Monday, August 14, 2017

Buffalo Bill Cody's Colt Frontier Six-Shooter

Dear Friends,

In my article Doc Holliday’s Derringer Returns To Colorado, I talked about an 1866 Remington derringer thought to have belonged to Doc Holliday. It turned out to be a fake. After I posted that article, a few of you have written to ask me about other such auctions.

The first thought that hit me was when I read about how Buffalo Bill Cody's Colt Frontier Six-Shooter was auctioned off in June of 2014. While not as juicy a story as what took place with the Doc Holliday derringer that turned out to be a fake, I think this shows the value of collectibles connected to Old West figures.

As most already know, William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody was an Army scout, a buffalo hunter, a Medal of Honor recipient, and a showman and entertainer. He is said to have started working at the age of 11 after the death of his father. He later became a rider for the Pony Express at the age of 14. At age 17, in 1863, he enlisted as a teamster with the rank of private in the Union Army. He was part of Company H, 7th Kansas Cavalry, during the American Civil War and served the Union until the end of the war in 1865. Later he served as a civilian scout for the U.S. Army during the Indian Wars. As the result of what he did during one engagement in 1872, he received the Medal of Honor as a civilian Scout. 

In December of 1872, Cody was in Chicago to make his stage debut with his friend Texas Jack Omohundro in "The Scouts of the Prairie," which was one of the original Wild West shows produced by Dime Novelist Ned Buntline. In 1873, Cody asked "Wild Bill" Hickok to join him and Texas Jack in a stage play called "Scouts of the Plains." It is said that Cody relegated Hickok to secondary parts because Hickok "had a voice like a girl." Imagine that.

After almost 10 years of performing in stage shows, he founded Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in 1883. He took his show on tours throughout the United States. He also took his show to Great Britain and other nations in Europe in 1887.

Cody is said to have bought his Colt Frontier Six-Shooter Revolver while performing in New York City. That was in January of 1883, the firearms dealer was Hartley & Graham. He used the pistol in his Wild West Show up until it closed down in 1906.

Buffalo Bill Cody's Colt Frontier Six-Shooter sold at auction for $40,625. Part of the significance related to his Colt is that that's the same year he launched his Wild West Show. And though Cody's Colt Frontier was reported as being "unremarkable to look at," it was supposedly one of his favorites among the few firearms that he still owned at the time of his death from kidney failure at the age of 70 in 1917.

Heritage Auctions, the same people involved with the Doc Holliday derringer sale, stated that Cody's Colt Frontier Six-Shooter brought in $40,625. But so did Cody's bear-claw necklace.

That necklace is said to have been made from the claws of a grizzly bear. And yes, it sold at that auction for $40,625. It's also said that Sioux Chief Sitting Bull gave Cody the grizzly bear-claw necklace. 

The Dallas-based Heritage Auctions auction house sold the two pieces during its "Legends of the West Signature Auction" back in 2014. That event is said to have featured around 400 Old West collectibles, which included pistols, rifles, shotguns, badges, authenticated photos, and rare books.

While production of the Colt Frontier Six-Shooter started in 1877, it was a Colt 1873 "Model P" type of single-action revolver. While the auction report said that Bill Cody's Colt Frontier was chambered for .45 Colt, the Colt Frontier Six-shooter was actually manufactured and sold in .44-40 Winchester (WCF) caliber instead of the .45 Colt round.

Being chambered in the .44-40 round meant that it was compatible with Winchester Model 73, which took the same ammunition. Folks using the .44-40 Winchester cartridge in the Old West liked the convenience of carrying one caliber of ammunition that could be fired in both their revolver and rifle. The Colt Frontier Six Shooter Revolver and the Winchester Model 1873, and later the Winchester Model 1892, all three in .44-40 WCF caliber, were among the most common combinations seen back in the day. 

For example, While Wyatt Earp carried a Smith & Wesson Model 3 in his pocket at the shootout in a lot near the OK Corral, a pistol that was given to him by Mayor Clum, the shotgun that Tombstone City Marshal Virgil Earp handed to Doc Holliday is said to have been a 10 gauge double barrel coach gun that Virgil borrowed from the Wells Fargo office. 

Two of the cowboys at that shootout were armed with the .44-40 pistol and rifle combinations.  Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton were both armed with Colt Frontier single-action pistols. Tom McLaury was said to be unarmed, but the Earps claimed he was also armed with a pistol. 

Tom McLaury's body was searched after the gunfight, and no pistol was found. In scabbards on the horses belonging to the cowboys were 1873 Winchester rifles in .44-40 caliber. Of course, the Cowboys did not get the chance to use their rifles.

There is another thing, all the guns used during the shoot-out were firing black powder simply because of the fact that smokeless powder wasn't invented yet. If you've shot black powder as I have, then you know really well that it makes a great deal of white smoke. So yes, visibility during that shootout must have been horrible. But for a showman like Buffalo Bill, shooting black powder must have given his Wild West Show a sense of realism that couldn't be gotten from shooting smokeless powder.

As for what was known as "Frontier Calibers," Colts in the calibers of .38-40 WCF and .32-20 WCF were also considered "Frontier Calibers," all because the 1873 and 1892 Winchester rifles were also made in those calibers. They obviously also offered a user the same convenience as the .44-40 WCF caliber did if the buyer bought a Colt and Winchester in those same calibers. 

Its name, "Colt Frontier Six-Shooter," was actually acid-etched on the left side of the barrel. After 1889, the model name was roll-stamped until 1919. In 1919, the caliber designation ".44-40" was added. It's said that Colt's 1895 Bisley model was the final Colt to wear the "Frontier Six-Shooter" designation.

Yes, Buffalo Bill Cody had used his Colt Frontier Six-Shooter in his Wild West Show, doing shooting exhibitions up until it closed in 1906. As for provenance, a record of ownership, proving ownership, the pistol had been passed down through Cody's family until it was first sold at auction in 1988. So yes, this piece of history is well documented. 

As for other collectibles belonging to Buffalo Bill? In 2012, a pistol belonging to Cody, one said to have belonged to him when he was a Scout for the U.S. Army during the Indian Wars, sold for $240,000. Imagine that.

Tom Correa


  1. I would love to have Buffalo Bill's Colt Frontier Six-Shooter if I had the money for it. But alas, I cannot afford it. It does make a very interesting addition to any Old West collection. As a self-proclaimed Old West historian, (meaning that I study the Old West in my own way), I am crazy about such things. I would also love to own the top hat that Ben Thompson wore during his years as a legendary Old West gunfighter but I can't seem to find that anywhere. But it is interesting to know that Buffalo Bill's gun was up for auction. Would like to know if anyone bought it.

  2. Another famous Old West gun that I would like to own is the gun that Jesse James carried. He carried two of them on the day he supposedly died on April 3, 1882 at age 34. One was a Colt .45 revolver and the other was a Smith and Wesson Schofield revolver also in .45 caliber. I want that one. I'm gonna tell the story now of a gun that was passed down from generation to generation. This is actually a song that I come up with and I hope you like it. It's a little bitty poem called, "The Outlaw's Gun". It was fitted tight with grips of pearl and the bullet was a .45. It wasn't too expensive but it kept the man alive. So how come people took a look and later chose to run? Well, that my friends is all because it was an outlaw's gun. But then one day it came the time where the man could no longer hide. He tried to shoot a marshal down but when he tried he died. Then my father knew that this here piece was nothing to be shunned. And claimed his rightful trophy which was the outlaw's gun. Then twenty some odd years had passed since another gripped the butt. Of that there fancy arsenal that spoke with lead and blood. It was given to my father when he was twenty-one. And he knew the man who held it. For it was an outlaw's gun. Then I received the pistol when I went off to war. And I carried it on that fateful day in 1944. I was eighteen years of age and knew what the Nazis done. And I swore that I would kill them all by using the outlaw's gun. And then there came Korea's war but alas I couldn't go. I was young and educated but still too weak to know. For simply did I now regret the thing that I had done. I used to fight the enemy but with an outlaw's gun. Then Vietnam came calling and my son wanted to fight. I told him, "Son, you might get killed, are you sure that is right"? He said, "Dad, don't worry 'bout me. I know what has been done." And so I sent off to war to use the outlaw's gun. Well. it's been many years now since that .45 has spoke. And I just watched an episode of my favorite show Gunsmoke. But I won't forget the story of the thing that pistol's done. For long before I had it, it was an outlaw's son. And no, I will not sell it for it was an outlaw's gun.


Thank you for your comment.