~ 1851 Sesquicentennial 2011 ~
Commemorative Guns of the Civil War
By Dennis Adler, Contributing Editor
Guns of the Old West Magazine

     At the beginning of the Civil War the United States had very little experience as a nation of armsmakers, or as a nation, for that matter, having only been established in 1783 at the end of the Revolutionary War. Early American pistols and longarms had been built using tools and skills brought over from Europe by the colonists, with many early Colonial gunmakers being of German ancestry. Thus the styles and construction of guns that one could define as being “American” in nature did not become truly established until after the Revolutionary War. As for well-known American armsmakers in the early 19th century, there was only a handful. Most important among them was E. Remington & Sons, established in 1816; there was Samuel Colt’s first enterprise in Paterson, New Jersey, which manufactured guns from 1836 to 1842 before going into receivership, and his very successful second venture, established in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1847. The Federal Government had the Springfield Armory, founded in 1794, and the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), which began manufacturing arms for the US military in 1801. During the years leading up to the Civil War, there also arose a number of smaller American armsmakers, mostly located in the North.

     Since the Revolutionary War there had broad distinctions between the States and a discord had existed between the Antebellum South and Washington since the late 18th century. While we might think of America in the 1850s as one united county, in point of fact individual States maintained their independence, organized their own militias, many coastal states had navy and merchant fleets, even their own currency. Thus, like pieces of a puzzle, America was composed of citizens from 34 separate states. Whether it was the issues of State’s Rights, of pro or anti slavery, the economic and social disparity between the North and South, or the election of Abraham Lincoln; no one issue triggered the Civil War, it was just a matter of time, and that time was the 12th of April, 1861.
     The War Between the States and its stories have resonated with Americans for generations, and even after 150 years we are still learning from the experience. One of the ways in which this has manifested itself is through collecting Civil War era firearms, uniforms, and memorabilia. 

Handcrafted Civil War Commemorative Guns
        While reproductions of Civil War era handguns and longarms are used as the canvas for modern day artisan engravers, it is noteworthy that the very first Civil War Commemorative revolver, a Colt 1861 Navy, was created shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Gustave Young, Colt’s master engraver, was so touched by the unprecedented loss of life on both sides and by President Lincoln’s speech at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery that he created a work of art known as “Tears of Gettysburg.” Young engraved the 1861 Navy with his most intricate vine scroll patterns, incorporating animal heads (dogs, wolves, and American eagles) within the scrolls and on the hammer flats, much as he done on other master engraved Colts, only on this one revolver every animal is crying. A single tear is present in the eye of each of the 11 wolf’s head, dog’s head and American eagle head motifs. Fitted with hand carved ivory grips, this 1861 Navy model, Ser. No. 14369, remains unique among the finest of engraved percussion Colt firearms of the Civil War period.

     The first contemporary Civil War Colt commemoratives were the U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee 1851 Navy cased sets produced by  Colt’s in 1971 at the start of the company’s re-introduction of cap-and-ball revolvers. These were offered as individual cased guns and in a deluxe double cased Blue and Gray set. A total of 4,750 each of the individual cased guns were produced, and 250 double cased sets.

     The second major Colt Civil War commemorate was the U.S. Cavalry cased set with two 1860 Army revolvers and a single shoulder stock, just as they were originally issued to the Cavalry from 1861 to 1865. There were several variations in this commemorative set, from plain blued guns (2,945 sets plus 40 sets with a “C” suffix) to two versions with factory engraving and gold inlays. The most elaborate set was limited to an edition of 40 but only 23 were made.

     Hand engraving is naturally the most expensive and examples are often limited to very small editions, or even single guns. The most exclusive hand engraved edition for the 150th Anniversary celebration beginning this year is the Adams & Adams “North-South Civil War Sesquicentennial 1860 Army” which will be limited to only 35 guns, one for each State that fought in the war plus the District of Columbia (Washington, DC). Designed by John J. Adams, Sr., the North-South design is unique, in that with one gun Adams manages to pay tribute to both the Union and Confederate States. The engraving pattern is based on an 1860 Army presented to General Ulysses S. Grant. The Grant gun was embellished with two banners rolling over the top of the barrel, with the words Liberty on one side and Union on the other. For Adams’ rendition, Union appears on the North side of the gun and Confederate on the South.

     The handsomely engraved and color cased recoil shield is decorated with the Union Jack on one side and the Stars and Bars on the  opposite. Each revolver is hand fitted with carved ivory grips featuring a high relief US on one side and CS on the other. The guns are all Colt Blackpowder Arms 1860 Army models, custom finished and color cased by Doug Turnbull.  Each gun in the series will have the backstrap inscribed for a specific State that fought in the war, with a traditional Shield insignia at the top. The North-South Sesquicentennial will sell for $3,500 and comes in a handcrafted walnut presentation case with a special stand that allows it to reflect the opposite side in a mirror lined lid. Adams & Adams has been producing hand engraved guns for over 35 years and is renowned for its work for the Colt’s Custom Shop and for Smith & Wesson.

Tears of Gettysburg Civil War

Tears of Gettysburg
Sold at RIA for $368,000

 Tears of Gettysburg closeup


1851 Navy Colt

1971 Colt Commemorative 1851 Navy




Adams & Adams North Civil War

Adams & Adams Colt North-South  Civil War Sesquicentennial 1860 Army




Civil War Firearms

Colt U.S. Cavalry Commemorative Engraved


Portions of this article are excerpted from Dennis Adler’s latest book, Guns of the Civil War, (Published by Zenith Press), available from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and fine book sellers.

For More Information         
Civil War Sesquicentennial 1860 Army
Adams & Adams
802 685-0019