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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Colt Peacemakers

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

It's not too hard to imagine the scene: A cattleman of some means walks into a San Antonio general merchandise store one day in the mid-1870s and asks to see one of those new fangled pistols he's heard about. It holds six metal cartridges, a new technological development that makes it faster and easier to load than any other handgun on the market.

Made in Hartford, Conn. by the Colt Manufacturing Co., the weapon first hit the market in 1873, only eight years after the Civil War. Satisfied at its look, feel and how smoothly it operates, the rancher reaches in his pocket and pulls out a $20 gold piece. The pistol cost $17.50. Throw in a holster and some ammunition and the coin covered it.

Back then, that Texan, as did thousands of others, saw such a weapon as an investment in personal and family protection. Today, that gun or any like it amounts to a financial investment that likely to appreciate better than stocks and bonds.

San Antonio resident Kurt House, who has a ranch in Live Oak County, has been a gun collector since his high school days when he used to hang around Alamo City pawn shops to pick up then cheap vintage Colt six-shooters. His collection of old guns and relics connected to the Old West is now world-class.

These days, old Colts, assuming they have not been overly tampered with, are priced in the thousands. (Beware of foreign-made clones; real Colts are only U.S.-made.) For a recent fund-raising auction in Fort Worth, House donated a Colt Peacemaker with a serial number in the 50,000s. He said the full retail for that handgun likely would be $6,000-$7,000 and much higher if a letter from Colt showed it had been shipped to anyone famous back when.

The single-action, .45 caliber Peacemaker, also known as the Model P, was adopted by the U.S. Army in 1873 and remained the standard issue service revolver until 1892. Originally with a 7.5-inch barrel, the hard-hitting pistol was popular with Western lawmen and their quarry, the outlaws. Cattlemen also favored the handgun, which became known, not inaccurately, as "The Gun That Won the West."

The Peacemaker and earlier models played such a vital part in Texas history that the expression, "Sam Houston made us free, Samuel Colt made us equal" arose.

It turns out that Colt is the only American gun manufacturer that has kept all of its shipping records. If you have a Colt serial number, Colt will provide a factory letter telling you when the gun was made and where or to whom it was shipped.

Before the bidding started, House told a story about a fellow gun guy who had a Peacemaker for sale at a gun show. Someone offered him $6K for the handgun.

Well, in so many words, the seller said, let me get a letter from Colt first and I'll get back to you.

When the factory letter came back, the firearms company reported that the pistol's serial number showed it had originally been shipped to one Bat Masterson. Masterson, of course, was one of the Old West's most famous gunmen.

"Suddenly," House told the prospective bidders that night, "that $6,000 Colt became a $300,000 Colt."

And needless to say, the fellow who offered $6K for the wheel gun got to keep his money but not the Colt.

In this auction, held July 15, the nickel-plated, ivory-handled Colt donated by House brought $4,100. House is too savvy a gunman not to have gotten a factory letter first, but the buyer still got a heck of a deal.

"If you can afford to buy one," said Jim Dunham, another collector at the auction, "they're worth more money every year. I own 12 of them already. My dad gave me my first Colt for Christmas in 1958."

However, when it comes to investing in old guns, don't go off half-cocked. Given their value, there are plenty of fakes on the market. (Within the last year, a derringer supposedly given to gunfighter Doc Holliday by his alleged girlfriend Big Nose Kate was purchased by the Glenwood Springs, Colo. Museum for $84,000 since that's the town where Holliday died. But it was quickly determined that the small pistol had no connection whatsoever to the late Old West dentist-turned-shootist.)

Dunham, the collector with a dozen old Peacemakers, tongue-in-check noted that the famous Colt is the only firearm mentioned specifically in the Bible. You know, the line that says, "Blessed are the peacemakers..."

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
July 27, 2017 column

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