Samuel Colt designed the Colt Revolving Belt Pistol of Naval Caliber (i.e., .36 cal) between 1847 and 1850 - the actual year of introduction. It remained in production until 1873, when revolvers using fixed cartridges came into widespread use. Total production numbers were exceeded only by the Colt Pocket models in concurrent development, and numbered some 250,000 domestic units and about 22,000 produced in the Colt London Armory. (Wilson, 1985)
The designation "Colt 1851 Navy" was applied by collectors, though the popular name "Navy Revolver" is of early origin, as the gun was frequently called the "Colt Revolving Belt Pistol of Naval Caliber." (ibid, Wilson) The cylinder was engraved with a scene of the victory of the Second Texas Navy at the Battle of Campeche in May 1843. The Texas Navy had purchased the earlier Colt Paterson Revolver, but this was Colt's first major success in the gun trade; the naval theme of the engraved cylinder of the Colt 1851 Navy revolver was Colt's gesture of appreciation. Despite the "Navy" designation, the revolver was chiefly purchased by civilians and military land forces(ibid Wilson 1985).
Famous "Navy" users included Wild Bill Hickock, John Henry "Doc" Holliday, Richard Francis Burton, Ned Kelly, and Robert E. Lee. Usage continued long after more modern cartridge revolvers were introduced in 1873.