Colt U.S. Swing Out Cylinder Revolvers- The most affordable military revolvers

Lets face it, for many of us that love great old guns, especially those of us bit by the Colt collecting bug, many passionate collectors are simply priced out of the market.  How many times have you gone to a gun show or auction and got completely shot out of the buyer’s market due to the high prices.  When you can’t touch a nice Colt Python for less than $2500 and prices on first generations Single Actions routinely hitting the five figure range. If you are a lover of historic Colts, your plight gets even worse.  You want to collect historical Colts but you just can’t bear the sticker shock with more important issues like children, house payments, doctor bills or maybe living on a retirement fixed income, yes , even a retiree is still young enough to start a new collection!   In fact, collecting keeps us young and it certainly keeps us invigorated.

One area of gun collecting that just seems to get hotter with each passing auction cycle would have to be any area of U.S. military firearms, especially those of the twentieth century.   When discussing US military handguns, they seem to lead the field.  However, if you want to start a collection of Pre-1900 US Colts or maybe your interest leans towards the classic Model 1911 and you don’t want to lower your aim away from a nice all original high condition example, you are simply going to have to have deep pockets.  While there may be a few entry level examples that you can acquire if you want to grow the collection, you will soon hit the proverbial “financial wall.”  If you’re like most collectors, you love Colts,  you love history and you love condition but you have a limited budget.   What is left in this field that offers you an opportunity to have it all at a price you can afford?

Arguably, the most affordable US handgun on the market in the collecting field today that seems to be underpriced compared to others would have to be the swing out cylinder models.

The very first swing out cylinder Colt was introduced as the Model 1889 Navy Revolver.   This series of revolvers endured many changes from the production period beginning with the Model 1889 through the Model 1903 after which, the US Models went back to the large frame, large caliber models of the 1909 and 1917 Colt built on the strong New Service frame and the 1917 N frame Smith & Wesson.   Smith & Wesson issued the Model 1899 swing out cylinder model in approximately the same frame size and in .38 caliber that was adopted by the US military before issuing the N frame 1917 and it would not be until the WWII era before either Smith & Wesson or Colt issued another smaller frame .38 caliber revolver with the Victory and Commando models.   From its introduction in 1912, it was the Colt 1911/A1 model that was the main stay handgun of all the military services until it was replaced by the Italian made Beretta Model 92 in the mid 1980’s.

The Model 1889-1903 series consists of the Models 1889, 1892, 1894,1895,1896, 1901 and the Model 1903.  Beginning with the improved Model 1892, these are all referred to as the New Army and Navy Revolvers.  Amongst this series, they were adopted for service in both the Army and Navy.  While basically identical to the commercial series, all those adopted by the military will be stamped as such on the grip frame and will bear various inspector and sub-inspector stamps.   One rule of thumb holds fast in most fields of military handguns is that any Marine Corp marked weapons lead the pack when it comes to current collector value followed by Navy marked models with the Army models being the most common.   You will not find any Marine Corp models within this series but you will find both Army and Navy purchases in every model except the Model 1889.

Within this series of US revolvers, you will find little to no variations when it comes to finish and caliber.  For the most part, and there may be a rare exception, all the US issued revolvers from this series were issued with a six -inch barrel in caliber .38 long colt with the military blue finish.  Most came standard with two piece plain walnut grips but there were a few made with the gutta percha grips.  That said, this series offers a vast array of models and subtle differences based on continuous updates to the design and various military markings from both branches of service.

The 1889 Navy marked revolver is the most difficult to find today.  Of the 5000 models ordered by the Navy between the years 1889 and 1894, less than 400 were left un-altered!  We have no knowledge of any Model 1889 marked for Army service. The majority of these models having been converted or upgraded between 1896-99 and refinished at that time making  any original finish , non -converted 1889 US Navy marked revolver  a rare bird indeed. I would estimate the current value of a high condition unaltered example in the five figure range when and if an example comes to market.   As for a converted model, it would still be valued north of five thousand dollars depending on condition making this the holy grail for military collectors focused on this series of US revolvers.

Beginning with the Model 1892 throughout the rest of the series concluding with the Model 1903 and ending production in 1907, each subsequent Model exhibited small changes, most of them internal.  Like the Model 1889, the majority of the 1892 Models were returned and brought up to date in 1894 making the Model 1892, in non-upgraded condition, almost as difficult to find.

Any pre- 1898 revolver that can be associated with shipments to Cuba during the Spanish American war are amongst the most valuable of this series and are also getting very difficult to find.  The remainder of this series saw most of their use in the so called “Banana Wars” These were a series of military action in Haiti, Panama, Honduras, Cuba and Nicaragua.  This push of American policy was spear headed by President Roosevelt and his so- called Manifest Destiny.  It is this writer’s opinion that it is the lack of common knowledge as to the purpose of these military actions as compared to well known theaters of war add to their lack of collector value.  People tend to collect items within their field of interest and these actions in the Cuba area after the Spanish American war simply do not connect with this time frame of American military action.

Another reason that this series is often over-looked is that there are few variations compared to many other areas of military firearms collecting.  If one were to collect simply one each of every model marked for both the Army and Navy, would total fourteen un-altered revolvers.   You can add a converted example of the Model 1889 and the 1892 adding three more models.  Also, within this series will be found so called transition models due to the use of earlier parts on later firearms. We have also examined several revolvers that were inscribed with individual’s names and /or presentations   For most, this offers quite a few challenges.  Another factor that should inspire collectors is the overall pricing for most of this series which can still be found in high condition for under a thousand dollars.

Pricing has been and continues to be a challenge for most new collectors due to the entry level prices of more established and popular models such as the Colt SAA or the Model 1911.   The plain truth is that the cost of many collectible areas of gun collecting are just out of reach for ordinary working Americans that love history and want to start a collection but are simply priced out of most markets.  This is very evident with the recent price increases on various military Mausers of the world that seem to have a steady upswing when found with condition and all matching numbers in that they were, and still are, affordable, and offers many challenges to new collectors and are steeped in history.  Most were built of to the highest standards and with all the different models, offers years of happy acquisitions.  But I stray from my original article.

One last note for collectors contemplating this Colt series as an area of interest.  There are the accessories that were issued with them such as holsters, belts, ammo pouches along with military uniforms of that era to build not only a nice gun collection but to complete a more interesting historical well rounded display.

Lastly, once you build a nice collection, share it with others.  Almost every gun show has a special display area in which collectors bring their collections and share their love and knowledge with others.  Most clubs offer awards for great collections and it has nothing to do with value.  It is the degree of expertise in which it is displayed and the in-depth sharing of knowledge and history and a collection displayed in such a way as to excite the show goers has as good a chance to win best display as another that houses weapons worth tens of thousands of dollars more.  Show goers love a display that broadens their knowledge of both history and the weapon that made it.

One last piece of advice is to buy and read every book on any area in which you want to build a collection.   I cannot overstress this advice, get the benefit of knowledge that is shared with beginning collectors.  It will save you thousands of dollars in the long run and keep your collection on tract. Next, get with other collectors and dealers within a club setting and get expert opinions on your purchases so that you don’t get off on the wrong foot, spending good money on not so good guns.  The Colt Collectors Association has a premium show every year in a different city that is packed with Colt Collectors from all over the world and the knowledge within that setting is priceless.  Join them and as one of your benefits, you will receive the quarterly magazine with articles written by the best experts in the world.  Always buy the best condition you can afford but remember, a nice grey gun that has seen a few battles or has some defining history is just as interesting as a closet queen that doesn’t have the back- ground story to tell.  And lastly, buy what you like, not as a financial investment but rather a historical commitment.

The best part of collecting is the history that you will uncover and the new friends you will meet along your journey.


David Bushing