Centaure Revolvers 1959 through 1973: The guns were made in Liège, Belgium, by the firm Fabriques d’Armes Unies de Liège (FAUL). Then owned and managed by cousins Albert (administration) and Paul (operations) Hanquet. Paul is the great-grandson of Jean Baptiste Hanquet who in 1853 signed a letter from Sam Colt to the Liège Gun Trade stating the conditions under which they, Hanquet on behalf of the famous consortium of 7 Liège gun makers of the Liège Gun Trade, might manufacture revolvers according to his 1849 Belgian patent. These “conditions” specified high quality and payment of a royalty of 10 francs (worth about $ 2 gold in those days, as compared to about 20 cents today).
Centaure Production & Manufacturing Technology: William B. Edwards and Sigmund Shore selected FAUL for the Centaure project. They got to know them as one of the premier Belgian gun makers and from a previous deal about musket replicas.
|“Bill“ William B. Edwards aged 30!||For the Centaure project Edwards supplied FAUL with two Colt Army 1860s as model guns of the Civil War period from his gun collection. Their parts gave the FAUL technicians details for finishing, type of polishing, color of blue etc. One of the pistols had been dropped on concrete resulting in a slightly bent trigger guard but was otherwise perfect. As an expression of faithfulness with which the Belgians wished to execute the demands of Edwards they copied the guns including the dent. Thousands of guards were cast up with egg-shaped bows. Fortunately this was discovered early enough and corrected before the first shipment left for the USA.|
Centaures sport modern, shallow regular rifling with constant twist, made by the button rifling process. The groove caliber is a “real” .44 nominal of .445/.446adapted to .451 round ball. The first gun, unnumbered, was kept by Paul Hanquet. The second gun stamped MODEL was given to the then-president of Colt’s. Edwards engraved it on the barrel ADDRESS FRED ROFF, HARTFORD, CT. Unfortunately, neither correspondence with Nadine Hanquet about Paul Hanquet’s, nor with Colt’s regarding Fred Roff’s Centaure did reveal anything about the whereabouts of these two earliest Belgian M 1860 Army pattern pistols.
|Model guns were not serial numbered but stamped with an “M” on barrel lug, frame & trigger guard …||… on the front of cylinder…|
As usual with the Liège gun makers work was outsourced to regional subcontractors and then put together at FAUL’s. State of the art modern machinery has been said to be in place but was occupied at the time, for modern gun production and to manufacture selected spare parts for Colt’s in Hartford. Other sources claim, however, that the FAUL machinery was pretty old and worn out and that much manual labor was used. Contrary to stories published in a number of gun magazines FAUL was never assigned the status of an official spare parts manufacturer for Colt.
Barrels, cylinders and frames for the Centaure were made of tool steel. This job was outsourced to the Liège machine shop of A. L. Roncarati, an Italian immigrant.
|… and on the butt||At Roncarati’s shop the barrels were machined to shape, color case hardened the loading levers, and machined the frames from solid forging, whereas cylinders were lathed from stock.
Early on back-straps were constructed in three pieces, welded together, thus avoiding use of special machinery. This is in contrast to the way it was done at Colt’s for their 1st generation 1860s where it is one piece. Later cast back-straps were used at FAUL’s. Quality Control had the first revolvers rejected because barrels did not line up with cylinders and frames.
Due to some error in the translation of the manufacturing instructions provided by Edwards early arbors were made of low carbon steel. They stretched when fired with normal black powder loads used in the USA because all calibrations of the early design were based on data of the Belgian proof loads. As was found out later these loads were much lighter than those used by the US shooters. The arbor was changed to harder steel during early 1961.
|Roncarati did not have modern heavy metal working machinery. Hence most all work done on metal parts fitted in the white was done by hand. According to Bill Edwards’s associate Leslie Field only one man was responsible for the “S” curve of the barrel lug. Metal cutting hand tools and hand polishing were used. Another workman removed all square edges with a metal cutting knife, again by hand.
The one-piece wooden grips were all made in Ougrée, Belgium. They were produced by fitting rough trigger-guards and back-straps. The whole unit was then hand fitted together which accounts for the close fit of metal to wood of the New Model Armies (NMAs).
This procedure also explains the need for numbering individual parts of the pistols.
Guns fitted and assembled “in the white” were marked with their serial numbers before being disassembled for bluing and case hardening.
Cylinder roll-engraving work was done in Belgium except for the RNMAs with the Colt/Ormsby type scene.
|This naval scene was roll-engraved at Centennial Arms Corporation’s (CACC) shop in Lincolnwood, USA on rebated, blank cylinders of what we call 1stvariation RNMAs today.
These RNMA’s were obtained from the Belgian factory fully proof tested. Ordering and importing of the Centaures for the USA market was handled by CACC’s sister company Mars Equipment Corp., Chicago. Mars Equipment was also in charge of the military surplus business of the Shore Group.
By roll-engraving the Ormsby scene on the cylinders these 1st variations became what we call 3rd variation RNMAs today.
In line with Belgian test firing regulations finished guns were assembled and proof tested at the Banc d’Épreuves de Liège the Liège Proof house. This testing was performed with a heavy charge of lead over a heavy, wadded charge of black powder. Each pistol passing the proof testing procedure bears the famous “ELG Oval”on the cylinder. This “ELG Oval” is the mark of the Liège Proof House.
In addition they were stamped with the distinctive “Perron de Liège” on the left side of the barrel lug and frame. This arrow shaped mark pictured above is a stylized rendition of a famous water trough surmounted by a water tower in the center of Liège. Only after the pistols were returned from the proof house the different barrel markings and the centaur logo (left picture) were applied at FAUL’s.
The Human Factor – Potatoes, Serial Numbers & Other Quality Issues: As usual when starting production of a new gun there were the bugs in the production process. Edwards reports an incidence with the electro-brazing of the loading lever lug to the barrel. This produced a problem that was not solved for some time. It was noticed that slightly spotty rust would form about 2 inches from the muzzle, marring the otherwise brilliantly burnished button rifling. Repeated attempts were made to find the cause of this, including instructions of the proof house about oiling after cleaning. Still, light rust persisted. Then the same kind of rust was noticed in a rack of barrels not yet sent to the proof house. When this was brought to the attention of the works manager he explained that to keep the heat from spoiling the bore the workman stuck a piece of raw potato in the muzzle while brazing the lug….”No more raw potatoes!”
While the regular production process for the Centaures was established during 1960 one could still find a gun thereafter with minor flaws e. g. bolt hole in the frame opened up too far, frame inside not milled right or the like. These “imperfections” did not affect FAUL’s reputation as the premium manufacturer of newly made Colt Army 1860s. This high quality level was maintained into the early 1970s.
Compared to the manufacture of modern weapons and as mentioned elsewhere the making of Centaures was not an automated process but required mostly manual operations. This implies mistakes were bound to be made. The serial numbering of parts in general, the numbering of cylinders in particular is to be mentioned here. However, this issue was of little concern back in the 1960s but is a field of growing interest for today’s Centaure students and collectors. It can be summarized under the heading mismatched Centaures. As explained above the numbering of the parts took place when the revolvers were in the white before bluing/case hardening and proof testing. Regarding records of proof testing documentations at the Liège Proof house I believe the inspectors back then were concerned about the matching of visible serial numbers only, i. e. on barrel lug, frame and trigger-guard.
# To apply digits of the serial numbers on the cylinders, either on the front or breech side, or additionally between the naval scene (done in the USA) the dies were stamped manually. At this point transposed digits did occur that just slipped through FAUL’s or Centennial Arms Corp.’s quality system.
# After proof testing the pistols were disassembled and cleaned. Only then barrel marking, stamping of the logo and the application of the MADE IN BELGIUMfor export sales took place. One can easily imagine that a few numbered parts got not correctly allocated for the final assembly of the pistols …
When this happened it was usually the cylinder!
# Once CACC in the USA had decided that they wanted the Colt/Ormsby rather than the Centaure proprietary naval scene on their Centaures they received their revolvers with the blank cylinders numbered to the gun from FAUL’s, i. e. regular production 1st variation RNMA’s. The roll-engraving of the cylinders took place in the USA with the cylinder removed from the gun: Another area of potentially mismatching cylinders and pistols to be considered.
All gun production (not just C&B revolvers) at FAUL was concluded in 1976 after tough price competition from Italian and Spanish manufacturers forced management to take a hard look at costs. Manufacturing of the New Model Army came to an end during 1973 already. At that time customers were no longer prepared to pay a premium price for a Belgian pistol when our average Joe Shooter could have the same model MADE IN ITALY at significantly lower prices. He was no longer willing to spend 2,5 times more for better steel, smoother action and better rifling.
Particularly the European muzzleloader community dropped FAUL as the premium revolver manufacturer, after a number of unfavorable reports from unhappy shooters regarding broken triggers and bolts, hand and bolt springs, faulty rifling or non centric bores during the later years of production. Ca. 1971/72 FAUL had attempted to increase production output to meet the growing market demand but was combating manufacturing cost at the same time. To accomplish these objectives they used new but badly trained workmen but shied away from investments into modern machinery. The outcome of this approach was predictable: output of pistols increased but so did the rate of product complaints.
Here is an unfortunate but typical report of a German Centaure owner exemplifying the quality of many but certainly not all of the Belgian Colt Armies made during that period:
“I own my 2nd Centaure since mid 1972. They were from Bärbel Harlos in Bavaria. On the range with the first one the mainspring broke after the 3rd round. Installed new mainspring. After the 5th round the handspring broke. Installed new hand. After the 10th round the bolt stop broke. Installation of a new bolt stop. After having fired the 3rd cylinder the arbor dropped out of the frame. Thanks God not during firing.”
“The pistol was returned to the dealer. I got #12106 in exchange.”
“Experience with #12106? Same maladies with mainspring, hand, waggling arbor, bolt stop, broken trigger. – Being the engineer that I am what did I do? I repaired the parts myself. Made a couple of handsprings. Fixed the arbor to the frame, installed a new trigger taken from a HS 121 blank firing revolver. Since the case colored frame showed already signs of rust I blued that part. From BP residue the brass trigger guard had developed some black spots so I had it nickel plated. So much about the quality of these Super-Colts”.
Therefore, we have to assume that the combination of high production cost but also spotty quality forced FAUL’s first out of percussion revolver production 1973 and completely out of gun making in 1976! In retrospect and all fairness, however, quality cannot have been that bad back then. Because we have a number of Belgians of that later period of production in the survey that were and still are regularly and successfully used today (!) in CAS and bulls-eye type competition shooting.
Comparison with 1st Generation Colts & Italian Replicas: thanks to the work of FROCS #4 Rifle and Karl Nedbal aka FROCS #50 Luger Master we can share with you some current day evaluations as well.
Material used is 2 to 3 times better than Italians: frame, parts, screws are properly hardened. The barrel is very well heat treated. Modern, shallow rifling.
Measurements and dimensions: similar to original Colts except for “S” curves of the barrel lug and the bullet loading slot.
Barrel: pins and the depths of the hole for the arbor in the barrel are different. The distinct “S” curve on the side of the barrel is “sharper” but also lesser, flatter curved on the Centaure compared to 1st generation Colts.
Outside finishing: is nice but not as good as we are led to believe by the 1971 Stammel and 1973 Modrau publications in German gun journal DWJ. Better than Italians of current production in a number of areas, however.
Contours and measurements: are not more exact than today’s Italians. Possibly the Italians copied the Belgians.
Screws: very similar to originals and almost fit. A bit smaller: Centaure 4 mm vs. 1st generation 4,2 mm. Thread similar, smaller heads. Not properly fitted and often too short.
Internal Quality: tolerances identical to slightly inferior compared to current but certainly better than contemporary production Italians.
Frame recess: too generous, hammer wobbly (too small, frame recess too big). Mechanical dimensions of hammer notches including safety notch are different.
Hammers & hands: 1st generation Colts have “fatter” hammers with a pronounced “S” contour of the spur, see pictures below.
|“Fat” hammers of Uberti (left) & Colt (right) with “S” contoured spur. Centaure spur is steep and narrow. Longer hand of Centaure (center)||Colt (top), Centaure (bottom)|
Hand: measurements are different, smaller pin, narrower, i. e. not compatible with original. Well heat treated.
Cam area: surface rough.
Bolt: can be made to fit original, well heat treated.
Bolt/trigger spring: different (too long, too thick and too strong) but can be made to fit original. Well heat treated.
Wedge: not numbered as original. Thinner than 1st generation but can be used for original. Well heat treated.
Trigger: hole not exact, quality comparable to Italians. Curve does not correspond to original.
Grip: good fit to metal, good wood quality. Back-strap fits original but workmanship does not meet standard set by 1st generation.
Trigger guard: fits original but workmanship leaves something to be desired.
Arbor: sloppy fit with a pin from above through the treads. Hole for wedge not cut exactly (too much heat treatment?). Dimensions similar to original but sloppy, similar threads. Early pistols have the square ended bottomed arbor like the original but most later ones feature tapered arbor end fitting (unlike today’s Italian replicas).
Cylinder: smaller diameter at the rear end, locking notches deeper and wider, ratchets similar.
Frame-to-barrel: sloppy fit.
Bullet loading slot: differently shaped compared to the 1st generation Colts (below left). While the frame-barrel transition of both the 1st and 2nd generation Colts is a continuous line the Belgian has the distinct “Centaure Step” (below right).
|Different “S“ curve of barrel lug & bullet loading slot of Centaure (top) and Colt(bottom)||Typical Centaure ”step“|
2nd Generation Colts vs Centaures
|Centaures RNMA 7th variaton #12307 (top) & Civilian 1st variation #C418 (center) vs. 2nd gen. Colt 1860 #207514 (bottom)|
To assess these differences above 2 Centaures from 1972 production #12307 (top: fluted cylinder, stainless steel) and 1960 made #C418 (center: rebated cylinder, carbon steel) were compared to a 2nd generation Colt Army 1860 #207514 (bottom: fluted cylinder, 4-screw frame, carbon steel) from 1980.
The 3 pistols were disassembled, visually compared and the parts measured.
Measurements are in mm/in unless otherwise stated.
|Differently crowned Colt (left) vs. Centaures (center & right)||Bolt/trigger springs|
# Bolts screws (pictured below right): note different length, threads and tips between early and late production Centaures
# Bolts: different lengths and angles
# Mainsprings: The Centaure mainspring was the strongest one in the market in the Colt M 1860 pattern pistol class back then and still is today. This provides discriminating shooters with important edges:
- Positive ignition of the cap under adverse conditions.
|Heavy duty Centaure mainsprings (center & right) vs Colt’s (left)||Comparison of back-straps: note welded BS of #C418 vs. cast of #12307|
- Little if any rearward movement of the hammer during fire prevents chain-fires from badly fitting or lost caps.
- More importantly misalignment of chamber and barrel is reduced if it happens at all: if the bolt leg is close to the hammer cam the cylinder can be moved by the hand upon firing when a weak mainspring is installed. That would set the chamber alignment off too much before the ball is out and make the pistol shoot … astray.
|Comparison of triggers & trigger screws||Wedges: bottom view
Wedges: top view
Point of Impact vs Point of Aim: The Belgians designed and manufactured the Centaures to be reliable, accurate and long lasting shooters, not display pistols. Hence they were concerned about the guns being able to hit what a person was aiming at. They shoot low or to point of aim, whereas 2nd and 3rd generation Colts and Italian clones always shoot high like the originals from the 19th centaury.
The reasons? Beginning from ca. 1965 production the front sights of the Centaures are higher than the original 1st gen. Colts and clones (below picture). But even earlier made Centaures of the 1959 to 1965 period have the top of their front sight higher above the center bore line than other newly made 1860ers.
|Nipples of Colt (left), Centaures #C418 (center) & #12307 (right)
Question for the initiates: which type of cone of nipples is advantageous to prevent fragments of spent caps blocking the mechanics? Tapered cones used in 2nd & 3rd gen. Colts or Italian pattern 1860s, or the cylindrical ones in the Centaures?
This provides the ambitious target shooter with room for adjusting the front sight to his personal needs.
We can also assume that their shallow rifling provides for better gas sealing, i. e. higher velocities and flatter trajectories of the bullets.
|Centaure #F11117 (left) vs Colt #0858US (right)||Differences are in the Details: as already pointed out by Bill Edwards in his 1962 book CIVIL WAR GUNS I believe that these subtle differences to the 1st generation Hartford pistols were intended at that time to discourage easy fakery.
E. g. the legend ENGAGED 16 MAY 1843 on cylinders with the Centaure proprietary naval engagement scene was discontinued in the Civilian Model after the first ca. 480 pistols were made, at the suggestion of the influential Ohio Gun Collectors Association. On the other hand this same legend ENGAGED 16 MAY 1843 is on all RNMAs with the Colt/Ormsby style naval scene, i. e. RNMAs 3rd variation.
This variant has been regularly made from 1963 almost to the end of the Centaure production. In addition the marking COLTS PATENT No combined with the serial of the pistol is to be found on the cylinders of a few early pistols with this type of naval scene, i.se RNMAs 3rd variation, 1st sub-variation.
It should be mentioned that none of the Centaure cylinders roll engraved with any of the 2 naval scenes discovered so far bears the patent mark PAT. SEPT. 10th1850. This random logic is barely understandable if considered in isolation. However, if we throw in the new Italian competition from April 1963 we have a completely different ball game when Uberti launched their version of the Colt 1860.
Up to that date the Centaure was the only game in town but this Uberti clone did not only feature the Colt-type naval scene on their cylinders but in addition the legend ENGAGED 16 MAY 1843, the patent mark PAT. SEPT. 10th 1850 as well as the reference to famous engraver Ormsby between the naval engagement sceneEngaged by W.L. Ormsby New York!
#1 The Centaure pistols were produced on 19th century machinery from Colt’s? MYTH BUSTED!
#2 Old blueprints from Colt’s were used to manufacture the Centaures? MYTH BUSTED!
#3 FAUL official spare parts manufacturer of Colt’s? MYTH BUSTED!
#4 Better quality of steel used? MYTH CONFIRMED!
#5 Exchangeability of parts with 1st gen Colt Armies? For the most part MYTH CONFIRMED!
#6 Fall-off of quality during later production? MYTH CONFIRMED!
#7 Quality of workmanship? If pistols of later production were excluded quality is better than contemporary Italian repros. MYTH OPEN FOR DISCUSSION!
WDN/March 28, 2013
© 2007 Wolf D. Niederastroth