Date posted:  January 27, 2016

The recent acquisition of the Charles M. Russell Research Collection (formerly known as the Britzman Collection) offers great opportunities to learn more about the artist and how he worked.

Russell was born in St. Louis in 1864. At the age of 16, he boarded a train to Montana with a friend, Wallis L.W. (Pike) Miller, to work at the Miller family’s sheep camp. At the time, lots of young men had headed west to seek their fortunes and to make new lives. Charlie Russell made a name for himself by creating visions of the West in paint or bronze.

One of the treasures in the Russell Research Collection is a nickel-plated Colt revolver. There are at least three photographs in the archive that show Russell wearing what appears to be this gun in a double loop holster. The bull’s head ivory grip on the pistol and some of the details of the holster can be seen in the photos. These images provide strong evidence that the gun was Russell’s personal side arm.

When it was new, the ivory-gripped, nickel-plated pistol would have been an expensive item. However, young Russell was a working cowboy as well as an artist. The gun shows a lot of wear and numerous modifications indicating that it was a well-used piece of equipment. The front sight was replaced and from the looks of the repair, it may have been done by someone who was not a professional gunsmith. At some time, major changes were made to the original gun. Curiously, the gun has two distinct serial numbers. According to factory records from the Colt Manufacturing Company, Colt archivist Beverly Jean Haynes writes that the basic gun is a .44/40-caliber, but the trigger guard and back strap have a serial number that denotes a .45-caliber revolver. The caliber sizes are very close and the amalgamation of the two did not affect the safety or the accuracy of the gun.

The presence of this gun in the Russell archives makes a small contribution to our understanding of some of his work. In at least eight of his major paintings, a figure (sometimes Russell, himself) is depicted with a nickel-plated pistol with white grips and a double loop holster.

Pretty clearly, Russell used his own gear as props for his paintings. The archives also include images of Charlie, his wife, Nancy, and sometimes other people dressed as cowboys or Indians. These photos, too, may have been aids to create images in his paintings. Of the eight paintings showing the pistol and double loop holster, the earliest was finished in 1890. Another was painted in 1896, and six more were painted in the early 20th century. Again, the Colt records indicate that the gun, actually both the .44/40- and .45-caliber parts of the gun were sold to the same New York firm, Hartley & Graham, in 1880 and 1883, respectively. Those dates tell us that Charlie acquired the gun sometime after 1883 and was depicting his personal sidearm by 1890. Further research in the archives and the Russell Raisonné, recently authored by B. Byron Price, may reveal more examples.

Legend has it that Charlie was a great storyteller and a man with restless hands. He frequently carried bee’s wax with which he would model small figures while talking. His active mind and hands seem to have been drawn to the smooth white ivory grips of his Colt revolver. Perhaps he saw them as a mini-canvas. On one side, he carved a short poem, probably based on a famous set of lines attributed to Sam Colt, about his gun being an “equalizer” among men. On the opposite grip, he etched a chase scene depicting a cowboy shooting his pistol at a pursuing Indian warrior.

Less obvious, he also attempted to engrave his hallmark buffalo skull on the frame of the gun but completed only a portion of the outline. Perhaps engraving steel may have been too difficult for the tool that he had at hand. Later in his life, however, he did engrave some animal figures into the steel magazine of a model 1895, .35-caliber Winchester lever-action rifle that belonged to Frank Bird Linderman.

This Colt revolver, with all of its scratches and worn spots, provides a tangible connection to the cowboy and artist who created the iconic images of the old West. It gives us a little insight into Russell’s life and personality.

The Russell Research Collection includes more than 13,000 other objects, images and photos. Future research in this treasure trove of information will yield more stories and details about the life and times of this pivotal American artist.