Look at it. Just look at it. A pinnacle of military design created during the peak of the Industrial Revolution. An aegis behind which dozens of nations have been kept safe and away from harm: the Colt revolver.
The Colt revolver has a deep history of collaboration and technical design. The original Colt revolver was a collaborative effort produced by Samuel Colt and Eli Whitney junior, the son of the man who invented the cotton gin. Whitney was the head of the Whitney Armory in Connecticut in 1846. Lacking the machinery to produce pistols, Colt approached Whitney for assistance. Renting his facilities and sub-contracting the production of certain parts, the Colt and Whitney birthed the original Colt Walker.
The Colt Walker was immediately successful, particularly with the Texan militia volunteers. To increase production, Colt built his own factories in 1848 and 1855 under the company name, Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company. You’ll have to forgive poor Samuel for the name. Marketing hadn’t been invented yet.
With these two factories, Colt built an armament empire. Before there was Barrett, Heckler and Koch, or Glock, there was Colt. So how do we know which pieces are from which time? How do we even begin to price antiques so inextricably tied with American history? Like this:
There are three defining rules to valuing a Colt revolver: the age of a piece, its condition, and who it belonged to originally. These may seem like obvious details shared with any antique, but Colt revolvers use these details a little differently than most pieces.
Starting with age, how old is old? Age is relative for most pieces, and Colt is no exception. A piece produced before the founding of his second factory but after his collaboration with the Whitney Armory has the perfect sweet spot of age. Pieces produced while collaborating with Whitney are highly sought after. Still, they aren’t considered the first original Colts by most collectors. Pieces produced in Colt’s first factory on the Connecticut river for the American military are easily the most valuable, searched for, and collectible revolvers on the market.
Dating a Colt revolver is tricky but doable. If a serial number has not worn off a piece, then it is much easier. Historians specializing in Colt weapons have studied these numbers extensively and can easily date a piece if a serial number is included. The second item to look for is the caliber of the piece. There was a much wider range of calibers before the invention of the modern cartridge. Calibers such as .36 and .41 were some of the earliest calibers used in Colt revolvers before .44, .45 ACP, and .38 special. If you find a piece chambered for an unfamiliar or rarely used round, odds are good that it is a very old piece.
The condition of a Colt revolver is a major factor in its value. However, a Colt revolver should never be repaired or have parts replaced. No matter how poorly maintained or broken a piece might be, a revolver with all original parts can be sold for significantly higher sums than a piece that has been repaired. Cracks, tarnishing, or even small amounts of corrosion are seen as part of a piece’s history and should not be fixed.
Old Colt revolvers required quite a few odds and ends to function. Powder horns, lead ball ammunition, vice grips, and lubricant were all standard issue with a Colt revolver. A piece, in its original box with the original issued tools, is the motherlode of Colt collection. A piece with these items can fetch significantly more than the same pistol without the original accessories, regardless of either piece’s condition or age.
The original owner of a Colt revolver is as much a selling point of a piece as its age or condition. Military issue revolvers, such as this piece issued to a West Virginia Cavalryman, often fetch higher prices than police issue revolvers. Military history is a driving force behind the demand for antique Colt revolvers. Pieces issued to active-duty Civil War soldiers are often the most valuable pieces on the collectible market.
In the vein of military history, it’s worth pointing out an exception to this rule. The Colt Python, largely driven by the popularity of Vietnam-era movies and video games, seems to ignore all the rules. First revealed in 1955, the Python is the newest Colt revolver with a high level of collectability. Pristine Pythons chambered in .357 magnum can fetch thousands of dollars at auction.
In the year 2021, they have achieved the perfect sweet spot between age and condition. Original Colt revolvers are old enough to earn antique status but not so old that they are impossible to find in decent condition. The quality materials used since day one of Colt’s firearm empire have enabled these pieces to survive for more than a century. All so they could find their way to your home.
These pieces appeal to historians and military enthusiasts alike. Their history of hard use endows another layer of value that is hard to find in most pieces. They’re few and far between, the pieces that combine history and utility. If an antique survived to 2021, it’s likely because it was just stuffed in a corner somewhere, ignored for decades.
But Colt revolvers are different. From day one, each revolver saw use, care, and reverence. A soldier lived or died by the quality of their firearm. This attention to detail, this meticulous care is reflected in each surviving piece. Holding one, you can’t help but think about how important it used to be to someone. How their life revolved around this hunk of metal and wood.
Just like a colt, the company started on shaky legs. And just like a colt, it eventually grew into a magnificent stallion. Albeit one you can keep on your mantle.
Jack Rose is a 2019 graduate of Auburn University, where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Marketing. His abundant curiosity and excellent research and communication skills enable him to write on a variety of subjects.
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