I just finished the new book “REVOLVER: Sam Colt and the Six-shooter That Changed America” by Jim Rasenberger.  Some fascinating history there. Rasenberger combines a deep dive into the personality of the man who, for all practical intents and purposes, invented the revolver with a perceptive analysis of relevant social trends in America and around the world.  Some points of particular interest today:

Cover of the book "Revolver, Sam Colt and the Six Shooter that Changed America" by Jim Rasenberger

In the first half of the 19th Century, the author states, “…many if not most American households had at least a rudimentary firearm, with a greater prevalence in the south and west than in the north.” He noted Col. Colt’s penchant for gift guns presented to “influencers” of the time, with some ingenious packaging, “…putting some of the guns inside false books, a gimmick, but one that hinted knowingly at the future of these guns. Law for Self Defense was the title on the spine of one of these books. Other titles included The Tourists Companion and The Common Law of Texas.

If you think you’re seeing scalper prices from some firearms dealers now, in the wake of 2020’s pandemic and rioting, consider what happened in the 1849 California gold rush. Writes Rasenberger, “One measure of the value Californians placed on Colt revolvers was what they were willing to pay for them. The price of nearly every product was inflated wildly in California in 1849, and especially that of guns. Rifles that cost $13 in New York sold in California for $150. A normal single shot pistol was $5 in New York and $40 in California. Nowhere was this inflation more evident than in the price of revolvers. A large-caliber Colt that could be had for $38 in New York would set a Californian back $200, according to one eastern newspaper. Another newspaper listed the price as $250, and records indicate that men paid as much as $500 for a Colt in California.”

Rasenberger seems to recognize that it’s not “guns cause crime,” it’s “crime causes people to buy guns.” He writes of the years immediately preceding the Civil War, “In Washington, by one estimate, a third of congressmen went into the Capitol each day armed, and many of those who did so were northerners. In New York City, George Templeton Strong noted a correlation between the rise in crime and the rise in gun ownership. ‘Most of my friends are investing in revolvers and carry them about at night, and if I expect to do a great deal of late night street-walking of Broadway, I think I should make the like provision.’”

The book makes the point, “Unlike a rifle, a revolver was worn close to the body, almost as an extension of the body, and it gave the individual who wore it the power to defend himself or herself (women began to carry revolvers after the Civil War) against malefactors, protecting the weak against the strong and the one against the many. ‘God made man,’ went a popular western saying, ‘but Colt made them equal.’”


  1. Actually the Henry lever action, Spencer, and Winchester 73 changed America much more. They were the assault rifles of the day.

    • Maybe you need to write your own book then, since you know so much more about it than the author.

      • Friend Dusty, may one say in a friendly way, that you may be defined as the “critic of critics?” Still glad to hear from you, though. “Revolver” is definitely on one’s must-read list.

    • Many things ‘changed America’ Of the 3 rifles you name only the Spencer was issued to US military personnel while several models of the Colt revolver were. It would be likely that anyone carrying a Henry or Winchester would see the value of carrying a revolver as well. Revolvers were as likely to be found carried by members of the bridge club as they were miners and fortune seekers on the frontier. If you really wanted to be precise about what changed things more that would have to fall to the advent of the cartridge.

  2. Interesting how even then firearm ownership was less prevalent in the North- which I assume includes the Northeast and hence New York. Perhaps it was for different reasons back then…but interesting all the same.

    • Also interesting that it was more northerners going to Congress armed each day preceding the Civil War. Sounds like radicals were out in force, just like today.

    • VinFromNewYork,

      I suspect the difference in firearm ownership was, and still is, city people versus country people.

      The NRA was formed because many of the Yankee conscipts in the Civil War were bad shots who “. . . couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.”

      I suspect that quote referred to city slickers frim the North. My guess is that firearms ownership in the country is seen as being related to hunting while firearms ownership in the city is seen as being related to crime. That’s why city slickers are afraid of guns.

  3. Interesting history lesson Mas. I’m a revolver fan as well, particularly when out in the Great Outdoors or as a backup CCW. Thanks much!

  4. @ Mas – “Rasenberger seems to recognize that it’s not ‘guns cause crime,’ it’s ‘crime causes people to buy guns.’ ”

    Yes, during the California Gold Rush years, there was little “Law and Order” abroad in the land. It was another case of “Open Borders” whereby people from all over the World flooded into California seeking their fortunes. While most did so honestly, in the gold fields, a portion of them turned to crime. The honest folks were in real danger of being robbed and murdered at any time. Of course, they got the best weapons that they could purchase and did not mind paying top dollar for them. A large caliber Colt Revolver would have been a “State of the Art” defensive tool at the time.

    I am reminded of the case of Captain Jonathan R. Davis. In December of 1854, Captain Davis was traveling along a remote trail, with two companions, when they were ambushed by an “International Gang” of dangerous criminals. These criminals were already responsible for multiple murders.

    Captain Davis’ friends were both quickly put out of action. One was killed instantly while the other was mortally wounded. However, the gang made a critical mistake. They failed to take out Captain Davis with their first volley. As I understand it, Captain Davis was armed with two (2) heavy caliber Colt revolvers and a Bowie knife. He rapidly went to work.

    Captain Davis emptied his revolvers and put seven (7) of his attackers dead on the ground. He then went to work with his Bowie knife and carved up four (4) more of his attackers (who all died of knife wounds). With eleven (11) of the criminals down-on-the-ground, the few remaining members of the gang broke and ran. They did not want anything more to do with Captain Davis!

    Here is the Wikipedia account of this incident. It is short and does not go into a lot of details.


    With such lawlessness loose in the land, it is no wonder that firearms commanded top prices during the California Gold Rush period.

    Unfortunately, America (due to the Marxist Ideological Oppression Cycle that we have entered) is in another period where law and order is under attack and criminals flood across our borders. It is no wonder that firearms sales are going through the roof just like they did in Old California. See this article:


  5. As I read this I can’t but help thinking, times may change but people really don’t. Our surroundings my be different but the human personality is very much the same as those of years gone by. Thanks for the book review, I have added it to my list.

    • Michael S.,

      I believe you’ve hit on the underlying cause for that old saying “History repeats itself.”

  6. An excellent review containing some fascinating information, convincing me that Rasenberger’s book qualifies as a “must read.”

    The dollar figures given for gun prices in California, circa 1849, are indeed mind-bogging and led me to immediately seek out some conversion information online. According to http://www.officialdata.org, $100 in 1849 is worth $3,348.01 today, so that $500 some were willing to fork over for a Colt at that time in history is the equivalent of a cool $16,740.05 in today’s dollars, making today’s somewhat heated run on guns, along with the accompanying inflated prices, seem more like a minor annoyance in comparison.

    Finally, the statement “The book makes the point, ‘Unlike a rifle, a revolver was worn close to the body, almost as an extension of the body…'” provides a new take on the concept of a “firearm.”

    • Friend Glenn, the average gold of the ’49 rush was worth about $15 per troy ounce, so it took a little under three pounds troy of raw color to supply $500. You could buy a 160-acre homestead in the Midwest in those days for $500. The early miners could make that much in a few minutes at a spot like Rich Bar along the Plumas River. Those were the days. Not quite like that now, though.

      • @ Strategic Steve – “he average gold of the ’49 rush was worth about $15 per troy ounce.”

        Actually, the U.S. was still on the Gold Standard (at that time) and the official U.S. Government price was pegged $20.64 per troy oz in 1849. The pegged price for silver, at that time, was $1.29 per troy oz which gave a gold to silver ratio of $20.64/$1.29 = 16 to 1. A ratio of 16 to 1 was common back during that time period and is common historically.

        The current spot price of gold and silver (as of today) is $1,947.37 per troy oz of gold and $25.96 per troy oz of silver. This gives a current ratio of 75 to 1. Therefore, gold is overvalued and/or silver is undervalued by historical norms.

        A check of the math indicates that, in 1849, $500 would have purchased 24.22 troy oz of gold or 387.6 troy oz of silver. To purchase that much gold on today’s market would take $47,165.30. To purchase that much silver would only take $10,062.10.

        Therefore, Glenn’s equivalent cost of “a cool $16,740.05 in today’s dollars” seems pretty accurate to me when one considers that gold seems to be historically overvalued and silver historically undervalued.

        No doubt, today’s inflated prices for gold are a result of the current chaos and uncertainty in the World. Such conditions tend to produce a “run on gold” since people see gold as a stable “store of value” in troubled times.

      • Friend TN_MAN, the “pegged” price for gold is tied to refined gold of .999 fine quality, like genuine bullion. Out in the gold fields the “gold dust,” including even large nuggets, will run from about .600 to about .910 fine, depending on the amount of silver and other impurities found in the metal before refining. Even in the Klondike rush of ’98, local gold, nearly all of which came from placers, was discounted to $15 per ounce by local authorities when imposing a tax, in spite of the official Gold Standard evaluation of + $20. “Gold dust,” of course, was the main currency among the miners and supply providers. The average miners did not do much refining. They were too busy spending.

      • @ Strategic Steve – You are, of course, correct about the difference between raw gold and refined, pure gold. However, that is beside the points that I was making in my above comment. The purpose of my comment was to point out that:

        1) Glenn’s estimate of the cost-adjusted prices of these Colt Revolvers is likely pretty accurate and,
        (2) Since the USA has went off the Gold Standard, the prices of Gold and Silver have been allowed to “float” with the result that there is a historical imbalance in their current spot prices.

        As far as actually paying for the revolvers, it would likely vary. If the miner had already been in the gold fields for some time and, in consequence, has a good supply of raw gold dust/gold nuggets available, then he might well pay for a revolver with raw gold. In this case, he might need close to your estimate of two to three lbs. of raw gold to pay the top-dollar price of $500.

        However, if he was a new prospector, just arriving at the gold fields, he might choose to pay in hard currency since he would not, as yet, have dug up any raw gold. If he pays for the revolver with US double-eagle coins, for example, the amount of gold transferred would at the refined price not the raw price. Twenty-five (25) double-eagle coins would neatly meet the $500 top price and these coins would contain about 1.5 lbs. of refined gold. See this article about US double eagles:


        Really, the point is not so much about such details as refined versus raw gold values. Rather, it is about the price that people were willing to pay in order to obtain proper defensive tools with which to protect their lives. To these old prospectors, their lives were more valuable than gold. At least, to the extent of taking necessary steps to arm themselves against criminals.

      • Friend TN_Man, true that gold rush people might pay for good revolvers any way they could. Many of the newly arrived wannabe prospectors, though, had little left but the shirts on their backs. Previously poorly armed pilgrims with empty pockets would have to earn, steal, or rob before they could arm up. Wages were generally very good early on during the rushes, but decreased as the supply of new dust dwindled, and as the horde of newcomers increased. Not much seems to have been published about the particular frontier firearms dealers, and would make interesting history. One is reminded of rumors that Quakers were arming various native tribes at some point. Transportation was generally very slow by today’s standards, with demand exceeding supply.

      • @ Strategic Steve

        I expect that a lot of finished goods, such as firearms and ammunition, would have reached California by Clipper Ship. There was a regular sailing route that ran from New York to San Francisco around Cape Horn. The trip took about seven (7) months.

        Some goods may have come by wagon, from Saint Louis to California, but I expect that manufactured goods, like firearms, would have mostly arrived by ship.

        A wise newcomer to the gold fields, if he had the necessary “Starting Capital”, might have taken advantage of this fact. Suppose that someone going to the gold fields of California started out in New York. Suppose that he had the money to purchase a dozen or so Colt 1851 Navy firearms at about $38 each in New York. The cost would be 12 X $38 = $456. Suppose that he then purchased passage to San Francisco on a Clipper ship and took his revolvers with him along with his regular luggage.

        The cost of passage from New York varied from roughly $100 to as much as $1000. Let’s assume a median price of about $500 for the cost of passage. Therefore, in this case, the newcomer would need a starting capital of at least $1,000 at the beginning of his trip from New York ($456 to purchase the revolvers, $500 for ship passage and $44 for miscellaneous expenses during the trip).

        Upon his arrival in San Francisco, he could keep one pair of Navy revolvers for his own use and sell the extra ten (10) revolvers for at least $200 each. This would reap him $2,000 in cash (almost 440% Profit Margin). With $2,000 cash on-hand and a pair of 1851 Colt Navy revolvers for self-protection, he would have had his basic “grub stake” to head for the Gold Fields.

        Here is another way to look at it. A Colt 1851 Navy Revolver weights about 41 oz. (about 37.6 troy oz.). Assuming that it was paid for with raw gold worth $15 per troy oz. and assuming that, at the top price, it might cost as much as $500, then it would take about 33.3 troy oz. of raw gold to buy it. In other words, the revolver would have almost been “Worth it’s weight in (raw) Gold”!

        I expect some people were making good money by buying firearms (perhaps through an agent) in New York and then shipping them to San Francisco for re-sale at Gold Rush prices. It is, indeed, a shame that this area is not better documented in the historical records.

      • No wonder the crime rate in California is so high! It’s all those guns bought in other states and smuggled into the Golden State by evil capitalists. Nancy Pelosi and Barbara Boxer are right, we need to ban all those nasty firearms (except the ones carried by themselves, their security people, and the ones of other wealthy liberals).

  7. Purchased based on your review! I have my GGG grandfather’s SAA handed down through my grandfather and father (SN 32xxx). My GGG grandfather was a Methodist circuit rider in south Texas. His teenage son was killed during a Comanche raid. He purchased the Model 1873 i have after that happened. My dad gave it to me with one admonition… it has to stay in the family;)

  8. First thanks to Glen above for making the cost comparisons. Was wondering about that. One of the foundation cases in Virginia self defense law had a $5 debt (in 1855) as part of the background.

    40 odd years ago I was researching gun control laws, studies and literature. The assumption/justification of hunting for owning firearms in rural areas and more nefarious reasons in suburban/urban areas was wide spread even then. To be fair, it’s at least probable in rural areas back then. But, rhen and now, LLEA response in rural areas leaves something to be desired. Heck, in the suburb I grew up in, that was also true deep into my teens.

  9. Thanks Mas for giving me another “must read”.
    At this rate I’ll need to live to 103 to finish all my reading. Mom made it to ninety nine so it’s possible.
    Hope your summer is well.


  10. Added this to my list as well. Just started Sixguns by Keith after it was mentioned here, looks like this will be next! Also, my brother works for the US Capitol PD, just texted him to ask if a properly licensed Congressman could carry in the Capitol, I’m guessing not though.

  11. Sounds like an interesting book. The popular Western saying, or maybe Colt advertising copy, is oft beleived to be the origin the slang term for a Gat being an ‘Equaliser.’

    Hmmm . . . I am told that in Africa the saying is, “God made men; Mikhail Kalashnikov made them equal.”

  12. When my gg grandfather was mustered out of the Union army at Civil war’s end in New Orleans he bought a Smith & Wesson pocket 22 revolver for self defense as he made his way home to Ohio. Said to have kept it in his hat. Once safely home he bought a Parker 12 gauge to hunt game. I am proud to have both. I’m sure the high antebellum crime in N.O. Was the reason for the revolver.

    • Given the curiosity compelling content of the comments posted above, I sensed that blog readers might be intrigued that ancestors of mine were heavily involved with the manufacture of the famous Spencer Rifle.

      My late father’s mother’s maiden name was Alice Cheney. She came from a long line of Cheney males (living in CT) who were heavily involved in development of CT manufacturing during the entire 19th Century.

      Extract from History of Connecticut

      “In the following year, 1854, Cheney Brothers began spinning waste silk—taken from damaged cocoons—and became the first factory in the world to successfully develop a sustainable method for turning waste silk into a final product with no noticeable imperfections. The company invested heavily in the waste spinning technology.

      It plowed approximately $30,000 into factory refits to facilitate the new production. In late 1854, Mt. Nebo became the Cheney Brothers Silk Manufacturing Company, and the firm opened a second factory, where silk ribbon was produced on Morgan Street in Hartford.

      This commitment to technology paid off: Cheney’s capital stock increased to $400,000 and, by 1860, the mill employed 600 workers and boasted an annual production valued at about $551,000.

      Cheney’s two innovations established the company’s reputation for ingenuity and Cheney began to attract many highly trained machinists.

      One of these, Christopher Spencer, an ex-Colt firearms employee, expanded the company into the arms industry with his revolutionary Spencer Rifle, patented in 1860.

      Developed exclusively in Cheney’s Manchester factory, this rifle boasted a revolutionary firing rate of 15 to 16 shots per minute.

      In 1863, Spencer brought his rifle to Washington, D.C. and arranged a personal demonstration for President Abraham Lincoln.

      On August 13, 1863, the President fired seven shots from the Manchester-made rifle and was impressed by the rifle’s accuracy and speed.

      The President immediately ordered all the weapons the company could make.

      The Cheney Brothers helped Spencer organize a separate company to manufacture the rifle and leased factory space in Massachusetts.

      More than 200,000 Spencer Rifles were ultimately produced before the Spencer Arms Division was sold to the Winchester Company following the Civil War.”

      The absolutely stunning realization that direct ancestors of mine on my father’s side of the family funded the manufacturing of the Spencer Rifle and were likely present with Christopher Spencer when President Abraham Lincoln dropped the hammer on seven primers and sent seven rounds downrange makes me so proud to be an American. Framed photos of the Cheney Brothers, Christopher Spencer and President Lincoln grace my home office’s wall.

      P.S. My maternal grandmother Alice Cheney’s father Benjamin H. Cheney served on active duty as Assistant Surgeon (Captain) with the 41st Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment, from 1862-1864.

      Heritage matters! History matters! Honor matters! Repeating Rifles matter!

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