An inevitable question that every gun collector asks is, “who owned this gun?” It’s a question whose answer is usually lost to history, since the idea of keeping records about who bought what gun is, in the United States, a relatively modern phenomenon, and an incomplete one at that. But a gun occasionally tantalizes the interested historian with clues about its first owner, as this particular gun demonstrates.
Colt’s Revolving Pocket Pistol, known to collectors as the “Model of 1849,” put Samuel Colt on the map as a firearms manufacturing empire. There wee over 300,000 of these guns produced during its 26 year production run, and the seemingly endless varieties and permutations of caliber, barrel length, cylinder capacity and accouterments make this gun a collector’s favorite; so much so that there’s an entire book dedicated to it.
This particular Colt Pocket was bought from a local man helping his sister sell her gun collection. She owned a gun store in Arizona in the 1970’s, and this particular gun was brought in by a customer. Or something like that. As Colt Pockets go, it’s in average condition with only a hint of the silver plating remaining on the brass near the base of the hammer. The steel parts show evidence of corrosion and pitting, and all of the original blue finish is gone. To be fair, the gun is a survivor that has weathered the past 150+ years well, but it has seen its fair share of use—evidence that this was a working tool.
Blessedly, this gun is “numbers matching” and wears matching serial numbers on the back strap, trigger guard, frame, barrel, ramrod, cylinder, and wooden grip. It’s a nice reprieve from many of the frankenguns that are often found at gun shows, which are cobbled together from parts that came from many different guns.
There is one particular detail about this gun that stands out: the name engraved on the backstrap. A. Gibson. It was a detail I hadn’t noticed when I first bought it; I discovered the delicate letters only after giving the back strap a quick degreasing.
This begs the million-dollar question: who is A. Gibson?
If Mr. Gibson had been given a less conventional name like Jubal Early or Moxley Sorrell, then there would be little doubt about who owned the gun. But A. Gibson was not uncommon, and with a bit of research I was able to determine just how many Gibsons owned the gun.
To try to solve this mystery, I first needed to know when this gun was shipped from the factory. A quick call to Colt’s historians confirmed my fear: that the factory record for this gun, like those 1of many other Pocket Revolvers, were lost in the company’s factory fire in 1864, and subsequent factory flooding in the 1930’s. Sometimes we get lucky and can find out that the gun was shipped to, say, Oregon, and we could then make an educated guess that it gun was purchased by Lane County settler Archibald William Gibson. Absent this information, though, we have to start with some assumptions.
The first assumption is when the gun shipped from the factory. The serial number of this gun (in the 173,000 range) dates it to 1859 (according to Robert M. Jordan’s excellent book on the topic; see page 287). Of the approximately 25,000 guns produced that year, this would have fallen about halfway through the year’s production, so a fair guess may be that the gun was finished in June or July.
The problem, of course, is determining how many A. Gibson’s were living in the United States in the middle of 1859. It’s a complex question with no easy answer, but history provides us with one good clue: the 1860 United States Census. There are several commercial services that have indexed the censi, and I relied on ancestry.com‘s 1860 United States Federal Census lookup to understand the scope of the problem. Of course, this introduces several more assumptions.
The main assumption is that our A. Gibson didn’t die in the year between when this gun is thought to have been made, and when the census was taken (which was in the latter half of 1860). According to findagrave.com there were only about twenty A. Gibsons that died in 1859 and 1860, and of these only 6 are men (more on this in a minute). So it’s within the realm of possibility that A. Gibson bought this beautiful gun and shortly thereafter found himself on the wrong side of the dirt, but the chances are statistically low.
Another assumption is that the 1860 census is complete. As this blogger notes, census records are notoriously wrong for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which was that some people (perhaps including a few that coveted their guns) didn’t want to be on the government’s radar. The census is an important tool for historians and there’s a good chance that our A. Gibson is listed in it, but we can’t take that information as the undisputed truth (in the same way that no single primary source should be wholly trusted).
Compounded with that last problem is the challenge of names and spellings. Was “A” our Gibson’s first initial, or did he go by his middle initial? If we cast a net wide enough to find all of the Gibsons living in the United States in 1860, we’d probably find tens of thousands of entries.
Another assumption we have to make is the age and gender of the buyer. Yes, it’s possible that the buyer was 14 year old Almira Gibson of Polk County, Oregon, where a sturdy revolver would have been a necessity in the frontier that had only become a state some months prior. But given that this wasn’t a cheap gun (made even more expensive by the custom engraving), and given that guns have historically been more of a masculine enterprise, it’s reasonable to guess that our A. Gibson was an adult male.
Accordingly, I limited the search to males that were over the age of 14, and whose given name began with A. Even with all of these (possibly bad) assumptions, a few hours of research resulted in a list of 303 names. 303 names spread across 32 states and ranging in age from 14 to 77.
History rarely provides us with the neat and tidy answers we’d like to questions like Who is A. Gibson?, and this question may forever remain unanswered. Absent the discovery of more Colt factory records (unlikely) or an invoice from 1859 or 1860 to an A. Gibson for a Colt pocket revolver (similarly unlikely), it’s a virtual certainty that we’ll have to content ourselves with who A. Gibson might have been. The census gives us some clues about this; enough to tantalize the imagination. To wit:
The states with the highest per capita population of A. Gibsons are the Kansas Territory (6.5 per 100,000), Oregon (3.8 per 100,000), Utah Territory (2.5 per 100,000) and Vermont (1.9 per 100,000). Based on a per capita analysis, there’s a good chance that this gun was, quite literally, in the wild west.
The absolute numbers tell a somewhat different story. New York state’s 31 A. Gibsons and Pennslvania’s 29 A. Gibsons collectively represent almost 20% of America’s A. Gibson population. If we include Tennessee, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Massachusetts and Virginia, we have over 50% of the country’s A. Gibsons. Based on this entirely different analysis, there’s a good chance this gun was owned in one of the well-populated states east of the Mississippi.
In other words: this gun could have gone anywhere. By the late 1850’s there were many well-established gun distributors including Cincinnati’s well-known Benjamin Kittredge (a good topic for a future blog post), so our list of 303 A. Gibsons represent as many feasible possibilities.
Another consideration is socioeconomics. The 1860 census included, among other details, the values of one’s real estate and personal estate. By this measure, the wealthiest A. Gibson was the 32 year old planter living in Issaquena County, Mississippi, whose net worth was around a quarter of a million dollars. Other wealthy A. Gibsons include a 40 year old planter in Tensas Parish, Louisiana; a 28 year old farmer living in Cabarrus County, North Carolina; a 42 year old farmer living in Gallatin County, Kentucky; and a a 64 year old insurance agent living in Jackson County, Michigan. It’s easy to imagine that all of these men may have found utility for one of Colt’s revolvers, and their pecuniary means would have made a personalized engraved pistol a distinct possibility; perhaps more than the 35 year old German-born broom maker living in Henry County, Illinois.
Now, a confession: I knew going into this exercise that it would be largely futile. The chances of finding a detail about one of these hundreds of A. Gibsons that would tie him to the gun (or the possibility that this gun was sold internationally, or to a woman, or to an A. Gibson that was not in the census, etc., etc.) means that this gun will probably never achieve the rarified status of having its earliest provenance confirmed with a high degree of certainty.
But this is OK. Whoever A. Gibson is, he/she can rest assured knowing that the pistol that was monogrammed with such loving care lives on as a treasured artifact in the hands of an appreciative collector.