10 Rare Colt Revolving Rifles and Long Arms
By Joel Kolander
It’s safe to say that when most when most us talk about a “Colt” we mean a six-gun. Revolvers raised Samuel Colt from struggling entrepreneur to American icon. With the success of his revolvers (and later the 1911) Colt had few reasons to foray into the world of long guns. Yes, the legend persists of a “gentleman’s agreement” between Colt and Winchester effectively ensuring that Colt would produce no lever actions and Winchester would make no revolvers, but for whatever reason both manufacturers seemed to hold true to this. So much so that Winchester to this day rarely strays from long guns, and Colt stayed out of the long gun market with notably few exceptions until the advent of the AR-15. So few, in fact, that those exceptions are often sought after and desirable collectors items.
In this week’s article, we’re going to take a chronological look at a few of the Colt long arms in our April Premiere Firearms Auction of which collectors should take special note. This is not a comprehensive list of all the Colt longarms ever produced, but it does showcase a wide assortment of beautiful arms seldom seen by most collectors.
1. Colt Paterson No. 1 Ring Lever Percussion Revolving Rifle with Case and Accessories
Colt long guns are already very collectible firearms, but any Colt this early receives special consideration. The No. 1 ring lever rifle, easily identified by its distinctive topstrap, was the first factory production Colt firearm, with approximately only 200 produced from 1837-1838. Another key identifying mark is the “four horseheads” trademark or crest inlaid into the cheekpiece. This particular example is notably early as it lacks the capping channel in the recoil shield as can be found on the Improved No. 1 rifles. To cycle the weapon, the shooter would operate the ring lever by pulling downward and toward the stock, which would cock the internal hammer and rotate the cylinder.
Initially Colt was optimistic when marketing these guns both commercially and to the military, but his rosy outlook was soon darkened. Results were mixed. The increase in firepower was notable compared to a single shot firearm, but the guns were expensive and susceptible to the fowling caused by blackpowder. The rifles received a damning review from a U.S. government trial held at West Point in 1837, but Colt still made a promising 1838 sale of 50 rifles to serve in the Florida Everglades during the Seminole War. Unfortunately, no other government sales would follow. The rifles’ overall performance and its meager orders were a disappointment and the Paterson Arms Manufacturing Company struggled on.
This example is in particularly good condition – even the mahogany case still bears the original velvet in a handsome umber hue – and is accompanied by two, round back, eight shot cylinders that are rolled with the centaur scene, and numerous accessories. It is worth noting that this is not the “Centaur scene” seen on early Paterson revolvers, but a different scene involving a rifle-bearing centaur leading three horsed members of a hunting party, all pursuing a stag. All visible serial numbers are matching in this rifle and being a cased example makes it a remarkable rarity. In The Book of Colt Firearms, it is stated that cases “are seldom encountered; though originally listed at the price of $4, very few were produced and specimens which have survived to the present are less than a half a dozen in total of all models of the Paterson longarms.” This rifle and its ultra-rare case are sure to be a quintessential piece to any advanced Colt collection.
2. Outstanding Colt Paterson Model 1839 Percussion Revolving Carbine
Far from content to rest his laurels, Colt shortly thereafter also produced the Model 1839. Available c. 1838-1841 as a carbine or shotgun, they saw significant differences from the earlier Ring Lever rifles, most notably the absence of a ring lever. These Colt long arms were cocked by manually pulling back the newly-added hammer, which also rotated the cylinder. While absent on the earliest Model 1839 firearms, later variations added the horizontally thrown loading lever. The carbine was smoothbore and fired .525 caliber ball, while the shotgun was a .62 caliber (20 gauge), lacked the loading lever, and used the largest cylinder of any production model Colt – a beefy 3 1/2″. The carbine vastly outsold the shotgun, with totals of 950 to the shotgun’s 262, but together they were the Paterson Arms best-selling longarm. They also enjoyed more success with the government, with 360 purchased for Navy and Cavalry use, 180 for the Navy of the Republic of Texas, and supposedly 120 were purchased for the Texas Army or Texas Rangers.
Many examples of the rifle have a gorgeous engraved cylinder with three small panels scenes framed by large leaves of scroll. The example offered by RIAC is notably plain and in the white. It is one of an estimated 12 carbines with the plain cylinder, having been assembled from parts discovered in the Colt factory by Albert Foster Jr. in 1910. The manager of the New York office, Foster ordered the cylinders made and fitted to the rifles, then sold his guns to collectors for $75 each. This is a fine condition, rare example of the most successful Colt Paterson longarms.
3. Extremely Rare and Exceptional Cased, Colt Model 1855 Full Stock Sporting Revolving Rifle
Most of us have seen a Colt “Sidehammer,” but few have had the pleasure of seeing a fully stocked Sporting Rifle. These sidehammers (in all their forms) also go by the nickname “Root” thanks to the involvement of one Mr. Elisha K. Root, who was instrumental to the early success of Colt Manufacturing. He was a renowned machinist before joining Colt as its Chief Mechanic in 1849 and bringing his precision machining tools with him. He would go on to become Superintendent and allegedly the highest salaried person in the state as Colt had to best several lucrative offers from other companies. Root improved almost everything that could be improved once beginning his work at Colt. His patents include: a compound rifling machine for rifling four barrels at once instead of one, a machine for boring chambers in revolver cylinders, the slide lathe, three patents for making cartridges, one patent for packaging them, a better way to shape pistol stocks, improving the machine used to pump water into the Armsmear reservoir, and some steam-engines that Colt manufactured for the Russian government. Root even served as one of Colt’s eight pallbearers at his 1862 funeral and then served as president of Colt Manufacturing until his own death on July 5, 1865.
These rare revloving rifles have much in common with their other sidehammer brethren (the revolvers, military rifles, half stock Sporters, shotguns, and carbines), though it was the design and balance of the full and half stock Sporting rifles that made them a preferred presentation piece of Samuel Colt. Known specimens have been presented to the aforementioned Mr. Root, Secretary of War John B. Floyd, the Major and Second Kings of Siam, as well as members of the Russian Imperial Court. Needless say, these were highly valued weapons back then and an absolute treasure to collectors today.
Of all the Model 1855 Sporting Rifles manufactured in .44 cal from 1855-1864, only 250 have 24″ barrels like this one. Most of the sporting rifles are half stock models, approximately 1,000 – 1,5000, while the full stocked Sporting Rifles are thought to number around… well, no one knows. The Book of Colt Firearms (henceforth referred to as “TBCF”) lists their number as “limited,” while Colt: An American Legend doesn’t list a production number at all – instead erring on the side of caution to say that only 18,300 long guns of all types were produced. In any case, they are a rare find made even rarer still with the presence of its case and accessories. These are classified by TCBF as “the utmost rarity.”
4. Scarce English Proofed Colt Model 1855 Revolving Saddle Ring Revolving Carbine
In the same vein as other Colt sidehammer models is this revolving saddle ring carbine. Made in 3 frame sizes for the varying calibers, these guns saw use both commercially and for the government, and totaled approximately 4,435. Even rarer than that low number is the English Carbine variant. Chambered in the largest possible caliber of.56,they bear the telltale British proofmarks as well as brass buttplates and trigger guards. Only 2,000 are estimated to have been purchased via Colt’s London Agency which operated briefly from 1854-56. The limited number and timeframe captures a snapshot in time of Colt history for collectors.
And if 1855 Sidehammers are really your thing, you’ll definitely be interested in the two-digit serial number early Model 1855 Revolving Military Rifle also available in this gun auction. It is only one of 101 first contract guns purchased by the U.S. Government, which according to TBCF, were the first repeating rifles used by the U.S. military.
5. Civil War New Jersey Contract Colt Special Model 1861 Percussion Rifle-Musket
This seems like a step backwards regarding design, but when War is looming, you give the government what it wants – or “Make hay while the sun shines” as Colt stated frankly in one letter. The number of the rifled single shot muskets dwarfs the other firearms mentioned here, as Colt was pumping them out faster than they could be sold stating, “I had rather an accumulation of our arms than to have money laying idle…” In all, Colt produced approximately 75,000 of the estimated 152,000 rifles made in this pattern.
In brief, Robbins & Lawrence Armory and Machine shop had impressed the British at the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition so much so that they earned themselves a British Army contract for 150 machines to build Enfield rifles in Windsor, Vermont. Riding the success, they built another plant in Hartford in 1853, and then another – fatally overextending the business. At which point Colt, ever the opportunist, swooped in to purchase the renowned and valuable machinery in order to procure government contracts for rifles he knew they were already purchasing. With a few adjustments, the end product was based on the Springfield Model 1861, but completed on the machinery used to build the Enfield Pattern 1853 (P-53) muskets. Colt wasted no time in marketing the “new” rifles as the best of both arms, and gave it a new name to boot: the Colt Special Model 1861.
It is not uncommon for examples to be finished in the white, as the specimen offered here. However, it also bears the markings “N.J.” both upon the left barrel flat at the breech and the stock flat, likely indicative of a contract that this Colt helped to fulfill.
6. Factory Engraved Colt Model 1883 Damascus Double Barrel 10 Gauge Shotgun
Here we come to the first long arm that chronologically could have come into conflict with Winchester. However, since Winchester’s first shotgun wouldn’t come to market until the Model 1887, which was also a repeater, even then the two were not truly in conflict for a shotgun market. In fact, Colt intended the Model 1883 as a follow up to the Model 1878 double barrel hammer shotgun, and to better compete in the vibrant market for double shotguns at that time, including Parker, Greener, and others. That is not to say that no competition existed between the two companies even in this “neutral ground” of shotguns. Winchester began importing shotguns from England in 1880 and offered them at a lower price to compete with Colt’s Model 1878 shotgun, and Webley revolvers to eat away at the revolver market.
Also, Winchester had developed a Winchester revolver in 1874-75 (prototypes exist as early as 1872) with several designers, including Hugo Borchardt of semi-automatic pistol fame, and former Colt employee William Mason, a key designer for Colt’s Single Action Army. They even displayed their Wetmore-Wells revolver at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.
Colt, on the other hand, had hired former Winchester employee Andrew Burgess, a talented inventor who had also worked with Whitney Arms and Marlin. This resulted in the Colt-Burgess Model 1883 lever action rifle, a model which allegedly spurred a visit from Winchester with a model of their prototype revolver supposedly resulting in a “gentleman’s agreement” to not produce each other’s bread and butter markets of revolvers and lever action rifles. Production of the Colt-Burgess lever action ceased after a scant 16 months.
This shotgun was produced at the height of the Battle between those two great manufacturers. This example offered in the April 2018 Premiere Firearms Auction comes with a highly figured stock, a checkered, deluxe pistol grip, light border engraving and touches of decorative scroll work, an ebony insert on the forearm, and those beautifully executed Damascus barrels. Chambered in 10 gauge, the Model 1883 was of the highest quality, and had to be to properly compete with other high end doubles in a fiercely competitive market. It is arguably one of the finest firearms produced in the company’s history. Its relatively low price is a remarkable opportunity for firearms collectors to own a beautiful, well-made, and rare Colt firearm. Only 7,366 were ever produced.
7. Scarce Early Production Colt Lightning Slide Action Medium Frame Carbine
Apparently, slide action rifles were not discussed when Colt and Winchester met. To wit, the Colt Lightning slide action rifle. Starting in 1884, production totaled 185,000 in their three different frame sizes. Shown here is a Medium Frame carbine that was made in 1885, the second year of production. Small frame Lightning rifles were perfect for plinking, target practice, or as boy’s rifles, but the medium frame models were intended for hunting a range of quarry from small game up to white tail deer. The three calibers available for the Medium frame (.32-20, .38-40, and .44-40) were also compatible with the Single Action Army and Model 1878 double action.
These rifles are a great collector’s piece. Not too numerous to be common, but not so rare as to be unavailable. They come in a variety of calibers, barrel lengths, frame sizes, special order features, and rare variants such as the military version. A fine example of one of these variations is the next Colt long arm in this list.
8. British Proofed Colt Medium Frame Lightning Slide Action Saddle Ring 44-40 Carbine
Another Medium frame carbine, but this one sets itself apart with the British proof marks placed on the left side of the barrel and frame at the breech. It should come as no surprise that these well-made rifles were popular in overseas markets resulting in an assortment of collectibles to track down for a complete representation.
9. Very Rare Early Colt Experimental/Prototype Fully Automatic/Class III/NFA C&R Browning Automatic Rifle
Finding a BAR at auction would be prize enough for many a collector, but to find the prototype of a Browning Automatic Rifle raises the stakes higher still. As the name implies, the gun was developed by John Moses Browning, who was working for Colt toward the end of the First World War. Looking for a fully automatic capable weapon that was smaller than the tripod mounted, crew serviced machine guns of the time, the Army quickly adopted the BAR in 1918. Its benefits were numerous: it could be operated and transported by a single man, it utilized existing .30-06 ammunition, and was extremely reliable. Such reliability allowed the BAR to see combat in both World Wars, Korea, and even in the hands of the ARVN during the Vietnam War. Only Colt, Winchester, and Marlin-Rockwell produced the heavy hitting machine guns and by the end of World War II approximately 52,000 had been produced.
Differences between this rare prototype model and a finished early model BAR are surprisingly few and relatively minor. A closer look at this example quickly reveals its special status as an early prototype piece – most notably the “XM” prefix serial number and the holes in the forearm. Other markings are few and all hand stamped. It also bears the hallmarks of other early BARs with its all-blued metal finish with the internal components in the white, rear sight, and large checkered forearm. The BAR offered by RIAC is also accompanied by a high polish, blued magazine, a Jeep-mounted leather storage case, 2 web canvas ammo belts, and 2 metal ammo cans mounted on a vehicle rack.
10. Colt M16 and AR-15 Rifles Galore!
OK, so we skipped ahead a little on this one, but I couldn’t end this article without mentioning the boggling amount of M16 machine guns and early-production AR rifles in this gun auction. They are Colt long guns after all. Leading the way is the early Colt/Armalite Model 01 M16 shown above. Made for the commercial market, these early production guns feature both company’s markings and their own serial number range, indicating that they are Armalite rifles but manufactured by Colt. Very few of these desirable rifles exist today on the collector market because so few sold in the early days of their production and those that were produced were often altered or upgraded. This particular Model 01 was manufactured in late 1963 or early 1964 and has all the unaltered features: three prong flash hider, the non-chrome lined, unmarked steel barrel, the early all machined front sight base/gas system, the all chromed bolt, the small charging handle, and others too many and detailed to list here.
This is one of two fully transferrable M16s in the sale, along with one per-ban Colt AR-15A2 Sporter given the full-auto treatment courtesy of an auto sear.
Full auto not your thing? Not a problem. The selection of early AR-15 rifles is outstanding. At SHOT Show 2018, Brownells made retro style AR rifles one of the hottest items on the market, but why buy a reproduction, when you can by the REAL thing? There are several pre-ban AR-15 SP-1 rifles that qualify as Curio & Relic firearms, an AR-15A2 Special Export Model chambered in the rare .222 Remington, and plenty of pre-ban AR-15 SP1 rifles that will earn their C&R status within the next decade.
Whether your interest lies in the earliest days of the Colt Manufacturing Company or the earliest days of the Colt AR-15, the April Premiere Firearms Auction has Colt long guns to satisfy every shooter and collector. With an incredible FIFTEEN named collections to be featured in this sale, the quality and variety is ripe for the picking. Browse and bid online at www.rockislandauction.com for our April 13-15 sale.
Barnard, Herny. Armsmear: The Home, the Arm, and the Armory of Samuel Colt. Mit Abbildungen, 1866.