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WILTZ: When did some of my Colt pistols become obsolete?

Depending upon our age, a number of things have become obsolete during our lifetime. For me, the list would include film cameras, phonograph records and turn tables, VCR tapes and players, CB radios, tape recorders, house calls by the doctor and wringer washing machines. In today’s society, a day’s pay for a day’s work, intimacy reserved for marriage and self respect are becoming as scarce as a drug-free school. Anyway, a recent TV miniseries got me to thinking about when my collector Colt cap and ball pistols became obsolete.

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The Discovery Television Channel’s six hour miniseries “Klondike” dominated the ratings recently. Though it was brutal, I would judge it to be historically accurate after studying the Yukon gold rush. I did wonder about the poles and wires stretched across Dawson, but they were there just as the television version of Dawson depicts. One set of wires actually carried electricity. A second set of wires were phony telegraph lines used to dupe the miners into sending messages home.

I was most interested in the guns the Discovery producers chose to use in the Klondike series. The time setting was 1897. With regard to handguns, the Klondike characters carried both Colt and Smith & Wesson revolvers that fired metallic cartridges. This was reasonable as cartridge arms were popular by the mid-1870s. However, many of the pistols used in the series were of the cap & ball percussion variety. At what point in time did the percussion cap pistols become obsolete? Were they still carried in 1897? This is going to be a difficult question to answer.

Loading a percussion cap revolver is a laborious task. One first had to charge each of the six cylinders with a measured amount of powder. Then a lead ball was placed over each powder charge. A built-in ball rammer located beneath the barrel then seated each ball, one at a time, within the cylinder. Each of the six cylinder ports was then covered with bear grease to prevent accidental multiple firing. A cap then had to be placed over each of the six cylinder nipples. This got old in a hurry compared to dropping six metallic cartridges into the cylinder of the new 1873 Colt Single-Action Army pistol.

When did Colt and Remington discontinue the manufacture of their cap and ball revolvers? Colt quit manufacturing all of their percussion revolvers in 1873. This was the same year Colt introduced the Model 1873 Single-Action Army or “Peacemaker,” the gun considered to be the most collectable firearm in the world. Remington’s last percussion cap revolvers were manufactured in 1888. Helpful? Yes, but it doesn’t tell us when the guns disappeared from general use.

Because the old percussion cap revolvers were similar to the new cartridge revolvers, converting the old pistols into cartridge revolvers seemed like a practical idea. The Colt factory converted its remaining inventory of percussion guns and parts into the Thuer model revolver. Today, these can be worth $25,000. Other companies made similar efforts.

Though I spent a lot of time trying to find an answer to the question I’ve posed, I’ve more or less drawn a blank. Even though old photos dated after 1873 show U.S. Army personnel armed with the 1873 model, I’ll have to conclude the Discovery Channel people were correct in arming some of their 1897 Klondike characters with the obsolete handguns.

Along with my previous list of obsolete items, I almost could have suggested cash money. I suspect most incomes go the route of direct deposit. I pay for gas and groceries with plastic. We really don’t need money in our pocket. Pennies are almost obsolete. Canada has already discontinued the penny. With obsolete coinage in mind, I’d like to tell you about one of O Henry’s classic stories.

On Christmas Day, I had occasion to read O Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.” I consider it to be the greatest short story ever written. It is timeless. I’ve read the story 100 times, but this time I paused after reading the first three lines.

“One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies.”

Think about this. It didn’t add up. Take 60 cents from $1.87 and one has $1.27. How do you put together $1.27 without using pennies? Being an avid collector of U.S. coins, I have an idea as to how $1.27 could be counted out without using pennies. Our U.S. mint coined two-cent pieces from 1864 to 1873. O Henry doesn’t tell us where or when the story took place, but it was probably New York City. Jim and Della’s humble apartment has an electric doorbell. The story’s illustrator has automobiles on the street. The automobiles make it post 1900. “The Gift of the Magi” was published in 1905.

If 1905 is the setting, were two-cent pieces still in circulation? I began collecting coins in 1951. At that time, I assembled complete sets of buffalo nickels (1913-1938) and mercury dimes (1916-1945) from circulation. Barber coins (1892-1916) could still be found in change. I also came very close to putting a full set of Lincoln cents together. If I could still find 50-year-old coins, I’ll have to conclude that the occasional two-cent piece could still be found in 1905. If the two-cent pieces were gone by then, O Henry made a glaring mistake.

Mention of O Henry reminds me of an incident in my 1962 South Dakota State University creative writing class taught by a Mrs. Nagel. She had come down fairly hard on me for using sentence fragments. I disagreed and told her fragments were a part of my writing style. I went on to say that O Henry made frequent use of fragments. She looked at me sternly and said, “Mr. Wiltz, you’re not O Henry.” She certainly had that right.

The Safari Club International Convention in Las Vegas should provide some interesting anecdotes for next week’s column. See you then.