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Colt 1889 Navy Revolver ID'd in Springfield Research

This is a very interesting piece of American history. It's a first year production Colt Model 1889 Revolver that was sold to the United States Navy. The 1889 was the first revolver built by Colt to use a swing out cylinder...many consider this to be the grandfather to the modern double action cartridge revolver. The first 5,000 units were built under the watchful eye of Lieutenant William W. Kimball, an ordnance inspector assigned to the Colt plant by the Navy Bureau of Ordnance. See pg.17, A Study of Colt's New Army and Navy Pattern Double Action Revolvers by Robert Best. Each gun received a Naval Registration number on the bottomstrap which doubled as the serial number. The basic layout was as follows:

       USN         (United States Navy)
Anchor Symbol
 Serial Number   (1 to 5000)
         P               (Proofed?)
      WWK        (Lt. William W. Kimball)
      1889         (Model Designation)

Unfortunately, like many 1889 Navy's we've seen over the years, this revolver had its naval markings purposely removed when it was struck from service and released as surplus sometime during the 20th century. The good news here is that the person who did this was only partially successful as they left enough of the markings to not only positively identify this as one of the original 1889's in the Navy contract but the serial number as well. See the photos and you'll see what we're talking about. The markings are fragmented but amazingly, following some careful study along with the use of a magnifying glass, we were able to determine that the serial number of this revolver is 3,399. If you'll notice, the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th numbers are fairly easy to identify but the first one place position takes some concentration as very little is left to the naked eye. So for starters, it was time for some deductive reasoning to eliminate some of the possibilities. Given the 5,000 units within the contract and the placement of the numbers, we knew this had to be a four digit number. That meant that first digit could only be a 1, 2, 3, or 4. Second, the part of the number that is visible was a fragment of the bottom. This fragment was curved like a cup. Only the 3 has this curvature so most likely a "3". Then, we quickly realized that the grain structure of the metal had left a silvery ghost-like shadow of the rest of the "3" where it had been stamped. See the photos. Do you see the white shadow of the "3"? Wow, we had number 3,399.

Just for fun, I pulled out some Springfield Research books to see if this serial number might show up in the National Archives. Let me tell you guys, over the years, I've learned that pulling those books out is a bit like buying a lottery ticket. It's an exercise in futility as you go through the motions of scouring through the columns of numbers only to find nothing. There simply are very few guns owned by the government that have a physical record. Well, I guess we were finally due for some excitement for, lo and behold, there it was, 3,399 on page 130 of Volume 3 in Springfield Research Serial Number of Martial Arms by the late Frank Mallory. Mallory and his friends spent years combing the National Archives in search of serial numbers to all kinds of military weapons. Anything that had a serial number would be recorded and over the years, he managed to come out with three volumes of numbers. For a time, you could write them with your serial number, and for a small fee, they go to the archives, pull the record of your gun, and send you a letter with any and all of the information. So this was pretty exciting as there are but a handful of 1889's with records. Better yet, the record even identified the model as an 1889! This was awesome because the tabulations of these records are overlapping with US Army Model 1892's which just happen to share the same serial range. (The record stated that 3,399 was recorded on January 14, 1896 as a Model 1889 at the USNA (United States Navy Armory?) and was "to be converted".

Converted? What does that mean? Well, like most initial models with new concepts, problems are bound to arise and the 1889 was no exception. The main drawback with the 1889 was that they cylinder rotated and stopped via an internal hand in the frame and a ratchet on the rear face of the cylinder. As long as the hand and ratchet were in good shape, things would work fine but basically, there was no locking bolt to hold the cylinder in place while the gun was being fired. Furthermore, the cylinder rotated counter-clockwise and if the latch wasn't properly secured, the force of the rotation could release the cylinder from battery when the weapon was fired. As Colt began to sell the 1889 on the civilian market, these problems were addressed and corrected in the Models 1892, 1894, and 1895. By the mid-1890's, the Navy purchased additional DA's in the form of the Civilian Model 1895 with checkered hard rubber grips. One of these 1895's was recovered from the USS Maine in Havana and given to Theodore Roosevelt, which he carried during the battles of San Juan and Kettle Hills in 1898. These 1895's were far superior than the older 1889's as they had improved cylinder with stop notches. They also sported latches with a safety device that blocked the hammer when the cylinder was out of battery. Not wanting two different kinds of revolvers to maintain, the Navy made the decision to begin upgrading its 1889's to the Model 1895. This task was not easy as the guns were dispersed literally all over the world aboard various ships and Naval depots. As a result, 1889's were usually retrieved in small batches from ships and shipped to Colt for rebuilding. This took about six years and all but 300-400 were upgraded to the Model 1895 standards.

During the rebuild at Colt, each gun received a number of new parts which included a new and improved cylinder (which now had stop notches), a new latch, several internal parts, as well as any parts in need of replacement. This was especially true of the 1889 barrels which were found to be in various levels of neglect, many had been poorly maintained and stored. In addition to the upgraded mechanics, Colt refinished each weapon and stamped guns that still retained their original barrels with the new 1895 patent dates. This is one of those guns that must have had a decent barrel because it still retains its original assembly number and A.P. Casey sub-inspector stamp. AP Casey's stamp was in the form of a star with a small letter "C" in the center. If you'll look closely at the photos, you will see Casey's inspection stamp on the left side of the frame, beneath the barrel, and on the inside of the crane. Interestingly enough, his stamp also appears on the back of the cylinder indicating that he must have been part of the inspection process for the new cylinders as well. The man who ran the upgrade program was Ensign Nathan C. Twining. His inspection stamp was usually in the form of a triangle with the letter T in the center. If you look closely at the cylinder latch, you will see Twining's stamp as well. Since the gripstraps on the 1889 were larger than the 1895, the US Navy decided to retain the original walnut grips during the rebuild. The final result was a Model 1889 that had been upgraded to the Model 1895 and returned back to service in as-new condition. So hopefully, that explains the Springfield research notation "to be converted". It was being grouped at a Navy installation in 1896 almost certainly for shipment back to Colt for upgrades.

This particular 1889 or 1889/95 as some say is in NRA Antique Good Condition. The metal shows many years of service at sea. It has been cleaned at some point and has aged to a light gray. The metal is mostly smooth with a few areas of light scattered pitting here and there. Barrel has sharp markings. Caliber marking on the left side of barrel is Good. As noted above, this gun was allowed to retain its original barrel when it was upgraded in 1896. It has its original assembly number which is matching to the frame, crane, and latch. There are some slight traces of original fire blue on the trigger and rear face of the hammer. The action is in good working order and the bore is in Fine Condition Overall. The original US Navy Contract 1889 grips are in Very Good Condition. No chips, cracks, or repairs. These wooden grips are unique only to the Model 1889. Most likely, they were placed on the gun during the 1896 rebuild...as the original Colt factory assembly numbers are different to the rest of the numbers. This appears to be quite common for most 1889's upgraded to 1895's that we've encountered over the years. All in all, this is a pretty decent example of the US Navy Model 1889. While studying the records, we noticed that several 1889/95's were used right up to at least World War II as Springfield research shows a number of them at the Philadelphia Naval Yard in 1940 and 1941. This is a very historical weapon and built by some of the best in the business at the end of the 19th century. A great piece of Span-Am War-era US naval history!

Item# 1723




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