“This is a piece of America, a piece of history,” says Mr. James, a man whose identity The Times has agreed not to disclose, as he runs his hand across the 31-inch barrel of one of the first revolving Colt rifles manufactured more than 160 years ago – a rifle believed to have belonged to Abraham Lincoln at one time.
“I’ve talked to some pretty important people - the Lincoln Museum, the Smithsonian Institute and the NRA - and they’re all interested,” he continues, recalling how he came about owning a rifle he is convinced once belonged to Lincoln, a self-taught lawyer, legislator and vocal opponent of slavery who was elected the nation’s 16th president back in 1860. “Call me Mr. James, if you would. I inherited this famous object.”
Secured today in a private facility, the rifle – inscribed on its stock “Abe Lincoln, 1864” – surfaced here in Lincoln County some time ago, but only now, as James weighs his options for its future, was the news of its presence shared with The Times.
“Number one, you’re our local newspaper,” James says. “Secondly, I’d like to see it in the hands of an individual who would give it the respect it deserves ... It may very well be for sale to the right person.”
Pouring through pages of documentation, James’ story appears to hold up, at least to this amateur eye. The Colt new model revolving rifles were early repeating rifles produced by Colt’s Manufacturing Co. from 1856 to 1864. They were mainly based on the Colt Model 1855 Sidehammer pocket revolver. All the specifics seem to match, according to the Colt book of manufacture. The three-digit serial number, stamped into the rifle’s bottom tang, and other proof marks match as well.
“It was in the 1830s when Samuel Colt manufactured the first revolving pistol, called a Patterson, then he also manufactured the first revolving pistol of a high caliber, that being a Walker. He went on to manufacture the Colt revolving rifle,” James continues. “A lot of these guns went to the Indians originally. It was something that improved their ability to defend themselves.”
While the rifle was much better than the muzzleloader, it proved to have its issues, as each cylinder still had to be greased, then loaded with gunpowder and a ball. Gunpowder being what it was, as the hammer struck the strike plate on each cylinder, it could easily set off other chambers, injuring its operator or anyone unlucky enough to find themselves near the forward sections of the gun.
Sources state that more than 4,000 of the rifles were purchased by the American government for use during the Civil War, but the safety issues forced a re-evaluation of its use, and the rifles were dropped from service.
As to how the Colt revolving rifle owned by James here in Lincoln County is tied to President Lincoln, a number of documents set the stage.
The first connection in a series of documents comes in 1861 by way of a card, or letter, issued to Kentucky’s George D. Blakey, a personal friend of Lincoln and a member of Congress who seconded Lincoln’s nomination for the presidency. The card, signed “A. Lincoln”, gives Blakey permission “with a note and a pass, to visit our camps over the river” in August of 1861, just months after the Civil War started.
A second connection is an article from Kentucky’s Louisville Post - while the date on the old yellowed paper isn’t evident, the article does connect the rifle to both Lincoln and Blakey by the way of W.T. Duncan, who was Blakey’s grandson. Blakey’s daughter had married a Duncan, and from that union, W.T. Duncan was born.
“Mr. Duncan has many valuable historical articles including ... an old five-shot .56 caliber Colt’s rifle made in 1864 and presented as a mark of friendship by President Lincoln to an ancestor of Mr. Duncan, a Mr. Blakey, who seconded the nomination of Lincoln at Chicago,” reads the article.
“Since Mr. Blakey helped get Mr. Lincoln elected, the president gifted this gun to Mr. Blakey as a thank you,” said James.
The year 1864 would have been the same year Lincoln was re-elected. The Civil War would end a year later, May 9, 1865, just a month after Lincoln was assassinated.
Another article from the Louisville Post shows a picture of Duncan giving the gun to a Bill Smoot, a gun collector out of Elizabethtown, Ky. That transfer occurred in 1939, according to an affidavit, which James possesses. The affidavit, that also recalls Lincoln’s presentation of the gun to Blakey in 1864, includes the serial number stamped into the rifle.
“I had to have the curator of the Lincoln Museum explain that document to me,” James said of the affidavit, referring to its content, including its sworn statement from Duncan, explaining the transfer of the rifle from one individual to another and bearing the contention that it was once owned by Lincoln.
A hang tag, aged and faded, from 1939 remains with the rifle today - the tag notes, “Belonged to Abe Lincoln, Colt 1855 Revolving rifle 60 cal. 31” bll. 5 shot fluted cyl.” It is signed “Bill Smoot, Collector”.
“I even went so far as to get Mr. Blakey and Mr. W.T. Duncan’s wills,” said James. “The wills don’t document the gun, but they do tie the two families together ... Gosh, they were fighting a war at the time, and back then a gun was sort of like a pocket knife, it’s something you would give someone to show them your appreciation. As far as providence and documentation, they claim you can’t get any better than this.”
As to how James came to be in possession of the rifle, he thanks his grandfather and father, both of whom were amateur gun collectors, he says.
“The gun hasn’t surfaced anywhere since 1939,” he explains. “It was handed down to me, and honestly, I didn’t know what all they had until after my dad passed away. I’ve always known they collected guns, but I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it back then, and they didn’t boast about it either.”
Originally from Kentucky, James’ family moved south when he was just a kid. His father passed away in the ‘90s.
Describing himself and his wife of 54 years as simple, down-to-earth people, he says he isn’t rich — “I’ve never been in any kind of trouble, and now we’re supposedly in our golden years ... We’re comfortable enough, but I find myself asking, what is this gun worth? Especially since it was once owned by one of our most famous presidents.”
As to authentication by an expert, James believes the rifle and his documentation will prove his case. Ultimately, though, he knows a buyer will want to have his or her own evaluation done.
“Nobody outside of family has seen it personally, except for you and now your photographer, and I think we could be in a dangerous situation. Some people would kill you in a heartbeat to get that gun, so that’s why I don’t want you to use my name. I think everything I have speaks for itself.”
Serious buyers only, he says, can call 727-483-1793 - “It’s a Florida number,” he adds. “We’ve lived here in Lincoln County for more than a dozen years, but I don’t want to take any chances on someone being able to identify me or where I live, not at this point any way. After you leave here today, I’ll be transferring the rifle to a safe, secure place. Again, I just don’t want to take any chances.”