The Colt Walker revolver was carried into battle by the Texas Rangers during the Mexican-American War, named after the captain who commissioned its design.
Nearly 200 years later, one of those original handguns was unearthed in, of all places, a bedroom lock box in Montgomery County, the end of a journey that covered thousands of miles.
"They are the most historic, and historically important, revolvers," said Herb Glass Jr., the firearms historian who authenticated the Walker for Alderfer Auctions, a clearinghouse in Hatfield. Glass estimated that out of the 1,100 Walkers manufactured, about 160 survive. Alderfer's auctioneers place that number closer to the high 30s.
"Owning a real Walker? To a collector, that's important," Glass said.
The revolver, manufactured in 1847 by Samuel Colt, will be the centerpiece of a firearms sale by Alderfer on Dec. 18. Tim Hollinger, Alderfer's outdoor sports coordinator, demurred at guessing the price the gun might command. All he could say with certainty is that the revolver, one of the rarest pieces Alderfer has brokered, is a "six-figure gun."
It's an educated guess. Another Walker in mint condition, complete with the original wooden case provided by Colt's factory, fetched $1.4 million at an Illinois auction in April. Ten years ago, an auctioneer in Maine sold one for $920,000.
"When you bring up the history of this firearm, you wish it could speak and tell you what it has seen in its lifetime," he said. "People who are interested in purchasing this item, they might not be gun enthusiasts — they see it almost as a piece of fine art, because of its investment value."
This is Hollinger's second career, after serving as a detective with the Lower Merion Police Department. It was a natural transition, his skills as a trained observer helping to track down the histories of rare items — and sniff out clever fakes.
Those skills came in handy in tracing the path of the recently discovered Walker. It came to Alderfer in October from the estate of a Montgomery County man whose family found it in a box with two World War II-era pistols.
The family, through Hollinger, declined to be interviewed. At its request, Hollinger would not disclose in which town the guns were found. All he would say is that its owner was in the late stages of Alzheimer's and was unable to explain to his relatives how he came to possess such a valuable gun.
"The only thing the family would tell me is that their father was a big barterer, did bartering and trade quite a bit," Hollinger said. "But how exactly he got it was unknown for sure."
Regardless, the family recognized its value and took it to Hollinger, who called on Glass to fill in the blanks.
The 75-year-old historian found that the gun was first "discovered" in 1943 in Austin, Texas, and sold to a Massachusetts collector. Two decades later, the gun made its way into the pages of Norm Flayderman's catalog. The noted gun salesman described the Walker as "one of the best specimens we have come across in virtually untouched condition," according to Glass, who has spent most of his life studying firearms.
But after that, the gun vanished from the record for 60 years.
"At its last appearance, it held tremendous value," Glass said of the Walker. "How the hell it lost its identity from being a respected collectible in the 1960s to being in a box with two other pistols is beyond me."
Glass said the Walker is in superb condition for a firearm of its age, and bears most of the original parts cast by Colt in his first factory, in Paterson, N.J.
"This gun is part of a Horatio Alger story," Glass said. "That's some of its appeal."
After initial failures in gunsmithing, Colt received the order for the pistol from Capt. Samuel Walker. The proceeds from the order helped Colt purchase his later armory, which still stands today in Hartford, Conn., on a bank of the Connecticut River.