This 1883 Colt Single Action Army revolver helped transform a meek, young Easterner into one of America’s great Western presidents.
By Amy Arden
Theodore Roosevelt looms large from the pages of history—author, sportsman, hero of the Rough Riders, Nobel Prize winner, 26th president of America, ranchman, cowboy, etc.
In the summer of 1884, however, he was a heartbroken young man with a gun. Four months earlier, his beloved wife, Alice Lee, had literally died in his arms, leaving behind an infant daughter. Shattered and silent in his grief, 25-year-old Theodore Roosevelt sought solace in a rough life in the Dakota Badlands. A gleaming Colt revolver traveled at his side.
The gun’s ownership is impossible to mistake. A large set of initials, “TR,” is carved into the gun’s ivory grip—visible from the holster of the right-handed Roosevelt. It’s an exquisite firearm, with a showy gold and silver plate along the barrel and a buffalo head carved opposite his initials. Master engraver Louis Nimschke provided the embellishments that would mark this gun uniquely Roosevelt’s, a work of art as much as a weapon.
The gun is an 1883 Colt Single Action Army revolver, a .44/40 caliber six-shooter with a 7 ½-inch barrel, the largest standard barrel that Colt manufactured. Popularly known as the “Peacemaker” or “Equalizer,” the Colt Single Action Army revolver gained revered status as the gun that helped win the West. Roosevelt’s was purchased from Hartley and Graham, a prominent Manhattan boutique of military suppliers.
Carbon residue inside the barrel and in the chamber indicates that the revolver fulfilled its purpose, as danger was never far away on the Dakota frontier. Outlaws, horse thieves, and wild animals provided ample reason to keep the Colt close. In his memoirs, Roosevelt writes of carrying a revolver, and sometimes a rifle, while riding with his cattle. (A neighboring rancher, the tempestuous Frenchman the Marquis de Mores, even thretened to challenge Roosevelt to a duel.)
Before Roosevelt left the Badlands for good in 1886, he announced to the citizens of Dickinson, S.D., that “I am at heart as much a Westerner as an Easterner.” He had deposited a band of horse thieves there at gunpoint the previous year. The privileged New York boy had grown up to be a cowboy.
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