War of words – ‘revolver’

with Marc DeSantis

A ‘revolver’ is a pistol in which individual bullets are contained inside separate chambers within a rotating cylinder. As the cylinder revolves, a new bullet is placed before the hammer for firing.

The origin of this meaning – a revolving pistol firearm – isn’t clear. It may have come from none other than the weapon’s American inventor: Samuel Colt. Whatever its derivation, its enhanced firepower made it a success. ‘Revolver’ entered the American lexicon.

‘There are probably in Texas about as many revolvers as male adults,’ wrote one correspondent for The New York Times in 1854.

Model 1860 Colt army revolver of Col. Charles G. Stifel of the 5th Regiment, United States Reserve Corps and the 5th Missouri Infantry Volunteers during the Civil War. IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons

During the American Civil War (1861-1865), the revolver eclipsed the traditional sabre among cavalry. The firepower advantage of revolvers was undeniable. ‘Not a damned revolver in the crowd!’, laughed doomed Union officer Major Andrew Vern Emen Johnston on 27 September 1864, near Centralia, Missouri, just before his unit of 115 infantrymen, armed with single-shot muskets, was annihilated by just 80 Confederate irregular cavalry.

The weapon’s invention story holds that the idea for the revolver had come in 1830 when Colt, then aged 16, voyaged aboard the sailing ship Corvo to India, where he remained for several weeks. Colt then headed home to America the following year, and started whittling a revolving pistol, the idea coming from either the Corvo’s wheel, or perhaps its windlass.

Many models of revolver were used by both sides during the American Civil War. Representative was the ubiquitous Colt Model 1860 Army, of which the Union (US) Army bought almost 130,000 units. Weighing more than two and a half pounds, and chambered in .44 calibre, it carried six rounds. A weapon containing six chambers was also known as a ‘six-shooter’.

Outside America, Britain’s .455-calibre Webley Mk V and Mk VI revolvers saw widespread service during World War I.