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By John Dugan

Researching Historically Inscribed Firearms

Retracing Their Steps....

A Guide for Researching Inscribed Civil War Firearms
by Tom LoPiano Jr. (December,1980 Man at Arms)

THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR WILL LONG BE REMEMBERED as one of the most colorful and romantic periods in our country's history. It was, in a sense, a "people's war", not fought by highly trained, professional armies, but a war in which whole populations were thrown into a life and death struggle to preserve personal and family ideals and ways of lives. Throughout the war, the tide of battle frequently hinged not so much on the superiority of modern technology in weaponry or on great military tacticians, but on the "fighting spirit" of the individuals involved.

In the beginning, both the armies of the North and the South, for the most part, were forced to use obsolete, single-shot pistols and long arms that had stood for years, collecting dust in federal and state arsenals. Old regular army officers serving on ordnance boards, especially in Washington, DC, felt no need to keep up with new technology in peacetime; so they kept the arsenals filled with weapons more suitable for the parade ground than the battlefield. The South was faced with the bigger problem of obtaining any weapons at all, obsolete or otherwise.

Yet, as the war evolved into a large-scale conflict, these "armchair generals," finally forced to come to terms with technology, began to contract private armorers, who had been rejected in the past, to supply more modern rifled long arms for the enlisted man. As the need for more firepower as well as more weapons grew, new entrants to the field of firearms,manufacturers of breech loading weapons and multiple-shot firearms, began to gain acceptance where they had not done well in the past. State governments began ordering large numbers of arms to outfit their own troops, and private individuals, especially officers and members of cavalry and artillery units, turned to use of the revolver as a personal sidearm.

Well-known private firms, primarily Colt's Patent Firearms Manufacturing Co., E. Remington & sons, Smith & Wesson, and others, who were established before the war, reached new heights in their arms production of revolvers as the need for sidearms for officers grew in proportion to the need for long arms for enlisted men. This increased productivity was one reason why collectors today find a relatively large number of inscribed revolvers (as well as some long arms and numerous edged weapons).

Why are many of the weapons that are found in circulation today inscribed with names? Well, in those turbulent times, many people realized that a soldier's weapon would soon become his most valuable possession. What better gift could a family or friend give to a loved one departing for the front than a handsome revolver inscribed with that soldier's name and the name of his friends to serve as a fond remembrance of home.

Why do collectors find inscribed weapons desirable? For one reason, there is a certain romantic feeling associated with the linking of a name on a weapon, which otherwise might be forgotten in time, to an event in history, especially if that event was important, colorful and interesting. There is also a certain satisfaction gained with this association. Many a collector who has held an old gun in his own hands has often heard words like these --- "Why, if that old gun could only speak!". Well, for the person who is willing to spend a little time in research, he could make that old gun or sword "speak" again by retracing the steps the soldier took in history, bearing witness to the events that actually occurred over 130 years ago. In that sense, the weapon becomes a permanent memento of days gone by when an individual made his or her mark in time.

Classifying Historical Arms

J. Garnand Hamilton, in a series of articles entitled "Colts-History and Heroes" ( The Gun Report , April-December, 1963) classified three major types of "historically related" arms. The first type, classified as "Presentation" pistols, are those guns... "Presented to a certain individual by another person or groups of persons and should contain the words "Presented to" or words of similar meaning in the inscription. Type II inscribed pistols are those bearing inscriptions which associate them to a person, groups of persons, a military event, a particular event, etc. which do not include the words "Presented to" as in Type I. Finally Type III covers pistols that are associated with history by some form of written evidence and are not inscribed. Since type III places the most important evidence on documentation rather than the gun itself, we will concentrate only on actual "inscribed" weapons.

Within the first two groups there are many kinds of inscribed weapons that we can classify. The most important group of specimens comes from the most prolific arms maker of the Civil War period, Samuel Colt. Just as models of his arms are the most sought after by the gun collecting fraternity, the best examples of presentation inscribed arms are to be found among weapons of his manufacture.

Type I - Presentation Inscribed Weapons

The "top of the line" items in desirability of inscribed arms are those revolvers that Samuel Colt personally presented as gifts to notable individuals. These arms are sometimes found to be most elaborately engraved by one of Colt's many expert craftsmen and fitted with ivory or other fine grips, plated in gold or silver, and especially "casehardened" when the guns were finished. They were engraved at the factory and inscribed "Compliments of Col.Colt", or " To (the recipient) from Col. Colt", or "From the Inventor " , or "From the Inventor Col. Colt". (Fig.1).

There are some revolvers in the group which Colt presented that are blued and carried a back strap inscription previously mentioned, but are not engraved. "Colt felt that many of the recipients of his revolvers would use them in the field if they were simple. On the other hand, elaborately engraved guns with carved ivory stocks might be left home on the mantle as a showpiece" <1>. Yet, with either type of finish, these special presentation revolvers were invariably outfitted in fine cases with all accessories. Some of these revolvers were presented in matched pairs.

A second classification within this group is a type of presentation Colt presented "from the factory". There are a few suppositions as to why the Colt factory presented arms that were engraved "To (the recipient) with the compliments of Colt's Pt.F.A.Mfg.Co." (Fig.2) The first theory is that Colt did not know the individual involved, but wished the gift of a revolver to be presented to the person. Secondly, Colt was a master salesman, and he believed in "influencing" with a gift any person who might become a staunch supporter of Colt's after they had an opportunity to use his revolvers. These individuals included government officials, politicians, military men,newspapermen, and foreign dignitaries. As a result, Colt wished to avoid any speculation of wrongdoing or unduly harsh criticism by presenting the revolvers "from the factory" or "From Col. Colt's Workmen", or "from the employees of Colt's Pt.F.A.Mfg.Co." instead of himself. Finally, after Colt's death in 1862, presentations were still made in his name, and in the majority of the cases, the "factory" presentation inscription was used.

<NOTE: At the time of publication of this article there was not enough evidence nor examples to warrant mention of another sub-type of presentation which fell into the area of "personal" Colt presentations. In many cases of personal Colt presentations, the presentations were made to personal friends of the Colonel himself or individuals who were present or may have been future "business" partners or relations with Colt. To avoid any conflict of interest or speculation thereof, Colt had the presentation inscription executed at the factory (and this factory engraving style or script is most recognizable) but likewise did not mention his name or company. These examples were given predominantly to individuals in the city of Hartford, in Connecticut and the Northeast (NYC-where Colt maintained an office) and Massachusetts (where friends and relatives lived). Such specific examples were noted such as "Presented to D.H.Pond from his friends in Hartford", or "Presented to E.K. Fox by the Seymour Light Artillery" (Ct.Governor Thomas Seymour's Militia (and personal friend of Colt). >

These classes of Colt presentation revolvers invariably bring the highest prices on the market today for inscribed firearms for two reasons. They were the finest quality pieces produced and the recipients were usually famous or well-known people.

Other types of "Presentation-Inscribed "firearms from other manufacturers are also found in lesser numbers. Some of these were purchased from the individual arms makers and engraved and inscribed outside of the factory by private, well-known engravers, such as L.D. Nimschke, for later presentation to individuals of note. (Fig.3). These specialty presentations also rank high as far as value is concerned.

It was a very common practice for a member of one family --- a father, brother,etc., to present another family member with a special gift as he left for military duty. Presentations were also made by a special friend or friends of the recipient, or by fellow workers at a place of business (Fig.4) or a plant when a man left for military service. It was an accepted practice also for a company or regiment to present its commander with a gun (or sword) upon his election to or promotion from command of that unit to another, and these are very desirable collectors' items because they were most often carried and used by the recipient. Another group of presentation inscriptions are those cases when a presentation was made by a fellow member of a lodge, or fraternal order or when the donor is not mentioned but the words "presented to" are inscribed. A last type in this classifications occurs in the rare case where the commanding officer presented a weapon to someone, probably a member of his staff. This is also a very desirable type.

 Type II - Inscribed Arms

 The second major classification of inscribed arms is the type which is most often encountered by collectors today -those weapons which have a name inscribed on them, but carry no mention of a donor or "presented to" inscribed on the piece (Fig.5). Since many soldiers wanted to add a personal touch to their own revolver, they had a local engraver or hometown jeweler inscribe their name, and sometimes their regiment on the revolver. This may have been done at the time the soldier received or purchased the arm, or it may have been inscribed at the start (of his term of service) on a weapon he owned for some time prior to the start of the war. These firearms may be just as valuable a "presentation-inscribed " arms and may have been presentation pieces themselves, but greater care in research is needed to substantiate and document these pieces....depending however, on the extent of information given in the inscription.

The last group of inscribed revolvers are those which were not professionally inscribed, but usually done by the owner himself... either crudely carved into wooden grips, scratched or etched into the metal with a knife or other sharp instrument. True, these weapons may be more interesting than plain, uninscribed specimens, but they are much harder to substantiate as being original, and unless they are very nicely done, are not very aesthetically pleasing as collector's items (Fig.6).

There are many factors that a collector should be aware of when he or she determines that an inscribed arm is "potentially" desirable enough to purchase. These elements, in order of importance, are: Identification, Authenticity, Historical Significance, Rarity and Condition.

To determine whether or not a specimen has research potential, we must first examine the inscription itself in relationship to the source from which it originated. Take, for example, the inscription on the Smith & Wesson No.2 Army revolver (Fig.7), which reads, "Lt.E.P. Quinn 123rd N.Y.S.V.". Without doing any research, it would be a pretty fair guess that the regiment the soldier belonged to was the 123rd New York State Volunteers, and there was probably not more than one "E.P.Quinn" in that regiment. Therefore, the revolver would be quite easy to research. But take another gun which is simply inscribed "E. Brown" or "J. Smith". Without any other identifying markings, like a regimental number, date, full name, etc., we could probably come up with at least a dozen "J. Smiths" or "E. Browns" in as many states with the same first initial and last name. Therefore we must look to the source from which the revolver was obtained to see if any other documentation can be produced to support the claim that this was a particular "E.Brown" who fought in a specific regiment. Were we to spot the "E. Brown" gun on a dealers list or at a gun show and we were not able to obtain any documentation from that dealer or seller as to where it had originated, we cannot hope to prove that weapon to be authentic (as far as the identity of the recipient), and have no right to attach any history to it via research. But in the case of the "Lt.E.P. Quinn -123rd N.Y.S.V." revolver, we have only to determine whether or not the inscription itself is authentic.

In most cases, spurious inscriptions are usually applied to weapons that are either relatively "more rare" or in finer condition than the average weapon. They usually usually have "fantastic" histories associated with them. Beware of these seemingly valuable weapons usually sold at bargain prices! Be wary of any documented piece, no matter what the condition.

<NOTE: Since 1980 (when this article was written) even the most common models of revolvers and swords have risen dramatically in value. Therefore, in the past where it might have been unwise and unprofitable for would be fakers to falsify inscriptions on collectibles, it is now worth the potential effort to falsely engrave a name on a weapon when the return is well worth the effort. So "Caveat Emptor"! (Let the buyer Beware)!>

Without documentation one must rely on his instincts, judging whether or not the engraving is original to the gun. Does the wear on the gun match the wear on the inscription? Is the style of engraving contemporary to the time period? Does the date in the inscription or the rank of the officer or any information present coincide with the relative time period of manufacture of the gun? An advanced knowledge of collecting guns is needed to answer these questions, and there are very few experts around who are knowledgeable in all aspects of collecting. So mistakes can easily be made. Buy only from reputable dealers. If you are able to acquire a piece directly from family descendants, make sure you have some documentation to back it up. Never take a chance on buying an inscribed gun before you do at least a cursory amount of research. This may mean you sometimes have to travel with a small "library" of soldier's "records" in your car to a gun show or to someone's home, but it may be worth it in the long run. This is where a well-stocked library comes in handy -- to uncover potentially rewarding histories or military records behind the inscription, and in some cases, it allows a collector to possibly "beat another collector to the punch" in obtaining a weapon for his collection.

Once we identify the weapon as having belonged to an individual who left a definite mark in history --- either famous , infamous or of little note, we can try to place a value on that weapon and assess whether it is worth the price that the seller has asked for it. Of course, condition also places a part in this determination, but the criteria which constitutes value in an inscribed piece is different than that in a piece which is not inscribed. One must remember that the majority of inscribed weapons encountered were used by the individuals who owned them in the service -- and a condition consistent with the history of the weapon lends a certain amount of credibility, authenticism and romance to that piece. Rarity also influences value in that an inscribed weapon which would be a scarce collector's item even without an inscription on it, would certainly command more in financial terms than a more common collector's piece with the same inscription.

How do we sift through the millions upon millions of pieces of written material pertaining to the Civil War period to help us completely "relive" the career of an individual whose name is inscribed on the weapon we now own? It is extremely important to have a few sources handy in your own library for quick access to information should that occasion arise when you have only a few minutes or a few hours to decide on taking a piece.

Dr. Bertram H. Groene of Southeastern Louisiana University wrote what is probably the most complete "guide" to research of inscribed Civil War items in his book, Tracing Your Civil War Ancestor (Winston Salem, John F. Blair, 1973). With this books and a few other essential works, one can go along way towards "opening the door and unlocking the past". Probably the two most heavily used sources of information in my library are The Historical Register and Dictionary of The United States Army,1789-1903 by Francis Heitman, and the Official Army Register of the United States Army 1861-65. The 2-volume Heitman record concentrates primarily on those "regular" army officers who served in the U.S. Army, but also covers volunteer officers briefly as well as officers serving in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. The 8-part Official Army Register, however, printed by the Adjutant General's Office in Washington, DC, catalogs "all" volunteer officers "by state" and "regimental designation". Both works are important and compliment each other. In fact, there may be a case where an officer who served in the U.S. Army before the war resigned his commission to join the Confederate Army. Or there are some officers who served both in the regular army before the war, returned to civilian life, then reenlisted in the volunteer forces during the conflict. Obtaining information regarding both of these situations may reveal an important "other" career of a soldier whose name on a weapon does not hint at these clues. The Heitman work was reprinted in 1965 and is obtainable on old and used book dealer's lists, while the other source, printed in 1865, can only be obtained in its original form, and is a collector's item in itself.

<NOTE: Since the original publication of this article the Official Army Register has been published and is quite easily obtainable while other sources of information are also available which can assist the collector as well which heretofore only existed in their original form.>

Once identification is made there are many other avenues of research that the collector can take to "complete" the history of the weapon. There are no more complete records existing anywhere than the National Archives in Washington, DC. Here, thousands of personnel records are available for research for those who wish to visit. Or, for a small cost, they are accessible by mail by filling out a form, NATF Form 80 (To request form, send request to Textual Reference Branch (NNR1), National Archives and Records Administration, 7th & Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20408). This form, when filled out correctly with a minimum of information, can provide the collector with military service records of Union and Confederate enlisted men and officers of the army and navy, as well as pension records, and in some cases, court-martial, medical, draft, burial and prisoner of war records. Pension records are especially invaluable in some cases because they give information as to all military organizations to which a particular soldier belonged. The files are set up by units, and sometimes a request for information on "E.P. Quinn, 123rd NYSV" will result in information only on the time period that he served with that unit. He may have reenlisted however, or been promoted to command in another unit. So it would do one well to request all files for a soldier. If one suspects that the officer served in the regular army, before, during, or after the war, a letter to the National Archives, Old Army Branch, Washington, DC 20408, may be beneficial in locating additional records. In addition, a request to the Still Picture Branch, Audiovisual Archives Division (same address) may uncover a copy of an original photograph taken of an officer (usually higher ranking regular army officers only).

Aside from the National Archives. most states hold individual rosters listing all volunteer soldiers that served in the Civil war from that state. These lists can sometimes provide needed information as to birth and death records of an individual. Some states have extensive facilities with large staffs eager to answer the written requests of an individual, while others cater only to those people who actually come to visit their archives.

Once identification of an individual is made and service records are obtained, the collector may have the good fortune to supplement the more mundane, statistical records that the National Archives supplies with other information which would be equally as important and much more interesting. There is an infinite amount of information available, both official and unofficial, that is not found in the personnel files at the National Archives. The monumental work, the 128 part, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the war of the Rebellion (the ORs for short), and the 31-volume companion on the Union and Confederate navies, are the greatest sources of precise and detailed battle reports and military correspondence ever assembled. As far as individual military units are concerned, one can find many first-hand, vivid, and compelling stories of soldier's experiences in the hundreds of individual regimental histories published privately and by states after the Civil War. In addition, privately printed personal narratives, diaries, and papers were published after the war are are continually being discovered right up to the present day.

An inscribed weapon with a fine history associated with it will bring a considerable premium to the seller as opposed to the same model gun that was not inscribed. The recipient of this revolver may have had a distinguished service record in the army or navy, was promoted to a high rank, or perhaps killed or wounded while bravely leading a charge in battle. On the other hand, he may have been a coward and deserted from the army. Or he may have enlisted for volunteer service for a 30 or 90-day hitch, served time on a campground a thousand miles away from any military action, and gone home upon expiration of military service, never to go near the army again.

Depending on the extent of "history" attributed to the weapon, the monetary value of the piece can fluctuate from as little as 2o-30% to as much as 100% and more of its value had it not carried any inscription. One thing is for sure, however. Undocumented, and unresearched specimens do not warrant exorbitant prices solely on evidence of an inscription on a gun!

Condition is not the all-determining factor as far as inscribed weapons are concerned, but it counts nonetheless. An inscribed gun with 75% of its original finish may be worth considerably more than the same inscribed piece with no finish at all. Finally, the documentation on the piece is critical. The more documentation that goes with the piece - the better. Personal affidavits signed by descendants of the recipient of the sword or gun, other family members, etc. will only served to "authenticate" the piece when it comes time to resell the collectible. Civil War discharge papers, enlistment papers belonging to the individual whose inscribed gun you now own - photographs, diaries, personal letters, all help to enhance an already "identified" revolver with an established history.

Civil War research can be not only a rewarding experience, both historically and financially, but also a very enjoyable project for those who are interested in the study of arms and the history of the Civil war. Combining both interests, one can preserve the memory of a soldier who fought for his country long ago through the preservation of the weapon that carried his name.


1Arnold Chernoff, "Presentation Colts", Shooting Times, Nov.,1972), pg. 58


Arnold Marcus Chernoff, "Presentation Colts-The Top of the Line", Shooting Times (Nov.,1972).

Charles Dornbusch, The Military Bibliography of the Civil War, New York:The NY Public Library, 1961.

Bertram Groene, Tracing Your Civil War Ancestor, (Winston-Salem:John F. Blair, 1973).

J. Garnand Hamilton, "Colts-History and Heroes "(8 parts), The Gun Report (Apr.-Dec.1963).

Francis B. Heitman, The Official Register and Dictionary of the United States Army:1789-1903, 2 vols. Washington DC,US Govt,Printing Office.,1903(Reprinted in 1965 by the Univ.of Ill. Press, Urbana).

Maine and Illinois Commanderies of the Military Order of the Loyal legion of the United States (MOLLUS), 1891 and 1895.

Official Army Register of the Volunteer Force of the US Army for the Years 1861,1862,1863,1864,1865, (8 parts) Washington, Adj.Gens.Office, 1865.

Official records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the war of the Rebellion, 128 volumes, Washington, DC, US Govt. Printing Office, 1880-1900.

Official records of the Union and Confederate Navies, 31 volumes, Washington, DC, US Govt. Printing Office, 1880-1900.

Final Note: Since this article was printed more than 17 years ago the interest in "historical" arms has risen dramatically. This demand has resulted in more "original" resources being published in print and on electonic media - all which has increased the potential for researchers to illuminate the histories behind the inscriptions.

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