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A Colt 1861 Navy revolver at a $700 asking price is a fine gun, and a worthwhile addition to any gun collection. But what does the gun enthusiast who doesn’t have that kind of money to spend on one gun do? Consider the affordable antique .22 caliber revolver.
Editor’s Note: “This article is excerpted from the 1973 edition of the Gun Digest annual and prices expressed do not represent modern gun values. You can read eight decades of good gun writing with the 3-disc set of all Gun Digest editions from 1944 – 2013. Order here at gundigeststore.com.
The percussion purist may laugh, but consider the antique .22-cartridge revolver. In that field, $700 will buy 20 or more guns, these covering the period from the first American cartridge revolver, made in 1857, through the 1890 models that have most of today’s modern revolver features.
The typical .22 antique cartridge revolver is a compact seven-shot arm with a 2- or 3-inch barrel and hardwood, bird’s-head grips. They’ll weigh about 10 ounces, their length a little over 6 inches. Most were made to fire a .22-caliber Short, but not the .22 Short we know now. The smokeless powder of today is too powerful for your antique .22 so don’t ever try it.
The .22-Rimfire History
The story of the small revolvers began in 1854 with the patent of a metallic cartridge by Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson. To enable them to manufacture a revolver for this cartridge they had to acquire the patent of Rollin White, a former Colt employee, who held a patent issued April 3, 1855, for a bored-through cylinder to accommodate the breech loading of cartridges.
Rollin White had tried unsuccessfully to sell the rights to Colt. These patents and subsequent improvement patents gave Smith & Wesson (S&W) the sole right to the breech-loading cartridge revolver market for 12 years, until the expiration of those rights in 1869. During this period, S&W produced some 126,000 .22-caliber revolvers in three variations of the model No. 1, plus .32-caliber types as well.
Other makers were not unwilling to try to circumvent these patent rights. White, as part of his contract with S&W, defended the patent vigorously through many court cases. Many well-known names were ordered to cease manufacture, among them Allen & Wheelock, Moore Patent Firearms Co., L. W. Pond Co. and E. A. Prescott. A few companies became licensees, and their revolvers were thereafter marked “Made for Smith & Wesson.” These infringing guns, which usually show a marked resemblance to the S&W original, provide an interesting comparison.
Early S&W .22 revolvers were carried by Civil War soldiers as personal pocket weapons. Their use or effectiveness was minimal but they provided some feeling of protection. Following the Civil War, the little .22 was the traveler’s companion by stagecoach and train. The homeowner and shopkeeper had one in the drawer for protection against itinerants. Despite the publicity given to the two-shot Derringer, ladies of the evening and gamblers often preferred the compact seven-shot revolver. Young boys found them a must for July Fourth celebrations, with blanks of course.
In 1870, the S&W patent expired. Renewal was denied, some say, because President Ulysses S. Grant was still irked about poor Northern ordnance supply during the Civil War. The gates were opened and some 50 manufacturers began turning out .22-caliber revolvers of varying quality. Some were priced as low as $6, and the quality reflected this price. Possibly because the maker didn’t care to share responsibility for malfunction or accident, numerous guns carried only a pet name for identity.
Mail order houses that contracted with a manufacturer sold these for their production. Most often, the mail order firm name did not appear on the gun. Such names on the barrel as Protector, Tramps Terror, Little Giant, ad infinitum, were the only markings.
One manufacturer might produce 25 to 50 variations of the same model with only a name change and a slightly different grip or finish.
Many of these “name-only” revolvers can be traced to a maker, but the process is often difficult. In the more specific area of known manufacturer’s models, the author has compiled a table of some 50 makers, including brief specifications of their early .22 models and the range of their current values to collectors.