3 Items of Great Significance Unveiled at RIAC
By Joel R. Kolander
Firearms auctions at Rock Island Auction Company regularly contain thousands of arms that collectors dream of placing in their own collections. The 2018 April Premiere Auction promises to be no different, but three items in particular stand out for their significance to the collecting community. They may not bear the auction’s highest estimates (OK, one of them does), but the fortunate collectors who find themselves the new stewards of these significant items will instantly find themselves vaulted into today’s “who’s who” of collecting, if they are not there already.
First and foremost is a Colt revolver well-known to the collecting world – perhaps the most well-published percussion Colt to date. Appearing in roughly one dozen prominent books and periodicals, the gun has taken on an iconic status in rarity and high-end collecting. Colloquially, it is known as the “Danish Sea Captain Walker,” but more specifically, it is the only known Civilian Colt Walker still housed in its original case.
A military-issued Colt Walker is the type of gun that has achieved “Holy Grail” status. They were Colt’s first successful firearms and allowed him to rise from the ashes of his first failed firearms venture in Paterson, New Jersey. It also established the relationship between Colt and the U.S. Government when 1,000 of the new, hefty revolvers were purchased by the Ordnance Department and saw heavy use in Texas. Many were destroyed in use, suffering from burst cylinders, while others were “ridden hard and put away wet.” It is a rare Walker today that survives outside of relic status. Samuel Colt also had 100 Walkers made for the civilian market, likely intending them to serve as presentation pieces to those men who would assist in its further adoption in the military or commercial markets. With less than 10% of all Walkers known to survive, the Civilian Walkers are supremely rare.
The story of this Walker states that it was originally shipped to retailer Blunt & Syms in New York City, one of the very first stores to sell Colts. There it was purchased by visiting Danish sea captain Niels Hanson. It was passed down through his descendants until it was eventually sold to a Danish gun collector. During World War II and the Nazi occupation of Denmark, it was buried with its case in a garden, eventually being unearthed and re-entering the collector market. It sold shortly thereafter for a then-record $10,000 and in April, it hopes to set a new record all its own.
Sometimes items must be heralded for what they truly are, and this sword borne by Confederate General Paul J. Semmes is quite possibly the single most important weapon we have ever offered. For 30 long years it has been secreted away, finally resurfacing at Rock Island Auction Company.
When this sword was last seen, it was the darling of critic, collector, and expert alike. Norm Flayderman called it, “The most historic Confederate weapon we have ever had the pleasure to catalog.” Steve Sylvia, publisher of North South Trader’s Civil War Magazine stated, “This sword is without question, one of the most important of all Confederate artifacts,” and author John H. Thillmann wrote, “…this diamond-eyed Ames sword…is one of the finest Ames presentation swords I have had the pleasure to examine. Its association with the great ‘Battle of Gettysburg’ place it among the most desirable and elite of collectible swords from any period in American History.” What else needs to be said?
Ames, the Rolls Royce of American sword makers, reserved the straight blade and cruciform cross guard for their finest high-grade swords. This blade is the only diamond mounted Ames sword known to exist, and is additionally covered in silver, gilded in gold, and offers a blade remarkably etched in a patriotic motif. In all its grandeur, it was presented in 1854 to then Captain Paul J. Semmes by his men in the Columbus Guard, and is said to have never left his side. Semmes would rise through the ranks, eventually becoming a Brigadier General in the Confederate Army. He served bravely at Antietam, Chancellorsville, and other battles before leading his brigade in a crushing charge into the Union left flank at Gettysburg. He smashed Sickle’s Brigade in the Wheatfield, fought bitterly in the forest at Rose Hill, continued through Plum Run Valley, before finally encountering the Union guns positioned at Little Round Top. There his brigade was shredded by shot and canister fire and Semmes suffered a horrific wound to his thigh. He applied his own tourniquet and was removed from the field of battle only to succumb to his wounds eight days later. His last acts were recorded by his nurse in a letter to Semmes’ wife,
“A few moments before the General died, he asked for his sword, laying it across his arm, he again asked for his Testament…he took it – and with it in his hand expired.”
This luxurious Civil War artifact is not only of the finest American craftsmanship of the era, it was carried in a defining moment in arguably the most important watershed battle in American history. No less than General Robert E. Lee had this to say about his fallen comrade, “[Semmes] died as he had lived, discharging the highest duty of a patriot with devotion that never faltered and courage that shrank from no danger.”
This sword’s artistry, historical significance, and rarity all pose it to be one of the most significant arms in recent memory to shake the collector market in such a fashion.
“In my experience as a student, collector and dealer of Civil War Swords, those few that have documented association with the greatest and most historical of all American battles – Gettysburg – are unquestionably the most desirable. This, the only diamond mounted Ames sword known to exist, carried by a mortally wounded Confederate General (Semmes) in that greatest of conflicts, is possibly the most exciting and important sword I have ever scrutinized. Unimpeachably original and certainly iconic, collectors, historians and institutions should take note of its existence, as it will stand forever as a premier representative of the High Water Mark of the Confederacy.”
-Michael Simens of www.historicalarms.com
Much like Colt Walkers, a Confederate revolver in any condition is a desirable piece of firearms history. Given the industrial limitations of the Confederacy, few were manufactured and they were all but guaranteed a hard life of service and combat. Given the intense demand for arms at that time, it seems extraordinary that any would have been set aside for any sort of embellishment whatsoever.
Yet, recently discovered is the second-known J.H. Dance & Brothers Confederate revolver with factory engraving. The known existing model is serial number 172, well-documented in Wiggins’ book Dance & Brothers. This significant find brought to the collecting community by Rock Island Auction Company is serial number 179, and the stamping and embellishment techniques are near identical to the known factory embellished Dance revolver.
Not only is this a previously unknown Confederate weapon, it’s a rare Dance Brothers revolver – at most 500 of which were ever produced. It’s also one of two known in the world to feature factory embellishment, and if that all were not enough to scratch the itch of a collector seeking the rarest of guns, it is only one of THREE Confederate arms known to have actual, documented period engraving. The other, besides the two Dance revolvers mentioned here, is a single “Van Renssalaer” S. C. Robinson Sharps Rifle made by the Virginia Armory in 1863 that was formerly housed in the M. Clifford Young Collection.
One of these items, the “Danish Sea Captain Walker,” is so well-known, it has also been called the “Mona Lisa of Firearms” because its numerous photographs and references have made it instantly recognizable to so many. It is the only one of its type left in existence and its significance is difficult to overstate. The other two have led more secretive lives, but their emergence into the collecting scene challenges previously held “common knowledge” while establishing new levels of rarity and historic importance. Each in their own way is an incredibly significant arm to the collecting community and it is Rock Island Auction Company’s great pleasure to host them all in a single sale.