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Friday, January 23, 2015

Why is the Colt Python So Popular?

Around Rock Island Auction Company, collector firearms are a way of life.  Whether it's guns from the Old West, Class III machine guns, or the firearms used in any number of wars and conflicts, they tend to enjoy a perpetual popularity.  Their place in history is significant if not downright important, and people will always be fascinated by that.  It's rare then that a genre of firearms or a particular model would enjoy a sudden upswing in popularity.  New historic events, by their very nature, don't happen very frequently.  So when a firearm or class of firearms experiences a rapid rise in popularity, collectors take notice.

This Colt Python is blue with a 4" barrel and was manufactured in 1968.  It is Lot #1
in our February 2015 Regional Firearms Auction.

Of course, saying that the Colt Python is experiencing a "rapid upswing" is a bit of an understatement.  It's been more of a rocket ship for these trusty wheelguns.  We covered some of their growth back in October 2013 in an article entitled, "Stocks, Bonds, or Barrels?"  In that story was the table below, which showed the steady increase of the gun in recent years.

Those figures were obtained from sale averages achieved by Rock Island Auction Company and they are a direct representation of what the market will support (because it did).  Finding the upward trend is not difficult.  What's more astonishing is what happened in 2014.  Our December 2014 Premiere Firearms Auction contained a good selection of Colt snake guns and our auction hall absolutely came alive when it was time for them to cross the auction block.  We wrote about it in a post-auction article which described the events as,

"The end of Saturday was quite a surprise to everyone in attendance. As Colt “Snake Guns” began to cross the block, the auction hall began to buzz. Every phone line was filled and online bidders began to make their presence felt as numerous collectors scrambled to own one of the popular revolvers. Bids couldn’t be taken quickly enough as the values soared and jaws dropped while the numbers reached previously unheard of heights. A feeding frenzy had begun. A special R. L. Wilson special order Colt Python in lot 1789, with a high estimate of $4,500, would see a sale price of $11,500. Another Python, this time a scarce, inscribed, three-inch barrel Combat Python with its original box in lot 1792, would go even higher and sell for $12,650. These numbers were not rare! Numerous Pythons, Anacondas, Cobras, and Diamondbacks would exceed the $5,000 mark and many surpassed the $10,000 mark. It could indicate an extremely interesting trend for those who seek or collect these revolvers."

If we included 2014 on the table shown above, it would have an average sale price of $3,805.88, and that even includes an adjustment for a cased set of "Snake Eyes" Pythons to be counted as two separate guns.  So what gives?  Why has the Python, a revolver that's been around since 1955 all of a sudden seeing some pretty explosive growth in the last three years?  Let's take a look shall we?


The issue of high quality has not been an issue for the Colt Python.  If anything, there is the rumor that later quality Pythons fell away a bit from their initial high quality.  That said, there certainly wasn't any revamping of the Python that would've increased its quality and therefore popularity among collectors.  In fact, when it was introduced in 1955 it was done as a premium revolver, designed to compete with the finest double actions available.  It succeeded. A number of its design aspects such as its balance, weight, smooth trigger, and small tolerances gave the gun a refined feel, high accuracy, and reliability that few have matched.  Colt Historian R.L. Wilson has a well-cited quote, calling the Python the "Rolls-Royce of Colt revolvers" and the well-known British author and firearms expert Ian V. Hogg called it the "best revolver in the world."  High praise from reliable sources indeed, but the superior quality is hardly a recent development and cannot account for the surge in prices and popularity.

This Python, manufactured in 1956, sold in our December 2014 Premiere Firearms Auction for $11,500.


To put it simply, the Colt Python just looks like a big, powerful, classic revolver.  It's fat, simple grip, beefy snout, and swing out out cylinder make it baddest man in the room that never has to tell anyone for them to know.  There's no over-sized, unmanageable caliber.  No ostentatious advertising campaigns.  Just a simple, well-made revolver that's not a design fad.  Well, OK.  Maybe there used to be some pretty gaudy ads, but it's safe to say that those were before their meteoric rise.

Yikes.  You probably shouldn't try to take this Burmese python's Python.


It's difficult to argue against the practicality of a well-made gun.  After all, if a firearm isn't well made and in turn doesn't perform reliably, how truly practical can it be?  Not only is the Colt Python built to do what it does very well, but it has been proven to be a practical tool in the hands of many police officers.  The Python was a fine option for law enforcement officers before the shift to semi-automatics began to grip the land.  In any case, the time the Python spent in service gave it a "field test" that many firearms do not receive.  If it had performed poorly in the field, that would not escape its history.

Also attesting to the practicality of the gun is its choice of caliber.  In its standard configuration of .357 Magnum, the gun packs plenty of power for nearly any law enforcement group, some fun range time, or even defending one's castle.  The caliber has been around since 1934, is a standard cartridge for most stores to carry, has excellent power, and shows no sign of going anywhere.


Granted, a portion of the Python's rise in price and popularity is the same rise enjoyed by nearly every other type of firearm.  Talk of legislation against firearms drove sales like none other.  People want to make sure they have the guns they want in their possession should the worst occur.  Part of the Python's price may have risen due to this, but if this were the sole cause we would similar rises across the majority of firearms and not this particular model.  It was easy to see a rise in price of "black rifles" and AR platform semi-automatic rifles because those were in the most danger of having legislation passed against them.  Modern sport rifles were unquestionably targeted the hardest (despite handguns being the weapon of choice for criminals, but that's another story).  Meanwhile this solid wheelgun received almost NO attention from the media or anti-gun groups because it's not a semi-automatic, its price doesn't make it attractive to criminals and it is therefore unlikely to be used in crimes (high profile or otherwise), and it only carries six rounds, a temporarily acceptable number for anti-gunners.  The Colt Python would not have been on anyone's radar for anything other than being a handgun, so while it may have enjoyed a small bump from potential legislation, it's nothing that would push it anywhere close to its current prices.  Besides, modern sport rifles have already seen their bubble burst.  If Pythons were riding that same bubble, they would have fallen right along side them.

Media Appearances

Maybe here is where we start to get to the meat of things.  First of all, let me say that I'm well aware that the use of Colt Pythons in TV and movies extends back decades.  While popular trivia may let us know that the Colt Python was the sidearm of choice for Hutch on 1970s TV show "Starsky & Hutch," it is not well known that its use can be traced back as far as 1969 according to the Internet Movie Firearms Database. The gun's classic, tough looks allow to be an "every pistol" in a number of TV shows and movies - always looking the part for some lawman in the 60s, 70s, and even 80s.  That said, why wasn't the Python more popular than this before now if it was featured so frequently?

The Colt Python as seen on AMC's "The Walking Dead"

        1.  Movies  Several factors could be at play, any of which would require more research to confirm or refute.  The first is that more people go to the movies today than ever before.  Modern box office numbers are untouchable even when counting for inflation.  More people watching means more people see these guns being used and possibly falling in love with this big, sturdy-looking revolver.  This is likely the weakest of the hypotheses.

        2.  Streaming TV could also be a factor.  For example, the Colt Python is featured prominently in the current television series "The Walking Dead."  Wielded by lead character Sheriff Rick Grimes, the gun is being seen by record numbers of people who tune in to see this wildly popular show.  The show initially airs on AMC, a premium cable network.  However, previous seasons of the show are also available on streaming services such as Netflix or Amazon Instant video for a comparatively modest price, as low as $7.99 for a single month.  Enjoying the current popularity wave of zombie culture, the success of Walking Dead, and widespread availability of both means the Python is being seen almost weekly by record numbers of people.  You can't buy that kind of advertising.

Here is how the Python appears in the video game
Call of Duty: Black Ops
        3.  Video games. I know, I know... video games get blamed for everything from bad grades, to obesity, to any number of crimes, both the benign and the violent.  However, the popularity of video games is not something to be overlooked.  Most notable of video games sparking an interest in firearms is the Call of Duty series.  Stretching back all the way to 2003, the COD series of games has featured real life weapons in nearly every single title.  Since its inception COD has over $10 BILLION in sales, each one teaching a player the appearance and gross characteristics of say, an M1 Garand, an MP5, a G36C, a BAR, a P90, a G11, a Type 99, and even what different shoulder launchers look like.  Many are quick to poo-poo the knowledge of COD players, which if based solely on gameplay would be admittedly thin, but would be hard pressed to find a more effective  tool for teaching rudimentary knowledge (appearance, action type, caliber) and spurring enthusiasm.

The Colt Python has been featured in video games where it is mostly listed as a ".357 Magnum" or "revolver," but the appearance in unmistakable.  The video game Call of Duty: Black Ops, the seventh of the series, featured the Python by name (without mentioning Colt).  It sold a total 5.6 million units in the U.S & U.K. in the first 24 hours.  That's $360 million in sales in 1 day, and $650 million in 5 days worldwide!  Even the acclaimed American Sniper movie released last week "only" landed a record $105 million opening-week box office.  Granted, video games are more expensive than movie tickets, but the numbers are still staggering.  Plus, while someone might only see a movie once in the theater, players are literally dumping days of time into these video games, playing them over and over again.  That's a lot of eyeballs learning that the Python, typically programmed in games to be more powerful than its semi-automatic counterparts, is for lack of better term, one mean mother.

This Python, manufactured in 1968, will also be appearing in our February 2015 Regional Firearms Auction.
It is Lot 73.

So with its popular appearances, and more media than ever being available to more people than ever, does that all translate into more sales?  Do those sales help diminish the supply and raise the price?  After all, how many kids playing these video games can legally buy a Python, let alone afford one?  That is true, and a large portion of those playing the video games will be under the legal age to purchase a handgun,  However, there are still millions playing that can buy a handgun.  Many of the children who grew up playing video games are now adults or young adults that play video games and those adults have adult sized  pocketbooks.

However, what all these mediums and popularity accomplish is to introduce a powerful, glamorized, and beautiful gun to an extremely large group of novices.  Even a small number of purchases by this newly enthusiastic group would have a large effect on the hundreds of thousands of Colt Pythons available.  This in turn, has a snowball effect.  Collectors see the supply of Pythons getting slimmer.  It's harder to find a Python for anyone that wants one.  Better snap one up before they're gone, right?  Now collectors are buying Pythons too, further depleting the available supply and also contributing to increased prices.  Casual gun buyers also find out how desirable they are and look for good deals on Pythons, further driving demand and price and it just keeps going.  Pretty soon, folks that can't get Pythons turn to Anacondas, Cobras, Vipers, Diamondbacks, and other Colt "snake guns."  Can't get a snake gun or afford one?  There are some attractive, fat-gripped Smith & Wesson revolvers that just might do the trick!  The popularity and demand for the Python is truly astounding, not only does it affect its own price and availability, but also guns similar to it.

What Does It All Mean?

But who cares right?  Why should we care about the price of a single model of revolver enjoying a bit of a renaissance?  Well, for folks who want one, it can be somewhat important, but for collectors and folks using firearms as their retirement fund, the ramifications can be even more important.  Even if you have no desire to own one, you may stumble across one at an excellent price and stand the opportunity to make some profit, but you have to know the opportunity exists in the first place.  That would potentially be a pretty quick turnaround for some profit, but the other two groups mentioned have some larger questions in mind.  For example:

  • Is this another bubble like we just saw happen to the AR platform rifles?  If so, casual purchasers as well as collectors and investors could probably stand to wait for the price to come down if they still want one.    
  • Is this the ground floor?  How many years can Pythons experience consistent growth?  If your experience tells you they're not slowing down anytime soon, this would be a great time to invest in multiple Pythons.  
  • Will they plateau?  Instead of falling as in a bubble or rising over decades like Colt percussion revolvers or antique Winchester lever actions, could the guns simply be adjusting to a new market value where they will eventually stabilize?

There are all sorts of possibilities of what could happen to Pythons, snake guns, and the revolver market in general.  No one can say for certain what the end result will be, but two things are certain.  It's going to be a heck of a ride to find out, and I still want one in my collection.

This Python Hunter sold in our December 2014 Premiere Firearms Auction
for an impressive $4,600.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

An Engraving Mystery

In our December 2014 Premiere Firearms Auction there was a gun which I found to be very curious.  Far from any area I feel bold enough to call an expertise, this particular gun was what our headlines described as a "Finely Engraved German Kowar Single Shot Schuetzen Rifle with Relief Carved Stock."  It struck me as being out of the ordinary in several regards.  For one, the stock of a Schuetzen rifle, shaped for ergonomics and stability during shooting, always sticks out to a set of eyes more accustomed to seeing a standard shotgun or rifle butt.  Second, the gun was made for a left-handed shooter, given the position of the cheek-piece.  The last thing I found unusual required a closer inspection, but once I saw it I was instantly puzzled and found myself searching for answers.  I present for your inspection, the gun's engraving.

For this first photo, let me say that very little appears unusual regarding the engraving.  Many firearms depict panel scenes of their intended quarry, and this Schuetzen chambered in 32 WCF (a.k.a. .32-20) would certainly have once been considered an appropriate caliber to take down such animals before it descended into obscurity thanks to the arrival of more efficient cartridges  In fact, the scroll work around the animals is also very appropriate, depicting the trees and foliage give the viewer a glimpse into the forest that these creatures inhabit.  However, what these animals are is initially unclear.  Upon first glance to an American they appear to be Pronghorns, an animal exclusively found in North America and more often associated with the plains than the forest.  This makes them an unusual choice for a very German rifle, plus the antlers are not 100% correct.  The mind also turns quickly to the roe deer, a small deer that can be found in the majority of Europe and Scandinavia. Could they be roe bucks?  It again seems unlikely, based again on the antlers.  However, a little research reveals them to be a pair of chamois, a goat/antelope species that lives in much of eastern Europe - not a species many North Americans would recognize.  Folks more accustomed to seeing pronghorns or with little to no hunting experience in Europe or the Alps, might ask themselves, "What on earth are pronghorn antelope doing in a forest, let alone in Germany?"  Initially it seems quite unusual.

The second odd bit of engraving can be seen on the bottom of the trigger guard. A vulture or buzzard is a not a very common animal depicted on firearms, yet here a rather surly looking specimen is given reign over the entire trigger guard.

When watching movies, I was always taught that "nothing is done by accident."  The director doesn't just randomly decide to have a storm take place, or a character die, or the characters to encounter a road or river.  Those things are symbols.  Even in films that are mediocre, they should mean something other than just a device to move the plot forward.  I believe the same thing can be said for firearms engraving.  No artisan sits down with their tools, prepared to spend hours plying their trade, without a clear idea of what they are going to create.  They don't simply start drawing lines willy-nilly and see what happens to take shape.  No, their choices are equally deliberate, especially when considering the limited canvas size with which they are working.

That said, most rifles are adorned with animals we have all come to respect through the hunt.  Be it ducks, pheasants, deer, elk, lions, moose, stags, Cape buffalo, bison, rhinos, elephants, geese, grouse, or even rabbits, all are either beautiful, powerful, have been hunted with great respect, or are recalled fondly from previous hunts.  Vultures are none of those things!  They are often reviled for their thankless task of removing the dead, they certainly do not fit any widely accepted definition of a beautiful animal, and to top it all off, many even vomit a black, noxious liquid up to 10 feet as a self-defense and defecate on their feet as a cooling measure.  Why an artist would make the deliberate choice to portray such a creature on such a gorgeous rifle is most puzzling.  While the location choice of this engraving gives it less prominence, the choice of animal remains curious.  Not shown in these photos is also an engraving of a dove featured behind the breech block.  Such a symbol of purity, love, and peace is a stark contrast to the death associate vulture.  Is "life and death" the theme the engraver was trying to portray?  The dove must surely be another symbol since the rifle would be extremely ill-suited to dove hunting.

The last side of engraving shows a forest scene depicting a distraught hunter kneeling before a deer with a cross between its antlers.  Such imagery will be familiar to German scholars, a few Catholics, and those familiar with the Jäegermeister logo.  Shown on the left side of the receiver is the conversion of Placidus to Saint Eustace.

The legend goes that Placidus was a Roman general in the 2nd century serving under Emperor Trajan.  One day, in the midst of a hunt, he saw a great stag, pursued it at great length, and before he could shoot it, witnessed a crucifix between its antlers.  Much like Saul or Tarsus was changed to Paul the Apostle, Placidus' experience inspired him to convert immediately to Christianity, have he and his family baptized, and change his name to Eustace.  The rest of his life tells many tribulations (though they are a common theme in many Middle English stories).  Given his hunting past and his conversion, it should come as no surprise that St. Eustace is the patron saint of hunters.

The legend of St. Eustace is not unique to him.  As mentioned earlier, it was a popular theme in  Middle English stories (known there as "The Man Tried By Fate") and was also used to describe the vision of Hubertus (a.k.a. Saint Hubertus).  Sources differ on who the story was attributed to first, but much confusion remains between the two men because of it.  While many works of art have been made of the conversion, like the impressive stained glass window at the Chartes Cathedral, the work "The Conversion of Holy Hubertus," (seen below) by Wilhelm Räuber is almost a dead ringer for the scene depicted on the rifle.

Having evaluated the different engraved parts of the gun, one can now start to put together the theme that the engraver may have had in mind.  The dove and vulture clearly represent life and death, but that message is somewhat muddied by the other two images.  Life and death of what?  The hunter's quarry?  The hunter?  Thankfully, we have the image of St. Eustace/Hubertus on the left side of the frame to clarify the artist's intent.  It is not just the life and death of game, the instrument of which the hunter holds in his hands.  As with the converted hunter, it is the matter of eternal life and death that the artist held so dear.  This conclusion also makes the positioning of the dove and vulture all the more important: the pure dove facing heavenward and the vulture with its image of death and decay also facing appropriately.

But what about the chamois on the left side of the receiver?  How do they tie in to all of this?  They seem to break from the eternal life/death theme to simply depict the game that this rifle would have been used to harvest.  However, I am fully ready to concede that the animal may have a native symbolism in Germany with which this American writer is not familiar.

Hopefully putting together that little puzzle was fun and interesting.  It began with a gun that appeared to have some rather random engravings of a vulture, two weird-looking pronghorn antelope, a dove, and a man kneeling before a Jägermeister deer, but a little investigating revealed some rather unique, beautiful, and profound symbolism.  Turns out that not just the devil is in the details, his counterpart is as well.

The following poem is entitled "Waidmannsheil" or "Hunter's Salute" by Oskar von Riesenthal and it appears unattributed on every bottle of Jägermeister.  I thought it would be appropriate to republish it here with this German hunting piece with its religious undertones.  It reads,

"Das ist des Jägers Ehrenschild,
daß er beschützt und hegt sein Wild,
weidmännisch jagt, wie sich’s gehört,
den Schöpfer im Geschöpfe ehrt."

Which translates literally translates as:
"This is the hunter's honor shield,
which he protects and looks after his game,
Huntsman hunts, as it should be,
the Creator in the creatures honor."

or a bit more artistically as,
"This is the hunter's badge of glory,
That he protect and tend his quarry,
Hunt with Honor, as is due,
And through the beast to God is true."

Item listing can be seen here
Estimate: $3,000 - $4,500
Sale Price: $3,450

-Written by Joel Kolander