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Foreign-Made Colt Revolvers? The Fascinating Story of the Collectible Colt Brevetes.

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Editor’s Note: Written by Joe Poyer. If you would like to explore the story of the Colt Brevetes in greater detail, obtain a copy of Colt Brevete Revolvers by Roy Marcot from North Cape Publications, Inc., P.O. Box 1027 Tustin CA 92781. The price is $44.95 plus postage. The 372-page hardcover book is impressively illustrated with hundreds of full-color photographs.

On May 1, 1851, the Great Exhibition in London opened to the public. Housed in an amazing iron-framed building covered with huge glass windows and ceiling panels, a third of the population of Great Britain attended as well as thousands from all over the world. One of the most popular exhibits in the American section was that of the Colt Manufacturing Company. Sam Colt’s new .36 caliber Model 1851 Navy Pistol was an instant hit with the public and gunsmiths and arms makers in Europe.

Illustration of the Great Exhibition Hall, renowned for its massive glass panels.

Sam Colt’s firearms had always been counterfeited in abroad but the numbers were small and Sam was, as usual, strapped for cash and so little could be done. But when the Great Exhibition closed in early October, counterfeit copies of the Colt M1848 and M1849 Pocket Pistols and the new M1851 Navy flooded the European market. Many of the counterfeiters were small operations with few workers and the Colt agents found it impossible to track each down and sue in local courts.

The Colt company was not only losing money as these fakes proliferated, but their poor quality was giving real Colt products a bad name. European sales were falling.

Sam Colt and his London solicitor decided that the manufacture of copies would be allowed to continue as long as a royalty of 10 francs per firearm was paid to Colt and the revolver passed the strict requirements of the national proof house (the French franc was equivalent to $5.50 US at the time). The Colt company would even sell parts manufactured in the U.S. and England for the revolvers as an incentive. Those that did not agree to this could see their products confiscated under law. All revolvers made according to the agreement were to be marked COLT/BREVETE as proof of “licensed” manufacture. Brevete is a French word meaning “to patent.”

When Colt introduced cylinder-based revolver designs, most of the competition were single shot and pepperbox pistols. Images by Ron Paxton.

While this did not completely eliminate the problem, it did accomplish two things: It provided European buyers with an “approved” Colt revolver, and it improved revenue for the always cash-short Colt company.

Keep in mind that in the 1850s and 1860s, most handguns were either heavy and awkward “pepperbox”-type or single-shot pistols. The lightweight revolving cylinder Colt which held five or six shots was as great a step forward at the time as the semi-automatic pistols that appeared later.

Collector’s Corner

Collectors of Colt Brevete revolvers have been few and far between as the majority of Colt “collectors” have long believed that they were pirated copies, when in fact if properly marked and identified, they are “licensed” Colt firearms. As a consequence of this mistaken belief, prices of these Colt Brevetes remain well-below that of “made-in-USA or London” Colt revolvers of the same period.

You can identify a licensed Colt Brevete revolver:

*          If the barrel is marked COLT/BREVETE or COLT PATENT.

*          If national proof marks required by the country in which they were made are present.

*          If the quality of manufacturing is comparable to American-made Colts. Parts should not show rough finishes or more tool marks than is consistent with 19th century manufacturing. Parts may also show markings of Colt plant inspectors if they were manufactured in Hartford, Connecticut or London, England.

A Colt Brevete Model 1849.

The most identifiable feature on the Brevete Colt revolvers are the scenes engraved on the cylinder. Cylinders made by Colt will show dragoons and Indians or the stagecoach holdup on the Pocket Pistols and the naval battle on the M1851 Navy. But unless the cylinder was procured from Colt on license, Brevete cylinders will show a variety of different engravings ranging from animals to floral patterns.

Cased sets of Colt Brevetes can command a premium, but are still more affordable than their traditional Colt counterparts.

Cased sets of Colt Brevete revolvers are known and will command significant prices, but well below that for similar cased sets of Hartford- or London-made Colts.

Colt Brevete Model 1851 revolver.

Colt Brevete Model 1872.

Brevete Colts were made in other countries including Austria, Belgium, France, Japan, Russia and Spain. Brevete Colt Pistols were not confined to the Model 1848 and 1849 Pocket and Model 1851 Navy models. Brevetes variants were also manufactured of the percussion Colt Revolving Rifles and Model 1861 Army, and the cartridge-based Model 1872 Peacemaker. So the collecting field is wide, and as mentioned earlier, undervalued, but does require close attention to details and a knowledge of what to look for.

Editor’s Note: Written by Joe Poyer. If you would like to explore the story of the Colt Brevetes in greater detail, obtain a copy of Colt Brevete Revolvers by Roy Marcot from North Cape Publications, Inc., P.O. Box 1027 Tustin CA 92781. The price is $44.95 plus postage. The 372-page hardcover book is impressively illustrated with hundreds of full-color photographs.

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