Early SAA Colt

Recently a Single Action Colt Army (SAA) with the very low serial number(s) 5089 came to us. My first reaction was, “WOW! could that possibly be a Custer (7th Cavalry/Little Bighorn) gun? Here is what was found out. There is an interesting story here.

First off, there are only a handful of documented 7th Cavalry guns in existence. There has been a plethora of research done on the subject, and probably the most noted experts in this field would be John Kopec and the late, Dr. H. Sterling Fenn, the duo wrote, Colt, Cavalry & Artillery Revolvers, a Continuing Study (with approx. half of the book dedicated to Custer’s 7th Cavalry Colts).

In the book, they explain much of the research that has gone into narrowing down a serial number range of Colt SAA’s that have a high probability of being 7th Cavalry revolvers. That most desirable serial number range according to the research is from a shipment which contained serial numbers 4500 thru 5504. The book goes on to state that in later half of 1874, there were 755 new Colt SAA revolvers issued to the 7th Cavalry and that about 600 of them came from the shipment which contained serial numbers 4500 thru 5504 (or about six out of every ten revolvers in that shipment).

In the book they state, “Very few documented or positively-associated Seventh Cavalry Colts are known.” They list some numbers from that serial number range of 4500 thru 5504 with a positive association: 4507, 4553, 4597, 5100, 5128 and 5147. They go on to list a number of revolvers with, “strong, but less positive Seventh Cavalry association” from that shipment and they are numbers: 4729, 4949, 4955, 5133, 5153, 5180 and 5416. There are others with good possibilities, but less documentation. Read on.

At the time of issue, Colt SAA revolvers were shipped to the armory in crates containing fifty to a crate. It is assumed the serial numbers in each crate were “of similar chronological serial numbers, but were not necessarily in exact sequence.” Therefor, if you come across a gun with a serial number in the range of within 50 numbers of a documented 7th Cavalry revolver, it stands to reason that your odds increase that you have a possible “Little Bighorn” or “7th Cavalry” gun. You can see why we were exited to see revolver #5089 come in! (Revolver #5100 was actually a Little Big Horn Battlefield find, dug up in the 1980s.) A number of other serial numbers close to 5089 have also been analyzed and are believed to have “strong possible” association with the Seventh Cavalry and the Little Bighorn for a variety of reasons. 

Now, let’s look at 5089. It is not without problems. Its overall condition would be considered “fair” in our opinion. At a glance, you will notice it does not have the original grips or butt strap and has a 5.5” barrel. The loading gate has been nickeled at some point and pretty much all of the finish is gone. Then, with further examination, you will see the serial number 5089 on the cylinder is faint (as is the inspectors initials A P). The barrel also has a small A P inspector’s initials (which would be correct). Both of these things are good. However, the 5089 on the bottom of the frame and trigger guard are deep and easily read. The two-line patent dates on the left side of the frame have been obliterated, but there is an easily read “US” over where the patent dates should be. Hmmm.

After some digging and closer examination, we find the serial numbers on the bottom of the frame and trigger guard and the US on the left side of the frame have been re-applied by someone at some point. Why would they do such a thing?

There are a couple of possibilities. One is that a “backyard” restoration was done where the person was trying to make them look better because it was hard to read and they did not know that any kind of “restoration” like this hurts the value. The other possibility is down right deception. There are people out there who try to “help” things along so they can get more money for something by making it seem like something it is not.

The person who brought the revolver to us claimed to have owned it since the late 1980s and that he found it in an antique shop in Pennsylvania. He knew nothing of the alterations and seemed surprised to find out about them. I actually spoke to John Kopec about this revolver on the phone. He told me he has files on over 6,000 Colt SAA’s that he has either come into contact with or been sent information on over the years. Some Colts had been sent into him for examination, while others he might have just seen at a gun show somewhere and made a few notes on. He did have a file on 5089 with a few notes! 

John was quick to point out the discrepancies listed above, but could not remember where he might have seen it and he hadn’t any notes to that effect. Being a purist, John was pretty down on the alterations or “help” that had been done to it, but he also admitted, “it does fall in a very desirable serial number range.”

That brings us back to the million dollar question, “what has happened to this revolver and where has it been?” One of the questionable items mentioned above is the two-line patent dates on the left side of the frame missing. However, on page 283 or Kopec’s book, under the section, Historically Associated Seventh Cavalry Colts, it states, “Serial numbers 5020, 5065, 5099 and 6066 are included for comment, since each has had the “U.S.” and part or all of the patent date markings obliterated. Serial number 5128, which has documented Indian oral history indicating capture at the Little Bighorn, also has an obliterated “U.S.” marking. Four of these revolvers show rough Indian use and are in the mid-serial number range estimated for primary issue to the Seventh Cavalry. It also is interesting to note that four of these revolvers, #5020, #5065, #5099 and #5128 are in very close serial number proximity, and one is consecutive, to serial-number 5100 which was recently recovered at the Custer Battlefield.” 

Interesting. So several other Colts with very similar serial numbers also had their patent dates and U.S. markings rubbed off (probably because they were Indian capture guns). Did 5089 meet the same fate as its brethren of close-serial-number proximity? Who knows. 

If it was an Indian capture gun, then shouldn’t it still have the 7.5” barrel and not a 5.5”? That is a good question. Another possibly is that it was turned in for an Artillery remodel in the late 1890s. Most Colt collectors know that Artillery models usually have mixed serial numbers and 5089 has matching numbers. However, we refer to the book, Cavalry & Artillery Revolvers again and it says, “In November of 1895, 1,200 revolvers were returned by the Army to Colt for refurbishing. They were re-worked to be made serviceable again and had their barrels shortened to 5.5” (from 7.5”). These types of Colts are widely known as “Artillery” models. The special thing about these 1,200 Colt SAA, Artillery models is that special care was taken to mostly keep their serial numbers in tact (or matching) unlike the second batch of 14,900 Colt SAA revolvers that were sent back for refurbishing between 1896 and 1903. These later Artillery models are of almost exclusively mixed serial numbers as no care was given in keeping them together.”

If only this Colt could talk. Tell us where it’s been. Was it a 7th Cavalry issue like six out of ten of its brothers from the same shipment? So many others with very close serial numbers seem to have either positive or strong association with the 7th. Was it an Indian capture gun from the battle of the Little Bighorn who had its U.S. markings rubbed off and then some bonehead, at a later date, not knowing what he was doing, tried to re-apply some of them? Is there some other wild story why the patent markings would have been obliterated? Who knows. 

There is a strong possibility that part (at least 50% and more likely 75% of this gun being original) was a 7th Cavalry issue and therefor at the Little Bighorn. How does the alterations and replacement parts affect the value? Obviously it does. Documented Colts with Kopec letters of authenticity stating positive association have sold at auction anywhere from the $30,000 range to over $400,000! (Condition and provenance played a major role in the wide sales amount ranges.) An unaltered Colt with a fairly strong association would probably be expected to fetch at least $10,000 to $15,000. Any Colt with a serial number of under ten-thousand should sell for at least $7,500 to $10,000. So what about this one? Well, we are going to find out what collectors think. It goes to auction on Jan. 5th, 2019. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Jim Olson © 2018


Western Trading Post