"Colt revolvers have always been
the blue chips of gun collecting," says Greg Martin, president of Greg Martin Auctions. "The romance, the craftsmanship, the history. Sam Colt the man, the promoter, the first American industrialist. All wrapped together it [really makes] an American story." An impressive chapter in that story will soon be up for grabs. On September 18 in Dallas, Martin will auction what he believes is the most significant group of Colt revolvers put together in the past 50 years. The Al Cali Collection features nearly 30 Colts made from 1836 to 1865 during the percussion era, including one of the finest known examples of Sam Colt's very first pistol model, the Texas Paterson. It was the Paterson--embraced by the Texas Rangers in the early days of the Lone Star republic--that served as the foundation of Sam Colt's rise as America's preeminent gun maker. Though his first manufacturing business failed in 1842, the Colt revolver had made its mark. The pistols that followed--the
and other models featured in the Cali Collection--were improvements on the original design Sam Colt patented in 1836. The $6 million collection includes workaday pistols like an 1849
(more than 300,000 manufactured) to intricate one-of-a-kind art pieces and presentation models given to important dignitaries, business associates and friends of the Colt family. "The collection is not big in number, but the guns in it are really world class--the ultimate of their kind," Martin says. Here's a look at the top 10 guns in this remarkable trove.
The Texas Paterson Generally considered the first commercially viable revolving pistol, Sam Colt’s first revolver was a big shooter with a delicate disposition. As originally designed in .28- and .36-caliber models, the 5-shooter had no safety and had to be partially disassembled before it could be loaded. By 1839, some holster model Patersons such as this shell carved ivory-gripped .36 caliber with a 9-inch barrel featured a loading lever. Note the absence of a trigger guard: The Paterson’s folding trigger dropped down after the hammer was cocked. Many of the revolvers made by The Paterson Arms Company were bought by military clients, including the U.S. Navy and the Republic of Texas, which issued the guns to the Texas Rangers for use on the frontier and to its Navy. While the U.S. military found the pistols unreliable, the Rangers welcomed the sustained firepower the guns provided in battles with the Comanches. Col. Sam Walker of the Rangers was an admirer, and his support would later play a pivotal role in the evolution of Colt firearms.
This gun, serial number 515, entered the collecting world in 1938 when the Far West Hobby Shop of San Francisco listed it for $1,650. The auction description read as follows: “Here is the realization of an arms collector’s dream – an outfit that will stand for all time as the very TOPS in any exhibit at Colts. Every factor that contributes to the valuation of an antique firearm is outstandingly apparent in this magnificent Texas-Paterson – Age, Historical Interest, Beauty, Condition, Pride of Possession, Great Demand, Extreme Rarity, etc. In our opinion, this is the most desirable Colt outfit ever offered for sale at any time. Aside from the fact that it will be some collector’s most treasured arms possession, it will also prove a gilt-edged investment for the future.” Accurate then and accurate now, says Greg Martin. “I’ve never read any truer word in any arms description. It was the best then and it has stood the test of time and proven to be a great investment.” Indeed, Paterson accessories like those featured in this cased set are valued collectibles on their own. The percussion cap dispenser (left) would normally bring $35,000 at auction, Martin says, and the brass charger (right), which dispensed balls and powder into all five cylinders at once, would fetch $50,000. The pistol, case, spare cylinder and Paterson tools together represent the best Colt outfit in existence, Martin believes, and he expects the cased set to bring $700,000 or more at auction.
After the company failed in 1842, an associate continued to sell Patersons–mostly in pocket and belt models. Colt (shown in this 19th century engraving) turned to other manufacturing projects, designing a waterproof cable for use as telegraph wire and successfully demonstrating for the U.S. military underwater mines that he invented. By 1847, he was again making revolvers. Colt sat down with Captain Sam Walker, whose rangers valued the Paterson revolvers on the Texas frontier, to design a sturdier, more reliable version. Building on the Paterson’s basic design, they came up with the Walker Colt. Col. Walker ordered 1,000 of the revolvers for use in the Mexican-American War, and Sam Colt was back in business.
The Thumbprint Walker In addition to the 1,000 revolvers Walker ordered, Sam Colt–with a characteristically sharp eye for promotion–manufactured 100 Walkers for presentation to influential military leaders (who could help land contracts) and for sale to civilians. One of these 100 civilian guns is the well-known “Thumbprint Walker.” “During the case-hardening process, the frames were heated and oiled to gain a color,” Martin explains. “Someone evidently touched this gun and got burned, leaving a thumbprint behind.” Over the years collectors have speculated the print might belong to Sam Colt himself. “It’s fun to think about,” Martin chuckles, “but we’re never going to prove it.”
Walkers were designed to be bigger, heavier and more durable than Paterson revolvers. The Paterson’s folding trigger could be delicate, Martin says, so Colt and Walker added a trigger guard on this model. They also increased the caliber to .44. “This was a big heavy gun adapted for military use,” Martin says. “The Walker weighed 4 ½ pounds, the heaviest revolver ever made. Maybe a little too heavy: The Dragoon that came out after the Walker was lightened a bit.”
Original Walkers are considered rare and desirable in any condition, and this particular gun–serial number 1078–while having obviously seen plenty of action, still has an 80 percent blue finish and all of its original parts. The gun even has its original leather holster in good shape. “Most Walkers saw extremely hard service on the frontier and only a bare handful survived in really good condition–maybe four or five guns at the most,” Martin says. “Out of the civilian run of 100 this one is the best known, and is especially desirable with its original holster. An original leather Walker holster in this condition is rarer than the gun!” Martin’s pre-auction estimate for this piece of Colt history: $600,000.
The Ballou Set Loren Ballou, chief engineer at Colt’s plants in Hartford, Connecticut, and London, England, had this unusual set custom made. It includes a Colt Model 1851 Navy revolver and Model 1855 Pocket Sidehammer revolver. “This is a very rare outfit, in the fact that a Root sidehammer cased with a Navy is a very rare combination,” says Martin. Elisha K. Root, another Colt engineer, designed the sidehammer pistol.
“The casing is unique because it combines both guns and all their accessories,” Martin notes. “But the guns themselves are also rare, because Ballou had them adapted to his own specifications. He had the sidehammer gun case-hardened, and where the serial number would normally be stamped on the cylinder and backstrap he had his name stamped.” It’s the only known example of a name replacing a serial number, which speaks to the influence Ballou enjoyed. During much of his service at Colt throughout the 1850s and 1860s he was the third-highest paid employee. The case itself is a work of art. Brassbound walnut is lined in burgundy velvet, with an embossed Navy size stand-of-arms powder flask, blued steel double-cavity bullet molds for .31 and .36 calibers, packets of combustible envelope cartridges, a tin of Eley Bros. percussion caps with green paper label and the original paper wrapping, a blued L-shaped screwdriver/nipple wrench, a pewter oil bottle and miscellaneous lead projectiles. The lid is inlaid with a brass plaque, inscribed “L. Ballou/London.”
The Model 1851 Navy, made at Colt’s London factory, has an unusual finish: The frame, cylinder, hammer and loading lever are casehardened and the barrel is browned. The steel gripstraps are plated in silver and Ballou’s name is engraved on the backstrap.
Another Ballou artifact now in the Cali Collection is a pair of rampant colt sculptures presented to Ballou by Colt himself. Made of gunmetal steel and mounted on walnut bases made from Colt handle stock, the 6-inch tall sculptures are the only known set. Martin says Cali purchased the matched set from Ballou’s great-granddaughters, who displayed them on the mantel of their Hartford home in the 1960s. “Interestingly enough, they didn’t care about the guns,” Martin says. “They had broken up the set and sold the guns prior.”
The Root sidehammer turned up in a gun collection Martin bought in the 1960s. “No one had ever seen a gun with a name instead of a serial number on it. So the question became, ‘Who’s Ballou?'” Martin sold the pistol to Cali, and research led them to Ballou’s granddaughters. Now the hunt was on. Martin found the 1851 Navy in a different collection; the case turned up with a gun dealer in Texas. “It took five years and a lot of research, but we were finally able to put the cased set back together.” They also added several other Ballou family artifacts, including (from left to right) an engineer’s and contractor’s pocket book signed by Sam Colt and presented to Ballou, a sewing box with inlaid wood made for his wife, and a snuff box, tea chest and lap desk made by the same craftsmen who built gun cases for Colt. The entire set is expected to bring $500,000 or more at auction.
**The Milliken Dragoon
Colt’s third revolver model was the Dragoon. This .44-caliber six-shooter was presented to Col. P. M. Milliken, probably in the 1850s. Milliken served with the 1st Ohio Volunteer cavalry in the Union Army and died leading a saber charge against Confederate troops near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in 1862. The Colt became a family heirloom and was handed down from generation to generation before Cali bought it.
The mint-condition pistol was never fired. Scroll and border engraving on the barrel, loading lever, wedge, cylinder, frame, hammer and gripstraps was done by Colt’s master engraver Gustave Young. “The engraving on this gun is some of Young’s greatest work,” Martin says.
The grips are carved from a single piece of ivory and the gripstraps are made of silver-plated brass. “Colonel P.M. Milliken” is engraved on the gun’s backstrap. Sale price is estimated at $500,000-plus.
The Parsons Revolver “Sam Colt was very clever about giving guns to people in important positions who could be advantageous to him,” Martin says. The company continued that savvy business strategy after Colt’s death in 1862. This 1861 Navy revolver, presented in 1865 to E. W. Parsons, chief of the Hartford Division of Adams Express Company (a freight company that delivered thousands of Colts to mail-order customers) was one of many presentation guns given to military or business leaders to curry favor or express thanks.
The .36-caliber six-shooter with a 7-½ barrel is an excellent art piece, with highly refined engraving on the barrel, loading lever, wedge, cylinder frame, hammer and gripstraps. The hammer features a wolf-head motif, and the hammer spur is finely knurled. The pistol has a rare checkered rammer lever and an American eagle motif on the left side of the barrel lug. Included in the cased set are tools, an embossed powder flask, a rare blued-steel bullet mold, envelope cartridges and a tin of Eley Bros. percussion caps still in the original paper wrapping.
Inscribed on the backstrap in elegant Gothic script is a commemoration of the 1865 presentation to Parsons. In 1890 he presented the cased set to the 1st Company, Governor’s Foot Guard, Veterans Corps of Hartford, of which he was a member–a move that no doubt aided in its preservation. “The pistols in this collection are the cream of the crop, the height of the gun makers art at the time, with great historical associations,” Martin says. The pre-auction estimate for this mint-condition set is $500,000 to $700,000.
From Gun maker to Gunsmith When Sam Colt carved a wooden model of his first revolver, he took it to gunsmith Anson Chase and asked him to make the prototype colt pistol. The gun exploded when Colt fired it, but no matter–Chase’s place in the Colt story was assured. He would later testify as a star witness in a successful patent infringement suit the company brought against a competitor; winning that suit gave Colt a virtual monopoly on revolvers for several years. Sam Colt showed his gratitude with this presentation gun, a deluxe engraved Model 1849 Pocket revolver.
The inscribed silver backstrap engraved, “Anson Chase/From the Inventor,” refers to Samuel Colt himself. “This was a very important historic presentation,” Martin says, from America’s preeminent gun maker to the gunsmith who helped him get his start. “It represents the gratitude of Samuel Colt to the talented gunsmith who assisted the youthful inventor in fulfilling his dream.”
The museum-quality .31-caliber five-shot pistol features a 5-inch octagonal barrel with a stagecoach holdup scene; the doughnut scroll engraving was copied from another presentation revolver awarded the lawyer who won the patent infringement case. The varnished rosewood case with a brass plaque inlaid on the lid and an ivory keyplate on the front holds an embossed American eagle and shield powder flask, brass double cavity bullet mold, tin of Eley Bros. percussion caps with green paper label, blued L-shaped screwdriver/nipple wrench, packet of combustible envelope cartridges by Colt’s Cartridge Works, and miscellaneous round and conical lead projectiles. Estimate: $175,000-plus.
Many Colts end up in museums, where they are beyond the reach of collectors. But this historic .44 actually game out of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History Collection in 1958 when Art Sherman traded a Gatling gun to the museum in exchange for the Colt–“a pretty even trade, then and now,” Martin says. He believes the gun will bring around $100,000 at auction.
The excellent-to-mint condition six-shooter features 90 to 95 percent bluing, and the varnished walnut grips still bear the Smithsonian Institution stamping. Case and accessories are in excellent shape, and the gun appears to be unfired. “What’s most notable about this revolver is that it came out of the Smithsonian,” Martin says.
The Charter Oak set The grips on this .28-caliber are made from a piece of the Charter Oak, a massive white oak tree in which Connecticut colonists hid their constitutional charter in 1687 rather than surrender it to British authorities. Thought to be several centuries old when a storm toppled it in 1856, the oak became an enduring symbol of American independence: Its image is featured on the Connecticut state quarter, and the desks of the state’s governor and legislative leaders are made of wood salvaged from the tree.
Engraving on the backstrap identifies the source of the stock as I.W. Stuart, who owned the estate next door to Colt, where the Charter Oak grew, and the recipient of the gun as J.I. Spies, Colt’s New York distributor and one of the company’s top agents.
The five-shot sidehammer pistol has a 3 ½-inch octagonal barrel and extensive engraving by Colt master engraver Gustave Young. This auction lot will also include a number of other Charter Oak artifacts, including a walking stick presented by Colt factory workers to a Connecticut politician in 1860, and (left) Sam Colt’s personal invitation to the inaugural Charter Oak Ball. Sale estimate for the set is $250,000-plus.
The Black Beauty An ebony-gripped Colt model 1851 Navy Revolver known as “The Black Beauty” is distinguished by rare ebony grips. The .36 caliber has a six-shot cylinder with a naval engagement roll scene and a 7 1/2-inch octagonal barrel with a brass pin front sight. With scroll and border engraving on the barrel, loading lever, wedge, frame, hammer, and gripstraps; a wolf head motif on each side of hammer; a hand-knurled hammer spur; case-hardened frame, hammer, and loading lever; and silver-plated brass gripstraps this handsome shooter is one of the most distinctive in the auction. The extremely rare ebony grips are relief-carved and checkered, including oak leaves, acorns and American eagle on the left grip and matching American shield on the right.
The varnished mahogany case, lined in maroon velvet, includes space for packets of combustible envelope cartridges by Colt’s Cartridges Works. The scarce presentation grade blued-steel double cavity bullet mold and tin of Eley Bros. percussion caps with green paper label are original. Martin says the combination of factory engraving, relief carved and checkered ebony grips, exceptional deluxe finish, and factory ledger entries documenting the rarity of engraved ebony-handled Colt revolvers makes the Black Beauty exceptionally important and rare. He expects the mint condition cased set to bring $250,000 or more.
_These 10 pistols, soon up for auction, comprise the most important early Colt revolvers, both historically and artistically, ever assembled.