September 21, 2011
As we say goodbye to the centennial of the Model 1911 pistol and the extra attention John Browning's iconic design has received, it's easy to overlook another All-American handgun with an even longer history and even more fervent fan base: Sam Colt's Single Action Army.
Nowhere was that more evident than on a hot summer day in Los Angeles as the Autry National Center threw open the doors on the newly refurbished Greg Martin Colt Gallery. People crowded into the small gallery, some dressed in period western garb (it was the Autry's National Day of the Cowboy and Cowgirl celebration, after all), and peered into the glass cases for a glimpse of history.
I'd been to the Autry several times over the past decade and never passed up the chance to peek into the Colt gallery, but I'd always found it a little lacking. That was then.
"We've started working on revamping the collection last year, and it's the first time the collection has focused solely on revolvers," assistant curator Jeffrey Richardson told me. "The exhibit had been traveling for the past couple of years, so on its return to the gallery [which is named for auctioneer and gun collector Greg Martin] it was redone."
The results are impressive. The one gun that Richardson points to as the single piece that makes the perfect connection for the Autry and its American West focus is Theodore Roosevelt's Single Action Army. Unlike other guns with connection to U.S. presidents, of which there are several, this is a gun that Roosevelt purchased himself and used extensively in his ranching days — before his entry into national politics.
"Roosevelt wanted to be the best-equipped and best-dressed rancher in the Dakotas," Richardson said, and to that end Roosevelt had the SAA customized with engraving throughout, ivory grips with a buffalo engraved on one side and "TR" on the other — as well as gold plating on the ejector rod, cylinder and hammer, plating that has been worn off by hard use.
It would take more space than I have to list all the cool Colts in the gallery. Of the 100 total guns in the gallery, 50 are Single Action Armys. Here are a few highlights I thought deserved mention:
- â€¢ SAA serial number S1
- â€¢ An original buntline. Only 30 of these were produced, and only 12 to 15 are known to exist
- â€¢ A selection of Patterson Colts, including a revolving rifle and shotgun
- â€¢ The only SAA ever produced in .44 Magnum
- â€¢ Several opulently engraved revolvers designed by Tiffany
The Martin gallery showcases revolvers given to U.S. presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. You can also view guns owned by such Hollywood luminaries as Tom Mix, Slim Pickens and, of course, Gene Autry — along with a few historic revolvers owned by Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.
It's a collection you have to see for yourself to appreciate. So if you're a Colt fan and find yourself in the Los Angeles area (the Autry is located in Griffith Park, between Burbank and Glendale), make an effort to see a fascinating slice of American history.