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December 3, 2020

Theodore Roosevelt's Colt Single Action Army Revolver

By Mike Burns

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"Speak softly and carry a big stick, and you will go far."

Bully! How much do you know about our 26th president? From politician to cowboy, Theodore Roosevelt led a truly incredible life filled with adventure, heartbreak, and triumph. Seen as the epitome of masculinity during the early 20th century, Roosevelt is frequently considered to be one of the most influential presidents of all time. Before becoming president, Roosevelt served as the 33rd governor of New York, the 25th vice president of the United States, and led the famous Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. On top of all of this, Teddy was an avid writer, historian, and Nobel Peace Prize winner.

T.R. was also heavily involved in the natural preservation of the United States during his historic time in office. He established multiple national parks and monuments that are still active today. He was also–as any historian could attest to–an avid firearms enthusiast. Finding balance between an interest in the outdoors and the thrill of the hunt, Theodore Roosevelt considered this aspect of his life not just recreational, but an enlightening and primal reconnection with nature.

Teddy Roosevelt smiling.

While not the first time encountering an artifact from the collection of President Roosevelt, Rock Island Auction Company is proud to host yet another beautiful and powerful gun owned by Teddy himself. Much like the items from Granville Stuart, Walter Winans, and Elvis Presley in the auction, this revolver comes with a long and interesting past. Explore the forgotten story of this hallowed revolver, why it was so significant to one of the most influential men in history, and how it evaded the attention of even the most learned historians.

Who Was Theodore Roosevelt?

Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was born on October 27, 1858, in New York City. The second of four children, Roosevelt was raised in an upper class family that was a distant descendant of the Schuyler's (a notable connection to lawyer, writer, and Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton).

A young Theodore Roosevelt next to his family crest.

Roosevelt struggled with debilitating asthma through much of his childhood. However, despite this setback, he was still described as an energetic and mischievous kid by those who knew him. While many argue that it was a self-prescribed introduction to rigorous outdoor activity that cured his illness, not much evidence can supports this. Teddy experienced issues with asthma well into adulthood. It is known, however, that Roosevelt spent a significant portion of his life (both as a child and a grown man) exploring the great outdoors.

A portrait of Theodore Roosevelt Sr.

Theodore Roosevelt held a strong bond with his father, Theodore Roosevelt Sr., who influenced much of his personality, interests, and hobbies. A prominent leader in New York City, Roosevelt Sr. helped found the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was an active and significant supporter of the Union throughout the American Civil War, and was a an experienced explorer who traveled with his family around the world. It was his father who helped teach young Teddy how to fight and box after witnessing his son manhandled by a group of older boys. Perhaps it was this highlighted intolerance to bullies that influenced much of Roosevelt's time in office.

6-year-old Theodore Roosevelt watching Abraham Lincoln's funeral procession cirecled in red.

Roosevelt had always planned to enter the political theater–after all, as a six-year-old he witnessed the funeral procession of Abraham Lincoln firsthand. From 1882 to 1884, Roosevelt was a member of the New York State Assembly and made significant strides to reduce corporate corruption by exposing collusions on multiple levels. He ran unsuccessful presidential campaigns, but retreated to the Dakotas to hunt bison after losing support from both Republicans and Democrats.

Two portraits of Theodore Roosevelt contrasting his love of nature and his political aspirations.

Roosevelt spent nearly 2 years in the Dakota Territory, investing money in the area to ensure its prosperity. He ultimately lost money through his efforts but his experiences granted him a renewed sense of authority to those back in Washington as well as an intellectual to many others. He returned to New York with the intent of reigniting his political career and found almost immediate success.

Roosevelt was the New York City Police Commissioner for a short period of time in 1894, served as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1897, and led his infamous Rough Riders in 1898. Most famous for their charge up Kettle Hill on July 1, 1898, at the Battle of San Juan, Roosevelt and his Rough Riders significantly aided in the conclusion of the Mexican-American War, returning home from Cuba as war heroes.

In 1899, he was elected the 33rd Governor of New York where he revolutionized the position by holding twice-daily press conferences meant to connect with middle-class citizens. In 1901, Roosevelt was elected to the vice presidency of the United States under President McKinley, partially because of his aforementioned success and accolades. Despite holding one of the highest positions in the country, Roosevelt was largely unimpressed by the role and his first six months were mostly uneventful.

The assasination of President William McKinley.

On September 6, 1901, President McKinley was attending an event in Buffalo, New York, when he was shot with a .32 caliber Iver Johnson revolver in the abdomen by anarchist, Leon Czolgosz. While the injuries were not fatal, McKinley died less than a week later after his wounds became infected due to lack of medical sanitation during his treatment. After his death, Theodore Roosevelt assumed the presidency and won a second term in 1904.

Presidential portrait of Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt's focus on conservation, his "Square Deal" domestic policies, and the construction of the Panama Canal solidified his legacy for generations to come. Considered by many historians to be in the top 5 presidents to ever hold office, Roosevelt was a firm believer in the strength of one's character. A hero to both liberals and conservatives, T.R. elevated the position of presidency from a normal leader to the most powerful position in the world.

Theodore Roosevelt: The Bull Moose

Just four days before Roosevelt was shot in the chest by John Schrank with a .38 caliber Colt double action, his revolver found in Rock Island Auction Company's "Sale of the Century" was purchased. Schrank was only able to get off one shot, unlike President McKinley's assassin, because he was subdued by Roosevelt's aide and stenographer Elbert E. Martin.

Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders

The crowd beat the shooter mercilessly and called for his death, but Roosevelt calmed the rowdy assembly and even asked to speak to his would-be assassin and asked, "What did you do it for?" No response was given at the time, but it was later reports would reveal that Schrank believed he was called upon by the spirit of President McKinley to kill Roosevelt as an act of revenge.

Schrank also opposed Roosevelt's run for a third term in office. While Roosevelt had spent almost 8 full years in office prior to this, he had only been elected as president once and there were no term limits on the presidency at that time.

A chest x-ray taken shortly after the failed assasination attempt on Theodore Roosevelt.

The bullet passed through a physical copy of a speech Roosevelt was about to give, damaging his glasses case in the process, and lodged itself at his fourth rib where it remained for the rest of his life. Despite a dime-sized hole in his chest, Roosevelt calmly assessed that since he was not coughing blood, he had not been seriously wounded nor had his lung been pierced and continued with the scheduled appearance.

Despite his doctor and staff pleading with him to go to the hospital, Roosevelt continued the speech, shocking the audience by revealing a bloodied shirt under his vest and the bullet pierced speech, remarking:

"I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot. It takes more than that to kill a bull moose. Fortunately I had my manuscript, so you see I was going to make a long speech, and there is a bullet–there is a where the bullet went through–and it probably saved me from it going into my heart. The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best."

He spoke for nearly 90 minutes with his untreated wound.

During the speech, his aides and advisors tried to get him to leave the stage and go to the hospital multiple times. In one instance, he stated: "Don't you make any mistake. Don't you pity me. I am all right. I am all right and you cannot escape listening to the speech either."

Theodore Roosevelt on horseback.

When his campaign advisor came onto the stage and tried to persuade him to leave, Roosevelt turned instead to the crowd and said, "My friends are a little more nervous than I am" before continuing his speech and adding later, "I am all right–I am a little sore. Anybody has a right to be sore with a bullet in him. You would find that if I was in battle now I would be leading my men just the same. Just the same way I am going to make this speech."

After finishing, he finally agreed to seek treatment at a hospital where doctors located the bullet at his rib and determined that it was more dangerous to remove the it than to leave it where it was. He returned to his Sagamore Hill estate in New York, and celebrated his 54th birthday relatively quietly with his family and a small number of friends, bullet still in his chest.

Roosevelt did not take long to recover to get back on the campaign trail and was already planning for speeches on his birthday. When asked, he simply remarked, "I don't feel a bit as though I had been shot." He gave another major speech two days later on October 30th at Madison Square Garden.

Theodore Roosevelt in uniform.

Though Roosevelt ultimately failed to win the election, he did received 27% of the popular vote, making him the most successful third party candidate in American history. He was naturally upset by his loss, but in true Roosevelt fashion, he sought adventure in response. In 1913, Roosevelt departed on the Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition after a speaking tour in Argentina. The dangerous expedition set out to explore the uncharted River of Doubt (Rio da Dúvida).

The river was one of the least explored and most dangerous tributaries of the mighty Amazon. They suffered from malaria, dysentery, and poor rations. Three members of the expedition died, and Roosevelt suffered a severe cut on his leg from a rock and subsequently developed a serious fever.

Theodore Roosevelt was quite the daredevil, hunting big game, traveling to exotic lands, and trying "new" technology first-hand.

Roosevelt lost over one quarter of his body weight and could not walk by the time they were met by a relief party two months after beginning their trip down the river. The River of Doubt was subsequently renamed the Roosevelt River (Rio Roosevelt). His health never fully recovered from the hardship of the expedition.

The intensity of the expedition and the harsh jungle environment may explain the finish wear on this historic Colt Single Action Army. Roosevelt is known to have been fond of firearms and had several among his gear for the expedition both for protection against the potentially hostile native peoples and wildlife and for hunting game for both food and specimens for the American Museum of Natural History.

Theodore Roosevelt hunting big game.

Roosevelt passed away quietly in his sleep on January 1, 1919, leaving behind a legacy unlike any seen prior. His time is office is revered highly by historians and he is considered to one of the greatest men to hold the office among the likes of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and his distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Teddy Roosevelt's Colt Single Action Army Revolver

Unlike many of the other famous firearms owned by Roosevelt that have been institutionalized (such as his Holland & Holland Double Rifle "Big Stick" now on display at the Smithsonian), this Colt Single Action Army revolver is a recent discovery and is perhaps the most highly embellished firearm owned by the 26th President still in circulation.

Lot 1210: Immensely Historic National Treasure, Rock Island Auction Company Proudly Present "The Bull Moose Colt Single Action": Documented Cuno Helfricht Factory Deluxe Engraved Silver Plated Colt Single Action Army Revolver with Carved Steer Head Grip Ordered for the 26th President of the United States Colonel Theodore Roosevelt as a Gift for His 54th Birthday Just Days Before He was Shot

Its significance is further amplified by the impeccable documentation placing this specific revolver in the hands of Theodore Roosevelt late in his 1912 presidential campaign for the "Bull Moose" Party.

Colt Collectors Association historian, Don Jones, clearly lists this revolver by serial number as: "1 - 4 3/4 in .38 Colt S.A. Army Rev. Silver Engr #5 Ivory carved Steers Head for Col. Roosevelt Must ship Oct. 23rd," in "The Rampant Colt" spring 2018 issue. The firm shipping date is just four days before Roosevelt's 54th birthday and a little more than a week before the election.

Lot 1210: Theodore Roosevelt Factory Engraved Colt Single Action Revolver

The revolver features beautiful engravings by Colt Master Engraver, Cuno Helfricht. Mainly consisting of classic scroll patterns backed by punch-dots, as well as some entwining lines, checkered patterns, and floral accents, it is incredibly difficult to spot even one small portion of the revolver that isn't magnificently covered. Chambered in .38 Long and featuring an extraordinarily detailed carved steer head on the grip, Colt seems to be boasting its ability to walk a tight rope between brute strength and refined beauty. While a Colt medallion immediately catches the eye, it is the contrast between silver and ivory tones on the gun that captivates the viewer's attention.

Lot 1210: Theodore Roosevelt Factory Engraved Colt Single Action Revolver

The included factory letter lists serial number "342642" with the comment "See Remarks." The Colt Historian gives priority to shipping records, and, as noted in the remarks, that 324642 was manufactured on October 12, 1912, but does not appear in the shipping records. This is clearly because of a clerical error transposing the first "2" and "4" because they note 342642 appears in the shipping records twice.

Lot 1210: Theodore Roosevelt Factory Engraved Colt Single Action Revolver

The first instance is clearly for this revolver and is what the historian has included as the main details which lists it as: a Single Action Army in .38 Colt with 4 3/4 inch barrel, silver finish, ivory grip with carved steer head, and "Level 2 engraving" when shipped to Murta Appleton & Company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on October 24, 1912. SAA #342642 was manufactured on July 1, 1921, clearly demonstrating the factory's error, and is noted as a .45 LC revolver with a 4 3/4 inch barrel and blue finish when shipped to Missouri on October 14, 1921.

Thankfully, Jones has access to the Special Order Handgun Ledger that were salvaged by long-time Colt employee, John Hintlian, when the factory discarded them. These records accurately confirm the revolver was ordered just two days before the manufacture date noted on the factory letter.

Lot 1210: Theodore Roosevelt Factory Engraved Colt Single Action Revolver

Note that #5 engraving was the highest available from Colt, but #2 was the highest advertised grade. Jones discusses the issues with the records and demonstrates other examples where the Special Order Handgun Ledger has proven invaluable in various writings and publications.

They note, "As a supplement to the Colt Factory Letter, the Colt Special Order Ledger entries, in their original handwritten format, dovetail nicely in corroborating the original configuration detailed in the Factory Letter. When applicable to certain special orders however, their highly detailed format for production purposes mirrors the original order with all of its nuance, and notes any changes made during production.

Lot 1210: Theodore Roosevelt Factory Engraved Colt Single Action Revolver

In effect, the entry is the build order for the Colt, tracing the order from receipt through production. As such, they will document configuration details and changes both major and minor that are sometimes left silent in the Colt shipping based production record."

Jones' article also highlights the significance of the timing of this order: it was ordered for Roosevelt's 54th birthday on October 27, 1912, four days before the assassination attempt.

Who Ordered This Colt Revolver?

Precisely who ordered this revolver for him is not clear, but it is easy to imagine how much Roosevelt, our "cowboy president," would have liked the gift given his known love of firearms, including Colt revolvers. In the article on the revolver, Jones points to Owen Wister, author of "The Virginian," as one potential purchaser of this gift. He was a friend of Roosevelt's dating back to their days at Harvard and was a resident of Philadelphia. Wister was invited to many of the Roosevelt family's events and held important positions during T.R.'s presidential campaign in Pennsylvania.

Theodore Roosevelt

Another important resident of Pennsylvania who was a close Roosevelt ally was former U.S. Forest Service Chief Gifford Pinchot whose dispute with Taft's Secretary of the Interior, Richard A. Ballinger, was part of what split the Republican Party and led to Roosevelt running for president in 1912.

Another possibility was Thomas B. Wanamaker, owner of the Philadelphia based progressive newspaper "The North American." The "Buffalo Commercial" on Oct. 28, 1912, listed those present at his birthday celebration to be his family members and some New York politicians but also noted he received many other gifts. Barring new documentation being discovered, we may never know who paid for this revolver, but its value is not in who bought it but for whom it was purchased for and when.

Lot 1210: Theodore Roosevelt Factory Engraved Colt Single Action Revolver

As Mr. Jones states in the aforementioned article. " is interesting to note that although always predisposed towards the use of firearms, close associates of Teddy Roosevelt would bear witness that the Colonel never went anywhere unarmed after the assassination of President McKinley in 1901. As a matter of fact, one winter occasion, an associate had mistakenly put on the Colonel's heavy coat, and when his hands entered the pockets, he surprisingly found the Colonel's large handgun easily accessible."

26th U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt

Just which large pistol the Colonel was carrying has been lost to time. Given the proximity of the shooting to the presentation of this spectacular and handsome Single Action it certainly makes it probable, that this gun 324642, was that "heavy handgun" in the Colonel's coat.

Sale of the Century

Theodore Roosevelt is one of the greatest presidents in American history. His policies gave a voice to the average citizen, his works in South America transformed global trade, and his love of nature helped establish some of the most beautiful and sacred national parks in the entire world. Above all else, Roosevelt valued the responsibilities of masculinity, revering the strength of one's character and elevating the idea of integrity on an international scale.

No stranger to coming in contact with items owned by the former president, Rock Island Auction Company is pleased, honored, and excited to have the rare chance to auction yet another beautiful weapon owned by the man himself during the December Premier Auction dubbed, the "Sale of the Century."

An American gun from one of the most American legends of all time, an engraved Smith & Wesson New Model No 3 revolver documented to the future 26th president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. The revolver’s engraving is believed to be the work of Gustave Young, and Roosevelt picked up the gun the summer of 1898 on his way to train the Rough Riders in San Antonio, Texas. Available December, 2022 at Rock Island Auction Company.

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