The Hunt for Old Guns: Wesson, Stevens & Miller Revolver
In “The Hunt for Old Guns” series, we look at 19th-century American firearms – the rare, the unusual, and the iconic. In this episode, we’ll talk about a revolver that turned up in 2017 – only the second one known to still exist and the first to surface since 1851.
Backstory On the Find
In 2017, a guy walked into an antique store in rural Connecticut and flopped an old suitcase down on the counter. His great uncle had immigrated to America around 1900 and settled in New Haven, where he was a bartender for many years. When he died, the suitcase was all that he left behind. It was passed down through the family, and they fished it out of the attic and decided to sell it in 2017.
Inside were a bunch of old knives and handguns. Apparently, the uncle had kept the weapons he confiscated from drunken bar patrons. Sadly, however, the contents had gotten wet many years before and were all hopelessly rusted together.
The store owners bought the suitcase and began carefully separating the items. Nothing special was found…Except a small black revolver in terrible condition, long rusted tightly shut. After a lot of work on the top strap of the gun, where the manufacturer’s name often occurs, they found an engraving that read:
Leavitt’s Patent Manufactured by
Wesson, Stevens & Miller Hartford, CT
The store owners opened their copy of “Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms” to find out about the brand. Flayderman’s book is the Bible on antique American guns, defined as those made before 1899. Sadly, Norm Flayderman died a few years ago, and his 9th edition, published in 2007, was the last. But it’s still the single most important book for old gun hunters.
“Wesson, Stevens & Miller,” however, wasn’t listed in the book as a gun maker. That was a clear signal to the owners of the gun’s possible historical significance.
Now, I’m a sucker for a rare old American gun. So when they put it on the market, we worked out a deal. To say I was thrilled is the understatement of the year. This was exactly the kind of find that every antique gun junkie dreams about.
When I got the gun, I went into deep research on it. But a lot couldn’t be learned until it was taken apart and examined. After several weeks of soaking it in an industrial solvent, I finally managed to get the cylinder off. This confirmed a key feature of the gun: the presence of a unique bevel gear that rotated the cylinder. The bevel gear was later patented by Edwin Wesson, the older brother of Daniel Wesson of future Smith & Wesson fame.
Backstory on the History of the Gun
Edwin Wesson’s bevel gear changed the course of both American firearms and U.S. patent history. It was used in all of the famous Wesson & Leavitt revolvers, but it also sparked Sam Colt’s 1850 landmark litigation against Wesson and his company. The presence of this bevel gear in the New Haven bar gun – the earliest firearm known to use it – proved it to be one of the missing links in the early evolution of Wesson’s revolvers.
The backstory to this dates to the late 1840s, a seminal but murky time in the evolution of revolving firearms. The Mexican-American War (1846-1848) was raging, and most of the weapons in use on both sides were old – many of them made in the 1830s or before. Times of war are also the times of greatest weapons innovation, as we’ll see over and over again in this series.
In late 1846, famous Texas Ranger and U.S. Rifles Captain Samuel Walker asked Sam Colt to make him a six-shot, .44 caliber revolver for the use of his unit in fighting the war in Mexico. This iconic weapon is known today as the Walker Colt. It’s a monster handgun, at 4 pounds, 9 ounces unloaded. Colt only made about 1,100 of them, and survivors in all original condition sell for well upwards of $100,000 today. One sold in 2008 for $920,000, and a cased example set a new record for the model when it sold in 2018 for $1.8 million.
In 1847, almost before he finished the Walker revolver, Colt started working on smaller versions of the gun with a much, much larger market: the general public. From 1847-1850 Colt made about 15,000 Baby Dragoon revolvers in .31 caliber. In 1848, he started making large .44 caliber Dragoons, producing about 20,000 of them between then and the start of the Civil War in 1861. But his most successful revolver was the Model 1849 Pocket revolver – kind of an “everyman’s gun” – in .31 caliber. Over the next 25 years, Colt made about 340,000 of these guns.
How Samuel Colt Squashed His Competition
Sam Colt wasn’t just a brilliant inventor. He was also a brilliant marketer. He went into business surrounded by lawyers and moved hard against his competition. Litigation was a big part of his strategy. At this critical time, about 1850, Colt learned that a serious competitor was making and selling revolving handguns. That company was the Massachusetts Arms Company, and revolving Wesson & Leavitt revolvers were the company’s main product. They made them in both a big .44 caliber and in a pocket-size .31 caliber. Many people considered them superior to Colt’s revolvers.
This was a big problem for Sam Colt. These were a true existential threat to his rapidly evolving monopoly over the market for revolving handguns. When Colt heard about the gun, he sent out a ringer to buy one from a dealer. The gun he came back with was a .40 caliber Wesson, Stevens & Miller revolver. When Colt saw how it worked, he immediately filed suit for patent infringement. That .40 caliber revolver was the primary exhibit in the litigation.
The Colt v. Massachusetts Arms lawsuit was a landmark of U.S. patent law. It went to trial in June 1851, and Colt won. Massachusetts Arms had to stop making their revolvers, and in the end only about 1,800 were made. Every other gun manufacturer in America was also prohibited from making and selling revolving handguns.
At the same time, Colt’s revolver patent was extended to 1857. This successfully destroyed his competition for six critical years. By 1857, when his patent expired, Sam Colt had cornered both the government and civilian markets for revolving handguns. As a result, he became a very, very rich man.
Colt Valued This Gun Immensely
Colt kept the .40 caliber Wesson, Stevens & Miller revolver in his office until he died in 1861. That famous gun is now in the Colt collection in a Hartford, Connecticut, museum. No other Wesson, Stevens & Miller gun has ever turned up…until the New Haven bar gun was found in a bartender’s old suitcase in 2017.
As you can see, the New Haven gun isn’t much to look at. It’s a small, black, seven-shot percussion revolver in about .28 caliber that was rusted shut for 100 years. But as it turns out, this is only the second Wesson, Stevens & Miller gun known. It’s also the first to surface in over 160 years, the only one in .28 caliber, and the first known Wesson & Leavitt prototype. Moreover, research indicates that it’s one of the missing links between Daniel Leavitt’s 1837 patent revolver and the famous Wesson & Leavitt revolvers that caused Sam Colt to file suit against the Massachusetts Arms Company.
Ironically, back in 1847, Sam Colt had sub-contracted a lot of the work on the Walker Colts because the Mexican-American War was raging and he was facing an extreme deadline. Two of those working on that iconic gun for other employers were Joshua Stevens and William Miller. When production of the Walker Colts was completed, Colt hired both of them to work on his next generation of revolvers. Less than a year later, however, Colt returned from a trip and caught Stevens and Miller red-handed working on their own revolver – on Colt’s time, in Colt’s factory, and with Colt’s machinery. When he fired them on the spot, they took their gun and went down the street to work with Edwin Wesson.
An isolated record from that period states that a “miniature model of a Leavitt-patent gun was made in 1848.” There’s some speculation that the small .28 caliber New Haven bar gun that turned up in 2017 may be that very same “miniature model” and the same gun that Joshua Stevens and William Miller were working on in Colt’s factory when they got fired in 1848.
If you’re on the hunt for old guns, it doesn’t get much better than this.