imported for the American Civil War, and Pelissier was in London as the French ambassador from March 1858 to April 1859 before returning to Algeria where he was Governor General until his death in Algiers in 1864. He may have received the pair as a gift from Colt while in London through Colt’s London Agency, but regardless of the timing, his role as French commander during the Crimean War was very likely a significant reason for Colt to present him this pair.
Pelissier and Colt also had significant correspondence that Colt historian R.L. Wilson noted within the Wadsworth Athenaeum’s collections. This historic pair is featured in Wilson’s book The Colt Engraving Book Volume 1 on page 228. The guns are accompanied by a large brass memorial medallion with the bust of Pelissier on the front and a list of offices he held. A British Crimean War campaign medal with the bust of Queen Victoria on the front marked “CRIMEA” and a Roman warrior receiving a laurel crown from Victory on the reverse. The medal has the proper pale blue ribbon with yellow edges with three oak leaf clasps noting the battles of Sebastopol, Inkermann, and Alma.
French General Aimable Pelissier’s brass memorial medallion with his bust on the front and his list of offices he held on the back and a British Crimean War campaign medal with the bust of Queen Victoria on the front marked “CRIMEA” and a Roman warrior receiving a laurel crown from Victory on the reverse with the proper pale blue ribbon with yellow edges and three oak leaf clasps noting the battles of Sebastopol, Inkermann, and Alma.
Revolvers in Use during the Crimean War
If you study photographs from the period, you’ll find revolvers and handguns of any sort rarely show up in images from the Crimean War which may come as a surprise given how frequently they appear in photographs from the American Civil War. Handguns were primarily used by British officers as sidearms and by some mounted troops, but the cavalry depended far more heavily on their sabers in actual combat. There are references in written accounts from the period of revolvers in use, often noting their ability to take out multiple opponents in close-quarters combat. For example, in The Crimean War as Seen by Those Who Reported It,on page 56, a firsthand account notes, “Captain Lindsey, seeing the ganger to which the colors were exposed, rushed to the relief and, with a revolver-pistol, shot three of the assailants. The successful bearers of the standard escaped almost miraculously.” On page 76, an account of the Scots Greys’ injuries notes that “Cornet Handley stabbed in the side and arm, being at one time surrounded by four Cossacks, three of whom he shot with his revolver, and the fourth was cut down by his sergeant.” Another account on page 93 tells of, “Captain Crosse, 88th, was wounded in the leg, and surrounded by six Russians, who came to dispatch him. Drawing his revolver, he shot three of them dead upon the spot, wounded the fourth, and the other two took to their heels.”
After the end of the Crimean War, the sales prospects for Colt’s revolvers in Europe decreased. Peace combined with the popularity of the double action Adams and Beaumont-Adams revolvers in the U.K. led Colt to close his London factory in 1857. He continued to market his wares abroad through his London sales office and also worked diligently in the U.S. to ensure his revolvers were in wide circulation. They were particularly popular in the American West and saw widespread use in the lead up to the American Civil War and throughout the conflict by both the Union and Confederacy. The Model 1860 Army was the official revolver for the Union in the early years of the war alongside Colt Model 1851 Navy revolvers already purchased by the U.S. military and thousands of Colts carried as privately purchased sidearms.
This London Model 1851 Navy revolver from Lot 3128 was presented to A.E. Rykert of the 100th Regiment of Foot (Prince’s Royal Canadian) and was reportedly presented by the Prince of Wales himself in 1858. Colt’s revolvers also found some success with the militia in Upper and Lower Canada in the 1850s.
Collecting the Crimean War
The ongoing war in Ukraine has certainly increased interest in the history of Crimea, Ukraine, and the entire region in recent years. Military historians and collectors have long been intrigued by the Crimean War as an important transition point in military history as rifled firearms became the dominant infantry weapons and changed the nature of warfare. American military historians have been particularly interested given many of the same weapons were utilized by both sides of the American Civil War that followed the Crimean War. American military observers, including George McClellan, had watched the events in Crimea carefully in hopes of learning from the European conflict and then used their knowledge to shape tactics during the American Civil War.
Rock Island Auction Company regularly has firearms and other items from the Crimean War in our various auctions. That is certainly the case with the upcoming August Premier Firearms Auction which contains Colt percussion revolvers from the London factory as well as English firearms. Auctions also regularly feature long guns from the war, including the famous British Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle-muskets that were the main arms of the British infantry in the conflict and also became a primary infantry weapon during the American Civil War.
This cased pair of Colt Model 1851 Navy revolvers goes beyond the Wild West or American Civil War to the Crimean War and French military and offer a great opportunity for a collector and student of 19th century European history to obtain a piece that relates to the current struggle in Ukraine.
Select Sources and Further Reading:
- Samuel Colt: Arms, Art, and Invention by Herbert G. Houze
- The Crimean War as Seen by Those Who Reported It edited by Angela Michelli Fleming and John Maxwell Hamilton
- Colonel Colt London: The History of Colt’s London Firearms, 1851-1857 by Joseph G. Rosa
- Rock Island Auction Company Auction 82 Lot 3136: Model 1851 Navy Revolvers Presented by Colt to Lord Cardigan, Commander of the Light Brigade
- Rock Island Auction Company Auction 76 Lot 3103: Napoleon III’s Cased Pair of Colt Model 1851 Navy Revolvers
- “Revolver Showdown: Samuel Colt’s 1851 Navy vs. Robert Adams Double Action” by Seth Isaacson, Rock Island Auction Company
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