There has been growing interest in a line of Belgian-made cap and ball revolvers that many collectors consider direct-line descendents of original Civil War era Colts—even more authentic than 2nd and 3rd generation Colts made in the States. The story goes that in 1853 Samuel Colt traveled overseas and licensed Belgian gun manufacturers to produce his famous line of revolvers. Then, one hundred years later, some of these companies regrouped and again began to churn out cap and ball six shooters. But this time modern steels were used; the new pistols were marketed as “1960” New Model Armies”; and, most notably, they were stamped “Made in Belgium.”
The upcoming centennial of the American Civil War, 1861 to 1865, the scarcity of originals, the absence of 1860 New Army reproductions for reenactors, and a burgeoning market for blackpowder firearms all pointed to an obvious need. And there to answer that need were two important ingredients: original Colt equipment waiting silently in Belgium for nearly a century and a young man by the name of William B. Edwards.
Edwards was a gun historian-consultant and one of the principals of Centennial Arms Corp., in Chicago. He had already proven himself in the late 1950s in negotiations between Val Forgett of Navy Arms and Vittorio Gregorelli (a subcontractor for Beretta who would later team up with Aldo Uberti) in connection with the manufacture of the first Colt Navy 1851 Italian replicas. Edwards realized there was a ready market just waiting for a reproduction of the venerable Colt Army. At that time only steel and brass-framed replicas of the Colt Navy and 1858 Remington were available. Edwards entrusted Fabriques d’Armes Unies de Liège in Belgium with the production of the New Army. Under Edwards, Centennial Arms soon became the main U.S. dealer for the new guns and the number 2 replica retailer during the 1960s, after Navy Arms.
Similar to the bucking horse found on the Colt’s Model 1873 Single Action Army, the Fabriques d’Armes Unies de Liège trademark is a centaur armed with a rifle on the left side of the frame, and the barrels are marked “1960 NEW MODEL ARMY” CENTENNIAL TRADE MARK, with some variations. Soon thousands were shipped to the United States just in time for the centennial celebrations.
Fabriques d’Armes was owned by cousins Paul and Albert Hanquet. Paul was the great grandson of one J. Hanquet, who in turn was a member of the original consortium of 7 gun makers from Liege that, in April 1853, signed a licensing agreement with Sam Colt authorizing them to manufacture COLT’s Patent (COLT BREVETE) revolvers. These Belgian Pockets, Navies, and Dragoons were supposed to be sold outside the U.S.A. only. It is interesting to note that the consortium never made 1860 Armies during the 19th century. This only happened 100 years later…
For the production Edwards provided Fabriques d’Armes with 2 Colt Armies as models. One had a slightly bent trigger guard as a result of being dropped on concrete. And, you guessed it, the first production run faithfully copied that guard, dent and all! Fortunately, the error was discovered before these first revolvers were shipped. Paul Hanquet received the first unnumbered pistol. The second one, stamped “MODEL,” was presented to the then president of Colt with the subtle barrel engraving ADDRESS FRED ROFF, HARTFORD, CT.
Before Fabriques d’Armes terminated production in the mid 1970s after some 60,000 Centaure C&B revolvers, in several models and variations, were sold in the U.S.A. and Europe. In the 1980s, the company would disappear.
When Italian replicas or even 2nd and 3rd generation COLTs are compared to Centaures, the superior quality of material and workmanship of the Belgium guns is obvious—particularly those made in the 1960s. Centaure barrels were bored for .451 round ball (.457 regular COLTs) with rather shallow rifling, button rifled with regular twist. Parts including screws, are interchangeable with the original 1st generation COLT Armies—something not even 2nd and 3rd generation Colts can boast.
Despite this impressive heritage, the contractual lineage between Colonel Colt and Fabriques d’Armes through a 19th century licensing agreement, and the direct “bloodline” from the COLT Army 1860 to the Centaure “1960 NEW MODEL ARMY,” thousands of these fine pistols are still undiscovered in the safes of shooters and collectors on both sides of the Atlantic.
This sounds like a fantastic story, but is it true? Well, the guns do exist, this is how the story was written in by well known American and German authors in the 1960s and 1970s (1, 4, 5, 6, 7) and It is a fact that:
But there are important critical questions:
These are some of the questions currently being addressed in a research project conducted by Wolf Niederastroth. RECONSTRUCTION OF PRODUCTION AND DISTRIBUTION HISTORY OF THE BELGIAN COLT ARMY AKA CENTAURE AKA CENTENNIAL COLT. Due to lack of company records and import documents, Niederastroth hopes to reconstruct the history of these firearms, bit by bit, by inspecting and documenting the physical details and history of as many examples a as possible. His ultimate success depends on reaching these Centaure owners all over the U.S.A. and Europe and their willingness to provide input regarding their prized revolvers. Once comprehensive information has been gathered, analyzed, and solid conclusions drawn, the findings will be published.
If you own a Centaure or know someone who does, Niederastroth asks that you send him telefax to +49-6192-901293 or email to Wolf@1960NMA.org to obtain a copy of the questionnaire. You may also download a copy in either English or German at www.1960NMA.org. He will be happy to incorporate your completed surveys (plus digital pics if possible) in his findings..
Bibliography & References
Profile Wolf D. Niederastroth D-65719 Hofheim
Born to be wild 1946, married since 1973, 1 daughter & Willie the dog. After a career in the healthcare industry I am earning my living today with a consulting company, travel Europe and the U.S.A. for business.
Although I always had a certain affinity to guns I got my first pistol only 1974 for target shooting. An Uberti Colt 1860, because she fits my hands perfectly and I can hit the target despite the funny rear sight notch on top of the hammer.
Being an average shooter only but having a deep interest in (gun) history and technology I got infected by the virulent gun collector virus pretty early. Today my collector’s focus is on cowboy guns, Broomhandles and Eastern European issue handguns. I provide expert opinions for collector’s licenses. I have been attending cowboy shoots in Texas regularly since 2003, and like to learn something new every day about „period correctness“ of the guns used in CAS.