“In Colonel’s Room”
by Pete Holder
The story began for me, sometime in the late 1990’s, on a trip to France to see a good friend of mine, Rudy Holst. Rudy had collected and dealt in fine antique Colt’s and other American firearms for many years and was probably, at that time, the best known and most knowledgable antique American arms dealer in France.
For more than fifteen years, I had driven the five hundred miles round trip from my home in Surrey, England, to Orry La Ville near Paris, at least forty times and acquired from him, some of the finest Colt firearms ever to surface in Europe. They included, single and double cased sets, engraved guns, inscribed guns, gold and silver-plated guns and several presentation sets, inscribed from Colonel Colt, to noted beneficiaries in Europe and America.
On one of these trips to Orry-La-Ville, over our customary bottle of the best French champagne, Rudy produced for my inspection, a Colt Model 1849 Pocket percussion revolver, serial number 181885, with two line Hartford address and a six inch barrel. I was impressed by its condition, unusual finish and the hand engraved “Colt’s Patent”, on the left side of the frame. He told me that there were rumours, that it once resided, in the Colt Museum, in Hartford, Connecticut. Rudy told me, that this gun was not for sale at this time, but that I would have first refusal to buy it, when the time came.
Unfortunately, the time did not come and poor Rudy unexpectedly died, in August 2007. Fortunately for me, I was able to buy Rudy’s collection from his estate, courtesy of his widow and with the help of their close family friend and fellow Colt collector, Ray Kendall. Amongst the collection, was the subject revolver that features in this article.
In the following text, I hope to prove that Colt Model 1849 Pocket serial number 181885, manufactured circa 1860, as being one of the most important guns, from Colonel Samuel Colt’s personal collection and trace its provenance in history, from its day of manufacture in 1860, through to the present day.
On returning home to the United Kingdom with the collection, I checked for information on Samuel Colt’s personal firearms collection. I found what I was looking for, in one of the early Armax magazines, which were published courtesy of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, in the late 1980’s. Sure enough in Armax – Volume1. Number 1 – Spring/Summer 1987, Herbert Houze had written in detail the complexities of solving the mysteries of two inventories of guns, that were in the Colt collection from 1860. One of the inventories included serial number 181885.
It was this article, that spurred me on, to research the gun further. In October, 2007, I visited Hartford, Connecticut, for the antique arms fair, organised by The New England Antique Arms Society. On arriving in Hartford, my first port of call was the Connecticut State Library, where the famous Colt Patent Manufacturing Company Factory Collection of Colt firearms, has resided since 1957.
Hidden in the archives of this magnificent building, which houses an extensive collection of published and archival materials on the history of Connecticut and its people, I found three different ledgers, listing guns and miscellaneous material, from Colonel Samuel Colt’s personal collection. These ledgers, were either in his large, or small office in the Colt factory, in Hartford, during his lifetime and in other places of importance, after his death, on the 10th January, 1862. In the downstairs library and archives department of the Connecticut State Library, I was very privileged, to see the original documents, to photograph them and also get photo-copies of them.
The first ledger, lists the arms and miscellaneous material in Sam Colt’s office, that were in an inventory, taken between June and mid autumn 1861, several months before his death.
Written in pencil the title is “In Col’s Room” (the title of this article) and on page 2 (17) the heading reads “Glass Case in Col’s Room Continued” and underneath underlined “Lowest Shelf Right hand Compartment”. It then lists amongst other entries the following:
After Samuel Colt’s death in 1862, his collection of firearms and associated material, from his large and small office in the Colt factory, were sent to his beloved home, Armsmear, at 80, Wethersfield Avenue, Hartford and close to Colts factory. This action, saved it from being destroyed by the fire on 4th February, 1864, which ravaged through the Colt factory, destroying many of its buildings. After the fire and sometime between 1866 and 1867, according to Herbert Houze, most of the arms were returned to the company, to form the nucleus of the museum established by General William Benjamin Franklin (a Civil War hero) and the President of Colt’s, Richard Jarvis.The gun collection, retained by Elizabeth Colt, was bequeathed to the Wadsworth Atheneum, in Hartford, after her death in 1905.
In the second ledger, there is an inventory, where serial number 181885, is also featured . It is headed:
“Original Draft of Inventory of arms etc. in Museum, N.E. Room in office of Colt’s P.T.A. Mfg. Co. Compiled Oct. 1887, by orders of GenL W.B. Franklin by C.J. Ehbets ( notes & list of arms taken from Museum) loaned by Colt’s Co. to Columbian Exhibition, selected by Capt. A Russell, Jan. 1893 and later returned to Museum.
Although the draft title page suggests that all the guns were loaned to the War Department for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, it appears that only twenty four pistols and twenty three rifles were sent. Serial number 181885 was not one of these guns.
The 1887 draft, was used to compile the third inventory. It is a small book, measuring eight by six and a half inches, entitled “LIST OF FIREARMS COLLECTION IN THE COLT’S COMPANY’S MUSEUM”. There is a small sticker in the top left corner which reads “RG 103”.
In this inventory, there are four pages with the heading as shown “Colt Percussion Cap Revolvers”. On one of the pages, towards the bottom, is listed the following entry.
To reinforce serial number 181885 pedigree, the following page in the book, lists some of the finest Colt revolvers manufactured, that accompanied serial number 181885 in the collection.
“482 / 44/ 7½ Add/ Colt Dragoon TSAR PRESENTATION No 15821” Model 1848 serial number 15821,
“483 / 36 / 6 / Colt Model 1851 Lincoln No 38,843”
“484 / 31 / 5 / Colt Pocket Model 1849 No 71,746” Model 1849, serial number 71746”
These fabulously embellished gold inlaid revolvers, represent the finest examples, from the Colt factory and the craftsmanship of their Master engravers such as Gustave Young.
Colt Model 1849 Pocket percussion revolver, serial number 181885, appears at first, to be no different from thousands of other similar examples, with its five shot cylinder, six inch barrel, two-line Hartford address and one-piece varnished walnut grips.
On closer examination, one observes, the very rare hand engraved “COLTS / PATENT”, on the left side of the frame. This feature, on a 49 Pocket is rare and only one other example is known, on a non-engraved gun, at this time. It is Colt Pocket 1849, serial number 159302, which was sold through Butterfield & Butterfield as Lot 5196, in December 2000.
The main rarity on serial number 181885, is the highly polished finish, which is listed as “Bbl. Cyl & Hammer gilt” in the small book (pictured above) titled, “LIST OF FIREARMS COLLECTION IN THE COLT’S COMPANY’S MUSEUM”. The finish on this gun, is possibly unique and maybe the only example known, embellished with a silver-gilt barrel, cylinder and hammer. The remainder of the gun is complimented, with silver-plated loading lever, frame, back-strap and trigger-guard.
This finish, would have been a great contrast to the normal finish done by the Colt factory. Most Colt Model 1849 Pockets had a blued barrel and cylinder, with a colour case hardened frame, hammer and loading lever. The back-strap and trigger- guard would have been silver-plated. According to author Bob Jordan, on page 91 of “Colt’s Pocket ’49”, his survey of 152 guns, with two line Hartford address show that, 147 were blued, one was nickel-plated, three had full silver plate and one was a mix of gold wash and silver plate. In his survey, he did not examine any guns in this particular finish of silver-gilt, which is different from gold-plating. If the barrel, cylinder and hammer of serial number 181885 had been gold-plated, there would be traces of gold over metal remaining, or no finish at all showing, just bare metal. Serial number 181885, retains virtually all of its silver-plating under the gilt, on all metal parts.
The gilt is still prominent, over the silver, on the barrel and hammmer and also in the protected area, of the rectangular cylinder stops. The gilt, which is a thin layer of gold, has congealed on the revolver, over its lifetime. Probably the finish, was not deemed to be sucessful by Samuel Colt, at this time in 1860 and therefore no other, or very few examples, were executed, in this same way. On all accounts, the process of silver-gilding, in the third quarter of the 19th century, was dangerous to the workforce and could lead to long term blindness and other health problems. This was due to its use of mercury in the process. Maybe, that was the case and the reason why, few revolvers were finished this way. The gun would have looked very impressive, so you could understand why Samuel Colt, decided to keep this one in his personal collection, for display purposes and also for future reference.
The Administrator of the Connecticut State Library, Dean Nelson kindly gave me the following letter, which relates that “…serial number 181885 …was in the Colt Factory Collection and donated to the State of Connecticut in 1957….and among the several hundred firearms illegally traded from the collection by the then Museum Director in March of 1980”.
At sometime in the 1970’s, Norm Flayderman appraised the collection, at the State Library and described the subject gun as “Tag # 267, Colt Model 1849 .31 caliber with 2-line Hartford address, matched serial # 181,885. Mint condition. Hand engraved “Colt’s Patent” markings on frame. Silvered finish. $1,500.00”. It is my opinion that Norm did not associate the gun, as having a silver-gilt finish, eventhough it had a gilded appearance. He probably thought that it was silver-plated, with an unusual patina.
After illegally leaving the Connecticut State Library, in 1980 and coming back into the public domain, serial number 181885, has passed through several hands, including Marty Lane, Ray Kendall, Rudy Holst and yours truly.
I feel privileged to have owned a gun, that was once in the Colonel’s personal collection and which was almost certainly handled and admired by him, in person, just as we are doing today. It is my opinion, that this gun, with its experimental and possibly unique finish, coupled with its ultra rare, hand engraved “COLTS / PATENT”, has been overlooked and under-rated by museums, dealers and collectors for many years. I am proud to present it, after one hundred and forty seven years, as worthy of being in the finest Colt collection or firearms museum. The condition, rarity and provenance on this gun is unsurpassed and it deserves to be recognised and admired for posterity.
1860 Manufactured at the Colt Factory in Hartford.
1860 Displayed in Colonel Colt’s office.
1861 Moved to Armsmear after Samuel Colt’s death.
1866/7 Returned to the newly built factory to form part of the Colt Factory Collection.
1905. Bequeathed to the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford after Elizabeth Colt’s death.
1957 Donated to the State of Connecticut at the Connecticut State Library.
1980 Illegally traded from the collection by the then Museum Director in March,1980.
Several dealers and collectors including Martin J. Lane, New York, USA.
1991 Ray Kendall (Secretary General of Interpol), Lyon, France.
1996 Rudy Holst, Orry La Ville, France.
2007 Pete Holder, Surrey, United Kingdom.
Colt Model 1849 Pocket percussion revolver is in excellent plus condition and appears unfired. It has a 100% cylinder scene and all pins intact on the rear of the cylinder. Nearly all the silver plating remains, but much of the gilt coating on the barrel, cylinder and hammer, has deteriorated over the years. The original one-piece varnished walnut grips are numbered to the gun and retain most of their original varnish, with only minor storage marks. The bore is bright and the action is good.
Herbert Houze: Without whose help this story would never have been told.
The Connecticut State Library archives department in Hartford and its administrator Dean Nelson.
Also: ~~~ Rudy Holst ~~~ Ray Kendall ~~~ Bob Jordan ~~~ Jeff Horne ~~~ Phil Boulton ~~~ Norm Flayderman
I would like to dedicate this article as a tribute to my old friend Rudy Holst.
Pete Holder – February 2008
Revised – April 2020