Firearms used by John Wayne, Jesse James and Annie Oakley sit on display at the National Firearms Museum.
By Philip Schreier
She had a bit of trouble steadying the small slip of paper she was trying to fill out as a receipt. A terrible accident years previous had cost her an arm, and now, as she attempted to write one-handed, her penmanship was often erratic, reflective of the toll that 75 years of hard living had on her. Yet to the preacher’s son who stood patiently nearby, his journey of 600 miles to meet this woman was just about to pay off. He had come to western Missouri to travel the same roads and see the same sights that had once been the haunts of his childhood heroes. After a pleasant afternoon spent conversing and sipping lemonade with the widow, he was now, for the paltry sum of $39, about to make the purchase of a lifetime. She had taken a shine to the man who showed such an interest in local history and, after many veiled comments and pointed questions, she admitted that since hard times had followed her nearly all her life, she might be persuaded to part with a family heirloom if the price was right.
Exactly 100 years later, the curatorial staff at the NRA’s National Firearms Museum opened a box from Old Town Station in Lenexa, Kan. Wearing white gloves and in an environmentally secure and controlled room, they carefully unwrapped a few layers of bubble wrap that held a large-frame revolver. Accompanying the gun was a small yellowed receipt that read: “Received $39.00 from Mr. C.B. Parsons of Lexington, Kentucky for my son Jesse’s pistol, Smith & West # 1984 size .44.” It was signed, “Zerelda Samuel,” and bore the address “James Farm, Kearney, Missouri.”
In the world of firearms collecting, few guns have the privilege of having good provenance. Provenance being what we would call a clear and provable chain of custody from the original owner to present. In the case of famous historical characters, none captures the imagination more than the most famous outlaw in American history, Jesse James. There must be over 100 “my son Jesse” guns out there; half of them were manufactured after Jesse was shot dead by Bob Ford in 1882. Jesse’s mother, “Zee” Samuel, lived another 30 years after Jesse’s death, selling his guns and even freshly placed stones off his grave, right up until nearly the day she died.
Airtight provenance on a real Jesse James gun is rarer than hens’ teeth. While there is no conclusive proof that this particular Smith & Wesson New Model No. 3 revolver was an actual James Gang relic, the fact that it has a receipt from Zee makes it a celebrity gun nonetheless. In fact, it has better provenance than 99 percent of the guns out there that make similar claims and lack any form of believable James provenance.
This gun and a host of others comprise a third of the National Firearms Museum’s first new exhibit in nearly three years entitled “GUNS WEST!” The exhibit is a look at firearms used by the men and women who shaped our country in the post-Civil War era. Dozens of the finest and most historic Colts, Winchesters and Smith & Wessons are on display with photos and biographies of the famous—and infamous—who used them to write some of the most interesting pages of our history books. The collections of Kurt House of Texas and Jim Supica of Kansas are internationally known, and many of the loaned objects are making their first public appearance.
Dime novelists such as Ned Buntline and showmen such as Buffalo Bill captured the attention of the country and the world with their tales of Indian raids and buffalo hunts. But it wasn’t until 1903, when the Edison Manufacturing Co. of New Jersey produced a 12-minute film entitled “The Great Train Robbery,” that the public fell in love with the West and with a new medium of entertainment: movies....