The Hunt for Old Guns: Confederate Officer’s Colt Dragoon
In “The Hunt for Old Guns,” we look at 19th-century American firearms – the rare, the unusual, and the iconic. Old gun hunters love stories of the hunt, and in this episode, we take a look at a Confederate officer’s Colt Dragoon that turned up hiding in the author’s collection.
There are few things cooler to a lot of old gun hunters than the Civil War revolver of a Confederate officer. A few years ago, I had the great good fortune to find a “sleeper” in my own collection that turned out to be exactly that.
Some of Sam Colt’s Most Iconic Firearms
Samuel Colt made several iconic firearms from the 1830s to 1861 when he died: the Colt Paterson revolvers, the Paterson revolving carbine, the Walker Colt revolver, and the Colt Dragoons are probably the best known.
Like many collectors, I’ve developed a special interest in the Colt Dragoon. One reason is that the others are prohibitively expensive. Dragoons aren’t really rare, and Colt made about 20,000 of them in three different models from 1848 to 1860. But they occupy a special place in 19th-century American firearms history because of the role they played in the 1849 California Gold Rush, the 1850s exploration of the American West, and the early years of the Civil War.
The Colt Dragoon is a large, .44-caliber, six-shot percussion revolver. Weighing in at 4.2 pounds unloaded, it’s far too heavy to wear around on the hip. Made for the U.S. Army dragoons, or horse soldiers, the gun was designed to be carried on horseback in a pommel holster.
A Dragoon Turns Up for Sale at Cabela’s
A few years ago, I wandered into a Cabela’s with a large “gun library.” This special room displayed a wide variety of high-quality used guns for sale. I’d spent hours in that room over the years, just looking at cool guns. While this gun library mostly sold early 20th-century firearms, they had recently bought a collection of antique guns and also had those on display.
One of these antique guns was a third-model Colt Dragoon that immediately attracted my attention. The third model is the most common of the three Dragoon models. Because of that fact, it’s almost always less expensive than the first and second models. I didn’t have a single Dragoon in my collection at that time, and this one looked like a perfect fit. Unfortunately, however, it was out of my price range.
I came back from time to time and noticed that almost all the other antique guns had been gradually sold off. One day, I walked in there, and the only one left was that Colt Dragoon. Sensing an opening, I struck up a conversation with the manager. After thinking about it, he dropped the price so they could close out the antique gun part of the library, and I drove off with it to add to my collection.
Two Unusual Features
This Dragoon is a normal .44-caliber, six-shot percussion revolver, martially marked with the “U.S.” stamp on the side of the frame. The serial number is in the 17,000 range, indicating that it was made in 1858.
The gun shows a lot of field wear. For me and many other old gun collectors, though, this is a big part of the attraction. A Civil War gun that’s “been to the rodeo” speaks a lot more loudly to us than a far more valuable specimen that’s in mint condition with all the original finish. What I’m attracted to is the history that the gun brings to life. That’s why my kind of gun is one that’s been there and, as they say, “seen the elephant.” A happy coincidence is that these kinds of guns can be bought at much lower prices, making collecting a lot more affordable.
This particular Dragoon had two very interesting features. First, it’s one of only about 1,200-1,500 Dragoons, out of about 20,000 made, that were designed to take a shoulder stock so they could be fired like a carbine. All these guns have a notched, four-screw frame to attach the stock, iron instead of a brass backstrap for strength, and a folding leaf rear sight. They were sold in pairs, along with a single shoulder stock carrying the serial numbers of the two guns that the stock was issued with.
The second point of interest was that something was engraved into the iron backstrap. I had noticed it when I bought the gun, but it was far too worn to read. It was inscribed in flourishing script. Because the backstrap was iron, the depth of the engraving was much more shallow than engraving on a brass backstrap.
Deciphering the Inscription
One night, after buying one of the new Kassoy illuminated magnifiers that all the old gun hunters had started using, I sat down with a glass of single-malt scotch to closely examine the backstrap. I laid down a gun mat, set up some side lights, and went to work.
At first, the engraving seemed just too worn to decipher. But then, working from back to front, I managed to make out “31 La.” That got my attention big time. At some point, this gun, like many others at the start of the Civil War, had gotten pressed into service by a Confederate soldier attached to a Louisiana unit. After much adjusting of the light sources, I finally managed to make out the entire script. What it said was this:
“COL. S.H. GRIFFIN 31 LA.”
The next stop was the internet, where Col. Sidney H. Griffin Googled right up. He was the commander of the 31st Louisiana Infantry Regiment and saw action in the Civil War at Chickasaw Bayou, Port Gibson, Big Black River, and Vicksburg.
As it turns out, Vicksburg was the end of the line for Col. Griffin. He was killed by a Union sniper there on June 27, 1863, just a week before the Confederate forces surrendered to Union Troops. The information available online indicated that he was buried in Vicksburg at Soldier’s Rest Cemetery.
A Field Trip to Reconstruct the History
Half the fun of finding a cool historical firearm like this is in the subsequent research. I learned a lot from the internet, but I also made contact with a couple of local historians in northern Louisiana where Col. Griffin was from. He was very well remembered there and remains a local hero.
I decided to go on a long drive to the area to talk to the historians and to find out more about this enigmatic Confederate colonel. Where was he actually from? What was the area like back then? How did he get involved in the war? How did he raise troops for the 31st Louisiana? Where had they fought, and what had happened to them before the final chapter at Vicksburg? There were a lot of questions that were best investigated on the ground.
Naturally amazed that Col. Griffin’s Colt Dragoon had survived the war – and had actually turned up somewhere – the local historians were extremely helpful in filling in the history of the Confederate officer who carried it. Those readers interested in the long version of the history of this gun, and Col. Griffin’s Civil War history, can find it in “North-South Trader’s Civil War” magazine, Volume 41, No. 4, from 2019.
The thrill of finding any rare old gun starts with discovering the item and realizing that what you’ve actually found may have special historical significance. The next step is research, uncovering everything you can possibly find about the history of the gun and determining for sure what it actually is. Last is bringing the gun to the attention of collectors and historians, so they can also appreciate the item and its historical context.
In the hunt for old guns, it doesn’t get much better than finding a Confederate officer’s Colt Dragoon asleep in your collection.