Compared to other infamous stagecoach holdups of the Wild West, the robbery of a southbound stage near Sacramento, California, in 1902 was rather tame. Although not one of those blood-and-thunder incidents that attract frontpage attention, this early 20th-century holdup did grab headlines throughout the state because of the holdup man’s weapon—an obsolete Civil War period Remington cap-and-ball Army Model revolver more than three decades past its prime. And the story of the bungled robbery illustrates the high reputation that the Remington six-shooters had with good guys and badmen alike, even in the sunset years of the shoot-’em-up era.
The strange saga began to unfold on Wednesday evening, September 3, 1902, when the stage from Sacramento to Walnut Grove was stopped four miles north of Courtland at about 8 o’clock by a lone masked robber wielding an old long-barreled revolver. The driver, Ed Bryan, was eating a sandwich, and he had just turned the reins over to passenger Joseph Fisher. There were three other passengers on the stage, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Isham of Courtland and a stranger who was never identified.
A 1937 newspaper article quotes Bryan as remembering that the bandit shouted: “Get out of there and do as I tell you and nobody’ll get hurt. I mean business.” A 1902 newspaper account described what happened next: “The highwayman bundled the passengers out of the stage, lined them up with their hands in the air, and beginning at the head of the line, made a systematic search of the pockets of some of them, standing behind their backs as he did so, and shifting his big revolver from one hand to the other as occasion required. Isham was next to the last man in line, and as the robber finished with the man next to him, he shifted the revolver from his left to his right hand. Isham saw his chance. He grabbed the barrel of the gun with his left hand and swung his right against the mask, which he tore from the head of the robber. The revolver was discharged, the powder burning Mr. Isham’s hand, but he wrenched the weapon from the highwayman and swung it for his head. The thug, who was big and strong, dodged, but caught the blow on the shoulder, and went down under it. He was up in a second, and got three more blows from the butt of the revolver before he escaped into the brush.”
Another newspaper article added: “The robber’s pistol was kept at full cock all the time before it went off. The pistol was left in Isham’s hand when the highwayman fled.” The weapon, the article noted, “was out of order and would not work after the first discharge.” The robber got away, but he had only taken $16 from Fisher and $4.50 from Bryan before Isham overpowered him. Left behind were the $50 that Isham had in his pocket and the $160 in gold coins that Bryan had hidden inside the coach.
In his 1937 interview, Bryan added, “We never heard of the bad man again, but he left the gun behind, and it turned out to be an old powder-and-ball pistol that an escaped convict had stolen from a Chinese at Mormon Island.” Two different September 4, 1902, newspaper articles agreed in their description of the robbery weapon. One of them colorfully stated that it was “an antiquated Remington, dated 1858, with a barrel eight-inches long and loads with powder, ball and cap, instead of using the modern cartridge.”
Within a few days after the robbery, Undersheriff David Reese and Deputy Sheriff Charles Schwilk had identified the escaped convict as William A. Scott, who had vamoosed from a Folsom Prison work gang on August 22. He had stolen a gun and held up a farmhand for $3 just five minutes before he stopped the stage. Scott was identified by a tattoo of a heart on his right wrist and by the passengers who had seen his face when Isham ripped the gunny-sack mask, cut with eye-holes, from the robber’s head. Nevertheless, Scott was apparently never caught.
Isham, the daring passenger, kept the old Remington and soon scratched “Sept. 3, 1902” on the right side of the barrel just forward of the frame. The six-shooter, serial number 111482, remained in his family until it recently went into a private historical collection. Isham never unloaded the other five chambers of the cylinder of the revolver, and they are still fully loaded.
The Remington company’s namesake, Eliphalet Remington II, born in 1793, produced his first gun, an octagon barreled flintlock rifle, in 1816 at his father’s forge in Ilion Gorge, N.Y. Eliphalet’s three sons joined him in the gun-making business during the cap-and-ball period. Philo (born in 1816) began work in 1839, and by 1852 Samuel (born in 1818) and Eliphalet III (born in 1828) had also come aboard, the company name becoming E. Remington & Sons.
As Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms sums up the Remington history: “A key observation…of [Eliphalet Remington II] as well as his successors, is that they were arms makers and manufacturers—not inventors or innovators. They sought and acquired inventions from others.” During its heyday in the 19th century, the Remington company produced a wide variety of firearms, but four of them had the greatest impact on the making of the Old West—the .44 cap-and-ball revolver, the rolling block rifle, the cartridge single-action revolver and the double derringer.
For decades, collectors have called the 8-inch-barreled .44-caliber Remington cap-and-ball revolver used in the 1902 holdup an “1858 Remington,” mostly because of the 1858 patent date marked on the barrel. It was the final version of a design invented by a Remington gunsmith named Fordyce Beals. About 132,000 were made from 1862 to 1875, and it is now commonly called the New Model Army. From 1863 to 1875, about 22,000 slightly smaller .36-caliber versions were marketed as the New Model Navy. And from 1866 to 1879, about 1,000 of the Army and Navy models were made as revolving rifles.
The standard finish of all Remington cap-and-ball revolvers was blue, with walnut grips, and Remington’s solid-frame design and quality made them Colt’s biggest competitor. Their unique webbed loading lever also gave the Remingtons a distinctive look, one popular with Hollywood Western makers of the 1940s and ’50s.
One version of the New Model Army also became the first large-caliber cartridge revolver to be produced as a new gun in the United States. In 1868 Smith & Wesson’s small production facilities couldn’t handle the demand for its cartridge revolvers, so it licensed Remington to make 5,000 New Model Army cartridge “conversions” (five-shot, .46-caliber rimfire cylinders) for two years. And when Smith & Wesson’s patent monopoly on cartridge revolvers ran out in 1869, Remington cap-and-ball revolvers were altered to use a “conversion” cartridge cylinder that kept the guns in demand on the post–Civil War frontier.
Eliphalet Remington II died in 1861, so he wasn’t around to see his company’s massive growth during the Civil War. Remington’s production facilities and its debts expanded to the limit, however, and the government abruptly canceled all arms contracts when the war ended in April 1865.
A new gun temporarily saved the company from bankruptcy—the Remington single-shot rolling block cartridge rifle. Introduced in the winter of 1865-66, the rolling block rifle was an instant success. Its breech block could be “rolled” backward, a cartridge inserted in the breech, and the block “rolled” forward and the hammer cocked so rapidly that Remington claimed expert riflemen could fire 17 shots a minute out of it.
Remington continued to offer new cap-and-ball (percussion) revolvers until 1888. But in the meantime, in 1875 the cap-and-ball New Model Army with its conversion cartridge cylinder evolved into Remington’s first big-caliber production line single-action cartridge revolver, originally called the Improved Army and known today as the Model 1875 single action. Like its cap-and-ball predecessor, the six-shot Model 1875 single action became one of Colt’s biggest competitors on the frontier. Except for custom orders, it was produced in 71⁄2-inch barrel length and in .44 Remington caliber, and in 1879 it was also offered in .44-40 and .45 government caliber. Its standard finish was blue, with oil-finished wood grips and a lanyard ring in the butt, and its webbed ejector housing made its appearance unique and easily recognizable from the Colt Single Action Army. About 25,000 Model 1875 revolvers were made before production stopped in 1889.
Even the success of its rolling block rifles and revolvers wasn’t enough to keep the Remington family out of bankruptcy. In 1888 Marcellus Hartley—who in 1854 had created the firearms distribution company Schulyer, Hartley and Graham, and in 1867 the Union Metallic Cartridge Company—bought Remington to save it from dissolution. The company name was changed to the Remington Arms Company, and in 1891 a new version of the Model 1875, with the webbing of the ejector housing cut away, was assembled and sold in 71⁄2-inch and 51⁄2- inch barrel lengths and in .44-40 caliber only, with hard rubber grips instead of wood, and without the lanyard ring. Still advertised as the Improved Army, the gun is known today as the Model 1890 single action. Only about 2,000 were produced before production stopped in 1894. Also, some transition guns made up of Model 1875 and Model 1890 parts were sold and are now loosely categorized as the Model 1888 single action.
Remington’s other famous frontier pistol, the .41-caliber rimfire over-and-under tip-up barreled two-shot derringer, labeled the Double Derringer, was invented by William H. Elliot and produced from 1866 to 1935. In the early years, the standard finish was blue, with wood grips, but later guns were usually nickled and had black rubber grips. More than 150,000 were made, and the Double Derringer became the most popular “back-up” and “gambler’s” gun of the cartridge era of the Old West (as well as a featured gun in hundreds of Western movies and TV shows).
Remington no longer produces pistols, though old six-shooters, such as the one that saw new life in a 1902 stage robbery, will never be forgotten. And the company’s high quality rifles and shotguns of today have a lot going for them, including that old reliable “handle.” Remington is the oldest manufacturer of civilian firearms in the United States.
Originally published in the February 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.