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    Follow the Stories | Mobile, Alabama (2007)

    Armed With a Colt Letter ...


    Posted: 3.28.2007

    Chris, guest, and the gun

    The guest who brought in this 19th-century Colt gun discovered it may have been used in the Civil War.

    Close-up of gun

    Chris says the wear on this gun, like others, comes from taking it in and out of its holster.

    Serial number on gun

    The clue that indicated this gun was sent to the South prior to the Civil War was its tell-tale serial number.

    At the Mobile, Alabama, ANTIQUES ROADSHOW, a woman brought in a wood-gripped Colt Hartford 51 Navy pistol that had a serial number indicating it might have been part of a series of guns sold to the Southern states in the run-up to the Civil War. Appraiser Chris Mitchell, an arms and militara expert in Daphne, Alabama, suggested that the owner could "send off to Colt to try to letter a Hartford Navy... and when that comes back, it can actually influence the value."

    Researching A Gun
    After the show, we called Chris to find out exactly what he meant. "In the trade, we say you can 'send off for a letter,'" he explained, "which means you can get on the phone and call the Colt research department and they'll research the gun by serial number. If they have that information, they send you a letter." Chris points out that factory letters are sent out by firearms companies or companies that search original gun records, such as the Springfield Research Service, which has collected historical state and federal records of guns issued to government soldiers and officers. If the company or government records exist, they send a letter listing what they've discovered about the key features of the gun, such as its caliber, barrel length, special markings, engravings, and when it was originally sold.

    What does it mean to "letter" a gun? Arms expert Chris Mitchell explains

    Learning Where A Gun Went
    A letter can also provide the owner documentation about where a gun was originally delivered — which can affect its value as well. A letter might verify that this Colt Hartford Navy, for example, was sent to the antebellum South, placing it within a dramatic chapter of American history. If the research documents the gun went to a dealer in Mobile, Alabama, it becomes rarer still, because few guns were shipped there. A Mobile provenance increases the value of the gun from $1,500 to between $3,500 and $5,500, Chris says.

    Chris notes that all guns become more valuable when they can be associated with an important place and time in American history. "If you're dealing with a Colt Single Action," he says, "and you can find out if it went out West to places like San Francisco, Denver, or Texas, that's worth more money, too." Kathy Hoyt, a historian at Colt, says that a Texas provenance almost always increases the value of a Colt gun because Texas gun collectors — of whom there are many — will pay top dollar for those guns.

    Learning Who Owned A Gun
    Letters can also link a gun to a particular person or event in history. Charlie Pate, the historian at Springfield Research Service, says he's "documented guns issued to the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War, a Colt revolver used by the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Little Big Horn, a rifle recovered from the battleship "California" sunk at Pearl Harbor, and numerous weapons of Civil War soldiers." Pate was able to link these guns because state and federal records sometimes list the individual soldier a gun was issued to — something that company records rarely do. Factory letters usually only list the dealer a gun was sent to. Two years ago, an individual bought a Colt Single-Action Army in so-so condition for $1,800, Pate says, but when he verified it had been owned by a Rough Rider in the Spanish-American War, the gun was sold again for $24,000.

    Pinning Down Provenance
    Checking the factory specs on a gun also determines a gun's original condition — which influences its value. If it can be verified that a gun was engraved at the factory, for example, it might be worth thousands more than the same gun engraved after it left. "If the gun has any special attributes," Chris says, "such as an engraving, special stocks, an extra-long barrel, I'd recommend getting a letter." Chris recommends this because "there are unscrupulous people who alter these guns, and if you get a letter, it can tell you in what configuration the gun was originally shipped." It's not uncommon for forgers to lengthen barrels, add engravings, or alter other gun components, Chris cautions.

    But getting a letter costs money. To get a letter from Colt costs from $75 to $300, and you'll still pay as much as $100 even if they can't locate your gun's original shipping record. The Springfield Research Service costs between $50 and $150, and Pate notes that he can find records for only about one percent of all guns that were used by the military. "Most of the serial number records were considered temporary," Pate says, "so they were destroyed."

    See the Mobile, Alabama (2007) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.

    More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Arms & Militaria category:
    "American Indian" or "Native American"? (Bismarck, 2006)
    Translation, Please ... (Tampa, 2006)
    So, Whose Pistol Is It? (Honolulu, 2007)
    What's the Deal with Confederate Flags? (Salt Lake City, 2007)

    Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a contributor to Antiques Roadshow Online since 1998.