Rock Island Auction Company

Lot 3116: Engraved Colt 1851 Navy Revolver Attributed to Wild Bill Hickok

Auction Date: May 15, 2022

Factory Engraved Colt Model 1851 Navy Percussion Revolver Attributed to Wild Bill Hickok and Formerly Displayed with Its Mate at the Cody Firearms Museum

Price Realized:
Estimated Price: $140,000 - $225,000

Factory Engraved Colt Model 1851 Navy Percussion Revolver Attributed to Wild Bill Hickok and Formerly Displayed with Its Mate at the Cody Firearms Museum

Manufacturer: Colt
Model: 1851 Navy
Type: Revolver
Gauge: 36
Barrel: 7 1/2 inch octagon
Finish: blue/casehardened/silver
Grip: antique ivory
Item Views: 3932
Item Interest: Very Active
Serial Number:
Catalog Page: 80
Class: Antique

James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok is arguably the best known Old West gunfighters and one of the West's most famous folk heroes both in his own day and today. He was famously photographed with a pair of ivory handled Colt 1851 Navy revolvers and a large Bowie knife tucked into his belt c. 1869. The Chicago Tribune on August 25, 1876, in their report on Wild Bill following his murder by Jack McCall on August 2 reported, "His arms were Colt's 'Navies,' and in the rapid and wonderfully accurate use of them it is admitted he had no equal in the West. They were handsome ivory-handled articles, and were always at that time swinging to his belt." Other newspapers reported similar reports of Hickok's skill with his pair of Colts, and his elusive Colts are naturally among the most sought-after of all Old West firearms. This revolver is one of the few existing Colt revolvers attributed to Wild Bill and was displayed together with Colt Model 1851 Navy sn. 204672 at the Cody Firearms Museum. The latter was gifted to the museum by Florence Jenkins and Donald Becker and is identified as one of Wild Bill's revolvers. The revolvers have matching engraving and antique ivory grips and were both manufactured in 1868. Both revolvers are shown and discussed on pages 30 and 31 in the included copy of "Wild Bill Hickok: Gunfighter" by Joseph G. Rosa in the chapter "Wild Bill's Guns." Rosa indicates the current revolver was purchased in 1982 by Dr. H. Sterling Fenn from a dealer in Bloomington, Minnesota, who indicated he had purchased it along with a cut-down rifle from an older gentleman who said he had owned them for many years and got them in South Dakota from a man who was in the area back in 1876 when Wild Bill was killed. The guns had been kept wrapped up in a trunk, and the revolver was still loaded. The only notable difference between this revolver and its mate is the replacement dovetail mounted front sight on the example at Cody. The revolver from Cody per Rosa was identified by Raymond W. Thorp as purchased by William Burroughs after Wild Bill's death and then passed down in his family who loaned it to the museum. Hickok's revolvers and personal effects were famously reported to have been auctioned/raffled off to pay for his funeral expenses. The revolver has the late factory "vine scroll" engraving patterns without punched backgrounds on the barrel, loading lever, frame, and grip straps and also features a dog or wolf head motif on the hammer. The factory "E" marking designating engraving is marked by the lower serial numbers. The loading lever, wedge, and grips are not numbered, but matching serial numbers are on the barrel, cylinder, arbor pin, frame, trigger guard, and back strap. The grips are two-pieces adhered to a wood space. It has the standard sights and markings. Hickok actually had several revolvers and pairs of revolvers during his days in the Old West, including at least two pairs of Colt Model 1851 Navy revolvers. Rosa indicates Wild Bill is recorded as carrying standard Colt '51 Navy revolvers c. 1866-1867. Henry Morton Stanley, later a famous explorer in Africa, reported in the Missouri Democrat that Wild Bill was carrying a pair of revolvers with ivory grips by 1867, stating on May 11th: "It is his custom to be always armed with a brace of ivory-handled revolvers, with which weapons he is remarkably dexterous; but when bound on a long and lonely ride across the plains, he goes armed to the teeth." That same year other newspapers around the country reported similar details adding that they were "silver mounted" (possibly referencing standard silver plated grip straps). For example, The Manhattan Independent on October 26, 1867, reported, "He wore a richly embroidered sash with a pair of ivory hilted and silver mounted pistols stuck in it." Those revolvers predate the current revolver and its mate based on Colt's serial number records placing them in 1868, but Wild Bill may have purchased or been given this revolver and its mate sometime in 1868 or 1869. As with many Wild West characters, Wild Bill's exploits were heavily exaggerated both by him and his contemporaries. He famously claimed to have killed over a hundred men in his lifetime, but the number known is under ten. James Butler Hickok, (born on May 27, 1837 and murdered on August 2, 1876) was born in Homer, LaSalle County, Illinois, where his family had a small farm and aided runaway slaves as part of the Underground Railroad. He made himself a legend on the American frontier that has endured for more than a century. He went West during the bloody battles between the free state and pro-slavery factions in "Bleeding Kansas" in 1856, reportedly already handy with a gun, and young Hickok joined the "freesoiler" forces and served as a bodyguard for James H. Lanes. In 1858, he held his first law enforcement position as a constable in Monticello, Kansas. Hickok also worked for the famous firm of Russell, Majors & Waddell who operated the famous Pony Express. Hickok is reported to have shot a bear that was blocking a road, but his shot did not fell it; instead the bear charged him. He is said to have slit the bear's throat in the struggle but was nearly killed and spent month's recovering from his injuries. The story has a strong resemblance to the legend of Hugh Glass from 1823. By the summer of 1861, he resumed work for Russell, Majors & Waddell at Rock Creek, Nebraska, but more trouble was coming. On July 12, 1861, the "McCanles Massacre" took place. David McCanles mocked Hickok's injuries and also mockingly dubbed him “Duck Bill.” He had sold the Pony Express station on credit and had previously been the station's manager. According to a version of the "massacre" reported after the Civil War, Hickok claimed to have been told McCanles was part of a Confederate unit that was after him, and Hickok was soon attacked by McCanles' gang. Hickok fired first and shot McCanles in the chest and then supposedly shot another five members of the gang, knocked another out, and then fought three more off with a knife. As might be assumed, this story has a fair bit of embellishment. The real story appears to be that McCanles was not there as a Confederate guerrilla out to get Hickok but instead came to claim payment on the property and had only three other men with him. Wellman, the station master, refused to pay him, and then either he or Hickok fired on McCanles from concealment behind a curtain. Hickok shot another of the men who was then killed by Mrs. Wellman using a hoe. Another Pony Express employee appears to have killed another member of McCanles' party. Hickok's side in the "massacre" were found not guilty in a one-sided trial on the grounds of self-defense. During the Civil War, Hickok served the in the Union army as a scout as well as a spy and sharpshooter, but his next famous shootout occurred following the war on July 21, 1865, in Springfield, Missouri. He shot and killed David Tutt, a known gunfighter, after loosing a game of poker to Tutt. Tutt was reportedly teasing Hickok about a watch Tutt had won off him in the game. Hickok was again acquitted for the murder. It was this incident that gained national attention and led to the reports of the revolvers he carried. Newspapers reported that Hickok was a legendary gunfighter who claimed to have already killed 100 men. "Wild Bill" also served as a guide for General William Tecumseh Sherman, General Winfield Scott Hancock, and Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer in their respective western tours. Custer, himself a flashy and legendary figure, and Hickok became friends. Near the end of the decade, Hickok became the sheriff of Hays City, Kansas, and as sheriff he is known to have been involved in several shootouts that ended with his adversaries dead. After Hays City, he moved on to Abilene, Kansas, in 1871 and continued to be involved in shootouts. In one of them, he accidentally killed his own deputy marshal which cost him his job. The famous Wild West shows were just getting going in this period, and Hickok tried to start his own which quickly failed and then briefly joined Buffalo Bill Cody's show in 1873. He quit by early 1874 before Cody's show became an international sensation and returned to the West. He went to search for gold in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory and arrived in the rough town of Deadwood where he became a lawman in July of 1876. At the beginning of the next month, he was playing poker in a saloon in Deadwood with Jack McCall who reportedly racked up his losses and was encouraged to leave the game by Hickok who also offered him money to buy breakfast. McCall accepted the aid but apparently felt insulted by Hickok. The following day, August 2, McCall returned and shot Hickok in the back of the head with a Single Action Army. When Hickok fell dead, he had a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights, now famously known as the “Dead Man’s Hand.” McCall claimed he acted in revenge for Hickok murdering his brother back in Abilene which may be at least partially true, but the motive may have been anger over his losses the day before or even a hit paid for by another party. McCall was originally found not guilty in a hasty miners' trial but was later arrested and retried and found guilty of murder. He hung for the crime in the spring of 1877. Update: Additional provenance documentation now accompanies this historic revolver, including a binder of documents from H. Sterling Fenn the contains correspondence between him and the staff at the Buffalo Bill Museum (Cody Firearms Museum) and with others, including Joseph Rosa. In a letter from July 1, 1984, he discusses seeing the revolver at the museum and then comparing his "identically engraved' revolver to it once he returned home and noted that their serial numbers were very close and "Since many identically engraved 'pairs' of Colt revolvers do not have exactly consecutively matched serial numbers, this is of great interest to me. The serial number of my revolver is 204685 E." Paul Fees, curator at the museum, wrote back that they would be interested in learning the history of his revolver since "Ours is supposed to have been one of a pair owned by James B. 'Wild Bill' Hickok. The story is pretty good. The pistol has been in the same family since it was allegedly bought at an auction in Deadwood to help pay Hickok's funeral expenses." In his response, Fenn wrote, "As I write this information to you, I confess that a few chills are running up my back, but I will relate the story to you exactly as it was given to me. I got the revolver about two years ago from a man from Bloomington, Minnesota who runs a small junk shop, dealing in antiques, used things, gold dredging, guns and re-loading supplies. About three years ago (Summer of 1982) an 'old gentleman' came into the shop with the revolver and an old cut-down rifle. Both were dirty and in somewhat poor shape. They both had light to moderate pitting and had not been cleaned in many years. They had been in a trunk, the revolver was wrapped in a rag and was still loaded! The old gentleman said, 'He'd had them for years and originally got them from an old man who had had them since the early days in South Dakota.' He did not give any information on the old man, only that he had gotten them many years ago when he still lived in South Dakota! The man I got the revolver from said he didn't know the old gentleman and has never seen him since. He sold the old rifle as a 'junker' and I didn't pay him much for the revolver." When Fenn contacted the dealer again, he related the same story again. A copy of a letter from J.M. Jenkins of Powell, Wyoming, in 1976 about the revolver in the Cody Firearms Museum is also in the binder that details the attribution noted above in the letter from Fees and discusses the family putting it on display at Cody. Other letters note photos of the Cody revolver and Fenn's revolver being sent to "Joe Rosa, the greatest living authority on Wild Bill Hickok." Fenn wrote in a letter from January 11, 1985, "I have completed the preliminary comparisons of the Colt M'51 Navy revolvers and find them to be identical in all respects as to engraving and execution. I find no differences between the two engraved revolvers, excepting minor hand engraving variation. The pattern is identical on all parts and they appear to be a 'pair'!" Similar exchanges of information between Fenn and Rosa are also included. In some, Rosa is notably skeptical and refutes that Navy revolvers were sold for Wild Bill's funeral and that instead he had hear of a pair of Army revolvers, but, by the time his book came out, he had corrected the story based on the fact that the serial number at Cody was the same as one of the "Army" revolvers he had been told about. Photographs of the two revolvers, including side by side, are also in the binder. Dr. Frederic A. Harris wrote, "Your Colt Navy #204685 and 1851 Navy #204672 held in the Buffalo Bill Museum were, in my opinion, engraved by the same craftsman and - in view of the closeness of their serial numbers - probably constituted a matched pair at the time they left the factory." In addition to this binder, a second copy of "Wild Bill Hickok: Gunfighter" by Joseph G. Rosa and copies of "The West of Wild Bill Hickok" by Joseph G. Rosa, "United States Martial Pistols and Revolvers" by Arcadi Gluckman, "I Buried Hickok: The Memoirs of White Eye Anderson" edited by William B. Secrest, "Guns & Ammo Guide to Guns of the Gunfighters," "Wild Bill and Deadwood" by Mildred Fielder, "The Gunfighters" by Lea F. McCarty, "'51 Colt Navies" by Nathan L. Swayze, and "Famous Firearms of the Old West: From Wild Bill Hickok's Revolvers to Geronimo's Winchester, Twelve Guns that Shaped Our History" by Hal Herring which features this revolver in chapter 2 "James Butler 'Wild Bill' Hickok's Colt Model 1851 Navy Revolvers." Many of the books have stamps indicating they came from Fenn's library. The latter book states: "The two ivory-handled Colt Model 1851s on display at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, were almost certainly the property of James Butler 'Wild Bill' Hickok, when he was murdered in Deadwood, Dakota Territory (now South Dakota), on August 2, 1876. Both were believed to have been purchased by private individuals-for 25 cents each- in an auction of Hickok's possessions that was held to pay his burial expenses." Herring also theorizes, "The brace of pistols may have been given to him by the antislavery senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, who hired Hickok as guide for him and his friends in a trip through the wild Arkansas River country in 1869, as a bonus for a trip that was considered, by all, a wonderful success. Others believe that the Union Pacific Railroad presented the ivory-handled revolvers to him as a lawman's reward for bringing order to the intolerable melee of Hays, Kansas. Whatever their origins, if they came into his possession as early as 1869, they were the primary tools of many a violent conflict, in the hands of one of the West's most skilled gunfighters." Provenance: The Dr. Robert Azar Collection

Rating Definition:

Fair. The revolver displays mottled gray patina and extensive moderate pitting along the steel components but retains mostly distinct engraving. The barrel address is mostly obscured. Some small repairs have been made, likely including the wedge and some of the screws. The brass has attractive natural aged patina that is dark in the recesses making the engraving stand out. The grips are very fine and have attractive natural grain and tones, some verdigris staining on the right panel, minor age cracks, and light overall wear. Mechanically fine. This is an incredible opportunity to get your hands on one of the very few revolvers attributed to Old West gunfighter and folk hero Wild Bill. This revolver's mate remains in the Cody Firearms Museum, and this may be your only chance to get your hands on this incredible Colt before it too is removed from the market.

Customer Product Questions

There are currently no customer product questions on this lot