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October 9, 2023

Pancho Villa's Golden Colt Single Action

By Seth Isaacson

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When collectors think of Rock Island Auction Company, they think of the world-class pieces sold with close ties to some of history’s most famous figures: Theodore Roosevelt, Alexander Hamilton, Napoleon, Ulysses S. Grant, and others. These are a select few sold in recent years alongside thousands and thousands of other antique and collectible firearms.

Pancho Villa's gold-plated SAA, one of the pinnacle treasures available in RIAC's December Premier Auction.

In this proud vein, and to put an exclamation point on 30 years in business, RIAC is privileged to announce the offering of an exciting historic firearm with ties to the American Southwest during its December 8 - 10 Premier Firearms Auction, the inaugural event for the company's new state-of-the-art facility at 3600 Harwood Rd., Bedford, Texas. There’s no better way to celebrate both occasions than with the stunning gold Colt Single Action Army revolver inscribed to Mexican bandit turned revolutionary general, Francisco “Pancho” Villa.

2023 is the centenary of Pancho Villa's assassination and Mexico has dubbed it "The year of Francisco Villa." Yes, the legacy of "The People's Revolutionary" still burns bright. Offered this December will be Villa's golden Colt Single Action Army, bearing two inscriptions to the general of the North. It's a supremely collectible Colt brought to new heights by the most famous figure of the Mexican Revolution.

This Colt is everything collectors of fine arms seek. It is factory documented as gold plated, factory engraved, and shipped to a small arms dealer in El Paso, Texas, with known connections to Villa. Best of all, the revolver is inscribed, not once, but twice to Pancho Villa, the most famous figure of the Mexican Revolution. His decade-long fight made him famous far beyond Mexico’s borders.

The backstrap of Pancho Villa's Colt Single Action Army reads "Al General Francisco Villa/de/su Division del Norte." The gold-plated revolver will be on offer in Rock Island Auction's December Premier Auction to be held in Bedford, Texas.

With 2023 marking the centenary of his assassination, it’s a perfect and appropriate time to reflect on his legacy and influence in Mexico, Texas, and the American Southwest.

By the time of his death in a hail of gunfire, Villa and the Division del Norte (Division of the North) had made their mark on the histories of Mexico and the American Southwest, toppling Mexican presidents Porfirio Diaz and Victoriano Huerta.

Pancho Villa's Colt Single Action Army will be on offer in Rock Island Auction's December Premier Auction in Bedford, Texas. In this undated photo, the Mexican revolutionary, just right of center, stands with some of his men.

In addition to his victories on the battlefield, Villa remains one of the most famous and popular figures in Mexican history as a Robin Hood-like folk hero remembered widely as a supporter of the common people against the rich and powerful. However, like most historic figures, things are seldom so simple. He and the Division of the North are well-known for their ruthlessness, leaving bodies in their wake on both sides of the Rio Grande, garnering international headlines and retribution from both American and Mexican armies, both of whom failed to capture Villa.

For some families in the Southwest, Villa’s activities along the border were far more personal. Some supplied him, some feared him, and some did both. That is the case for the family involved in this fascinating and exceedingly rare Colt Single Action Army.

Writer and host Jim Cornelius of 'Frontier Partisans' covers the rise and fall of Pancho Villa in an exciting six-part podcast series.

Pancho Villa's Colt and City Loan & Jewelry Co.

Factory letters confirm this revolver was in .45 caliber with a 5 ½ inch barrel, gold plating, and style 2 factory engraving when the revolver was sold to Shapleigh Hardware Co. of St. Louis and shipped to City Loan & Jewelry Co. on April 18, 1917.[i]  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. The factory records did not list the grips nor the inscriptions on the back strap which read: “Al General Francisco Villa/de/su Division del Norte” in fine script along the back and “FRANCISCO VILLA” in bold letters on the butt. The inscriptions are period, and R.L. Wilson in his analysis stated that the inscription on the butt was likely factory and that the other was inscribed at City Loan & Jewelry Co., but also indicated both may have been done at City Loan & Jewelry Co.[ii]

Pancho Villa's Colt Single Action Army is gold plated, has pearl grips, is inscribed to him, and will be on offer in Rock Island Auction Company's December Premier Auction in Bedford, Texas.

Shelton-Payne Arms Co. was the primary option for shipping Colts to El Paso, and this is the only Colt recorded as shipped to City Loan & Jewelry Co., a pawn shop.[iii] Joseph B. Ravel (1884-1957) was the proprietor and ran it initially with his nephew Sam Ravel before the latter established himself in Columbus, New Mexico. The shop was just one of several businesses owned by the Ravel family in the area. Joseph Ravel’s brother Max owned the similarly named Chicago Loan & Jewelry Co. located nearby, and another brother, Erman, operated the East El Paso Fuel Co. The Ravels were Jewish immigrants from Lithuania escaping from all too frequent anti-Semitic pogroms. The brothers were part of the first generation of their family to settle in El Paso.[iv]

Joseph Ravel is known to have sold arms to Pancho Villa through City Loan & Jewelry Co., purchasing firearms and ammunition. One time, while conducting a sale, a crowd gathered outside and Joseph Ravel went to investigate before returning to finish the sale. After Villa left, U.S. Secret Service agents came in the shop and asked Ravel if he knew who is customer was. Ravel admitted that he didn’t and was told by the agents that it was Pancho Villa.” It wasn’t the last time Ravel had business with Villa as recorded through the federal authorities.[v]

A view of Sam Ravel & Bros. store in Columbus, New Mexico. Pancho Villa's men raided the town on March 9, 1916 and is believed to have been looking for Sam Ravel who he though crossed him.

Sam Ravel and Pancho Villa's Colt

Sam Ravel (1884/85-1937) immigrated to Texas in 1905 and originally lived in El Paso and worked at City Loan & Jewelry Co. before moving in 1910 to Columbus, a small town about 70 miles west of El Paso. Columbus was isolated and just a few miles from the Mexican border. There he owned the Commercial Hotel and Columbus Mercantile Company.[i] He renamed the latter Sam Ravel & Brothers when his brothers Arthur and Louis joined him. Sam Ravel was doing cross-border business with Mexican revolutionaries as early as 1914, when he was arrested in Mexico and briefly detained for supplying the Roque Gomez gang with firearms and ammunition. Family lore suggested Pancho Villa would occasionally participate in backroom poker games in the Ravel store where he was a customer. Arthur Ravel later denied that Sam Ravel had any business relationship with Villa, but said they did business with “every revolutionary concern, bandit, or general…With the exception of Pancho Villa.”[ii]

Pancho Villa's Colt Single Action Army has his full name, "Francisco Villa" inscribed on the gold-plated butt. The revolver will be available in Rock Island Auction Company's December Premier Auction at Bedford, Texas.

Pancho Villa Pays Columbus and the Ravels a "Visit"

Two years before the revolver shipped to El Paso, Pancho Villa and the Division del Norte were one of the most powerful forces in Mexico, especially in Mexico’s northern states. Villa received support from the United States as well as Germany. Germany sought to cause turmoil in Mexico to keep the United States out of World War I. German agents funneled money through New York to the Mississippi Valley Trust Co. in St. Louis. Also in St. Louis was Felix A. Sommerfeld, a Jewish immigrant from the German Empire who worked as an agent for both the German government and multiple Mexican leaders. Sommerfeld used $390,000 from the German government to purchase firearms and ammunition from the Western Cartridge Co. across the river from St. Louis in East Alton, Illinois. These munitions were shipped to Hipolito Villa, Pancho Villa’s brother, in El Paso through another of Villa’s agents whose shop was mere yards away from City Loan & Jewelry Co. Sommerfeld also shipped arms through Shelton-Payne Arms Co. in El Paso. Whether or not Sommerfeld or the German government were involved in the purchase and shipment of the gold-plated Colt is not clear, but it is certainly possible this revolver was meant as a gift to Villa via German agents.[i]

Villa’s men were defeated at the Battle of Celaya in April 1915 by Alvaro Obregon’s Constitutional Forces. 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 over the course of more than a week of fighting. Additional losses essentially ended the Division del Norte's power and forced Villa to return to guerilla fighting. By the end of 1915, Villa, once one of the most powerful men in all of Mexico, had lost much of his power, including support from the United States government which now recognized his rival President Venustiano Carranza and even aided in his fight against Villa.

Villa and the remaining men of the Division del Norte continued to fight on, but needed supplies. In March 1916, one year before this revolver shipped, Villa and the Division del Norte crossed the border and headed to Columbus, New Mexico. The exact reason has never been confirmed, but a combination of motives is likely. The Ravel family and others believed Sam Ravel was the target of the raid, possibly over an arms deal gone wrong. 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 Villa’s own will and his men’s willingness to keep up the fight.

Boghardt 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.”[ii]A Villista, Juan Munoz, was quoted 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. That’s the truth.”[iii] The problem was, Sam Ravel wasn’t there. He was in El Paso that day.

Pancho Villa's Colt Single Action Army is gold-plated, engraved, has pearl grips, and is twice inscribed to the Mexican revolutionary. It will be on offer in Rock Island Auction Company's December 8-10 Premier Auction in Bedford, Texas.

On March 10, 1916, The El Paso Times, under the headline “Boy of Fourteen Saves Brother’s Life During Raid on Columbus, N.M.” reported that when Villa’s men came looking for his brother, Arthur Ravel was in the store and tricked Villa’s men to protect their other brother Louis who was hiding. He denied knowing the combination to the safe even as the raiders executed men.

Luckily for Arthur Ravel, the 13th U.S. Cavalry were stationed in Columbus, and there were far more troopers than the Villistas expected; the troopers reportedly shot Arthur’s captors allowing him to flee to safety. That was not the case for many others. 10 died in the raid. Several homes and businesses were burned. Arthur Ravel took a bullet through the ear. The 13th Cavalry suffered eight dead and five wounded.

An American soldier stands guard among the remains of Columbus, New Mexico following the March 9, 1916 raid by Pancho Villa and his men. Pancho Villa's gold-plated Colt Single Action Army will be on offer in Rock Island Auction Company's December Premier Auction at Bedford, Texas.

Some have suggested Sommerfeld, the German agent, persuaded Villa to attack Columbus on instructions from the German government to stoke tensions between the U.S. and Mexico. Prior to acting as a double agent for Villa and Germany, Sommerfeld was an arms purchasing agent for President Madero and threatened other arms dealers for supplying Madero’s rivals.[i] If Ravel refused to sell arms to Villa but sold to his adversaries, Sommerfeld may have indeed suggested the attack as a good excuse to get Villa to cross the border or out of principle.

Villa was no fool and certainly may have come to the same conclusion on his own. Villa may have chosen Columbus because of its isolation, had plentiful supplies, as punishment for President Wilson and the American government, and believing it was relatively unguarded. His intelligence proved faulty leading to significantly more resistance than he expected. The exact numbers on Villa’s side are more varied from source to source than for the Americans, but he suffered several dozen men killed along with others captured or wounded out of a fighting force of about 500. Despite their losses, they succeeded in capturing mules, horses, rifles, and other supplies as well as provoking a U.S. response.

Pancho Villa's attack on Columbus, New Mexico, combined with the killing of U.S. citizens in Mexico infuriated many within the United States and provoked an expedition of thousands of U.S. troops into Mexico in an attempt to bring Villa to justice. Many of the troops were stationed in the smoldering remains of Columbus. Among the troops was George Patton who also famously carried an engraved Colt Single Action Army revolver.

The Punitive Expedition, War, and Pancho Villa's Golden Colt

Shortly after the Columbus Raid, U.S. troops flooded the region. Brigadier General John J. Pershing was tasked with tracking down Villa and bringing him to justice. Thousands of American soldiers crossed the border on March 15, 1916, without the permission of the Mexican government creating tensions between the U.S. government and President Carranza, perhaps exactly what Villa hoped for. Villa remained on the run and broke his force into smaller groups to elude his pursuers. U.S. troops were engaged in skirmishes and small battles with both Villa’s men and Mexican government troops - nearly bringing the two countries to war. To avert war, the last of Pershing’s men returned to the U.S. on February 5, 1917.

News of the infamous Zimmerman Telegram broke on March 1, 1917, revealing to the American public that the German government had been plotting to bring Mexico into the Great War against the United States with the promise of returning territory lost in the Mexican-American War. The telegram combined with German submarine warfare and other actions led to the United States declaring war on Germany on April 6, 1917. Had the timing played out differently, the U.S. very well could have found itself at war with both Germany and Mexico.

This is a closeup of Pancho Villa's Colt Single Action Army that will be available in Rock Island Auction Company's December Premier Auction in Bedford, Texas.

Instead, the American military turned its attention to Europe and defeating Germany while also keeping a close eye on the Southern border.

Twelve days after the declaration of war, the golden Colt Single Action Army left the Colt factory en route to El Paso. Unfortunately, we do not know who ordered it or when. Many questions remain: did German agents pay for the revolver after news of the Zimmerman telegram came out in order to urge Villa to launch another attack? Was it ordered before or after the Zimmerman Telegram was made public knowledge? Was it ordered before the declaration of war? And finally, what did Pancho Villa make of it?

This is the underside of Pancho Villa's Colt Single Action Army revolver that is gold plated and engraved with his name on the butt and backstrap. It will be available in Rock Island Auction Company's December Premier Auction slated to be held at Bedford, Texas.

The Death of Pancho Villa

In April 1917, Pancho Villa was on the run but had followers in Northern Mexico. His power was severely diminished by a series of defeats and pursuit by both American and Mexican forces. Newspapers reported Pancho Villa’s links to the German government (both real and imagined) and his escape from a trap set by General Francisco Murguia and 4,000 Mexican troops. While Villa remained a threat, he lacked the men and supplies to carry out successful campaigns against the government, but he continued to fight on nonetheless. Villa attacked both Juarez and Durango but was beaten back both times. After the chaos of the election of 1920 and the ouster of Carranza, Villa agreed to retire to his hacienda at Canutillo near Parral in Chihuahua and was pardoned.

On July 20, 1923, Villa was assassinated while riding in his car in Parral. The vehicle was hit by over forty shots. In addition to Villa, his chauffeur, personal secretary, and one of his bodyguards were killed. A second bodyguard was wounded but survived. Jesus Salas Barrazza claimed responsibility for the assassination and claimed to have killed Villa for profit. Despite admitting to murder, 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 ordered Villa’s death, possibly to prevent him from re-entering politics.

The top of Pancho Villa's Colt Single Action Army that will be available in Rock Island Auction Company's December Premier Auction that will be held in Bedford, Texas.

What his adversaries could not kill was Pancho Villa’s fame and legacy. While the citizens of the American Southwest remember Villa and his men for their ruthlessness, he is generally remembered favorably in Mexico. He had risen from an obscure orphan to one of the most powerful men in Mexico, especially in the early years of the Mexican Revolution, and earned a reputation as a fearless and talented military commander and as a Robin Hood-esque figure fighting for the Mexican people against tyrannical leaders. His body was initially buried in the Pantheon de los Dolores in Parral. His remains were later re-interred in the Monument to the Revolution in Mexico City.

Pancho Villa is best remembered for his role in the early years of the Mexican Revolution when he led his men to victory and helped topple Mexican President Porforio Diaz in 1911, but he continued on fighting against a series of Mexican leaders.

Pancho Villa's Colt and RIAC Come to Texas

Pancho Villa’s golden Colt Single Action, from his final years as a defiant rebel gunslinger will now mark the exciting beginning of RIAC’s new second location in Bedford, Texas. The marquee piece will be a fitting offering for what promises to be the new must-visit destination for gun collectors of every level.

Pancho Villa's Colt Single Action Army has pearl grips with the carved head of a golden eagle in raised relief with a contrasting opal eye inlay. This revolver will be available in Rock Island Auction Company's December Premier Auction at Bedford, Texas.

The new venue in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex will extend the same excellent service and award winning catalogs for which the company is known, but with a new, state of the art showroom and world class auction hall both housed in a luxurious facility sure to appeal to gun collectors.

This will be the largest firearms auction in Texas history, and RIAC is giving it our famous attention to presentation. We're creating the finest brick-and-mortar auction venue in America, it's going to require the largest catalog we've ever created, and its remarkable items are going to go toe-to-toe with the finest auctions we've ever held.

RIAC President Kevin Hogan is known to say, “We offer a service for our consignors and an experience for our buyers.” Pancho Villa’s gun will be the first of many memorable experiences at this new epicenter for fine and historic arms.


[i] Factory letters referenced are from R.H. Wagner on July 2, 1958, M.S. Huber on January 21, 1976, Kathleen J. Hoyt on August 30, 1991, and Beverly Jean Haynes on October 25, 2011. The wording of how it was sold/shipped varies slightly with the earlier letters listing it as sold to Shapleigh Hardware Co. and shipped to City Loan and Jewelry Co. and the more recent letters listing it as shipped to Shapleigh Hardware Co. for “City Loan and Jewel Co.” or “City Loan and Jewl. Company.” The revolver was later replated.

[ii] R.L. Wilson’s research letter on the revolver. They could have been executed by other jewelers or engravers down along the border as well. Similar inscriptions can be seen on the Irindo y Guisosola revolver presented to Villa by President Francisco Madero that is at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City and a Colt Single Action Army revolver presented to Villa by Abraham Gonzales in the Pancho Villa Museum in Columbus, New Mexico.

[iii] R.L. Wilson’s research letter on the revolver. Wilson also noted one other record for “City Loan Company.”

[iv] John F. Worley Directory Company, Worley’s 1917 Directory of El Paso, p. 602 and 804.

[v] Interview with Vincent Ravel, M.D. by Archives Staff, University Library, 1968, "Interview no. 14," Institute of Oral History, University of Texas at El Paso.

[vi] The case was reported in local papers. See for example the front page of The El Paso Herald on August 25, 1920.

[vii] Stacey Ravel Abarbanel, “The Photo Album That Succeeded Where Pancho Villa Failed,” Smithsonian Magazine, (February 9, 2022). https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-photo-album-that-succeeded-where-pancho-villa-failed-180979509/

[viii] Stacey Ravel Abarbanel, “Pancho Villa and My Grandfather,” Tablet, (August 26, 2019). https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/community/articles/pancho-villa-and-my-grandfather

[ix] Michael C. Meyer, “Felix Sommerfeld and the Columbus Raid of 1916.” Arizona and the West 25, no. 3 (1983): 213–28. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40169228.

R.L. Wilson in his letter theorized the revolver was paid for by German sympathizers or the German government and that the Ravel family may have been involved due to pro-German/anti-Russian leanings.

[x] Thomas Boghardt, “Chasing Ghosts in Mexico: The Columbus Raid of 1916 and the Politicization of U.S. Intelligence during World War I.” Army History, (Fall 2013), 7-22.

[xi] Eileen Welsome, The General and the Jaguar: Pershing’s Hunt for Pancho Villa, a True Story of Revolution and Revenge. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007) 116.

[xii] Michael C. Meyer, “Felix Sommerfeld and the Columbus Raid of 1916.” Arizona and the West 25, no. 3 (1983): 213-228. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40169228.

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Comments

AvatarSteamerOctober 19, 2023

Very good article on Poncho Villa's revolver. Good Luck RIAC on your venture in Texas. Neil Pinkos

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