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February 5, 2024

From Innovative to Rare, Classic Revolvers Are Here

By Kurt Allemeier

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From the time a young Samuel Colt observed the working of a capstan on board a sailing ship in the early 1800s to when he produced the Colt Paterson and beyond, revolvers have been evolving and improving.

Classic revolvers’ history is multi-layered, with tales of both innovation and failure. For every bored-through cylinder and double action revolver is the “figure 8” trigger and the turret gun. Take a look at these wheelguns that will be available in Rock Island Auction Company’s Feb. 16-18 Sporting & Collector Auction.

Classic Revolvers: Colt Model 1871-72 Open Top Single Action

The Colt Open Top revolver is the gun that begat the legendary Colt Single Action Army revolver that would come a year later in 1873. Colt started working on a bored-through cylinder, rear-loading revolver as Rollin White’s patent was expiring. The company had an eye toward the upcoming Army trials that would select the first metallic cartridge revolver. The Open Top, chambered in .44-70, was the first gun manufactured to fire metallic cartridges.

The Army objected to Colt’s entrant, reporting that a lack of a top strap made it structurally weak. It also wanted a gun in .45 caliber. Colt returned with a revolver with a top strap, a change to the rear sight and grips similar to the Model 1851 Navy’s plowhandled ones. The Single Action Army was born and after a manufacturing run of 7,000, the Colt Open Top missed being one of the truly classic revolvers.

This Colt Model 1871-72 Open Top revolver is chambered in .44 rimfire and has “U.P.R.R.” inscribed on the backstrap for the Union Pacific Railroad Express Agency.

Classic Revolvers: Mateba Unica 6

Meteba was founded in Italy by Emilio Ghisoni who designed the Unica 6 as a revolver that is also a semi-automatic pistol. The cylinder is part of the upper frame that slides when fired and returning to battery rotates the cylinder and cocks the trigger so that it is ready to fire again. A large rear tang prevents the slide from biting the user’s hand.

The gun, its name translates to “You’re unique” in Italian, is a low bore revolver with the barrel firing at the bottom of the cylinder rather than the top. Guns with a low bore axis experiences less barrel rise, while lessening recoil seems to be more hoped for than real. Maybe not among the classic revolvers but definitely an interesting one that deserves mention.

Maybe not one of the classic revolvers, but this interesting modern gun design is offered in .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum and .454 Casull. This gun is chambered in .44 Magnum with a six-inch barrel. This auction also has a Unica chambered in .357 Magnum with a four-inch barrel.

Classic Revolvers: Forehand & Wadsworth Old Model Army

Gunmaker Ethan Allen had two daughters, Laurette and Nettie, who married Henry C. Wadworth and Sullivan Forehand, respectively, who worked for Allen’s company. Allen made his sons-in-law partners and the two men continued the company with their names after his death in 1871. At the time, the company was known best for its small caliber revolvers.

Forehand and Wadsworth borrowed ideas from Smith & Wesson, Webley and Merwin Hulbert for its Army trials revolver in the mid-1870s. The gun reportedly performed well but didn’t show any advantages over the Colt Single Action Army. Chambered in .44 Russian, the revolver was expensive and had a clumsy ejector rod. The company’s inability to land a military contract led to its decline and it was taken over by Hopkins and Allen in 1902.

Less than 1,000 of these rare Forehand & Wadworth Old Model Army revolvers were made. Unable to land a military contract kept this revolver from joining the pantheon of classic revolvers.

Classic Revolvers: RNWMP Marked Colt New Service Double Action

The Northwest Mounted Police formed in 1873 to combat lawlessness in the Northwest Territories and provide a martial presence and maintain border sovereignty in the Klondike gold rush along the border of Alaska and the Yukon. Officers of the Northwest Mounted Police served in the Second Boer war. The Mounties added  the prefix of “Royal” in 1904, then in 1920, combining with the national Dominion police, became the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The Colt New Service revolver came out in 1897 and was adopted by the Mounted Police in 1904, putting the Enfield Mark II out to pasture. British and Canadian forces received 60,000 of the New Service during World War 1 and these classic revolvers continued to see service in World War 2.

This New Service revolver, chambered in .455 Eley, was manufactured in 1916. It is marked “R.N.W.M.P” on the backstrap.

Classic Revolvers: Engraved New Haven Arms Walch 10-Shot Pocket Revolver

John Walch received a patent in 1859 for a revolver that fired superposed loads from each chamber of the cylinder. The gun had two hammers fired by one trigger. The right side hammer fired the front charge and the left would fire the rear charge after rotating. The rear lead bullet served as a seal to prevent the rear charge from igniting prematurely.

This rare gun was made in small numbers around the same time as the Henry Rifle. Soldiers of the 9th Michigan and 14th Wisconsin volunteer infantry regiments but were likely bought personally rather than as Army issue.

This Walch Firearms & Co. pocket revolver has a brass frame with a deer engraved on the left and a dog on the right. The gun includes a case and accessories.

Classic Revolvers: Squareback Trigger Guard Colt 1851 Navy

Carried on the goldfields of California and the Australian outback, carried by soldiers on both sides of the U.S. Civil War, and serving in militaries from England, Canada and Austria, the Colt 1851 definitely is one of the classic revolvers of the 19th century, when more than 250,000 were made.

A favorite of Robert E. Lee, Doc Holliday and Wild Bill Hickok, the 1851 Navy ushered in the gunfighter era as a revolver that was comfortable to wear on the belt, weighing about 2 1/2 lbs. It was less bulky than the Colt Walker and Dragoons, was well-balanced, accurate and had man-stopping power.

Squareback trigger guards were an early production trait of the Colt 1851 Navy. Only 4,200 were made from among the roughly quarter of a million of the classic revolvers manufactured.

Classic Revolvers: Mauser C78 “Zig-Zag”

A single action revolver, it gets its name for the way it rotates the cylinder. When the trigger is pulled, a lug with a stud on its upper surface moves forward, engaging a diagonal slot on exterior of the cylinder and then follows the groove straight back.

This was Mauser’s first handgun design, made as a test for the 1879 German military trials. It was the first German revolver manufactured for brass centerfire cartridges. It was deemed too complex for military use. This classic revolver from Germany was manufactured from 1878 to 1896 when it was replaced by the C96 Broomhandle.

This Mauser C78 “Zig-Zag” was considered too complex for military issue but was produced for nearly 20 years. Mauser also designed the Gewehr 98, a bolt action rifle that served as the German Empire’s service rifle from 1898 to 1935.

Classic Revolvers: U.S. Navy Colt Model 1909 Double Action

First made in 1898 and produced for over 46 years, this Colt New Service double action revolver became the Model 1909 two years before the military adopted the Colt Model 1911, a pistol that would be the sidearm workhorse of the military for decades.

Chambered in .45 Colt with “U.S.N.” stamped on the butt, about 1,000 were produced for the Navy, making this a rarity since about 18,000 U.S. Army models were made. These remained military issue until the end of World War 2. Fearing a shortage of 1911s, the military rechristened the revolver the Model 1917 as World War 2 approached. As the 1917, it was bored to handle rimless .45 ACP cartridges and required a half-moon clip for loading.

Chambered in .45 Colt, the consignor states that the Perspex grips on this Colt Model 1909 were handcrafted aboard ship from a World War 2 airplane canopy.

Classic Revolvers: Engraved Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum Pre-Model 27

One of the classic revolvers on this list that also qualifies as a hand cannon. Built on Smith & Wesson’s large N Frame, the largest of the company’s hand ejector frames, it was the standard for strength and durability and designed to handle the pressure of smokeless powder.

After World War 1, Smith & Wesson made sewing machines, handcuffs, washing machines and toilet flush valves and was nearly bankruptcy in the years leading up to World War 2. First called the Registered Magnum when it was released in 1935 it would become the Model 27 four years later as production was standardized and fewer features were made available. The Model 27 was the most powerful handgun in the world until the Model 29, that fired the .44 Magnum cartridge, was introduced in 1935.

This Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum Pre-Model 27 shipped in 1953 and features floral scroll engraving over the blued finish.

Classic Revolvers: Colt Python with 2 1/2 Inch Barrel

Colt has a series of revolvers given snake names -- Anaconda, Diamondback, Cobra, Boa, King Cobra, and Viper, but the king of the company’s snake guns is the Python. First manufactured in 1955, the Python was chambered in .357 Magnum.

A Classic and power revolver, Pythons were introduced in 1955 and were available in several barrel lengths including the desirable 2 1/2 inch barrel. Known as “the Rolls Royce of Colt revolvers” the Python went out of production in 2005 but was reintroduced in 2020.

Manufactured in 1964, this Colt Python has an amazing blued finish that shows limited handling marks. The 2 1/2 inch barrel is highly desirable of the number of barrel lengths offered.

Classic Revolvers: Cased Pair of Colt 1862 Police

From 1862 to 1873 about 28,000 Colt Model 1862 Police revolvers were made. It is similar to the Model 1860 Army but is chambered in .36 caliber. Taking advantage of stronger steel, the fluted cylinder and round barrel provides a lighter platform than the 1860 Army.

These cased guns are inscribed to Lt. George Book of Philadelphia who enlisted in Company A of the 82nd Pennsylvania where he served until being discharged in November 1862. He joined Company H of the 59th Pennsylvania, serving until his discharge in September 1863. The 82nd Pennsylvania was part of the Washington, D.C., defense before joining the Peninsula Campaign, fighting in several key battles, including Antietam. Book died in Philadelphia in 1892.

This pair of Colt Model 1862 Police revolvers are inscribed on the backstraps “Presented to Lt. G. Book by Co. A 82d PV.” The custom case has cap tins, an oiler, back-shaped flask, screwdriver and cartridge pack.

Classic Revolvers: Colt First Model New Line

Colt’s New Line was a series of solid frame single action revolvers that were among Colt’s first metallic cartridge handguns in the early 1870s. The New Line guns came chambered in .22 rimfire, .30 Rimfire, .32 Rimfire and Centerfire, .38 Rimfire and Centerfire. The cylinders held five shots except the .22 caliber that could carry seven. Colt eventually dropped the line of guns in the mid-1880s after other companies offered less expensive pock revolvers.

Chambered in .32 Rimfire, a factory letter states the revolver shipped in March 1882 with gold finish, pearl grips and factory engraving.

Classic Revolvers: Colt Single Action Army

The King of the revolvers. The head of the class of classic revolvers is Colt’s Single Action Army. The production run of first generation of SAAs was from 1873 to 1940 when 357,859 of the revolvers were manufactured.

Colt considered the Single Action Army obsolete after World War 2 and didn’t resume production. Television and movie westerns led to Colt’s revival of the SAA in 1956 and the second generation ran until 1974, with about 70,000 manufacture before production quietly ended. Production of third generation Single Action Army revolvers ran from 1976 to 1982. Manufacturing of fourth generation SAAs began in 1994. More than 150 years old, more than 450,000 of the legendary wheelgun have been made.

This Colt Single Action Army, manufactured in the first year of second generation production, is in .38 Special, one of four standard calibers the revolvers were chambered in during the manufacturing run.

Classic Revolvers for Sale

Whether they are legends of the wheelgun community or peculiar for their attempt at innovation, classic revolvers abound in Rock Island Auction’s Feb. 16-18 Sporting & Collector Auction. Collectors looking for a historic piece like the Colt 1860 Army or something modern like the Colt Python or Mateba Unica and anything in between should be able to find it at the auction at RIAC’s Bedford, Texas venue.

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