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The Walch Navy Revolver

By Frank Graves

Early war images of enlisted men with revolvers tucked into their waist belts are fairly common. These weapons were privately purchased or perhaps given as gifts from family members to provide their loved one with more protection as the soldier went off to war. The gun carried by this soldier, whether purchased by him or received as a gift, is a rarely seen .36 caliber Walch Navy revolver.

Courtesy College Hill Arsenal.
Courtesy College Hill Arsenal.

The 12-shot Walch is one of the more rare American percussion revolvers. Patented in 1859 by John Walch of New York City, only 200-300 were reportedly manufactured by Walch Firearms & Co. Walch contracted the production to the Union Knife Company in Naugatuck, Conn., as he did not own production facilities.

The Navy designation suggests it was purchased by this branch of the service – it wasn’t – but because the Navy favored .36 caliber martial revolvers.  

Detail of a page from the 1859 patent application. Google Patents.
Detail of a page from the 1859 patent application. Google Patents.

The Walch had a 6-chambered cylinder with each chamber taking a stacked double load. The mechanism of the Walch Navy Revolver was unique, with two nipples per chamber and two hammers to fire them, along with two triggers to do so. This invention is at the core of Walch’s patent.

In practice, the shooter pulled the right trigger first to fire the front charge, then the second trigger to fire the rear charge. If the shooter was not paying attention and pulled the wrong sequence of triggers, the ignition of the rear charge before the front charge was previously fired from the front of the cylinder, and mayhem would ensue. As firearms collectors have seen many times, the invention of a better mousetrap does not necessarily mean so. Certainly, the lack of acceptance of the Walch Navy Revolver for the above reasons contributed to its limited production.

In this tintype, the Walch adds another martial element to the soldier as he stands in front of a backdrop painted with familiar military elements. His gauntlets and boots, like the revolver, are also probably privately purchased items. The standard Model 1861 or Model 1863 rifled musket at his side was an issued weapon. Assuming he survived camp disease and accidents, he may have seen active campaigning. It is a good bet the Walch did not.

Quarter plate tintype by an unidentified photographer. Frank Graves Collection.
Quarter plate tintype by an unidentified photographer. Frank Graves Collection.

Learn more about the Walch’s mechanism in this video by Forgotten Weapons.

Frank Graves has collected American percussion firearms for 59 years and armed images for about 40 of those years.  He is a past president of the Texas Gun Collectors Association, and a member of the American Society of Arms Collectors Association, where he has served as a director.

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