Colt’s Cloverleaf – The House Pistol
By Joel Kolander
Colt House Pistols, more commonly referred to as a “Cloverleaf,” were not the manufacturer’s most popular pistol. Produced only from 1871 – 1876, their total run was a mere 9,952 revolvers. However, despite their lack of widespread success, these little self-protection guns incorporated several then recently-developed design features and even found some notoriety in their short lifespan.
Colt House Pistols (the name which is stamped on their barrels as space permits) were patented in 1871 and earned their “cloverleaf” nickname in more recent decades from their distinct, deeply fluted cylinders which, when viewed from the front or the rear, resemble a four-leaf clover. They were one of Colt’s earliest solid frame revolvers (preceded by the 1855 Sidehammer and numerous prototypes) as well as the first Colt revolver produced specifically for metallic cartridges. They feature the distinct “bird’s head” grip, and, much like the 1855 Sidehammer, Colt House Pistols utilize a spur trigger protected on each side by a sheath. They fired the sluggish yet relatively popular .41 rimfire cartridges and would come in two models.
First Model House Pistols were produced from 1871-1874 with around 7,500 produced. They were available with 1.5″ or 3″ steel barrels and used brass frames finished in blue or nickel, though special finishes such as silver or gold were sometimes used. Grips using special materials are also well documented, departing from their typical rosewood to use walnut, pearl, or ivory. First Models have the deeply fluted, 4 chamber cylinders that earned the Colt House Pistol their nickname. Cloverleaf revolvers also have a handy ejecting rod housed partially within the cylinder center pin. Simply rotate a clasp at the muzzle and pull it out. A small mounted ring near the center prevents the rod from being removed completely from the pistol and becoming lost. Empty shells can then be ejected from the right side, clearing the frame by a small scallop also used in loading. The earliest of the First Models have a high trigger spur, which was later changed to a lower, more streamlined version to avoid snagging when pulled from a pocket.
Second Model House Pistols were produced from 1874-1876 and begin with serial number 6100 (though first models were still being produced with remaining parts). Most notably the Second Models differ by utilizing a round, 5-shot cylinder. They were only made with 2 5/8″ barrels and their production is cited in the range of 2,150 – 2,500 units. In addition to their distinct cylinders, they can also be identified by the marking in their rear sight channel, “PAT. SEPT. 19. 1871.” and that they no longer possessed a separate ejector rod. In Second Models the ejector rod was combined with the cylinder pin, meaning that users would have to remove the cylinder in order to eject spent casings.
As mentioned earlier, Cloverleaf revolvers were the first Colt revolver designed specifically for metallic cartridges, making them a quintessential addition to any Colt collection. Besides the handy ejector rod (which was promptly discarded for reasons unknown to this writer), it is also noteworthy to Colt collectors or students of handgun design that the Cloverleaf was the first incorporation of the countersunk or recessed cylinder breech. This small recess where shells were loaded allowed the rim of the cartridges to sit flush with the surface of the cylinder. Much like the cylinder pin, this innovation was also promptly shelved by Colt and not to be seen again until the following century when it was marketed as the “embedded head cylinder.” Smith & Wesson wouldn’t use this feature until the advent of their .357 magnum in 1935.
While not a new invention, the House Pistol also utilized a safety notch so the hammer would not sit on the rim of a loaded cartridge. Putting the revolver at half cock allowed a user to spin the cylinder 45-degrees, exposing a small hole near the cylinder center that would accept the tip of the hammer and prevent the cylinder from rotating. Doing this also gave the overall revolver a narrower profile with the chambers now appearing as two on top of two, which suited it even further for pocket carry.
Colt House Pistols are also referred to as “Jim Fisk” models. This they earned thanks to one being used to murder Jim Fisk, a “robber baron” with many dealings in railroads and the gold market. Far from an innocent character, the flamboyant Fisk is now known to have bribed members of legislature, judges, and was instrumental in the Black Friday panic of the gold market in 1869 which devastated the economy of the United States for months.
He escaped jail and financial harm, but karma would not trail far behind Fisk. One of his many mistresses was Josie Mansfield, then largely considered one of the most beautiful women in the country, though obese by today’s standards. Fisk provided everything a robber baron could for a mistress, houses, clothes, jewelry, and for a while they were happy, but before long Fisk introduced her to his flashy and handsome but cash-poor business partner Edward “Ned” Stiles Stokes. It wasn’t long before they began a love affair of their own and Fisk wouldn’t have it. “Jubilee Jim” and Josie soon split, which was followed promptly by several suits from Stokes attempting to extract cash from Fisk, threatening to release extremely private letters between Fisk and Mansfield if he didn’t comply. The love triangle and the letters stoked hot the fires of gossip.
After settling a first legal action and retaining the letters, Fisk won a subsequent suit and Stokes was
crushed. Upon hearing that Fisk was countersuing Stokes for blackmail of the contents of the letters, Stokes became enraged and set out looking for his former business partner. He learned that Fisk was headed to the Grand Central Hotel, so he went in first and awaited him on a second-floor landing. Upon hearing Fisk ascending, he came down the stairs and fired two shots from serial number 4545, one striking Fisk’s arm and the other sinking into his belly. He would not live another 24 hours, but that was long enough to give a dying declaration identifying his murderer as Stokes.
The story was torrid and had everything the juiciest gossip of the day required: a buxom beauty, a wealthy businessman who skirted the law, a handsome interloper, a love triangle, several court battles, and a series of letters with unknown content that set people’s minds racing. The murder that finished it all cinched it’s place it history.
Colt Cloverleaf Revolvers – Works of Art
The two revolvers made available by Rock Island Auction Company in the May Premiere Firearms Auction are extravagant examples that serve as flagships to a splendid collection of Colt House Pistols. Leading the grouping is a Cloverleaf that offers rarity in three distinct ways.
First, is its rare 1 1/2″ octagonal barrel. Second, is the low serial number of 1456, indicating a first-year production gun and many early features. Finally, the gun enjoys nearly full coverage engraving from Master Engraver L.D. Nimschke. One of the most renowned names of 19th-century engraving, Nimschke engraved very few Colt Cloverleaf revolvers. Combine those three factors and you have a supremely rare specimen, made all the more desirable thanks to the gold plating on its cylinder and hammer, silver on the remaining surfaces, and a wonderful set of pearl grips. It is proudly featured in R.L. Wilson’s “Colt Engraving” (p. 216) and is formerly part of the George Taylor Collection.
The second revolver in this firearms collection that bears special mention is another remarkable Nimschke engraved gun! This version, featured in R.L. Wilson’s “L.D. Nimschke: Firearms Engraver” is an exceptional cased version plated in nickel and gold. It features the same wonderful, sweeping vine scroll work and a longer, round barrel. Both revolvers are true gems on a diminutive canvas for Nimschke’s incredible work.
These are two of the eleven exceptional cloverleaf revolvers in Rock Island Auction Company’s 2017 May Premiere Firearms Auction. They, in turn, help comprise the outstanding selection of Colts in this sale, highlights of which include a stunning Colt Paterson, a rare Colt double rifle, and a mounted pair of fully automatic AN-M2 machine guns. The list is as varied as it is deep, so we urge our Colt collector friends to search our auction at your earliest convenience.
Flayderman, Norm. Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms and Their Values: The Leading Reference for Antique American Arms. Iola, WI: Krause, 2007. Print.
Hogg, Ian V., and John Walter. Pistols of the World. Iola, WI: Krause, 2004. Print.