From the Museum Archives: Custer Colt — museum firearm goes from intriguing to historically significant
March 12, 2019
The museum has had a Custer Colt in our collection for years. While it was already a significant firearm, new information possibly makes it one of the most historically significant Colts in any collection anywhere.
A "Custer Colt" is a well-known term for historians and collectors. It's a Colt revolver within a serial number range that gives it an increased possibility of having been issued to Custer's 7th Cavalry and possibly used during the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn. However, while there are several thousand Colts that fit within the Custer serial range, there were only 650 or so 7th Cavalrymen engaged in Little Bighorn. Therefore, the chances of a Custer Colt having any relation to one of Custer's men are pretty low.
Also, take into account that about 250 of the 7th Cavalry died during the battle. Most of their firearms would have ultimately been acquired by the victorious Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapahos. Of the remaining Colts, only a handful are proven to have been issued to Custer's Cavalrymen.
As for the museum's Custer Colt, most of its serial numbers were inexplicably filed off long ago. Fortunately, one of the numbers can still be made-out under magnification, and another can be found whole under the ejector tube. The serial number is #5126, which puts our Colt in a very prime range for 7th Cavalry issue.
We recently revisited our Custer Colt to see if any new information had surfaced over the years. Imagine our excitement when it had!
An auction in 2014 saw the sale of a Custer Colt with serial #4815 which had an interesting story attached. The auction provenance mentioned a document found in Ft. Abraham Lincoln during its demolition. It outlined the proceedings of an inquiry held April 24, 1876 (just two months before Little Bighorn) against Lt. William Van Wyck Reily of the 7th Cavalry. At issue was Lt. Reily's service-issued Colt revolver having been stolen. Reily was required to repay the U.S. for the loss and was issued revolver serial #4815 as a replacement. The stolen revolver, the document stated, was none other than the museum's #5126!
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Though we are still authenticating this document, the new information possibly gives our firearm not only a direct link to Custer's 7th Calvary, but also to an exact individual. We can't fully express how extremely rare this is. The document may also explain why the serial numbers on the museum's Colt were filed off in an effort to cover up its theft.
The news of this discovery has already attracted a personal visit from one of the most knowledgeable firearm experts in the field, Dan Cullity. He stated the gun appears to be absolutely authentic.
Lt. Reily died on Little Bighorn only two months after losing his Colt #5126. It is currently on display here at the museum.
A special thanks to Craig's own Charlie Williams. Charlie recently provided the museum with a research discovery that has significantly helped advance our authentication efforts.
Paul Knowles is assistant director of the Museum of Northwest Colorado. This article originally appeared as a "Museum Monday" post on the museum's Facebook page. To see the Custer Colt and learn more of its story, drop by the Museum of Northwest Colorado at 590 Yampa Ave., or visit the museum's Facebook page, facebook.com/MuseumNorthwestColorado.