November 24, 2021
By Kurt Allemeier
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E. Remington & Sons found a dandy way to slyly arm the fine gentleman of the 19th-century, by introducing the single-shot cane gun.
Looking for a way into the civilian market, Remington started making the Thomas Patent percussion cane guns in 1859, aimed at swells and fops concerned about being set upon by hoods or stray dogs.
Rock Island Auction Company’s Premier Firearms Auction, Dec. 3-5, features 11 E. Remington & Sons cane guns from a single collector. They include a number of rarities as well as fine examples of the company’s variations between percussion and rimfire models.
A number of ornate canes and walking sticks are also on offer, with many topped by highly detailed carved ivory handles.
Rock Island Auction Company's Premier Auction on Dec. 3-5 has a number of ornate canes on offer like these turtle-handle cane, tiger head cane, pride of lions cane, bull and wolf cane, and Scottish terrier cane.
For a time, especially in the 18th to mid-19th centuries, walking sticks were an accessory for the well-heeled gentleman of the Victorian era. Long a weapon for martial arts, men could learn from European fencing masters how to defend themselves using a cane.
Recognizing the rise of street crime in the 1800s, E. Remington & Sons looked for a weapon that would interest the man-about-town. John F. Thomas, who would later become a master mechanic at the company, received a patent for a percussion cane gun in 1858. He assigned half the patent to Samuel Remington in 1859.
The firing mechanism was hidden within the cane. The first cane guns fired a .31 caliber ball using black powder ignited by a percussion cap. The lead ball fired down a short, rifled, iron barrel within the shaft of the cane before moving through a smooth brass tube. The muzzle could be plugged with a piece of cork for walking and prevent a potentially disastrous barrel blockage. Manufacture started in 1859 and about 500 of the percussion cane guns were made before production was suspended as Remington focused on Civil War materiel.
The cane guns were initially released as Remington’s New Patent Gun Canes, but post-Civil War they were Thomas Patent cane guns, named for the inventor. From 1866 to 1888, Remington’s cane guns were being modified to a .22 caliber and .32 caliber barrels using rimfire cartridges. These were Remington’s first metallic cartridge long guns.
Remington made rimfire cane guns after the Civil War in .22RF and .32RF caliber. Sources vary on the number of cane guns were produced, with some sources saying 4,500 while others put the number at about 2,500. They were priced at $8, according to a Edward K. Tyron Jr. & Co. catalog from 1873. The cane gun is just one of many odd weapons created over the years.
Set in the Victorian era, it is only natural that films featuring Sherlock Holmes include cane guns. “Hound of the Baskervilles” filmed in 1983 and “Sherlock: Case of Evil” from 2002 feature cane guns. The spy gadgets of James Bond also include cane guns. Bond is threatened with one in Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel, “Casino Royale,” and is also used in the 1999 film “The World is Not Enough.”
The cane guns on offer in this auction allow a collector to pick up something rare and unusual for their collection. Renowned Remington collector Elliott Burka wrote, “Any special order Remington Rifle Cane is an oddity among oddities. They are rarely encountered and should be considered most desirable.”
Rock Island Auction Company describers recognized a number of the models as oddities among oddities. The rarest among those on offer is a coral-colored .32 caliber rimfire, serial number 41. Remington was always open to special order requests from clients willing to pay. This model has a rarely-seen small curved handle along with the coral finish. The coral finish is never mentioned in factory records and is the only known alternative to black or brown. Burka wrote that he is aware of only three coral-finish cane guns.
A very early example of the Remington percussion cane gun is a .50 caliber smooth bore “shot only” model, with the very low serial number 14. Instead of the short rifled barrel that transitions into a smooth brass tube, this has a steel barrel that runs the entire length of the cane. It also has a rare ball and claw handle.
Another rarity is a .32RF caliber special order with a large silver-plated dog’s head handle. Burka wrote in an article for the American Society of Arms Collectors that “right angle” and "dog’s head” made of ivory were known, but not silver plated variations making this model extremely scarce. The auction has three cane guns with “dog’s head” handles available. A second rimfire model .22RF caliber with a dog’s head also has a rare takedown barrel that breaks down to three pieces.
The third dog’s head handle is atop a .31 caliber percussion model. Though not rare, the dog’s head is often cited as the most desirable of the handles. In the limited quantity of percussion canes made, this bears serial number 145 of about 500 believed to be made.
Another percussion cane gun with ball and claw handle and a single digit serial number is the second most rare of the standard variations as fewer seem to have survived, according to Burka. This model is serial number 5.
Cane guns with a dog’s head or a ball and claw handle are among the more desirable but there are other hard-to-find handles.
A percussion cane gun with a “right angle” handle is one that is scarce. Burka lists them as the fourth rarest. The model on offer is serial number 9.
The “bulbous” handle percussion cane gun is fairly scare. This model, with the serial number 93, has an iron band at the muzzle marked with “J.F. Thomas patent,” as well as the date of “Feb’y 9 1858.”
Among the array of 17 canes with carved ivory handles on offer at the December Premier Auction is one with a boxing glove handle that is connected to two famous 19th century performers. The cane bears the inscription “Presented to Nate Salsbury by Tom Thumb 1872.”
Salsbury was made famous through The Salsbury Troubadours, a comedy troop, but he would later go on to be the manager and vice president of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show for 16 years starting in the 1880s.
A cane topped with a boxing glove was presented to Nate Salsbury, the future manager of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, by legendary circus performer Tom Thumb at what was likely the conclusion of an around-the-world tour.
Tom Thumb was famous for his acting and singing in P.T. Barnum’s traveling shows. He was an immense talent in a little person’s body. His given name was Charles Sherwood Stratton but through Barnum’s shows he became world famous as “General Tom Thumb.” He went on a three-year, around-the-world tour from 1869 to 1872. Given the date on the cane, it is likely the two men worked together or established a friendship during the tour, with the cane likely presented to Salsbury at the tour’s end.
The canes up for auction include several topped with carved ivory handles. They feature an armored knight, a bear and snake, a bust of former Prussian president Otto von Bismarck, a viper and flower, an elephant bust, Scottish terrier, and a pride of lions. Others are highlighted with gold or silver.
An 18K gold Tiffany & Co. monogrammed cane is also available. The gold handle has a “CC” monogram and is hinged. When opened, a compartment is exposed that houses a 14k gold retractable pencil engraved with the initials “ECP” and connected to the cane with a small gold chain.
These various handsome canes offer interesting and novel carvings to the antique collector or gentleperson of means.
Many Remington cane guns have been seriously damaged or destroyed due to carelessness and abuse, Burka wrote, so this is a great chance to find a well-cared for percussion or rimfire cane gun for sale. These oddities and the number of variations on offer make them a rare opportunity for a collector, from the coral-finished rimfire cane gun to the ball and claw handle percussion cane gun. These unique weapons offer a historic bridge from percussion to rimfire guns and are remarkably fine pieces.
For more gun blogs and gun videos on the curious and eccentric history of firearms, subscribe to the weekly Rock Island Auction newsletter. We explore topics ranging from the bizarre punt gun, the experimental pinfire ignition system, and the fascinating forms firearms can take with the AOW class of guns.
Remington Rifle Canes, Elliott L. Burka, American Society of Firearms Collectors
Remington America's Oldest Gunmaker, Roy Marcot
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