Rifles > Historical

The Rough Riders’ Potato Digger

“Roosevelt’s Rough Riders” took two Colt-Browning machine guns to Cuba in 1898. One is now on display at the National Firearms Museum.


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]
by L. and S. Kane
las guasimas june 24th, san juan july 1, santiago [siege of]

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!
After the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbor on Feb. 15, 1898, the United States declared war on the Spanish empire. Theodore Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the Navy in President William McKinley’s cabinet, resigned his post to raise the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry, soon to become known as “Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.” Men were selected from the polo fields of Harvard, Princeton and Yale, and they were accompanied by cowboys, bronco busters, sheriffs and a few Indians from the western frontier. Together they formed one of the most unique and diverse units in American military history. They gathered at the State Fairgrounds in San Antonio, Texas, to train for combat, receive horses and their military equipment. Ever the firearm enthusiast, TR made sure, through his connections in the War Department, that his men were armed with the newest Model 1896 Krag Jorgensen magazine-fed, smokeless powder rifles in .30 Gov’t (.30-40 Krag). After a month of training they were sent to Tampa, Fla., and then embarked for Cuba.

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.”

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9 Responses to The Rough Riders’ Potato Digger

J. R. Kinnunen wrote:
December 28, 2013

I visited the Roosevelt home and took the tour today, Saturday, December 28th. At the end of the tour I asked about this Colt. Both the volunteer guide and NPS manager became visibly upset talking about the subject of firearms, stated any and all present were locked up and unavailable, and most likely would never be displayed at the home again due to 'security concerns.' They had no knowledge of an 1895 Colt, but mentioned they did know of a 'Gatling gun' in the collection 'somewhere. I was disappointed and hope to see this piece in the future.

Cases4Cases wrote:
July 05, 2013

Great story! I can't wait to hear the follow-up alerting us that the second one has been found ;) Where can I find a copy of the Rough Riders group photo included in the article? Thanks!

Lewis M. Campbell wrote:
March 15, 2013

Would like to see a follow-up on the Marlin machine gun used in aircraft in World War I. This was developed from the Colt "potato digger" design. There was a sample in the Smithsonian American History museum some years ago. Please keep up the excellent work.

Bob Zickefoose wrote:
March 13, 2013

How enjoyable it was to read last month’s article “Hidden in Plain Sight: Colt Automatics at Santiago. It was a great history lesson. Most students of history are familiar with the Rough Rider Gatling guns, but I would bet few know about the Colt machine guns. I certainly didn’t. How sad it was that many of these brave men were not killed by Spanish bullets but died from Malaria. I recall that Grant and Lincoln wanted to have Sherman’s men shipped by boat up the coast to join the forces at Petersburg Virginia after the capture of Savannah Georgia. Fortunately, Sherman successfully resisted this plan. He knew that his men, having lived off of the land for so many months, would suffer great sickness if confined to boats. I am personally thankful for this act of courage on his part as a Great Grandfather of mine was one of those men (25th Iowa Infantry). While reading the article however, I was a bit confused. Why in the world would Colt have manufactured the two 1895 machine guns chambered for 7mm Mauser. Was this a chambering used by the US Navy as implied in the article, or had the guns originally been destined for some other country. Perhaps, I hesitate to say, Spain. I never knew our Navy used 7mm machine guns. How providential it was to find ammunition in the enemy trenches that fit the guns. Can you imagine Sgt. Alvin York’s outfit having some of their own guns, shipped directly from America, chambered in 8mm Mauser, being short on ammo and then finding a multitude of it after York captured the machine gun nests? I find ammo events at Santiago incredible. Bob Zickefoose Mount Solon, VA

Ethan wrote:
March 12, 2013

Great article, very interesting and informative. Keep up the good work guys

john Heple wrote:
March 05, 2013

This is a story that should be sent to every history teacher from 6-12th grades. It's America at it's best.

H Stan Boring PHC USN Ret wrote:
March 04, 2013

The hat, when enlarged to 400%, appears to be a straw Panama, topped with netting, apparently to guard against mosquitos. Chief Boring

BR549 wrote:
March 04, 2013

Even the History Channel has now admitted that the sinking of the USS Maine was a "false flag". Now, it's almost a weekly occurrence.

Kevin Scott wrote:
March 02, 2013

Any thoughts about the headgear of the guy on the far right?