Antique Colt fetches $920,000 at auction
by Brent Shrum, Kootenai Valley Record
October 22, 2008
John McBride of Libby knew his Colt Walker was very rare and very valuable, but he didn’t know just how much someone would be willing to pay for the 1847-vintage revolver until it went to auction Oct. 7 in Fairfield, Maine.
Only 1,100 of the mammoth black powder revolvers were ever made, and of those only about 150 are believed to have survived. A Walker in poorer condition than McBride’s sold at auction for $483,000, so McBride expected at least $500,000. When the gavel sounded, though, an anonymous bidder had bought the piece for a record $920,000.
"I had hoped for six, and it just sailed on by," McBride said.
The auction house, Maine-based Julia Auction, gets $120,000, leaving McBride with $800,000. Taxes will take another 35 percent or so, McBride said, but he’ll still clear about a half-million dollars, which will be put into a family trust fund and may eventually be used to purchase land in Lincoln County for the benefit of his children and grandchildren.
The Walker had belonged to McBride’s great-great-uncle, who served as an officer from Maryland in both the Mexican-American War and the U.S. Civil War. The revolver was developed by Colt with input from Texas Ranger Samuel Walker, who was looking for something bigger and more powerful than Colt’s first revolver, the Paterson model.
He got it. The .44-caliber Walker was 15½ inches long, with a 9-inch barrel, weighed 4½ pounds, and took a 60-grain charge of black powder. It was considered the most powerful revolver in existence up until the advent of the .357 Magnum in the 1930s, and it earned a fearsome reputation on the frontier.
McBride’s uncle served alongside the Texas Rangers fighting guerillas at the conclusion of the war with Mexico. The revolver was originally issued to a Ranger who died in Mexico of unknown causes – probably disease – in late 1847 or early 1848, McBride said. The Ranger’s name was scratched into the gun’s trigger guard. Somehow the Walker came into the possession of McBride’s uncle, who kept it until his death in 1891. It was then passed down through the family to McBride’s mother and then to McBride himself.
"Almost universally, everyone asks, ‘Did you ever shoot it,’" McBride said. "And the answer is no – although I came close a couple of times."
In 1945, McBride turned down an offer to sell the Walker for $4,000. In 1972, when he displayed the revolver at the NRA convention in Portland, Ore., he was offered $25,000, but again he didn’t sell.
McBride finally decided, after consulting with his family, to sell the gun and convert the proceeds into land. None of his children are weapons collectors, but they all love Montana and the mountains, he said.
He consulted several different auction houses before deciding to go with Julia. A phone conversation with owner James Julia sealed it.
"He said, ‘You’re in Libby. Would you like to believe I worked for the stud mill in Libby?’" McBride said.
McBride, who worked as a forester in Libby until his retirement, found that Julia had worked at the mill for a time about 40 years ago when he was on his way to Alaska and ran out of money. Julia returned to Libby with a firearms expert to inspect the Walker, and the expert declared that it was the best in the world. McBride said he saw one years ago that may be better, but it’s in the museum at West Point and isn’t for sale.
McBride’s revolver went to auction accompanied by a powder flask that he found many years ago at the family home in Maryland. He used the Colt-marked brass flask for a long time before he discovered that it had originally been issued with the Walker.
"I promptly took the gunpowder out of it, cleaned the thing up a little bit, and it stayed with the Walker then," McBride said.
When the expert first examined the revolver and the flask, he didn’t think the two went together.
"He said, ‘Look at the patina – it’s been used a lot more than the Walker has,’" McBride recalled. "It had been used a lot more. It was a good flask."
Editor’s Note: See the October 20, 2008 edition of the Kootenai Valley Record for the printed version of this story. The Kootenai Valley Record publishes once a week, on Monday, in Libby, Montana. They are a locally owned community newspaper, located at 403 Mineral Avenue in Libby. For in-county and out-of-county subscription information, call 406-293-2424, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.