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California Gold Rush Weapons – Historical Overview

By the late 1840s, Samuel Colt’s revolvers had demonstrated their utility on the Texas Frontier and in the war with Mexico. Colt’s experiences with military contracts had convinced him that his business would have to serve a much larger and more stable market in order to survive and grow. In 1847, he announced plans to produce a revolver of manageable size and simple construction that would be useful to the general public.

The design that emerged was the .31 caliber Baby Dragoon. This small-framed revolver used fewer action parts than the earlier martial revolvers. The size made it suitable for comfortable and discrete carry. The time was ripe, as the Mexican War had opened a vast area of Western territory for expansion. The volatile political climate of the times prompted citizens across the continent to look to themselves for personal protection.

With the addition of an attached loading lever and other refinements, the Baby Dragoon became the Pocket Model of 1849. It arrived on the scene just in time to satisfy the demand created by the California Gold Rush and remained in production until 1872. (Shumaker reports production of 3,000 units between 1872 and 1875.)

Peak years occurred in the early 1850’s Gold Rush period and during the Civil War years. The Colt single-action lock-work came to maturity in the model of 1849 and formed the basis for the Navy and Army models to come. While these larger pistols achieved more historical recognition, the Pocket Model remained Colt’s best selling revolver throughout the percussion era. Total production reached 340,000 units.

When the Pocket Model arrived on the scene, the closest tactically equivalent small handgun was the Allen pepperbox. Most pocket-sized pistols were of the single shot Derringer-type with a few designs capable of repeat fire by use of multiple barrels. The only apparent advantage possessed by those contemporary pistols was the availability of more effective calibers and loads.

The Model of 1849 was a much trimmer package than the majority of the Allen revolvers and had a definite accuracy advantage as range increased. Then, as now, many handgun carriers were perfectly happy with mousegun ballistics. The Pocket Model maintained a strong market presence even after the introduction of the slightly larger .36 caliber Pocket Police and Pocket Navy Models.

In recent years it has become a popular, if inaccurate conceit, among the anti-gun crowd that Samuel Colt invented the American Gun Culture as a marketing tool. Historical revisionism aside, Colt’s introduction and promotion of the 1849 Pocket Model certainly did democratize personal armament in a manner most consistent with the American experience.