This factory engraved nickel 4 3/4″ Colt Single Action is lot 229 in the upcoming Rock Island Auction sale on September 7, 8 and 9. It comes with its holster, and the grips, according to the factory letter, are not original as the gun originally came with rubber grips.
If you are new to collecting Colts, it is highly advised that you stick to guns that have a Colt Archive Letter, or what is called generally a “factory letter.” These letters have come in several variations over the years, and they are still currently available from Colt for a fee of $75-$300 for an individual gun. The letter will tell you how the gun was originally shipped, who it was shipped to, and whether it was engraved or came with fancy grips and finish.
This is the gun from the letter above. It is a rare four inch Sherrifs model. The Sherrif’s models didn’t have a spent case ejector, so you had to bang the shells out by hand.
Condition is the most important aspect when it comes to collectible Colts, but ultra-rare models like this Buntline are worth a bundle in any condition. It comes with a shoulder stock that if it were released today would make the gun sold as a rifle, as long as it had the 16 inch barrel. Any shorter than that and it would be a class 3 firearm according to the firearms laws of today.
This is an original rimfire Colt Single Action. They are extremely rare in .22 caliber, and the auction has a .44 rimfire as well, which was the original caliber of the Henry Rifle, which was the precurser to Winchester.
This gun, expected to bring close to half a million dollars at auction, was taken off the dead body of Bob Dalton of the famous Dalton Gang. If it was a plain old Colt it would be worth a fortune, but this happens to be an all original factory engraved sixgun, making it a truly exceptional specimen of firearms history.
If the poor guy knew what their guns would bring from that fateful day in Coffeyville, Kansas, they may have given up their plans for the ill fated robbery and retired. This gun comes with a library of paperwork to prove the provinance and history.
Sometimes a unique accessory like this Bridgeport rig can add value to a gun if it comes with some provinance documenting that it was used as such by settlers on the frontier. Beware of fakes though. It isn’t hard to make this stuff with today’s CNC machines, and provinance is the key to actual collector value.
This particular auction has an unusual collection of Bisley Colts. They are rare in comparison to the SAA, and they are considered high end in the collector market. The factory engraved Bisleys in this auction are of the caliber that you may never see again.
The Flattop Target is the most rare of the Bisleys. They have a rear driftable sight, unlike most Colt SAA that have the rear sight molded into the frame. This example is like brand new.
The “pinched frame” Colt SAA is considered very collectible, and it is one of many subtle variations that only a Colt collector understands.
A whole other collectors market exists for U.S. Military Colts. They are desirable to a large number of collectors from various walks of collecting. Generally they are categorized by inspector.
All of the inspectors that are considered rare are represented in this auction, including this gun that was inspected by Renaldo Car.
You just never know what you are going to fall in love with when you start exploring the Colt Single Action Army, or “Peacemaker.” The most important thing, more than finding a “steal,” is to not get ripped off. We have partnered with Rock Island Auction because they are 100% straight up, and this auction is the most unique we have seen over the years. All of these guns will be gone gone gone next week. A large percentage of RIA auctions are won by absentee bidders, so don’t be shy if you fall in love with something in the collection. You will never see the majority of these guns again.
Rock Island Auction
This article came about as an opportunity from Rock Island Auction. They are auctioning over 1000 Colts, including over 150 first generation Colt Single Actions, this coming weekend. We took this as an opportunity to gather a basic overview of collecting Colt Single Actions, with specific examples from the auction included here, to give the project an immediately tangible benefit. It is amazing what some of these guns go for at auction, and even as a spectator, interested in only the antiquity of old Colts, just seeing them come through the auction is a once in a lifetime birdseye opportunity to learn about the individual history of these specific guns. Most of these Colts are from the famous Gateway Collection and contain pictures of the documents proving their provinance right on the RIA website.
Many of these guns have no comparison anywhere in the market, and several will sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, including factory engraved Colts taken from the dead bodies of the Dalton Gang. Next week all of these classic Colts will be on their way again to the next private collection, and some of them will never to be seen again in the collector market. This is a unique opportunity to see into one of the greatest collection of Colt Single Actions, while learning a little about collecting the most classic of all classic firearms. This is by no means a comprehensive instruction, but if you are new to collecting old Colts, it should at least get you on your way, and guard you from getting ripped off.
There is no firearm more recognizable than the Colt Model of 1873 Single Action Army Revolver aka the “Peacemaker.” The Colt Single Action served as the most popular sidearm of cowboys, cavalry men, outlaws, sheriffs, gun slingers, and gambling men. It was the Colt Single Action that was put to work in the coal fields of West Virginia to the Silver mines of the western territories and beyond. It was the Colt Single Action Army that rested on the hips of the 7th Cavalry that infamous day in July of 1876 and it was the championed side arm on both sides of the law as it was said to be weapon of choice for Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, and the Dalton gang to name a few. Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders carried the Single Action Artillery models as they charged up San Juan Hill. There is no gun more associated with the American frontier than the Colt Single Action.
You have probably seen ads on GunsAmerica from Rock Island Auction. They are our partner in helping people liquidate estates and large collections of collectible guns. This coming weekend, the 6th, 7th and 8th, RIA will feature over 1,000 Colts, including over 150 First Generation Single Actions. Some of these guns actually came from GunsAmerica customers, and they demonstrate why sometimes a gun isn’t best sold exclusively online. Collectible guns are very specific, and they are easily faked. To buy or sell extremely collectible firearms, you really need an expert in the middle, and we have found that expert to be the team at Rock Island Auction. Most of the details here were provided by RIA, and we will take a look at some of the lots from this auction to demonstrate as we go along.
To get on with our story, the legacy of the Colt Single Action lived on even after “the west was tamed” and its image was immortalized to many generations of Americans, in particular the baby boomers, through television and radio programs such as Gun Smoke and Bonanza, as well as on the silver screen with actors such as Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Audie Murphy and John Wayne. The Colt Single Action now serves as a cultural icon to many Americans while also serving as a physical reminder of its purpose, a tool of its time when America was as young as it was free.
What is recognized today as the most valuable or collectable of Colt Single Actions are the “first generation” revolvers which were manufactured from 1873-1940, serial numbers 1 thru approximately 357,000. Within the “pre-war” or “first generation” of Colt Single Actions, the first 175,000 were manufactured prior to January 1, 1899 which classifies them as antiques meaning they can be openly bought and sold without a federal gun dealer license, called an FFL, and they do not require any NICS check or 4473 form. Beware, however, that some states and municipalities have specific rules and laws about what are considered “antique” firearms, and carrying an antique for self defense generally falls under the same laws as other carry laws. If you are just discovering antique firearms, be sure to check your local laws before attempting to ship a firearm to your door.
In any form of firearms collecting, collectors search for variations within a given model or within a given manufacturer with the goal to obtain the best examples they can afford. This approach is universal to all collectors, but it evolves over time. Some people collect to invest. Some people collect just because they enjoy the antiquity and the living history of the guns themselves. In either case, neither are mutually exclusive. To some degree, almost everyone who collects firearms enjoys the living history, and historically firearms have always been a sound investment with great returns, if you can get yourself to let them go.
In any form of collecting, knowledge is power. The old adage of gun collecting is “buy a gun, buy a book” meaning there is so much one must know in order to truly understand what they are buying or even what they are looking for, that you always have to rely on the research of others in order to know what you are even looking at. This article won’t replace good, solid, research, but it should give you the issues you must consider when buying a collectible Colt Single Action Army revolver, observed by the experts at Rock Island Auction Company.
The Colt Archive Letter
Perhaps the most influence one factor can have on the value of a Colt is the Archival Letter. At a cost of $75-$300, Colt will provide you with a certified record of your gun with complete specifications of exactly how it left the factory, and if it was returned for later work. They will also tell you where it was shipped, to whom, and how many guns were in the shipment. Until the National Firearms Act of 1969, it was legal to ship guns to individuals, and mail order guns were common, and even available in both the Sears and Montgomery Wards catalogs. Your Colt, or one you are thinking about buying, may have been shipped to a famous western lawman, or to a plumber in Rhode Island. It may have been shipped to a famous Mercantile in Dodge City, or to a hardware store in New Jersey. You just never know until you check.
Most collectible Colts will come with a Colt Archival Letter, and with the guns in the Rock Island Auctions sale, you may even get more certified history on the individual gun. History is everything with old collectible guns, and Colt has retained records of over 90% of its Single Action Army revolvers over the years, providing collectors with a wealth of information and collecting fodder. Some Colts have no interesting history, but are of a rare variety, like a certain barrel length and caliber, or a variation of engraving or inspector marks. Most importantly, the Colt Archive Letter will tell you exactly what caliber, barrel length, and other considerations shipped with the gun. It is the best way to not get caught with your pants down thinking you got a steal on a collectible gun that ultimately isn’t collectible.
Regardless of the history of the gun, condition is the single most important factor when judging the value of any collectible firearm. Nobody loves ugly guns, but unlike classic cars, original condition is more important than pretty, and it is imperative when starting or enhancing your firearms collection. As we have shown in the pages of GunsAmerica Magazine, some guns aren’t collectible at all and are good candidates for refurbishment, but if you plan to collect Colts, original condition should be your absolute priority when deciding where to invest your money. Walk through any gun show floor, or stop by a firearms auction house and many collectors will preach “buy higher condition than you can afford. ” What they mean by that is that original condition, on the high end of the spectrum, will not only appreciate, but often times appreciate rapidly. Always buy a great condition common gun over a not so good condition rare gun.
When evaluating a Single Action Colt, you have to look for telltale signs of refinishing, which nearly always involves sanding or buffing metal, and sanding and refinishing the wood. Look at the markings. Can you read all the letters? Do they look faint or buffed over? Holster and storage wear won’t generally wear away factory markings, or even factory engraving. If the markings are weak, most likely the gun has rusted over at some point and the rust was then buffed out. Feel the edges of the frame. Are they sharp? Does the wood mate up with the metal properly? Wood that doesn’t mate up may have just shrunk over the last 100 years or more, or it may have been refinished. Check the serial numbers. Do they match? Does the condition of the frame match that of the barrel and cylinder?
Expertise is paramount in these matters, mainly because there is a tradeoff in collectible Colts. There are a huge number of guns in the market that have changed hands several times in the last 50 years or so, and they developed a “pedigree,” or what is called provinance to some extent. Sometimes these guns end up being discovered as fakes, but very rarely. Much more risky are new guns that enter the market from newly liquidated collections and estates. Almost 100% of these guns are completely legitimate, and there are some great new finds appearing every day, but you have to be aware that faking just about everything isn’t that hard these days. You can buy punches for inspector marks on Ebay. Most blueing methods are a matter of public record on the internet, and even complex roll markings have been duplicated over the years in order to produce fakes. If you managed to catch “Ready, Aim, Sold” on the Discovery Channel, it was about Rock Island Auction, and even they had to jump through several hoops to discover a fake Winchester that had recently entered the market. If you are going to spend big money, you really need a reliable expert to check things out for you to see if everything ads up.
The Colt Single Action Army was produced in 30 major caliber designations. The two most popular of the time also coincide with being the most collectable: the .45 Colt and the 44-40 Winchester calibers. Single Action calibers like the 44-40, 32-20, 38-40 were companion pieces to the Winchester rifle. These calibers could be used in both the Colt revolver and the rifle or carbine. Rare caliber variations are also highly sought after. For example the .22 Rimfire, of which Colt only manufactured 107, (see lot 219 Rimfire photos). Another rare caliber variation is the 44 rimfire. Colt only manufactured approximately 1800 of these revolvers of which the bulk were shipped to South America. Surviving examples are scarce and to find one with original finish is extremely difficult. In the upcoming auction, lot 3222 is one of the cleanest we have ever seen.
Centerfire calibers, especially in .45 Colt and .44-40, are the more predictable of the Colts in the way or finding what they worth, even at auction. Universal demand for these guns gives them a reliable “book value,” and that can be both good and bad. You won’t get taken on one, but they are also tough to find a “steal” on, even in the live auctions. Oddball calibers, like .32-20, are mostly worth a fraction of their bigger brothers in the exact same gun, but you can hit a really good deal on one if it just so happens that nobody bidding is particularly interested in them. Good deals, and “steals” often parallel condition. It is tough to buy any really cherry gun under market value, regardless of caliber, but that is why they call it a live auction. You just never know.
The Colt Single Action was manufactured in 3 major barrel lengths;
7-1/2, 5-1/2, and 4-3/4. The 7-1/2 and the 4-3/4 remain the most popular amongst collectors. They like the long barrel for it’s over all look and the 4-3/4 for its appeal as the gun slingers quick draw weapon of choice. Colt however did produce revolvers in different barrel lengths which serve as highly collectable pieces today. The most famous of these barrel variations are the “Buntline” nicknamed after the famous Western Dime Novelist Edward Zane Carroll Judson who wrote under the pseudonym Ned Buntline and who made the long barrel Colt famous as he portrayed Wyatt Earp as carrying one at the O.K. Corral. While the story is unlikely, Colt did manufacture ten 16” Colt Single Actions with special sights and an attachable shoulder stock. They are extremely rare, but there is one in the upcoming auction. The idea for this article came about just because there are so many rare Colt Single Action variations. It is amazing that all of these came together at one time. There is a 10 inch barreled Colt, one of three made ever, and several other oddball barrel lengths. Colt manufactured short barrel variations in 4”, 3-1/2”, 3”, and even 2” appropriately known as “sheriff models” and some times called “store keepers”. Just when you think you know everything about Colts, a new gun is going to pop up that very few people knew existed, and that is the new “must have” in a high end Colt Siingle Action collection.
Factory engraved “prewar” Colt Single Actions remain one the most rare and highly desirable American firearm’s, and is the keystone to many advanced Colt firearms collections. They are arguably the most sought after of all Single Actions and exemplify the same craftsmanship and reliability of a standard SAA yet display beauty as a true piece of art. You can see in the pictures here lots 229 and 1295. Next week all of these guns will be headed out to collections all over the globe. That’s the thing about live auctions. You get one shot, and that gun may disappear from the market for 50 years. This auction actually has factory engraved single actions from the famous Dalton Gang. Factory Engraved Single Actions which headline this sale. They are lots 1281 and 1282. These guns can be meticulously documented to the Dalton Gangs failed bank robbery in Coffeyville Kansas. Lot number 1281 is documented as being taken off the hip of the “highwayman” himself Robert Dalton!
The most important issue with engraving is always going to be that it was done at the factory, and there are some engravers that are preferred over others by most collectors. Some guns even went back to Colt for engraving later, and became authenticated presentation pieces for movies stars and heads of state. Again, the Colt Archive Letter is generally going to be able to tell this story, and most of the guns in this situation have developed at least some provinance you can rely upon.
There are numerous other variations and characteristics one will observe in the field of Colt Single Action collecting. An ultra feature seldom observed is what is known as the “pinched frame” variation. This phenomenon can be observed on only a few hundred of the early Single Actions and can be identified by a pinched rear sight rather than the standard smaller grooved notched rear sight which was made standard. Where the gun was shipped is a feature, and it is shown on the Colt Archive Letter. Guns shipped out to western places such as Texas, California, Arizona and other Western territories will always command a premium. If these features come together, with a good condition gun, you can end up with something really special, and valuable. Lot 1291 exhibits a combination of rare features. It is a Texas shipped, antique (pre-1899), Sheriffs model!
Special grips with factory documentation will also command a premium. If the Colt Archive Letter doesn’t note special grips, it is assumed that they weren’t special, so beware, if you see a gun without a letter and with what appear to be special grips, that they could be from another gun, or even fakes. See lot 3256, which is a prewar SAA that is accompanied by the original box which actually has a label indicating factory carved steer head grips! Colt was inconsistent throughout the years with how they handled the documentation of individual grip choices, so any hard evidence you can get that the gun was shipped with special grips is going to influence the value considerably.
Colt Cavalry Single Action
The Colt Cavalry Single Action Revolver or Model 1873 was the U.S. standard issue sidearm from 1873 until the early 1890’s. These firearms were exposed to harsh conditions and to hard use on the Midwestern plains and out west. The competition for these guns in the collectors market is fierce, because both U.S. Military collectors and Colt collectors both seek to collect this variation of the Single Action.
Cavalry Colts are generally categorized by the U.S. Military Ordnance inspector responsible for physically inspecting each revolver to assure its quality. Seven major inspectors are recognized as collectable: Cleveland, Nettleton, Clark, Carr, Draper, Ainsworth, and Casey. Of which Draper, Ainsworth, Cleveland, Nettleton and Casey are the most valuable. They inspected only a small quantity of guns, making them highly desirable. There is an example of each in the coming auction, as rare as that is even to RIA.
The most common fakes are often the military Colts, simply because there are so many novice U.S. Military collectors in the market who are part of the overall gun collecting community. You will be hard pressed to find a local gun show that does not have what appears to be a military Colt sitting on the table, that the owner “doesn’t know the history of” and who “can’t guarantee anything” but who nonetheless has priced the gun with a low collectors value, should it prove out to be real. Be careful of any military Colts that do not come with an established provinance, because they are most likely fakes.
Bisley Model Single Actions
Within the production of Colt Single Action Army’s, Colt manufactured what they called the Bisley model from 1894-1915. Named after the famous shooting range in Bisley, England Bisley models are identified by a longer grip and wider hammer and trigger. Colt manufactured approximately 45,000 Bisley Model Single Actions. Rare Bisley variations follow the same guidelines stated above for the standard Single Actions. Remember since the total Bisley production was limited to 45,000 rare variation are even less seldom encountered. In this auction there is lot 3237, which is an almost perfect example of the pinnacle of the Bisley production. It is factory engraved, factory silver plated, factory inscribed, with factory carved steer head pearl grips! Amazing! Also see lot 3259, which is one of only 12 sheriff’s model Bisley’s, and according to the factory letter, it was shipped to Winchester!
Of the total 357,000 prewar Single Action and Bisley models Colt produced 1,893 flattop target revolvers, 917 regular Single Actions and 976 Bisley’s. These revolvers were produced as a more accurate version the widely popular SAA for use in pistol matches around the world. Flattops are exceedingly rare in any configuration, and are collected by rarity of caliber. This upcoming auction contains the largest grouping of flattop target’s to ever hit the market (use the search on flattop) , with over 20 different examples! One was even shipped to Hawaii!
About this RIAC Auction
This September 7th, 8th & 9th collectors from all around the world will have to opportunity to preview and bid on the most significant Colt Single action collection to ever to the market with over 150 “first generation” Colt Single Action revolvers! The bulk of the Single Actions come from the same collection now famously known as the Gateway Collection. All variations discussed above will cross the auction block and in many instances will be committed to collections for a lifetime. We proudly invite beginner collectors to the most advanced firearms experts to come see this important collection and bid. Many examples will never been offered for public sale again!