Rock Island Auction Company

Lot 275: Colt Single Action Army Revolver Owned by General Emory Upton

Auction Date: December 3, 2021

Transcendent, Incredibly Historic and Important, Factory Cased, Colt Single Action Army Revolver Presented by the Colt Factory to Major General Emory Upton, “Father of the Modern United States Army,” in January of 1874

Price Realized:
Estimated Price: $250,000 - $450,000

Transcendent, Incredibly Historic and Important, Factory Cased, Colt Single Action Army Revolver Presented by the Colt Factory to Major General Emory Upton, “Father of the Modern United States Army,” in January of 1874

Manufacturer: Colt
Model: Single Action Army
Type: Revolver
Gauge: 45
Barrel: 7 1/2 inch round
Finish: blue/casehardened
Grip: deluxe factory walnut
Item Views: 4210
Item Interest: Very Active
Serial Number:
Catalog Page: 147
Class: Antique

In recent years, Rock Island Auction has been fortunate to present some of the most amazing firearms known to exist. We believe the presentation of this new and unpublished discovery will exceed all expectations of our most discriminating clientele. Colt Single Action #1501 is a celebration of all the very best features that knowledgeable collectors look for in a world-class collectible and more. It certainly meets the usual criteria for an investment quality firearm; rarity, history and condition. However, it also has the rare characteristic of incredible importance, having been presented to a man recognized and celebrated as “The Father of the Modern United States Army” and one of the most important military figures in United States Military history. The revolver itself is unquestionably the most beautiful and highest condition example yet discovered of an early Colt Single Action Army, the most famous handgun in history and the first of the two major "Colt .45’s" of the American military. The revolver exhibits the very finest, presentation grade, special order high polish blue finish on the barrel, ejector housing, cylinder, trigger guard, and back strap. The brilliance of the blue is unrivaled. The frame and hammer have awe inspiring vibrant iridescent case colors. The best we cataloged. The screws and trigger have bright niter blue finish. The barrel has a bright nickel-silver blade front sight and is marked "+COLT'S PT. F.A. MFG. Co. HARTFORD. CT. U.S.A.+" on top in serif letters and "1501" on the bottom by the cylinder pin. The ejector has the classic "bulls-eye" button. Matching serial numbers “1501” are visible on one side behind the flute, frame, trigger guard, and back strap, and the loading gate has the assembly number "526." The frame has the second style "PAT. SEPT. 19. 1871/PAT. JULY. 2. 1872" on the left side. Inexplicably, the left side of the trigger guard is marked "22 CAL" (not introduced to the Single Action line until 1883, but also seen on a few 38 caliber Colt Conversion revolvers in the early 1870s). The hammer has bordered knurling on the spur. The deluxe burl walnut grip has the finest figure and a high polish "piano" varnish finish. The revolver comes in its immensely rare, factory form fitted walnut case with elegant dark purple lining and a fifty-round cartridge block holding 49 unmarked externally primed cartridges. True factory cases for Colt Single Actions are almost nonexistent with but a handful known, and this original is exceptional. Also included is the previously undocumented, newly discovered box of ammunition with orange lid label marked "50 CENTRAL FIRE METALLIC CARTRIDGES/FOR/Colt's New Breech Loading/ARMY REVOLVER, 45/100 cal./Adopted by the UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT for the Cavalry Service/Manufactured by COLT'S PATENT FIRE ARMS MFG. CO.,/HARTFORD, CONN., U.S.A./THESE SHELLS CAN BE RELOADED MANY TIMES." If offered as a single lot at auction, this cartridge box would certainly set a new world record price for antique arm cartridges, but it remains in the case to retain full originality of the set. The included letter of provenance from an Upton descendant states that this revolver was handed down through the Upton family and that he is an indirect descendant of Major General Emory Upton. The descendant states that Colt S/A 1501 was presented to Upton while he served as Commandant of Cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Another revolver within 3 digits of this gun is known to have also been presented by the factory to a West Point Administrator and is accompanied with its original Colt presentation letter from Colt Firearms Vice President W. B. Franklin attesting to that fact. The gun is identically outfitted but with less finish remaining and no cartridge box. Interestingly, that gun is also stamped 22 CAL. A third example, within four numbers of 1501 is also known but in lesser condition, unidentified and lacks a cartridge box, but in the same type of rare factory case and marked 22 CAL. It has been surmised by some that President Ulysses S. Grant, Chief of Ordnance Major General Alexander B. Dyer, Commanding General of the Army William T. Sherman and General Thomas Ruger were likely recipients of cased Colts identical to 1501. The descendant notes that the history of Colt S/A 1501 was related to him by his grandmother prior to her passing in January 2016 (clarifying documents included). He notes that her mother was Marion [Upton] McRae. A look into the family tree shows the revolver was obviously passed down through the Upton family by one of Upton’s brothers and/or a nephew. A most important "SAFETY INSPECTION CERTIFICATE" card signed by James P. Upton of 133 Cherry Street is included with the gun as found in the cased set, listing him as the owner of Colt "S.A." revolver with serial number 1501 in 45/100 caliber. The card exhibits Upton’s thumbprint and states S/A Revolver 1501 has been duly inspected and was stamp/signed by the Chief of Police of Battle Creek, Michigan, on October 31, 1933. James P. Upton would have been James Parley Upton, General Upton's nephew, a son of Stephen Upton. Several articles and books have been written discussing Upton's heroic service during the Civil War and his historic role in the evolution and professionalization of the United States Army, including the books "General Emory Upton in the Civil War: the Formative Experiences of an American Military Visionary" by Robert N. Thompson published just last year, "Upton and the Army" by Stephen Ambrose, and "Emory Upton: Misunderstood Reformer" by David J. Fitzpatrick among others. Brevet Major-General Emory Upton (1839-1881) entered the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1856. He was an outspoken abolitionist and Unionist. During the war, he became one of the few officers to lead regiments and larger units of all branches of the Army, infantry, cavalry, and artillery and demonstrated his skills as a leader and tactician in all three. In fact, he was one of the more tactically outstanding generals during the Civil War, but his amazing exploits are only popular with the most die-hard historians today due to his young age at the time and his overshadowing in the newspapers by senior officers such as Grant, Sherman and flashy counterparts such as George Armstrong Custer. Graduating eighth in his class of 45 cadets, he was commissioned a lieutenant of artillery and in 1861 aimed the first gun at the First Battle of Bull Run. In the engagement that followed, he was wounded in the left arm and side and had a horse shot from under him but refused to leave the field. He went on to distinguish himself, commanding a battery in the Peninsula Campaign, then an artillery brigade at Antietam. Finding the fuses of his large shells faulty in both instances, Upton substituted solid shot on the fly, and his superiors lauded his guns for their lethal efficiency. It was the beginning of a pattern; no officer was better at going to war with the army he had. Everywhere he went, Upton displayed immense courage and devised startling new tactics, sometimes on the battlefield itself. A brevet major general by age 25, Upton was “the epitome of a professional soldier,” as Stephen Ambrose later wrote. His greatest achievement was the breakthrough at Spotsylvania Court House using his own innovative tactic of using assault columns to quickly overwhelm a point in the enemy line rather than deploying lines and exchanging fire while approaching the enemy. This tactic was adopted and used successfully by General U.S. Grant two days later and continued to be used decades later during trench raids of the First World War. Upton succeeded to division commander when his superior officer was killed at the September 1864 Battle of the Opequon in the Shenandoah Valley, but, just a few hours later, Upton himself was knocked from his horse by a shell fragment that tore open his thigh muscle and femoral artery. Despite being ordered to the rear by Sheridan, he had a tourniquet put on his leg and had himself carried about the field on a stretcher, directing his men until darkness brought an end to the fighting. Upton’s actions earned him his stars as a brevet major general of volunteers but lost him his division when forced home to recuperate. Four months later and still limping, he was back, making his way to Nashville where Maj. Gen. James H. Wilson was putting together a revolutionary new strike force: some 12,000 Union cavalrymen armed with the new Spencer breech-loading carbines. Armed with their new weapons and tactics, Upton and Wilson ran amok through the Confederate heartland, adding their own innovations on the fly. Everywhere they went, they burned or expropriated the Confederacy’s dwindling stores and munitions, its foundries, arsenals, workshops, railroads and ironclads. Along the way, they finished with a flourish: Wilson’s cavalry capturing the fleeing Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, while Upton’s men seized the fleeing vice president, Alexander Stephens. Upton returned to West Point in 1866. He published "A New System of Infantry Tactics" in 1867, which helped shift infantry tactics in recognition of new technologies that emerged during the Civil War that made earlier tactics obsolete. He argued that skirmishers clearing the way for a final charge were superior to mass volleys and lines. On August 1, 1867, General U.S. Grant ordered the army to adopt Upton’s infantry tactics. In 1870, Lieutenant Colonel Upton began a five-year assignment at West Point. He served as Commandant of Cadets of the United States Military Academy from 1870-1875, lining up exactly with the family history and the date of production for this revolver. At the end of the 1870s, Commanding General of the Army Lieutenant General William Tecumseh Sherman, knowing what he had in Upton, sent him on a grand world tour to survey major armies around the entire globe. Upton traveled overseas at Army expense to study the military systems of Japan, China, India, Russia, Italy, France, England, Persia, Austria-Hungary and Germany. The resulting monumental text was Upton’s "The Armies of Asia and Europe” which includes his professional "conclusions" based on what he saw. As a battlefield tactician of proven success at regimental, brigade, and division level, he headed the post-war Army board that sought to learn lessons of the Civil War and convert them into new infantry tactical doctrine. In 1878, a joint committee of two U.S. senators and four U.S. congressmen, headed by Senator Ambrose Burnside, met to discuss reformation of the Army. Commander of the Army Sherman recommended Upton’s book as the basis of that reform. Everyone on the committee favored Upton. However, the “Burnside Bill” for military reform was defeated in Congress in 1879. Upton did not give up and began working 9 hours a day writing his grand manifesto in response, a complete reorganization of the United States Army. He believed that his ideas would not only save the lives of American soldiers but secure liberty for the nation. He set to work on a study of all of America’s wars from the Revolution forward. His intention was “to show the enormous and unnecessary sacrifice of life and treasure which has attended all our armed struggles.” Because the United States had been unprepared for every war it had ever fought, Upton believed, it had ended up paying vastly more in lives and treasure than it might have otherwise. He was attuned enough to the popular mood to restrain himself from calling for a “big Army” on anything like a European scale. What Upton ultimately proposed was a regular Army of 25,000 men, with a well-trained and superbly organized reserve of 140,000 national volunteers. He was soon closing in on his goal. However by late 1880, Upton seemed unable to finish his nearly complete "Military Policy of the United States” or to lobby President Garfield for reforms. The cause of his listlessness was likely physical. He began to suffer violent headaches and consulted a Philadelphia specialist for what was diagnosed as a sinus condition, all the while feverishly attempting to finish his work. The doctor treated Upton by placing a coiled electrical wire against the mucous membrane of his nasal passages and sending a spark through it. The doctor later speculated Upton might have been suffering from a tumor in his face or brain, but whether a tumor or the pain of his “treatment” was to blame, the headaches did not abate. Transferred to the Presidio of San Francisco by early 1881, Upton enjoyed the sound of the Pacific surf at night and looked forward to resuming his work. But the headaches worsened, and his actions and words became increasingly erratic. He began to forget things, on one occasion telling a dinner companion that his new infantry tactics were so perfect they would end war, but then deciding they were a dangerous failure. On March 14, 1881, Upton wrote his sister of his hope that God would “lead me to sacrifice myself, rather than to perpetuate a method which might in the future cost a single man his life.” He then wrote out a single line resigning his commission, picked up his Colt .45 pistol from his desk and shot himself in the head, shocking the entire American military. Official reports noted "Emory Upton. Colonel 4th Artillery, committed suicide this morning by shooting. The ball [from the Army pistol] entered the mouth and made its exit near the occipital protuberance. Nothing positive is known as to the cause.” He was just 41 years old. Fortunately Upton’s story didn’t end with his death. Upton’s final manuscript was unedited and unpublished at the time of his suicide. Upton’s old West Point classmate and friend Henry Dupont finished the editing work and gave the unfinished “Military Policy” to West Point professor Peter Michie, who distributed it to interested parties. Michie then published, "The Life and Letters of Emory Upton" in 1885. Friends in the Army circulated the manuscript privately, where its arguments became the source of much debate, although without being reflected immediately in high-level Army or national policy. After the Spanish-American War, which revealed many deficiencies in the Army, Secretary of War Elihu Root ordered the publication of the manuscript under the title, "The Military Policy of the United States". "Military Policy" was not published until 1904, long years after Upton’s death in 1881, but it endured as one of the most influential books ever written by a U.S. Army officer, a book that helped contribute to major changes in the raising of troops and the fighting of wars in the 20th century. Many of Upton's ideas became the basis for the famous Root Reforms. Under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, Root served as the United States Secretary of War 1899–1904. He reformed the organization of the War Department. He enlarged West Point. He established the U.S. Army War College, as well as the General Staff. He changed the procedures for promotions and organized schools for the special branches of the service. He also devised the principle of rotating officers from staff to line and recommended changes to the organizations of State Militias and National Guard that allowed them to smoothly meld into the regular Army when needed. All of these accomplishments were based singularly on the ideas and writings of Emory Upton. Of all the men who fought at Gettysburg, it was the now-obscure Colonel Emory Upton who is the father of the modern U.S. Army. It is sad that he never lived to see it. Upton was easily the most significant figure in the United States Military reforms in the late 19th century and indeed in all of American military history. His legacy lives on with us today. He was one of the key proponents of the professionalization and federalization of the U.S. military and decreasing the country's reliance on poorly trained and less reliable state militia units that had been the standard source of military manpower in American wars since the colonial era. He was focused on reforms based on research both at home and abroad to ensure the U.S. could defend itself from major foreign powers in an uncertain world. He is still held in the highest regard among military scholars, in fact being highlighted in a recent grand report by the Rand Corporation entitled, “History of U.S. Military Policy” in which Upton takes center stage in Volume One of the publication. Upton may not be well known to the general public today, but he is not forgotten.

Rating Definition:

Excellent plus, exhibiting an exquisite, untouched appearance with finish loss reserved to flaking on the cylinder. 98% of the extremely deluxe, special order high-polish blue finish on the barrel, ejector housing, back-strap and trigger-guard. 40% blue remains on the cylinder; the loss of which is due to flaking, not age or use, and its balance exhibits an attractive gray and light brown patina. 99% bright and extremely vivid case colors remain on the hammer and frame; the best we have ever seen on any Colt Single Action. Beautiful, strong niter blue on minty screws and trigger. The gun was handled very little and shows only a few minimal light spots mainly on the barrel at the breech end and a few lightest scratches and marks. The grip is also near mint and has beautiful burl figure and retains virtually all of its deluxe piano varnish finish, so perfect that the grips appear to be coated in glass with the most minor edge and handling wear. The gun has the visual appearance of a piece of fine jewelry. Mechanically excellent. The bore is like a mirror. The case is very fine and has mild age and storage related wear including from contact with the cylinder and hammer. The interior of the case is excellent. Ammunition from the case is fine with mellow aged patina. The cartridge box is very fine with a bright label with clear markings, some open seams on the lid, and mild wear and is extremely valuable in its own right. Ominously, the cartridge block in the case holds 50 cartridges, with just one is missing. This is an absolutely stunning early Colt Single Action Army presented by the most famous handgun maker in the world to one of the most important figures in American Military history. Carpe Diem!

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