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"Can you identify my gun?"

"My friend found a revolver after plowing a field in Saskatchewan, Canada near the border with Alberta. It was badly rusted and the wood grip was completely gone. The gun was found in the area of an Indian uprising put down by the North West Mounted Police. Any help in identifying the gun will be appreciated."

A number of years ago, I started this cowboy website for my own enjoyment in writing about my involvement in SASS and the history of the old west and its guns. Like the email I received that starts this article, sometimes I receive requests from readers who find my website and ask me to help identify or tell them about a gun they have that used to belong to a father or other relative. I usually respond by saying that I consider my interest in old west guns to be a hobby and that I am not an expert in identifying guns. I add that if they are willing to send me a photo of their gun (with a ruler next to the gun) and tell me markings they can read on the gun that I will try to help them start the identification. If I'm told that the gun was made by Pedersoli, Uberti, or Pietta with proofmarks verifying the manufacturer, I can tell the reader that the gun is a modern replica and give them some background on the original gun on which the replica is based. If not clearly a replica, I usually try to end my identification with general information and encourage the reader to take the gun to a gun dealer for more information.

However, the photos I received from the reader that are included at the top of this article intrigued me for a number of reasons. The rusty condition and absence of legible manufacturing markings on the gun would be a challenge. I also have to admit that my love of history and the romantic idea that the gun was found in the area of an Indian uprising put down by the North West Mounted Police added to my intrigue and was too tempting to ignore, so I decided to see how far I could go with the gunís identification.

The reader's photos showed me that the gun was a top-break revolver with an overall length of nine inches. I found out in subsequent emails with the reader that it was a five-shot model. The reader also confirmed that the number 7384 was stamped at the bottom left-hand side of the gun grip frame, a number that would have ordinarily been covered by the wood on the gun grip (the number is not clear in the above photos). So, I started thumbing through my well-used Flayderman (see reference at the end of the story). I had also begun to research Indian uprisings that involved the North West Mounted Police and came upon references to the North West Rebellion in the Canadian provinces and, specifically, the Battle of Batoche in 1885 in Saskatchewan. Another possibility suggested by the reader was the 1885 incident known as the Frog Lake Massacre at Duck Lake in present-day Saskatchewan.

With the history information, I first limited my search in Flayderman to top-break revolvers that were in production in 1885. The reader had indicated that his friend thought the gun may have been made by Remington. Unfortunately, I could find no reference in Flayderman to any Remington top-break revolvers nor in fact to any top-break revolvers made by others that were in production in 1885 that matched the shape of the gun handle, hammer placement, and trigger guard in the photos sent me. I had to reluctantly conclude that the gun was unlikely to have been used in either the Battle of Bartoche or the Frog Lake Massacre and reported that to my reader. I then expanded my search for top-break revolvers manufactured after 1885.

Expanding my research, I did find that Harrington & Richardson (H&R) first made a top-break revolver called the H&R shell extracting revolver. The Flayderman reference indicated that only about 6,000 were made between 1886 and 1888 but did not include a photo I could match to the photos I had received. The next top-break model that H&R produced was described by Flayderman as the Model 1 automatic ejection, double-action revolver made between 1887 and 1889 in a quantity estimated to be about 5,000 Ė still no photo. The H&R Model 2, however, did have a photo of a variant of the Model 2 that did in fact match the shape of the gun grip, hammer placement, and trigger guard of my readerís gun and included a comment by Flayderman that the Model 2 had a re-designed Model 1 frame. Flayderman indicated the Model 2 was produced by H&R between 1889 and 1940 in a quantity estimated to be 1.3 million with the five-shot model using a 38 S&W round. The serial number on my readerís gun most likely indicated an earlier rather than later production in the 1889 to 1940 range.

I had gone as far as I could and indicated to the reader that my research suggested that his gun was most likely to have been the H&R Model 2, especially considering the large number produced of that model. I hoped he could find a gun dealer in his area that could substantiate that opinion. I thanked him for involving me in the research in identifying his gun and obtained his permission to use our email correspondence in writing this article.

How the gun ended up in a plowed field in a province in Canada will likely remain a mystery. My reader and I, however, will welcome any additional information about the gun or corrections about the gunís identity from my website readers.

Note: This story was published in The Cowboy Chronicle, August 2013, page 25.

June 2014 Update (also sent to the Cowboy Chronicle as a Letter to the Editor) Following publication of this article in The Cowboy Chronicle, a number of readers and SASS members emailed me with their suggestions for the identity of the gun. Because of the poor condition of the gun with no legible manufacturing markings, I had only the reader's photo of the metal skeleton of the gun plus a few identifying features to use in evaluating the suggestions I received. Those features included the fact that the gun was a top-break model with a five-shot cylinder and 3 to 3 1/2 inch barrel, the flutes on the cylinder were 2/3 to 3/4 the length of the cylinder, and the gun had a specific location of the trigger mechanism in relation to the shape of the trigger guard that produced an almost pointed dome-shaped area behind the trigger. Most of the suggestions I received were that the gun was either a Webley Mark IV or a top-break Smith & Wesson, 4th model. Another suggestion was that it was an 1872 Webley Royal Irish Constabulatory model. Examining both photos and information in the 9th edition of Flayderman and the 2014 edition of the Standard Catalog of Firearms, plus photos of auction sales on the internet, I was unable to verify that those guns met the above requirements.

Two others suggested that the gun was manufactured by the Meridian Fire Arms Co, and one of those SASS members attached a photo of a top-break Meridian gun that he owned that indeed looked close to but did not meet all of the requirements for which I was looking. In my research, I found that Meridian, as well as Hopkins and Allen and others, all produced guns for sale by some of the big retailers, e.g., Sears, Roebuck & Co, who would then put their own model name on the gun before selling them. It may well be that these manufacturers made slight modifications in their guns at the request of the retailer but, again, I was not able to locate any photos that matched the gun I was trying to identify. I am also aware that 19th century gun manufacturers sometimes changed features of their guns and did not give them a new "model" designation but, as a hobbyist and not an identification expert, I could not find any photos to match my reader's gun.

From Flayderman and auction photos, I remain convinced that my reader's gun was a Harrington & Richardson, most likely their top-break Model 2, of which they sold 1.3 million between 1889 and 1940. I will add that I have added this follow-up note information to a Letter to the Editor of the Cowboy Chronicle.

References used in this story and the follow-up notes:

  • Flayderman's Guide to Antique American Firearms...and their values, by Norm Flayderman, Gun Digest Books, 9th Edition, 2007.

  • 2014 Standard Catalog of Firearms: The Collector's Price & Reference Guide, edited by Jerry Lee, Gun Digest Books, 24th Edition, 2013.