|By Eric C. Rodenberg
ROCK ISLAND, Ill. – Mexican Revolutionary General Pancho Villa wouldn’t be caught dead without his Colt Bisley, a turn-of-the-20th century target variant of the famous Colt Peacemaker.
Or, that’s what he, perhaps naively, thought.
“Villa had the reputation of being one of Mexico’s greatest gunfighters,” wrote Friedrich Katz in his book, The Life and Times of Pancho Villa (Stanford University Press, 1998). ’For Villa, the gun was more important that eating or sleeping,’ a subordinate wrote about him. ’It was part of his person indispensable to him wherever he was, even at social occasions, and one can say that it was only very rarely that he did not have a gun ready to be drawn or placed in his gun belt.’”
But, on July 20, 1923, Villa’s last act on this earth was to reach for his fancy mother-of-pearl gripped Bisley as he drove his 1919 Dodge touring car into an ambush. More than 40 rounds of ammunition were pumped into his car, instantly killing Villa and his four-armed companions.
In his book, Katz writes that Villa was reaching for the Bisley, shortly before being hit with nine dumdum bullets, normally used for hunting big game, which struck Villa in the head and upper chest. He died instantly.
Villa’s favorite gun, a .44-40 Colt Bisley manufactured in 1912, can be seen in the Autry National Center in Los Angeles.
Some historians claim that Villa preferred the Bisley because the shape of the grips allowed him to better handle the revolver with his arthritic hands.
The Bisley was introduced by Colt in 1894, in a wide variety of calibers, as a target gun. As part of a marketing ploy, Colt introduced the Bisley at the famous shooting sports complex in Bisley, England, where shootists and spectators were impressed by its performance.
Although initially intended to be marketed primarily in England, most Bisley Standard Model Revolvers were shipped to the United States. Upon arrival in the United States, the guns were quickly adopted for self-defense. Shooting at inanimate targets was barely an afterthought.
Importantly, the accuracy of the Bisley was never questioned. And, yet more significantly, the grip and hammer were ideal for fast shooting.
About 45,000 Colt Bisley models were produced by Colt between 1894 and 1915, according to Seth Isaacson with Rock Island Auction Co., which will be selling 32 Colt Bisley SAA Army Revolvers at its June 20-23 regional firearms auction at Rock Island, Ill.
Isaacson added that there are more than 50 lots of Colt Bisley-related material that will be sold at Rock Island.
The Colt Bisley is a well-sought-after collector’s piece, according to Isaacson. At auction in 2015, Rock Island sold a .32 Bisley Single Action Flat-top Target model with a 7 ½-inch barrel for $51,750. The revolver, described in excellent condition, was one of only 44 models chambered for the .32 Colt cartridge.
The Colt Bisley features a distinctive flat-top strap, with both rear and barrel target sights. The front sight included an adjustable nickel-silver blade. Many of these guns were “customized” – for better or worse – after they arrived in the United States. It is thought that around 60 percent of the Colt Bisley models produced by Colt are extant.
The Bisley was featured in several different calibers, including, .32-30, .38-40, 45 Colt, .44-40m and .41 Colt, with several models produced to accept British ammunition. The realized prices of Colt Bisley models are all over the board, depending on the caliber, barrel length and any improvisations. As always, originality and condition are paramount.
“There should be a Colt Bisley available to the collector at nearly every price point,” Isaacson said. But he added there will be some exceptional Bisley models rarely seen at auction.
Among the finest Colt Bisley models to be offered at auction, according to Isaacson, is a .38-40 caliber factory engraved silver-plated revolver with pearl grips. Fewer than 60 Bisley models were factory engraved, according to Colt’s records. The silver-plating and uncommon pearl grips pushes the pre-sale estimate of the revolver to $16,000-$22,500.
Also being sold is a Colt Flat Top Target Model 38-caliber Bisley, estimated to sell at $2,500-$4,000, of which Isaacson said is one of only 96 made in that caliber.
Of the more than 10,000 firearms to be sold within a total lot count of 5,007 lots, another high-profile historical weapon is a .44-gauge Henry rifle, issued to a soldier in Company F of the 97th Indiana Infantry Volunteers during the Civil War.
Records from the New Haven Arms Co, document the Henry was part of an 800-rifle contract that was issued circa November 1863. “There was a big push to get these guns out and into the hands of the soldiers,” Isaacson, who has a master’s degree in history from Illinois State University, said.
Organized in Terre Haute in 1862, the 97th saw combat in the South, including the Battle of Griswoldville, the siege of Vicksburg, the Battle of Chattanooga, the Battle of Atlanta and Sherman’s March to the Sea.
The Henry rifle, which has a pre-sale estimate of $22,500-$35,000, is distinctive, in that, it is one of the few Henrys marked with Ordnance inspection marks on the stock and barrel. The rifle also has the “H” New Haven Arms inspection mark of B. Tyler Henry stamped on the barrel.
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