Prior to the emergence of the Single Action Army in 1873, one of the most popular Colts was the 1860 Army, the primary Yankee sidearm during the Civil War. But in between these two benchmark revolvers was another Colt—an amalgamation of their classic designs that has been largely ignored until recently.
It is the 1871-72 Open Top, a transition model that bridged the gap between the cap-and-ball 1860 Army and the cartridge-firing SAA. It was the Open Top—not the Peacemaker—that became the first revolver specifically made by Colt for metallic cartridges. (Previous Colt cartridge conversions were made, in part, from surplus cap-and-ball inventory.)
The Open Top retained the 1860 Army’s elongated grip and 7.5-inch barrel but did away with the 1860′s rebated cylinder, which had enabled a .44-caliber cylinder to be affixed to an 1851 Navy .36-caliber frame. Instead, the Open Top matched a non-rebated .44 cylinder to a full-size .44 frame. The rear sight was moved from the 1860′s shallow hammer notch to a groove on the breech end of the barrel.
Colt’s first factory-made cartridge revolver was chambered for the same .44 rimfire used in the 1860 Henry but with a slightly longer bullet (so much for the .44-40 being the first rifle-pistol cartridge combination). Only 7,000 Open Tops were made between 1871 and 1873. This, combined with the hard use these guns received, explains the Open Special guns. It should be noted that Cimarron’s Open Top cylinders are made of tougher-than-4140 steel, but nonetheless, only mild factory loads should be used—after all, it lacks a topstrap for additional strength.
At the range, I noted that .44 Specials would hang up when loading unless each chamber was precisely aligned with the loading-gate cutout. I discovered the reason The .44 Special rim diameter is slightly larger than the Black Hills .44 Colt cartridges I was using. There were no loading problems with .44 Colt cartridges.
With its long grip and 7.5-inch barrel, the Open Top hung comfortably in my hand and I fired six Federal .44 Specials offhand at a 25-yard steel gong. It rang every time. (Because the Open Top has a fixed firing pin, it should be carried with the hammer resting on an empty chamber.) In addition, an ingenious rotating safety, hidden within the hammer and pivoted by a screw, can be manually protruded to block the hammer from its “full down” position on a primer. Then I switched to .44 Colt to group the Open Top from the bench. But when I cocked the gun, I found the recoil from my last .44 Special shot had knocked the front sight off the barrel and sent it to places unknown.
This was obviously a rare case of silver soldering that didn’t hold. Although Cimarron’s Mike Harvey would have replaced the gun, I decided to improvise. A thin shard of flint from a replica Kentucky rifle fit perfectly into the Open Top’s empty front sight groove. A bit of masking tape and I had a new front sight.
Five carefully aimed shots produced a compact 1.75-inch group. Windage was perfect, but the shots were a mite low from my six o’clock hold due to the flint’s height. I could have carefully knapped away at it and brought the shots on target. Or, had I been living in the 1870s, I would have looked for a mountain man still toting a flintlock and asked to borrow his possibles bag. That way I could have made a slightly lower flint front sight for a sixgun that is obviously well qualified for the rigors of the frontier.