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July 20, 2023, marks one century since the assassination of legendary Mexican Revolutionary Francisco “Pancho” Villa, the most famous figure of the Mexican Revolution both within Mexico and globally thanks to his fight against a series of Mexican leaders for a decade starting in 1910. In the end, his enemies won and sent him to an early grave, but it was not before Villa and his men in the Division del Norte (Division of the North) had made their mark on Mexican history and the history of the American Southwest. This beautiful and historic Colt Single Action Army revolver is inscribed to legendary Mexican Revolution leader Francisco "Pancho" Villa and is accompanied by multiple factory letters starting with a letter from July 2, 1958. The letters confirm that the revolver was the sole gun of this type sold to Shapleigh Hardware Co. in St. Louis, Missouri, and shipped to City Loan & Jewelry Company on April 18, 1917, in factory order 313. The date is just twelve days after the U.S. declared war on Germany, in part due to the Zimmerman Telegram which offered Mexico territory in the American Southwest in return for joining World War I on the side of Germany. The factory letters confirm this revolver was in .45 caliber with a 5 1/2 inch barrel, gold finish, and grade 2 engraving. The grips are not listed in the letters, but they are not consistently listed in the factory records. If the revolver's historic inscriptions were not present, this revolver would already be one of the rarest First Generation Colt Single Action Army revolvers based on its special order engraving and gold plating. Only a very small percentage of Colt Single Action Army revolvers were engraved at the factory. Most of those revolvers would have been blue and casehardened finish or nickel while more deluxe finishes such as gold or silver plating are very rare. R.L. Wilson in included letters notes that "Gold-plating is of such rarity that only a few specimens are presented in the author's 'The Colt Engraving Book.' No examples of full gold-plating appear in 'The Book of Colt Firearms,' and none appear in 'The Colt Engraving Book,' within the Helfricht chapter." The factory engraving from legendary factory Master Engraver Cuno A. Helfricht covers the vast majority of the metal consisting of elaborate scroll patterns with beaded backgrounds banners around the markings, floral accents, checkerboard patterns, fan designs, multiple border designs, rayed accents, wavy lines, and entwining lines. The finish is gold over nickel. Just under a year before this revolver shipped, a silver plated Colt Single Action Army, sn. 332088, was shipped to Shelton Payne Arms Co. in El Paso, Texas, for George S. Patton, and Patton's famous Single Action Army revolver has very similar engraving as the current revolver. The barrel has a blade front sight, "45 COLT" on the left, and "COLT'S PT. F.A. MFG. Co. HARTFORD CT. U.S.A." The frame has the two-line "PAT SEPT 19 1871./JULY 2 72 JAN 19. 75" patent marking followed by the Rampant Colt trademark. The left side of the trigger guard has the triangular "VP" proof and a "1." The loading gate has the assembly number "899" which is also repeated on the back of the frame on the right. A "U" is marked on the heel on the right. The back of the cylinder has the matching partial serial number "5515," and the full matching serial number is on the frame, trigger guard, and back strap. The right grip panel is carved with the head of a golden eagle in raised relief with a contrasting opal eye inlay. The back strap is inscribed "Al General Francisco Villa/de/su Division del Norte" on the back in script and "FRANCISCO VILLA" in bold lettering on the butt. The inscriptions' styles, especially the inscription on the back strap, are very similar to the inscriptions on the case lid plaque of the Damascened Irindo y Guisosola revolver presented to "DON DOROTEO ARANGO VILLA" from President Francisco I. Madero in 1910 and displayed at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. The Pancho Villa Museum in Columbus, New Mexico, also had another similar Colt Single Action revolver presented to Villa 1911 by Don Abraham Gonzales in .45 Colt with engraving and pearl grips. Both inscriptions on the current revolver may have been inscribed at City Loan & Jewelry Company in El Paso or by another engraver or jeweler in the region after the revolver was shipped. However, it is also possible the butt inscription was executed at the factory as suggested by R.L. Wilson. Regardless, Wilson states, "It makes no difference whether the inscription on the butt strap was cut at the Colt factory, or in El Paso-the point is that both the back strap inscription in script and the butt strap inscription in block letters are 100% genuine, as is the revolver itself." While the rarity of the revolver's configuration already makes this revolver among the rarest Colts, the inscriptions place it in the top tier among the rarest and most historically significant American firearms and link the revolver to the most famous figure in the Mexican Revolution: Pancho Villa. Also accompanying the revolver is a one troy ounce .999 silver Pancho Villa commemorative coin fit in a sterling silver bezel depicting Pancho Villa on horseback armed with a Colt Single Action Army and a design based on the Coat of Arms of Mexico on the other side along with a two troy ounce .999 silver commemorative coin showing Pancho Villa on horseback with a raised long gun and an Aztec calendar on the other side, and the books "Centaur of the North: Francisco Villa, the Mexican Revolution, and Northern Mexico" by Manuel A. Machado, Jr., "The General & The Jaguar: Pershing's Hunt for Pancho Villa, a True Story of Revolution & Revenge" by Eileen Welsome, and "The Secret War in El Paso: Mexican Revolutionary Intrigue, 1906-1920" by Charles H. Harris III and Louis R. Sadler. Francisco “Pancho'' Villa, born Jose Doroteo Arango Arambula, was a Mexican bandit who became one of the most powerful and influential generals of the Mexican Revolution and remains one of the most famous Mexicans of all time. Due to the near constant power shifts and changing factions of the Mexican Revolution, he fled Mexico after escaping from prison in 1912 and then returned to Mexico in 1913 where he formed the Division of the North (Division del Norte) to fight against General Victoriano Huerta who had seized power after the assassination of President Francisco Madero. Villa was the governor of the northern state of Chihuahua in 1913-1914. In alliance with Venustiano Carranza and General Alvaro Obregon, he ousted Huerta. However, Carranza and Obregon then turned against Villa, and he returned to Northern Mexico where he was at times effectively in control and continued fighting against Carranza and the Constitutionalist government. Villa and his men were in part supplied with American arms and ammunition paid for through various sources, including the German government. The German government supported Villa as part of their efforts to keep the U.S. out of World War I by keeping the U.S. focused on the tensions along the southern border. Interestingly, and perhaps not coincidentally, Saunders Norvell of the Shapleigh Hardware Co. in St. Louis was a board member of the Mississippi Valley Trust Co. in St. Louis. The bank held two accounts run by Felix A. Sommerfeld who was a double agent working for both Villa and the German government. The accounts were funded by the German government and were used to purchase over $380,000 in arms and ammunition from the Western Cartridge Company across the river in East Alton, Illinois, in 1915. Those munitions were shipped to Hipolito Villa, Pancho Villa's brother, in El Paso and then smuggled into Mexico for Villa's forces. Shelton-Payne of El Paso was the address of most Colt firearms shipments of the period to El Paso leading Wilson to suspect “there was a specific purpose for this shipment to City Loan & Jewelry Co." In fact, he indicated that a search of the records found no other listings for Colt Single Action revolvers being shipped to that company although there is one other for "City Loan Company" recorded in 1920 that was also shipped to Shapleigh Hardware and thus may have been destined for El Paso. Wilson theorized that the City Loan & Jewelry Co. was chosen as an easier and less conspicuous route to get the revolver to Villa. Per Wilson, Luis Gaxiola, a known agent for Villa, had received the ammunition from Western Cartridge Co. in 1915 and was located “about 600 feet from City Loan & Jewelry Co.” at 109 South Sante Fe Street in El Paso. City Loan & Jewelry Co. was a pawnshop in the rough and tumble border town of El Paso, an area swarming with both U.S. government agents and Villa’s allies in the period. The city directory lists the company as pawn brokers at 405 S. El Paso. Joseph B. Ravel (1884-1957) was the shop’s proprietor. The shop was just one of several businesses owned by the Ravel family in the area. His brother Max owned the similarly named Chicago Loan & Jewelry Co. nearby at 204 S. El Paso, and another brother, Erman, operated the East El Paso Fuel Co. listed at 3117-31 Rosa. The Ravels were Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, then part of the Russian Empire where anti-Semitic pogroms were all too frequent. The brothers were part of the first generation that settled in El Paso, and Sam Ravel and his brothers were the next to follow. Joseph B. Ravel is known to have sold arms to Pancho Villa. In an interview with the Institute for Oral History in 1968, Dr. Vincent Ravel indicated that his father, Joseph B. Ravel, had ”opened up City Loan and Jewelry, a pawnshop, in South El Paso…” which he said was “rough and it was tough, and there were shootings and robberies, and murders…He told one time that a Mexican walked into his pawnshop and bought some guns and pistols and some ammunition…And while he was waiting on this Mexican, a crowd gathered in front of the store. And my father left the customer, and he went outside, and looked around, and couldn’t understand what was going on, but he went back and finishing selling this man the rest of his stock. And when the man - the man paid him in cash and left…And then the Secret Service came in and wanted to know what the transaction was, you know, what had happened. And my father told them…And they said, ‘Do you know who that was?’ And he said, ‘No.’ ‘Well that was Pancho Villa.’ ...He knew Pancho Villa, and had further business dealings with him, all of which were recorded through the federal authorities.” Ravel was also arrested for smuggling munitions in 1915 and 1920. By this time, smuggling of munitions had been common, but the authorities had begun to crack down on the activities following years of violence along the border, some of it directly targeting Joseph Ravel’s nephews in Columbus, New Mexico. Villa had been defeated at the Battle of Celaya (April 6-15. 1915) by Alvaro Obregon’s Constitutional Forces. In the long battle, the Division del Norte suffered an estimated 6,000 men killed, another 6,500 captured, and 5,000 wounded out of his estimated force of 22,000 men. Additional losses essentially ended the Division del Norte's power and forced Villa to return to guerrilla fighting. Thus by the end of 1915, Villa, once one of the most powerful men in all of Mexico, had lost much of his power. The United States government led by President Woodrow Wilson had also recognized his rival, President Venustiano Carranza, and even aided the Constitutionalists in their fight against Villa. He continued to fight on, but his men needed supplies. Around one year before this revolver shipped, Villa and the Division del Norte attacked the fairly isolated small town of Columbus, New Mexico to the west of El Paso. There have been several motives suggested over the years, and the most likely explanation is that a combination of these led Villa to attack. The Ravel family and others have widely reported that Sam Ravel was the target of the raid. Historian Thomas Boghardt suggested the raid had multiple purposes such as revenge against President Wilson and the American government for recognizing and supporting President Carranza and demonstrating his own will and that of his men to continue fighting on. He also writes, “Moreover, Villa appeared to have had a very personal motive for choosing his target: the city of Columbus was home to an arms dealer, Sam Ravel, who, Villa felt, had betrayed him in a transaction. And sure enough, the raiders torched Ravel’s business on 9 March.” In the included book “The General and the Jaguar,” Welsome quotes Juan Munoz, one of Villa’s men, as saying, “We did not go to Columbus to kill women and children as it has been said. We went to Columbus to take Sam Ravel and burn his properties for the robbery and treason he committed. Esa es la verdad. (That’s the truth.)” Sam Ravel (1884/85-1937) immigrated in 1905 and originally lived in El Paso and worked at City Loan & Jewelry Co. before moving to Columbus, New Mexico, in 1910. Columbus was isolated and located just around 70 miles to the west of El Paso and just a few miles north of the border with Mexico. There he owned the Commercial Hotel and Columbus Mercantile Company. He renamed the latter Sam Ravel & Brothers when his brothers Arthur and Louis joined him. Stacey Ravel Abarbanel, a granddaughter of Sam Ravel, indicated he was doing cross-border business with Mexican Revolutionaries as early as 1914 and was arrested in Mexico that year and briefly detained for supplying the Roque Gomez gang with firearms and ammunition. She also indicated that family lore suggested Pancho Villa would occasionally participate in the back-room poker games in the Ravel store where he was likely a customer and that the family and residents of Columbus had long believed Ravel was the target of Villa’s raid due to an arms deal gone wrong. Arthur Ravel, however, denied that Sam Ravel had any business relationship with Villa although he stated they did business with “every revolutionary concern, bandit, or general…With the exception of Pancho Villa.” Sommerfeld, the double agent working for Villa and the German government, had previously threatened other arms dealers when he was in the employ of President Madero for supplying Madero’s enemies in addition to Madero’s own forces. Some have suggested it was Sommerfeld who convinced Villa to attack Columbus, possibly acting in the interest of the German government. However, refusing to do business with Villa, especially when he was desperately in need of supplies, and simultaneously arming other groups certainly could have been cause for Villa to attack Ravel on his own without Sommerfeld’s potential involvement. The El Paso Time on March 10, 1916, under the headline “Boy of Fourteen Saves Brother’s Life During Raid on Columbus, N.M.” notes that when Villa’s men came looking for asking for his brother, Arthur Ravel was in the store and tricked Villas men to help protect Luis Ravel who was hiding. He also denied knowing the combination to the safe even as the raiders were executing other men. The younger Ravel was saved by troopers from the 13th U.S. Cavalry who reportedly shot captors which allowed him to flee. 10 other civilians were not so lucky and were killed. Others saw their homes and businesses torched. Arthur Ravel himself did not emerge unscathed and took a bullet through the ear. The 13th Cavalry suffered 8 dead and 5 wounded. Sam Ravel was safe. He wasn’t even in town at the time thanks to an appointment in El Paso. The U.S. government responded swiftly. Within days of the Battle of Columbus, thousands of U.S. troops led by Brigadier General John J. Pershing crossed the border near Columbus in search of Villa. The smoldering remains of the town served as a base for the operations which were conducted without permission of the Mexican government. Not surprisingly, “The Punitive Expedition” or “Pancho Villa Expedition” was met with hostility by President Carranza and other Mexicans of various factions nearly leading to a war with Mexico, perhaps exactly what both Pancho Villa and the German government wanted. To avoid war, the last U.S. troops returned to the United States on February 5, 1917, without capturing Villa. Though weakened, Villa and the remaining men of the Division of the North remained a potential threat for both the Mexican government and Americans in the Southwest in early 1917. Newspapers reported Villa’s German connections (both real and imagined) as well as his escape from the Mexican government’s forces that continued to try to trap him. Why then would this revolver have been shipped to El Paso on April 18, 1917, and soon thereafter inscribed for Villa? The timing is certainly interesting. News of the Zimmerman Telegram became public knowledge on March 1, 1917, and this combined with the German military’s continued submarine warfare led to the declaration of war by the United States Congress on April 6, 1917, just twelve days before this revolver shipped. Had it been ordered before the declaration of war? Was Villa’s successful evasion of U.S. troops directly related? Was the German government involved? Perhaps Joseph B. Ravel had ordered the revolver for Villa as a peace offering. Without more information on the revolver’s order details emerging, we can only theorize. Regardless, the timing was almost certainly no coincidence. Though he remained free, Villa’s remaining military career was not successful. He was defeated when he attacked Juarez in 1919 (a city he had captured back in 1911 and 1913), and his dwindling forces were then stopped again at the Siege of Durango. He was officially pardoned after Carranza fell from power following the chaos during the election in 1920 and agreed to retire and settle on his ranch near Parral in Chihuahua. In 1923, Villa was assassinated while driving in Parral. One of his bodyguards, his chauffeur, and his personal secretary were also killed. Another bodyguard was wounded but escaped. Jesus Salas Barrazza claimed responsibility and said he planned the assassination for profit, but that was all part of a larger plot within the government against Villa, and Barrazza only served three months of a 20 year sentence and went on to become a general. It is generally believed that President Alvaro Obregon and others within the government had been involved in Villa’s death. While Villa’s remains rest in the Monument to the Revolution, his memory is kept alive throughout much of the American Southwest and Mexico. By the time of his assassination a century ago, Francisco Villa, once an obscure orphan named Doroteo Arango, had become one of the most powerful and famous men in all of Mexico. He became legendary due to his many daring victories as a revolutionary general in the early years of the Mexican Revolution and to his continued fight on behalf of the Mexican people. In the American Southwest, he was also well-known to be ruthless, and many innocent victims were robbed, shot, and killed by Villa and his men on both sides of the border. After his death, Villa remained a national hero, especially in Northern Mexico, for his fight on behalf of the common people. A century later, he remains one of the most popular figures of the Mexican Revolution and is one of the most famous people in all of the history of Mexico. Provenance: The A.F. Sykes Collection; The Art Angelini Collection; The Joe Buffer Collection; The Greg Martin Collection, The George F. Gamble Collection
Very fine. The engraving, Francisco Villa inscriptions, and other markings remain crisp. The revolver retains 80% of the delicate gold and has the original factory nickel plated backing exposed where the gold has faded. The fading is mainly along the top of the revolver on the back strap, top strap, and along the flutes of the ejector housing. There is considerably more gold remaining than is commonly found on the few other known factory gold plated First Generation Colt Single Action Revolvers, and the revolver was clearly well-cared for. The cylinder has some faint drag lines, and overall the wear is mostly limited to light handling and storage type marks. The grips are also very fine and have attractive natural iridescent colors, very minor flakes at the toe, and a distinct carved eagle head. Mechanically excellent. The commemorative silver coins are excellent. This is an incredible piece of Colt firearms and Mexican history. Very few Colt Single Action Revolvers were factory engraved and gold plated and very, very few revolvers inscribed to Pancho Villa remain today. It is our privilege to bring this historic Colt to auction in the year of the 100th anniversary of Pancho Villa's death.
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