This past summer, I travelled to New England and New York to secure photos and information in preparation for the National Firearms Museum’s new exhibit “Theodore Roosevelt: Trappings of an Icon”, in which the National Park Service generously loaned the NFM more than 100 artifacts from Theodore Roosevelt’s family home, Sagamore Hill on Long Island’s Oyster Bay.
I had been invited to visit with Terry Brown, then the executive director of the Theodore Roosevelt Ass’n, at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site, at 28 East 20th St. in Manhattan. It was here, overlooking Gramercy Park, in 1858, that the future 26th President of the United States was born. Brown was excited to show me the “TR in ’12” exhibit located in the beautiful Manhattan brownstone. The display chronicled the Presidential campaign of 1912 when TR broke from the Republican Party and formed the Progressive Party, or “Bull Moose” party as it was popularly known.
Of particular note, Brown thought I would be interested in the Colt Police Positive .38 revolver John Schrank used on Oct. 14, 1912, to shoot TR in the chest shortly before he gave a speech in Milwaukee, Wis. Bleeding from the wound in his right side, TR stood before an audience of thousands and read from his bullet-riddled speech for 90 minutes before he would allow himself to be taken to a hospital. TR’s quote “It takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose” became a rallying cry for the rest of his ill-fated campaign. I was unaware of the Colt and was excited to see that it was on public display. I immediately began efforts with Brown to secure its loan to the NFM at the conclusion of the exhibit. (Alas, that was not to be).
On the way out of the basement exhibit area I glanced around the room and spied a familiar tripod-mounted gun half hidden in a dark corner. With only a small black-and-white photograph mounted to the wall to illustrate its significance, I was surprised to see a Colt Browning Automatic Gun Model of 1895 (Commonly referred to as a “potato digger” for the motion of its operating piston). Brown asked, “What do you think of the Gatling Gun!” With wild enthusiasm, I replied, “Could it possibly be one of the Rough Rider ‘potato diggers?’”
I took a small SureFire flashlight out of my camera bag to illuminate the receiver so I could see what was written on it. My hands shook nervously as the light brought the words into view.
Presented to the 1st U.S.V. Cavalry [Rough Riders]
Here was one of the two potato diggers that were in Cuba with TR and the Rough Riders. Brown and NPS Ranger Michael Amato could see that I was suddenly unnerved. They both moved in closer to see the inscription. On the top of the gun was the serial number, 161. This was most definitely the gun I had read so much about.
Brown assumed I knew about the four Gatlings supporting the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill. We have one of the four on display in the current exhibit courtesy of the recent Robert E. Petersen gift. I also knew where two of the other three were located and had even fired one of them in Kansas a few years ago with Jim Supica the director of the NFM. But this was not a Gatling; it was a potato digger and, as TR wrote in The Rough Riders (1899): “Our regiment had accumulated two rapid-fire Colt automatic guns, the gift of Stevens, Kane, Tiffany, and one or two others of the New York men … .” Most writers have since just referred to the Model 1895’s as “the Tiffany guns” supposing that the Tiffany mentioned by Roosevelt was Louis Comfort Tiffany, whose Oyster Bay estate, Laurel Hollow, was close to TR’s Sagamore Hill. They have also, mistakenly, referred to Louis Comfort Tiffany’s son William Tiffany, a trooper in the 1st U.S.V.
William Tiffany was actually the son of Newport, R.I., scions George and Isabella Tiffany, who donated one of the two guns to the regiment. He was promoted to sergeant commanding the two Colt-Browning machine gun section and was later promoted to lieutenant following his actions on July 1, 1898.
Aside from Roosevelt’s mention of the guns in his book, and few sparse mentions in other contemporary accounts, there is little modern scholarship on the subject available. I know of no published photographs of either gun made after July 1898. Their whereabouts have been unknown to the general public until the Kane gun went on display at the NFM in October 2012. I had been to the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace Site a number of times and would have certainly noticed this iconic firearm if it had been previously on display.
Some may ask, why all the fuss, what is so special about a seemingly lost potato digger? This was the very first automatic machine gun ever used by the U.S. Army in combat. This was the gun that ushered in the dawn of a new century and changed the face of military combat for the next 100 years—the U.S. Army’s first “big stick.”
Dolf Goldsmith’s The Browning Machine Gun, Volume I states that the Rough Riders’ Colt Model 1895, serial numbers 161 and 164, were delivered to the American Ordnance Co. of New York, N.Y., on May 12, 1898, and they were chambered in 7x57 mm Mauser. Tiffany’s section of 16 men took 4,000 rounds of ammunition with them to Cuba.
Remember The Maine!
On June 22, the Rough Riders landed in Cuba and began to march inland. Their first fight occurred on June 24 at Las Guasimas. It wasn’t the Model 1895’s first combat use as on June 14, the U.S. Marine Corps’ First Battalion, C Company, used four .236 USN Model 1895 Colts taken from the U.S.S. Texas, at the battle of Cuzco Wells near Guantánamo Bay.
On July 1, the Rough Riders made their historic charge up Kettle and San Juan Hills. TR would call this his “crowded hour,” an event that in 2001 would finally earn him the Medal of Honor for his leadership that day. Though little is mentioned of the unit’s two Colt Model 1895s, TR makes reference to the Gatling Gun Battery that had been formed by Lt. John Parker of the 13th Infantry. Back in Tampa, Parker had managed to secure four new Colt 1895 Gatling guns, serial numbers 1040, 1041, 1042 and 1043 from Gen. Shafter’s Chief of Ordnance, Maj. John T. Thompson (yes, that Thompson). Parker found his unique unit attached to the cavalry division and supported its advance up San Juan Hill. Once up Kettle Hill, the Rough Riders turned their attention to storming the heights of San Juan Hill. Soon an ominous noise rose from the field of battle. TR wrote: “One or two of the men cried out, ‘The Spanish machine guns!’ but, after listening a moment, I leaped to my feet and called, ‘It’s the Gatlings men! It’s our Gatlings!’ Immediately the troopers began to cheer lustily, for the sound was most inspiring.”
TR added: “From thence on, Parker’s Gatlings were our inseparable companions throughout the siege. They were right up at the front. When we dug our trenches, he took off the wheels of his guns and put them in the trenches. His men and ours slept in the same bomb-proofs and shared with one another whenever either side got a supply of beans or coffee and sugar. At no hour of the day or night was Parker anywhere but where we wished him to be, in the event of an attack.”