Cartridges for Navy Colt Richards-Mason Conversion Revolvers

I was reading Adler’s book on metallic cartridge conversions, covering the Post-civil war efforts by Colt to convert C&B revolvers to use metallic cartridges. In it, there is some mention about the U. S. Navy Richards-Mason conversions of 1851 and 1861 percussion revolvers by Colt in the 1870s, which I guess is what the Navy must have done instead of adopting the Colt Model 1873 as the Army did. Adler’s discussion is not particularly clear regarding the conversions performed for the Navy (and apparently there were also some new revolvers made for the Navy by Colt) other than it said that all of what the book calls “Navy-Navy” conversions (and I guess also similar factory revolvers made for the Navy) were chambered for a .38 centerfire cartridge. Exactly what was this cartridge (.38 Long Colt, .38 Short Colt, something else?) and did the Navy buy commercial ammunition for these revolvers? I would think it would have necessarily required a bullet diameter greater than .357 due to the larger Model 1851 bore size. My guess is it was .38 Short Colt with a heeled bullet, but I don’t know.

There is a cartridge that Erlmeier-Brandt (Volume II) calls the .38 Long Colt (OUstside Lubricated) which has a synonym of, among others, .38 Long Colt Navy. It is shown as Item
359 on page 101. Date of introduction is shown as 1874, so that might fit. Case length is shown as .864" - .867" They mention it was “transformed” into the .38 Long Colt (inside lubricated) by lengthing of the case to 1.012" - 1.53".

Wish I knew more about this stuff, but I thought I would throw this out as a possible answer to your question.

Years ago, I had a ‘U.S.’ headstamped, outside lubed cartridge for the conversions. It was in Suydam’s book. I cannot recall if it was HS’d ‘38 NAVY’, though (I really think it was!). It was not HS’d ‘COLT’ or ‘SHORT’ or ‘LONG’. That I remember. It was an odds n’ ends find for $1.00 at a gun show and I was quite pleased when I found out what it was. Cheers!

Roundsworth - your cartridge was the one Erlmeier & Brandt were talking about. They showed the US .38 NAVY as one of the headstamps.


I don’t think the Navy decided to convert revolvers in lieu of adopting the new 1873 cartridge revolver. The term “Navy” simply refers to the series of percussion revolvers. Many of the “Army” series were also converted to 44 CF. Since the M1873 Colt was not issued in any great number until mid 1874, the conversions may have been used by some until they could be replaced. In some regiments, such as the 7th Cavalry, both the Remington and Colt percussion 44s were still in use when the first of the M1873s arrived. They never used any of the conversions, AFAIK. It would not surprise me that most regiments, and the Navy, did the same thing. In my opinion, the conversions were more of a civilian thing than military.

Flayderman doesn’t go into any detail on the conversion cartridges. He says the 1851 Navies were converted to 38 Rimfire and 38 Centerfire. He shows 7 different models converted to 38 cartridges.


The version of the .38 long Colt produced for the metallic cartridge conversions used by the U.S. Navy (the so-called .38 Colt Navy) featured a heel type bullet in a case shorter than the later version of the .38 long Colt cartridge. That later cartridge had the bullet’s full diameter (.357 in. or so) entirely within the case. I’m not certain of the diameter of the heel bullet used in the early version, but it was on the order of .375 in. or so. The army did make metallic cartridges in .44 “Colt and Remington” inside primed versions and apparently issued them. Whether these were as numerous as the original percussions in the post (say) 1868 period or not I don’t know. Jack

Dennis, there is a letter sent to the Navy by Colt on July 8, 1873 saying: “We have made our .38 inch cal. altered pistols rimfire because there are no central fire cartridges of that calibre in the American market. We can however alter ours to central fire…”; “…of course .38 cal. cartridges can be easily manufactured and I think the Union Metallic Cartridge Co. of Bridgeport, Conn. has already experimented in that direction with some of our pistols”. The cartridge mentioned was in fact a “.38 Long Center Fire” made by UMC in 1873 with Orcutt primer and listed as “adapted to Colt’s B. L. Navy Revolver”. Frankford Arsenal also made an early experimental center fire version with a tinned cup anvil. These were the same cartridges later known as .38 Colt Navy or Long Colt, Outside Lubricated.

Good information. I suspected the round used in the Navy’s converted revolvers was something similar to the .38 Short Colt. It actually appears to be a CF version of the older .38 Long RF. From what I have found, it appears that Colt converted about 2,100 1851s and 1861s for the U. S. Navy, and the Navy also bought an undisclosed but fairly large number of similar .38 revolvers purpose-made by Colt for .38 cartridges rather than being C&B conversions. I have never heard of the Navy using the .45 Colt Model P, and it apparently used the “Navy-Navy” .38s until the Colt Model 1892 (New Army & Navy) revolver in .38 Long Colt was adopted.

I don’t know what sidearm the Marines used during the period prior to the Model 1892, but I have not heard anything indicating that they used the Model P either. Maybe they did. But, that was back in the late 19th century when Marines were charged mainly with providing ship security for the Navy, and weren’t used much then in a land combat role or for storming beachheads with amphibious attacks. That came later. So they wouldn’t have required too much in the way of a powerful revolver.

I just read an article about Gen. Thomas Holcomb. I had never heard of him before. He retired in 1943, but was truly the father of the modern USMC, and had an amazing career. Someone should make a movie about him. In addition to his other contributions, he was dedicated to the cause of excellent marksmanship among his troops. Too bad that’s not so much in evidence any more among the top brass.