Of all the guns of the Old West that have their history unquestionably documented and “carved in stone,” as the saying goes, the handful or so known to have been used in, and to have survived, the massacre of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his troops of the 7th Cavalry near the Little Bighorn River on June 25 and 26, 1876, are so coveted that very rarely are any ever offered for sale nowadays.
When one does turn up for sale, it takes a buyer with the combination of a dedicated passion for frontier history and a pretty fat wallet to be able to add it to his collection. And when a previously unknown one is discovered after nestling undetected in a private collection for years, it becomes an unexpected “find” of great historical significance.
One time, the gunsmith son of a Southern California Colt collector was reading John A. Kopec and Sterling Fenn’s 1994 book Colt Cavalry & Artillery Revolvers… a Continuing Study when several short paragraphs jogged his memory. As Kopec and Fenn tell the story: “Three Little Bighorn damaged Seventh Cavalry Colt revolvers are recorded in documents found in the National Archives. These documents relate to a Board of Survey convened at Fort Rice, Dakota Territory, on December 5, 1876. As a result of that survey, serial numbers 5743, 5773 and 6559 are listed in a group of ‘unserviceable small arms’ collected from the Seventh Cavalry by the Chief Ordnance officer at the Department of Dakota during the second quarter of 1877. The report states that the revolvers were received from [Little Bighorn survivor] Captain F. W. Benteen of the Seventh Cavalry and were: ‘Rendered unserviceable in action against hostile Indians at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, M.T., on the 25th and 26th of June 1876 [my italics].’
“At least two of these ‘Unserviceable’ [7 1⁄2-inch-barreled] Little Bighorn revolvers were in [a] group of 1,200 revolvers returned to Colt for refurbishing in November 1895,” the authors continue. “Numbers 5743 and 6559 were repaired and altered to the [5 1⁄2- inch-barreled] Artillery model, and are recorded in the Colt records for January 1896. They apparently were re-issued by the Army, but have not surfaced [my italics] or been recorded in our survey of extant Artillery revolvers.
“The 1,200 revolvers that were returned to Colt in November 1895 were disassembled, repaired and had their barrels cut to 5 1⁄2 inches. They then were refinished and re-assembled with matching serial numbers, or possibly with a mismatched barrel only. Later, Colt factory altered Artillery revolvers were re-assembled with mixed serial numbers.”
In disbelief, the Colt collector’s son went tentatively to his father’s gun safe and took out an old, refinished Single Action Army Model Colt with its barrel cut down from its original 7 1⁄2-inch length to the 5 1⁄2-inch length of an Artillery Model. The serial number on its frame was 6559! And the serial numbers on its other parts were mixed or missing, just as they usually are on most of the Artillery Model Colt single-actions.
It should be explained here that the standard barrel length of the early .45- caliber Colt Single Action Army Model revolvers that the U.S. Army issued to its troops—including Custer and his men—was 7 1⁄2 inches. Army-issue Colts with this barrel length were called the Cavalry Model. These early Cavalry Model revolvers were serial numbered on five major parts: the bottom of their 7 1⁄2-inch barrels, the bottom of the frame, the front of the trigger guard, the bottom of the backstrap (the butt) and the side of the cylinder (the inside of the wood grips were also usually numbered in pencil). But during the years leading up to the turn of the 20th century, the Army began sending some of its Cavalry Models back to its federal Springfield Armory and to Colt to be refurbished and their barrels cut down to 5 1⁄2 inches (the Artillery Model). So collectors know that—as desirable as a Colt is with all matching serial numbers—rarely is a genuine Artillery Model Colt found that does have matching numbers. So mixed serial numbers on 5 1⁄2-inch-barreled Artillery Model Colts do not hurt the collectors’ value of the gun. And it should also be noted that the left side of the frame of Army-issued Cavalry and Artillery model single-action Colts is marked with the large capital letters “U.S.” to designate that the guns were Army property.
And so, the Serial No. 6559 Colt ended up with No. 2567 on its trigger guard, the number polished off its butt, no number visible on its cylinder, but with the “U.S.” still clearly marked on the left side of the frame.
Unfortunately, there is no known history of where Serial No. 6559 was used after Benteen turned it in. It is known, though, that some Colts were left in storage at the Springfield Arsenal for several years. And after No. 6559 was redone at Colt in 1896, the U.S. Army probably reissued it in 1898 for service during the Spanish American War. But we don’t know where it was after that historic military clash, before its unknowing, current owner horse-traded for it some years ago.
No, we don’t know whether No. 6559 was used by one of Colonel Custer’s men, one of Captain Benteen’s men or one of Major Marcus Reno’s men. And no, all of the parts that are now on Serial No. 6559 didn’t see battle at the Little Bighorn.
But the basic gun did.
And with the indisputable provenance of the words “Rendered unserviceable in action against hostile Indians at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, M.T.” coming directly from Captain Benteen and from period U.S. Army documents, Serial No. 6559 Colt becomes a national treasure—a passionate link to one of America’s most controversial, heroic icons, to one of the most infamous tragedies of Manifest Destiny, and to the unfortunate U.S. government exploitation of the American Indian.
Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Wild West.