This month’s “This Old Gun” is an old six shot percussion revolver, .36 caliber with a 7 ½” barrel. It is marked in simple text on the barrel “E. Whitney, N. Haven”.
The “E” stands for Eli . . . the same Eli Whitney that is famous for the development of the cotton gin in 1793. What few historians teach these days though is the contributions Eli Whitney made to the firearms industry. Whitney’s greatest contribution was his concept of interchangeable parts. This alone changed the face of firearm manufacturing around the world.
Prior to Whitney, gun makers would make each firearm one part at a time. Each part was subsequently fitted to the previously made part. If one part was cut a little undersized, no problem, the next would be made a little bigger. This created a major problem for the repair of firearms in the field. Broken firearms would need to be sent to a gunsmith to have individual parts made. This gunsmith needed to be a highly skilled craftsman, and repairs were very time consuming.
Whitney devised tools and machines for making the individual parts. By doing so Whitney proved that workers with little or no gunsmithing experience could turn out large quantities of precision parts. Firearms manufactured in this manor could easily be repaired. Replacement parts could just be “dropped in”, or at the least take very little fitting.
In 1798 Eli Whitney set up his gun manufacturing facility in New Haven Connecticut to produce 10,000 flintlock muskets for the U.S. government. Over the years Whitney produced a great number of contract guns, for both the government and for private firms. The foremost of which was the Colt revolvers known to collectors as the “Whitneyville-Walkers”. Eli Whitney died in 1825, but his company continued being operated by his son, and others, for the next 90 years.
From 1798 to 1863 the firm was referred to as “Whitneyville Armory”. In 1863 the firm was incorporated as Whitney Arms Company. In 1888 the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. acquired the properties, equipment and assets of Whitney.
Whitney made “Navy” model revolvers in several variations. Transition guns will find parts of an earlier variation mixed in with the later. It total there were about 33,000 of all variations made from the late 1850’s to the early 1860’s. The pictured gun is believed to be the 1st Type of the Second Model. The overall condition of the gun is poor, but it does function well. There were about 1,200 of this particular variation made. Even with its poor condition, the value of this revolver is still estimated in the $500 to $1,000 range. Whitney’s in excellent condition are difficult at best to find, and therefore hard to estimate a value. Very few come up for sale in any condition, which also makes the values volatile.