In 1846 the United States Army brought the Colt Walker 1847 into service – a revolver that is the most powerful sidearm ever issued by the US military. The weapon was named after its inventors, gun-making legend Samuel Colt and Texas Ranger Captain Samuel Hamilton Walker. The Colt Walker was extremely powerful at close range, although it had a tendency to explode in the user’s hand.
Walker had so much faith in his design that he carried two Colt Walkers on him in the Mexican–American War. Born in 1815, Walker served as an officer in both the Republic of Texas and the United States when Texas joined the union. As a result, he was involved in many of the American West’s conflicts, like the Mexican American War and the Indian Wars.
Walker made a trip to New York to meet with Colt and discuss a weapon design based on the five-shot Colt Paterson revolver. Walker was familiar with this weapon from his Texas Ranger days. At the time Samuel Colt was no longer in business, but this opportunity allowed him to fire his work back up.
Walker’s proposal included adding a sixth-round and making it powerful enough to easily stop a man at close range, and even a horse.
The Colt Walker 1847
A .44 caliber projectile traveled down a 9-inch barrel with the muzzle energy of a .357 Magnum. The effective range was 100 yards. The revolver weighed 4.5 lb (2.0 kg) and was the most powerful black powder handgun ever, and the most powerful pistol ever issued by the US military.
It wasn’t until the introduction of the .357 Magnum in 1935 that the Colt Walker was knocked off its spot as the most powerful commercially manufactured repeating handgun.
Unsurprisingly, the effects of a 15.5 inch .44 caliber pistol on the human body were severe. Medical officer John “Rip” Ford had arguably the most experience with these weapons in action, having seen the results of a shot fired at a Mexican soldier at Veracruz. He reported that the pistol had about as much power and range as a .54 caliber Mississippi rifle.
All this power came at a cost though, as the Colt Walker had a worrying tendency to detonate in the user’s hand. The handgun used 60 grains of powder per round – more than twice that of conventional black powder revolvers at the time – which put a tremendous amount of stress on the firearm. However, it is likely that poor metallurgy at the time was to blame for this, rather than poor design.
To reduce the chances of detonation, Colt recommended dropping the charge to 50 grains of powder.
Another reason for failures was all chambers exploding at once. It is suspected that users allowed the black powder to spill over the chambers, causing all to fire at the same time. Lard was placed on the cylinders on top of each bullet to prevent sparks from traveling. This is actually a wise practice for this type of weapon, one that many still continue to use on black powder revolvers today.
Sadly Walker was killed in the Mexican-American War the same year his pistol was created. Although his death was untimely, his design helped pull Colt out of bankruptcy.
Only 1,100 Colt Walkers were made in total – 100 of which were sold on the civilian market – making them a rare and highly sought-after collector’s piece. One of these legendary handguns with its original powder flask was put up for auction in 2008 and sold for $920,000.