Colt handguns are among the most iconic and recognisable firearms from times gone by and while the company’s revolver designs are almost inextricably linked to the history of the American Frontier West era in the last quarter of the 19th century, few people realise the important role they have played in Australian annals as well.
Tony Cleaver is the proprietor of one of Queensland’s leading gunshops, Cleaver Firearms. The Margate-based business has built a reputation for its range of products, but is also home to Tony’s personal collection of Colt firearms. Covering the period of 1836 to 1900, the theme is that of Colt firearms with an Australian connection. Comprising more than 200 guns, literally shown off wall to ceiling, the assortment is displayed in store in a specially constructed vault and is understood to be the largest of its kind in the country.
“I’ve always liked the business principles of Sam Colt and the way he made such a successful business; the way he could foresee the use of firearms in the era he lived in,” said Tony.
“I like the gun and I like the man himself... Mechanically he was very astute. He also invented the underwater mine and laid the first underwater cable for Morse (telegraphs).”
Tony himself said he didn’t originally set out to specifically collect Colt handguns - Winchester rifles were his first love - but he noticed a number of Colt’s guns coming through the dealership and realised it didn’t seem right to sell them again, particularly due to his respect for Samuel Colt as a businessman and important part of firearms history. “They (Colt handguns in Australia) are a big part of our country’s history and they shouldn’t be sold and end up back in the US,” he said.
The guns in the compilation cover everything from an 1837-dated second model Colt Paterson - the first commercial revolver - to the Colt Walker, Model 1851 Navy, Model 1860 Army, Model 1877 Lightning, Colt Pocket revolvers, and of course the iconic Model 1873 Single Action Army pistol.
Among the other highlights is a Colt Walker revolver, dating from 1847. The Colt Walker - so named after Texas Ranger Captain Samuel Hamilton Walker, who helped design it - was a dragoon cap and ball revolver made to be carried in a horse saddle. Firing six .44-calibre projectiles from 60 grains of black powder each, it was the most powerful commercially produced handgun in the world until the development of the .357 Magnum in 1935.
The Colt Walker guns were famously used in the Mexican-American War; the example in Tony’s collection has military markings and is thought to have seen service in the conflict. However, the cylinder may not be original to the gun. Another interesting handgun is a Colt 1851 Navy believed to have been exhibited in the Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition in London that same year.
Several of the pistols have Australian Colonial Police or War Department markings, and Tony said Colt handguns turned up in the strangest of places across Australia. “I find them all over the place. People know I collect Colts... I’ve got contacts all over the country,” he said. “I’m surprised at how good the condition some of these guns are in.”
At least three of the guns in his collection came out of the Tasmanian Gold Rush, while another was found under a fencepost on a remote outback cattle station. Another interesting example is a heavily rusted - and cocked - pistol that was found in a creek bed, which Tony said raised some interesting theories about how it got there - and why it was cocked when it was dropped. Tales of prospectors, bushrangers, police and soldiers abound with old guns in Australia and one of the challenges is authenticating a gun’s provenance.
Tony said many of the Colts he encountered came with colorful stories and tales of famous owners or connection to well-known events, so the arms collector’s adage “buy the gun, not the story” was an important rule to follow. Where possible, he sought further provenance from the owner - for example, if the gun had belonged to a relative, or if there was paperwork backing up their claim to the gun’s history.
Colt also provides factory letters certifying when a particular firearm was made and to whom it was shipped - something Tony tries to obtain for every firearm he purchases. This helps verify the stories of some of his guns, such as with a .36-calibre Colt 1851 Navy revolver with the serial number 8. Clearly one of the very first of the model ever made, Tony said from what he had been able ascertain it had been bought to Australia by a miner from San Francisco (where the gun was shipped to a gun dealer, according to the Colt factory letter) heading to Victoria during the Gold Rush era.
The iconic Model 1873 Single Action Army, also known as the Colt Peacemaker, is well represented in the exhibition, being one of the most famous gun designs of all time - and, like the US, proving extremely popular with station hands and cattle graziers in Australia.
Tony said it was a popular misconception the Single Action Army was only chambered in .45 Long Colt calibre, explaining it was made for a variety of cartridges including .44 Rimfire, .476 Eley, .455 Eley and .450 Boxer - all of which featured in the selection.
The collection covers an extensive range of pre-1900 Colt firearms but is by no means comprehensive, Tony said, explaining he was primarily looking for an Australian connection or other noteworthy provenance. “I’m not chasing one of each piece,” he said.
Handguns are the focus of the collection but not the only items in it, with several Model 1855 revolving rifles and an extremely rare Colt Ring Lever Paterson revolving carbine (serial number 425 and believed to be the only one in Australia) also featuring.
One of the Model 1855 revolving carbines was used in the 2003 film Ned Kelly, starring Heath Ledger and Orlando Bloom, and the rifle appears over Ledger’s shoulder on the film’s poster. Tony acquired the carbine in 2015.
Despite being among the country’s most significant Colt firearm collections, one of the centrepieces of the exhibition is not a Colt gun - it’s a Winchester Model 1873 rifle. The rifle, chambered in .44-40 with serial number 496172B, was the first firearm Tony purchased with his own money and kick-started his love of collecting. While Tony eventually sold the rest of his Winchester items to pay for construction of his family home, his interest in collecting remained undiminished and after trying several themes, he eventually found himself coming back to Colt firearms.
As a keen member of the Colt Collectors Association (CCA), Tony said he was still adding to the stockpile and was always on the lookout for new pieces. “I’ll keep doing it as long as my wife is okay with it,” he said.
Enthusiasts of Colt firearms, antique guns and Australian history alike will doubtless find something of interest in the presentation in the specially constructed vault at the Cleaver Firearms store. Tony said visitors to the store were welcome to view the displays, but asked they be patient if the shop was busy and someone was not immediately available to unlock the vault - but the wait would be worth it.
Cleaver Firearms is located at 27 Beaconsfield Road, Margate, Queensland, 4019. For more information, phone 07 3883 1733.