The Colt Revolver that Killed Billy The Kid Is For Sale
What could be one of the most sought-after revolvers of the Old West is estimated to bring millions at auction
There’s no outlaw more notorious than Billy the Kid. William H. Bonney, also known as Henry McCarty, became a thief at age 16 and over the next five years became a legend. Though it’s said Billy the Kid claimed to have killed 21 men—one for every year of his life—the actual total is much closer to half that. Regardless, even though Billy the Kid’s thieving and murderous career was short, no other outlaw of the American West has captured imaginations like Bonney.
As legend has it, New Mexico Territorial Governor Lew Wallace offered a dead or alive $500 bounty for Billy the Kid in 1881. In July of that same year, Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett took up The Kid’s trail. Supposedly, Garrett was visiting Pete Maxwell, an acquaintance of Billy the Kid, on July 14, 1881. Around midnight, as Garrett and Maxwell were talking, The Kid entered the room and Garrett shot him through the heart. The next day the young man that would become the most infamous western bad guy, was buried. It took Garrett more than a year to collect the reward money.
For more than a century since his death, Billy the Kid’s name has been used to make money; far more money than he ever made from his criminal acts. Movies have been made and books have been written. And men have even claimed to be Billy the Kid, fostering the folklore that his assumed to be friend Pat Garrett staged the killing and quick burial to help Bonney evade capture.
What was for many years the only known photograph of Billy the Kid sold at auction in 2011 for more than $2 million. Now, another “Kid” artifact is on the auction block. It is a Colt’s 1873, serial number #55093, .44-40 caliber revolver, with a 7.5-inch barrel and walnut grips. Provenance has it that this is the revolver Pat Garrett used to kill Billy the Kid. Many consider this gun to be the most important and desirable Western firearm in existence. Its lineage is well documented, and the gun has never appeared in a public auction. Ironically, according to documentation from Garrett himself, he confiscated this revolver from an outlaw named Billy Winston/Wilson after a shootout at Stinking Springs, New Mexico, in December of 1880 where Garrett had arrested Billy for the murder of Sheriff William Brady.
If you’re a collector of old west memorabilia and feel your collection is incomplete without this old Colt, you can place a bid with Bonhams who is handling the auction. Pre-bid estimates range from $2 million to $3 million. But you never know. If a photo of The Kid sold for $2.3 million, the gun that killed him could go for double that or more.
As documented as the history of this handgun is, for those who live in the world of logic, questions remain. Why would Garrett go after a notorious outlaw with a gun he’d confiscated as opposed to his own? It’s hard to imagine Sheriff Pat Garrett chasing outlaws without a capable sidearm, or that he had to confiscate a Colt to get one. Also, the gun’s provenance relates that in 1906—probably after being dismissed from his post as Custom Collector by President Roosevelt in January of that year—Garret loaned, gave, or sold this revolver to El Paso saloon owner Tom Powers. Maybe, this was not the gun that killed Billy the Kid, but an old Colt revolver Garrett lied about to make a much-needed buck while suffering deep financial despair.
Of course, the truth—now lost to time and clouded by legend and myth—does not really matter. This was indeed Garrett’s Colt and documented provenance says it was the one he used to do the deed. As it is with many antiques, bidders are bidding on the documentation as much as they are the item. Regardless, neither the murdered outlaw, or the destitute lawman who killed him, could have ever imagined their names, photos, and guns would be worth so much.