Pieces of History:
A system for evaluating historically attributed firearms

by Jim Supica

Copyright, Jim Supica - used by permission. Opinions are those of the author and not necessarily those of NRA or the National Firearms Museum.

Originally published in The Blue Book of Gun Values, 17th edition.

Article contents:

A gun with a known historical association is a tangible connection to our collective past, and such connections are rare and precious things.

Precious implies value, value implies price, and the question always arises for a collector: exactly how much is history worth? In 1993, we saw the S&W New Model Number Three reportedly used by Bob Ford to kill Jesse James knocked down for $163,000 on a British auction block. Late in 1994, Theodore Roosevelt's famous Holland and Holland double rifle brought a cool half-million at Butterfield & Butterfield (and that was before the 10% buyers premium)! Obviously, the buyers of these pieces were paying for something more than condition.

What exactly were they buying? How does one assess the history of a gun? An old gun accompanied by a pile of newspaper clippings, documents, and photographs can make a very impressive package. However, more than one collector has paid a handsome premium for such a package, only to discover, sometimes years later, that there is nothing that really ties that particular gun to the individual or event so heavily documented in the paperwork.

Collectors have more or less agreed on a couple quantifiable systems for evaluating the condition of a gun. I'd like to suggest that a similar system for evaluating the historical claims of a gun might be a useful mental tool for the collector or enthusiast.


PRICES OF HISTORY

Here's how I approach it:

The value of a historically attributed gun is the sum of two figures:

The intrinsic value is the gun's "Blue Book" value - its worth as a gun with no story attached, as determined by make, model and condition. In this respect, it is similar to valuing collectible coins.

The historic attribution value is the amount added to the gun's value for the story attached to the gun - its historical ownership or usage. This is usually a far more subjective figure, and is more similar to valuing collectible historical documents.

This historic attribution value is itself the product of two factors:

  1. The historical significance of the individual or event, and
  2. The credibility of the evidence supporting the gun's claim.

Of these two factors, historical significance is the most subjective, and will vary from collector to collector, depending on that individual's interest in the history involved.

A gun's historical claim usually will involve either ownership by a particular individual or usage in a famous or infamous incident. Those with the highest value will have both.

What you are pricing is the fame or notoriety of the individual and/or event in question. Presidents, generals, famous lawmen and outlaws seem to rank highest. Ownership by the most famous of these can easily result in a six figure gun, especially if combined with a particular notorious event.

Ownership by lesser political or military figures, obscure lawmen, or less notorious criminals will still significantly enhance a gun's value.

Even attribution to an essentially unknown individual can add value, usually proportionate to the distance in time and the amount of information that can be dug up on the person in question.

Popular perception can certainly heavily impact the value assigned to historical significance, sometimes in ways that would make an academic historian blanch. Perhaps a way to conceptualize the value of the historical significance is to look at the cumulative media & literature devoted to the individual or event. In ascending value:

You get the drift?

A gun traced back to someone who lived, got married, had a job and died may have a little historical value added, whereas a gun proved to have been used by a legendary character in a notorious Old West shootout may set record prices.


CREDIBILITY

The credibility of a gun's historic claim lends itself to a more objective analysis - an analysis that a prospective buyer ignores at his own financial peril.

I tend to assign a historically attributed gun's credibility a grammar school grade - A,B,C,D, or F. Each grade represents a level of authenticity.

A= Certain.
B= Probable.
C= Plausible.
D= Questionable
F= Impossible.

As with school grades, each level can have a plus or minus rating.

Once a dollar value has been established for the gun's historical significance, a factor can be applied based on the gun's credibility rating. The following scale might serve as a guideline:

A - 100% historical attribution value.
B - 75% to 50% historical attribution value.
C - 50% to 25% historical attribution value.
D -25% to 5% historical attribution value, with the caveat that a "D" gun should never go for more than double the gun's intrinsic value. In most cases, a "D" type story gun will bring only a small premium or perhaps make the gun easier to sell at its intrinsic value.
F - 0% historical attribution value. In fact, the intrinsic value of the gun may be lessened if a disproved historical name has been permanently marked on the gun.


EVALUATING CREDIBILITY

Let's take a closer look at evaluating the credibility of a gun's historical claim:

A. To get an A rating, a gun must inspire a high degree of Certainty that it is what it purports to be. It must be accompanied by documentation which satisfies the following criteria:

  1. Timeliness: The documentation must be from the period of claimed historical association - not from three generations later, and not from 10 years after the fact.
  2. Certain identification: It must specifically identify the individual gun or group of guns in question. Most often this is done by serial number. Occasionally it may be possible to do by photograph or description of specific unique physical characteristics, but extreme caution should be used in relying on such an approach. In some cases, provenance may provide reasonably certain identification, but also should be approached with open-minded skepticism.
  3. Credibility of source: The identification must come from a credible source, one unlikely to intentionally or accidentally misidentify the gun. Factory records or court records are preferable. Newspaper accounts, and signed documents (preferably notarized) from credible individuals may meet this requirement.

A rated guns are very, very rare. Sort of like true "mint" guns.

B. B-rated guns have a high degree of probability that they are as represented. They typically are guns with strong historical documentation, but fall a little short of the stringent criteria required for an A rating.

The most common difference between A and B guns lies in the area of timeliness of the documentation. Often a B gun will have certain identification from a credible source, but the identification will come at some time later than the period of historical use. Often it is the case that the documentation will come from a descendant of the original user, and the gun will have been passed down within the family.

A gun that is rated "B" may also fall short of "A" status by lack of certainty of identification. This is usually a case where a stack of documentation accompanies the gun, and appears to have been with it forever. However, on close examination there is a break in the claim identifying the gun that is with the documentation as the gun referred to in the documents. This is especially common in guns lacking serial numbers or other unique identifying characteristics.

It's my contention that most of the guns which are accepted in the collecting community as "authentic" to a particular ownership are B guns. And it is here that we must address a term that is bandied about quite a bit - provenance.

Provenance seems to be something of a term of art. You find it in $40 a pop four-color high-end auction house catalogs, and esoteric dealer ads. It seems to mean the pedigree of a guns past ownership, and tends to be a document that states something like "This gun was originally owned by Mr. W who gave it to Mrs. X who sold it to Mr. Y who sold it to me, Mr. Z." A gun with superior provenance with separate documents confirming each past owner, each meeting all the A criteria above can easily become an "A" gun.

However, often a study of a gun's provenance will reveal gaps in the documentation. For example, in the hypothetical provenance in the paragraph above, "W to X to Y to Z," the credibility of the gun is tied inextricably not only to the credibility of Mr. Z, but also the credibility and accuracy of W, X & Y.

Remember that several factors other than malfeasance can figure into the misrepresentation of a gun. Guns may be inadvertently switched. There may be errors in the recording of serial numbers or other identifying characteristics. Plus, there is always room for error in intergenerational tale telling. Granddad tells seven-year-old Sonny how Jesse James personally gave him the old owl's head revolver in the night stand. All the adults in the room recognize it for one of Granddad's beloved tall tales. Sixty years later, Sonny is certainly willing to draft an affidavit as to what his granddad told him.

When supporting documentation comes up short in the areas of timeliness or certainty of documentation, it is especially important to look at the credibility of the source of the information. In spite of the Grandpa & Sonny illustration above, I tend to give most credence to notarized statements from the descendants of the original owner.

I also believe that the better dealers of antique and historic arms realize that their continued success in the business rests only on their long term reputation for veracity and fairness. A written statement from such an individual outlining the purported history of a piece can go a long way to establishing B status in my mind. The contents of any such statement must be carefully evaluated, and a conscientious dealer will make clear exactly what is known about the gun and the source of that information.

There was a recent Country & Western song, "That's my story and I'm stickin' to it." A gun can acquire something like B status in the same manner. If a particular gun establishes a particular claim and sticks to it long enough, it comes to be accepted as factual. This usually occurs through the magic of publication. If a gun is pictured in a book or magazine and represented to be a particular historic artifact, it comes to be accepted as such. The effect is magnified by repeated publication or passage of years, much in the way that it is said that old buildings and old whores establish respectability.

I must confess, I have a hard time fighting my knee-jerk reaction to accept whatever appears in print. However, I try to take an extra hard look at a "B by publication" gun to see if it might fall into the D or F categories.

Some gun cranks are fond of saying that a historically attributed gun must be provable in a court of law. This is essentially a good perspective, but any lawyer will tell you there are varying standards of proof. An A gun is provable beyond a reasonable doubt, while a B gun holds its claim by a preponderance of the evidence.

To put it another way, a B gun is an A gun, but less so.

C. C rated guns are plausible. They feel right, but you can't prove or disprove them. A good C gun will often be supported by some sort of documentation. There are several general types of guns that I tend to give C status:

Dealer-lettered guns - as discussed above, a thorough and well drafted report from a reputable dealer or researcher will put a gun squarely in the B or C category, depending on what the statement reveals. To me, a blanket statement that "This gun belonged to so and so" raises serious questions as to the credibility. The document must state the writer's reasons for accepting the gun's history. The best ones are "Joe Friday" letters - "Just the facts, ma'am."

C Guns Continued:
Stack'o clippings guns - You've seen them. A gun displayed under glass with yellowed newspaper clippings, old letters, service records, tintypes, a rusty badge, etc. They are very impressive and nearly always fascinating. The problem is, there is nothing in writing directly connecting the specific gun in question to the individual or deed so lavishly reported.

Self-testifying guns - That is, a gun whose historic claim in based solely on a marking on the gun itself. Usually these are guns with an individual's name etched, engraved, or otherwise marked on them. Probably many are authentic, but the fact remains that, lacking other information, they cannot be proven. CAVEAT - The credibility of a self-testifying gun is inversely proportional to the fame of the individual in question. I.e., on a Civil War era revolver, I would give 98% credibility to a gun inscribed "To Cpl. Joe Blow from his mother" and 2% credibility to one inscribed "To Capt. G. A. Custer from Gen. U. S. Grant."

D. A "D" gun is a C gun that has a faint odor to it. Something about them makes their claim questionable, but not impossible.

I tend to classify self-testifying guns with famous names inscribed on them "D" status. Also, inscribed guns where the method of inscription doesn't look quite right.

Most story guns which lack documentation must be considered D guns. Especially if the seller is not willing to put the story in the form of a notarized statement.

Often D guns require a sizable leap of faith, such as, "Well, sure, most Wells Fargo guns were marked with a line stamp, but this one was probably done at a little branch office out west where they didn't have a regular stamp and couldn't spell too good …" or "Yeah, I know he said, 'Never trust a woman or an automatic pistol,' but this is probably the 1911 that jammed on him and make him say that." All of which brings us to …

F. For Fake. For Fraud. For Fail. For Impossible, no way Jose.

These are guns that are just flat wrong on their face. Most common and obvious examples are the many six-guns attributed to various Old West desperadoes that by serial number were made years after their death.


TYPE OF HISTORY CLAIMED

While we've been discussing these ratings mostly in terms of association with a particular historical individual, they can also be applied to the credibility of other historical claims, such as military, police, or agency usage; period of engraving; or attribution of engraving to a particular artist.
Please note that when using this letter rating system, you must specify exactly what historical claim is being rated. In application a single gun may have different ratings for different claims.

Consider a Colt Single Action Army Cavalry model in the so-called "7th Calvary" serial number range. Assuming the gun itself and all its markings are correct, it might be considered an "A" as a US military gun, a "B" as an Indian War gun, a "C" as a Little Big Horn gun, and a "D" or "F" as Gen. Custer's personal sidearm.


EXAMPLES

Let's see how this system would apply to some examples. To avoid threatening letters, we'll consider guns which are either from my personal collection, or which have been widely reported in the gun press, or where I've changed the names to protect the guilty.

We'll start out by considering four different guns associated with Theodore Roosevelt:

>[?The first is a beautiful little engraved S&W lemon squeezer with pearl grips, the engraving featuring a representation of a mustachioed pistol wielding horseman bearing a passing resemblance to Theodore Roosevelt as a Rough Rider. It is accompanied by a letter from a leading West Coast gun dealer and auctioneer, reporting that the gun came from a prominent South American family, and that family legend was that it had been given to their ancestor by Roosevelt during his South American explorations. The S & W factory "letters" it as a special order gun shipped to a major distributor, further details not known.

The little gun has a good "feel" to it. It is known that TR took a S&W on his South American expedition. Roosevelt featured a hand drawn illustration of a lemon squeezer in one of his books. The revolver strives mightily for a "B" rating. However, it must remain a "C" gun, especially considering Roosevelt's prominence. It is a "story gun", with some supporting documentation from a credible source and with supporting circumstances, but sadly lacking in timeliness of its documentation. "C."

The next gun is a cased S&W New Model #3, acquired from a prominent East Coast gun auctioneer. It is accompanied by a letter signed by a descendent of Henry Cabot Lodge, stating that the gun had been presented to Lodge by his good friend Theodore Roosevelt. The factory letter states that there is no shipping information available on the gun. This could be consistent with a gun pulled from production for special presentation to a prominent individual, but also could have several other equally possible explanations.

Again, it sounds like a good candidate for "B" status. However, the letter did not identify the gun by serial number. This problem was rectified to some degree by obtaining notarized statements from the auctioneer and intervening owner of the gun that the revolver referred to in the letter was in fact the gun in question. All told, I consider this gun to warrant a "B" rating as one owned by Henry Cabot Lodge, but a "C" rating as a Roosevelt gun.

The third is another New Model Number Three, this one factory engraved with target sites, chambered for the .38 service round. It is accompanied by a notarized letter from a prominent dealer stating that it was reportedly purchased from a descendant of Roosevelt's valet, corroborated by a prominent collector. The icing is a factory letter stating that the gun was shipped to Col. Roosevelt in 1898. I give this gun an "A" on strength of the factory records.

It might be interesting to consider the Theodore Roosevelt Holland & Holland double rifle which recently brought the record price at Butterfields. The exact and complete provenance of this gun is known from when it left the factory, specially made for TR for his African safari and commissioned by a group of prominent individuals whose names appear inside the lid of the gun case. There are photos of TR on safari with this exact gun and its sequence of ownership is well known and documented up to present date. An "A" gun if ever there was one.

Compare this to "the gun that killed Jesse James," which was also recently sold at auction. For most of the 20th century, the S&W has had the reputation of the gun used to do the wicked deed. In fact it reportedly went back to the S&W factory for engraving of the inscription on its side commemorating the event. However, a look at the supporting documentation raises some questions.

The story is that the gun was given by Bob Ford to the young son of the Marshal who briefly jailed the Ford brothers after the shooting, in appreciation for kindness to the imprisoned Fords by the boy. The date of the earliest documentation appears to be a 1904 affidavit and newspaper article. Yes, this is along time ago, but it is also 22 years after the incident in question!

The waters are muddied further by the fact that there is another gun out there with the same claim - a Colt Single Action Army mentioned by Ford in a newspaper article a month after the shooting. It helps not a bit that an 1882 newspaper account of the incident records the gun variously as a "Colt's .45" AND a "Smith & Weston" (sic).

Where does that leave us? I'd give the gun a solid "B" as a Bob Ford gun, and it certainly approaches "B by publication" status. However, given the conflicting claim, it seems to exist in some sort of schizophrenic "B/D" limbo as the gun that laid poor Jesse in his grave.

Consider Wyatt Earp's S&W American as another example showing that many of our greatest historic guns exist in the "B" to "D" rating range. This is the beautifully engraved gun that was used by the Franklin Mint as its model for the Wyatt Earp reproduction which graces the walls of many Old West buffs around the country. It currently resides in the outstanding Gene Autry Western Meritage Museum in Los Angeles.

The museum reports, "It is, in fact, dangerous to assume that it is a gun carried by Wyatt Earp. At one time, the gun was exhibited in a small Tombstone museum with pearl grips and the name of John Clum. Those grips have disappeared and new looking walnut grips have taken their place. A number of writers have questioned this gun, others have endorsed." Give the gun an "A" as a great Western gun, and a "C-/D+" as Earp's.

This might be a good point to consider the reports of incredible time-travel guns. For many years, a Colt SAA has been prominently displayed in a small midwestern museum as the gun given to a local doctor by outlaw Bob Dalton in payment for medical services. Perhaps its most intriguing characteristic is the fact that its serial number shows it was manufactured 11 years after old Bob met his final reward.

My pet theory here is alien abduction. However other explanations may occur to the thoughtful reader. "F."

Self-testifying guns are always intriguing, but must be approached with caution when considering likelihood of authenticity. This is illustrated by an engraved pair of S&W .44 Double Action First Models which surfaced in different parts of the country, each with a semi-famous Western name engraved on the backstrap - "Billy Dixon" on one and "Allen Parmer, Texas" on the other.

Either gun by itself might rate a "C" as a self-testifying gun. However, taken together, some questions arise. The engraving is rather crude, but an identical pattern is used on each. In each case it is difficult to guess the age of the engraving.

While it is certainly possible that the same frontier engraver did both guns, the fact remains that the .44 DA is a relatively inexpensive old west six shooter which might have value enhanced considerably by fraudulent engraving & attribution.

In historical attribution, skepticism must rule, and the coincidence raises enough questions to put the guns in "D" status unless further information can be developed.

Which brings us to the subject of "discovered" guns - a gun whose history is not known, but is developed by a researcher. And here is where a potential buyer must proceed with utmost caution.

There is a gun in circulation which has been attributed to a certain very notorious Old West outlaw. The owner discovered the attribution by examining an old photo which may or may not have been the individual in question, and deciding the grainy blob sticking out of the holster in the photo was the self-same gun he happened to have. By proclaiming this association long enough, the gun began to have a life of its own, and garnered quite a bit of press. Without additional documentation, however, it remains a "D" gun.

And, it is no doubt for sale to the first reasonable offer in the mid-five figures …


FACTORY LETTERS

"Factory letter" has come to be a generic term meaning a letter from a recognized authority based on a search of the gun's manufacturer's original records as to the disposition of a gun from the factory. It is one of the most powerful tools available to you in researching the authenticity of a gun's historical attribution.

Under optimal circumstances, it will show the purchaser of the gun from the factory (usually a distributor, sometimes an individual), the date it was shipped, the configuration of the gun (finish, barrel length, caliber, etc), and any special features. Sometimes, incomplete factory documents mean some of these elements will be missing.

Any gun that has value added for history should have a factory letter if available. At a minimum, the factory letter should not show information inconsistent with the claimed history. It's helpful if the disposition is consistent with the historical claim (i.e., gun in same configuration, shipped to same geographical area at plausible date, etc.) Under the best of circumstances, it may confirm shipment to the individual claimed.

Generally speaking, the more information you provide in your request, the more likely the researchers can find something interesting if there is something to be found. At a minimum, include positive identification of the mode, serial number, caliber, and any special features.

Remember, like guns, documentation can be faked! Most factory letter sources will write a fresh letter on a gun that has already been lettered for a reduced fee in order to confirm the information in the previous letter. Also, bear in mind that it is not unknown for serial numbers to be altered on guns to correspond to an historically attributed gun.

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