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Many copies saw use in the Mexican revolutions.

When I was buying antique guns in Mexico during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, I hauled dozens of old, well-worn copies and forgeries of Colt single-action revolvers back to the United States. But I had to sell them dirt cheap, because very few collectors cared enough about them to add them to their Colt collections. And they still don’t care much about them today.

Colts were the most common holster revolvers in the West during the second half of the 19th century. “They were as common as spittoons in a saloon,” writes firearms historian Charles G. Worman in his 2005 book Gunsmoke and Saddle Leather. This was true even though Remington, Smith &Wesson and others made comparable quality arms.

After 1873, write Worman and coauthor Louis A. Garavaglia in their 1985 book Firearms of the American West: 1866–1894,“The [Colt] Single Action Army —termed the ‘Model P’ by the factory and the ‘Peacemaker’ by [Colt retailer] Benjamin Kittredge—commanded the most attention [on the frontier]….Nearly every notable frontier character of the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s owned at least one Peacemaker.” And it was equally well suited to the everyday anonymous Westerner who wanted a simple but strong and reliable gun.

But not all “Colts” were actually Colts. To the old adage, “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door,” add, “Build a better gun, and the world will copy it—legally or illegally.” Such was the case with Colt revolvers.

During the cap-and-ball period of the 1850s, Sam Colt licensed several European manufacturers to make legal copies of Colt revolvers. Most originated in Belgium and were marked COLT BREVETE, which loosely translates to “Licensed by Colt.” Many more, however, were outright forgeries—illegal, unlicensed copies of the various models of cap-and-ball Colts. But it was the post–Civil War popularity of cartridge revolvers, beginning in the early 1870s, that prompted a flood of flagrantly illegal, European-made copies of the Colt Single Action Army Model into the United States by the thousands, through Mexico to avoid U.S. Customs coastal inspectors.

Usually of inferior quality and not made exactly to Colt conformations, these illegal copies often sold for less than half of what a Colt would cost. And most copies were cleverly marked to dupe the buyer into thinking he was actually buying a Colt. Markings like COLT’S SYSTEM or FOR COLT’S CARTRIDGE’S in big bold lettering were common deceptions.

In his 1954 book Colt Firearms from 1836, James Serven noted that during his decades of Colt research, he contacted antique Colt collectors in Europe to find out all he could about the makers of Colt imitations. Serven wrote: “From this careful investigation, there came evidence that only a very few of the pistols made in Belgium, or in any other country of the European continent, were made with Colt’s permission….There is undeniable evidence to indicate that most of these European-made pistols were copied from Colt’s designs, produced in countries where Colt had no protective patents or where his patents were disputed, and sold in direct competition to the genuine Colt patent pistols. It would thus appear that such markings as SYSTEM COLT, etc., were stamped on the pistols to capitalize on Colt’s fame.”

Mostly because of their cheap price, thousands of these Colt forgeries remained in Mexico, especially during the various Mexican revolutions between 1910 and 1920. Unfortunately, no Colt historian besides Serven—to my knowledge and to date—has ever compiled information on the many Colt forgeries produced in the Old West. But one oldtime dealer, “Big Mitch” Luksich, has at least offered a starting point; he tells me he discovered years ago that many European manufacturers of early semiautomatic pistols also made Colt Single Action Army copies as a bread-and-butter item (one copy is marked ANIT & CHAR, for “Anitulla & Charolla,” a European gunmaker).

Although often generically marked, some copies boldly proclaim their origin. An engraved, almost exact .45-caliber copy recently turned up marked FÁBRICA DE ORBEA HERMANOS, EIBAR (ESPAÑA) atop the barrel and QUINTANA HERMANOS IMPORTADORES PARA MEXICO on the side of the barrel, proudly proclaiming the gun’s origins in Spain, made by the Orbea brothers and imported into Mexico by the Quintana brothers. Another pearl-gripped contemporary copy that comes apart like a Remington but looks like a Colt is marked THE .44 CENTRAL CARTRIDGE FITS THIS REVOLVER on the barrel, with a logo and the words MARCA EGISTRADA on the left side of the frame near the additional words MADE IN SPAIN. Another strange copy that looks like a Model 1878 Double Action Colt but has a .44-40–caliber single-action mechanism is marked on the barrel COLT’S CARTRIDGES ARE THOSE THAT FIT BEST THE TUSKARO REVOLVER.

The most exact copy of a Colt Single Action Army I have seen is a .45-caliber duplicate marked on the barrel COL’S PT. F.A. MFG. CO. HARTFORD, CT. U.S.A., with the “t” missing from “Colt,” apparently with the maker’s assumption the average buyer would think he was getting a real Colt.

Not surprising, as newspaper accounts of gunfights seldom provided descriptions of the pistols, I have never run across an anecdote of a shooter using a Colt imitation.

But as Serven summed it up: “European pistols of Colt design do have a rightful interest for the Colt collector and a place in his collection. These are the contemporary pistols—the cheap competition Samuel Colt had to contend with and overcome. Colt succeeded by designing a quality product and by perfecting methods to produce it at a fair price. Few, if any, of the imitations I have handled would compare favorably with a genuine Colt pistol in quality of materials, excellence of workmanship or beauty of finish.”

And as Robert Q. Sutherland and R.L. Wilson added in their 1971 classic The Book of Colt Firearms: “Limited information is available on Belgian copies of Colt firearms, due in part to the relative difficulty of researching data in a foreign country and a lack of enthusiasm amongst many collectors for the foreign product. In time these licensed and unlicensed copies will come into their own, and in the meanwhile they offer the collector a challenging uncharted field.”

Such copies also offer frugal-minded collectors something else—an endless supply of genuine antique revolvers that cost a fraction of what a real single-action Colt costs today.


Originally published in the December 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here