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Friday, May 30, 2014

Rise and Fall of the Whitney Wolverine

The design of the Whitney Wolverine might have some thinking it's a bit out of place among the other collectible and antique firearms that usually grace Rock Island Auction Company's catalogs and articles.  After all, this is no antique, Western, or military arm made with steel and wood!  It looks like it would be more at home with Buck Rodgers, the crew of "Lost in Space," or in the pages of an old "Speed Carter" or "Flash Gordon" comic book.  Yes, the Wolverine owes much of its design, method of manufacture, and untimely demise to the era in which it found itself birthed.  That post-WWII era was what the New York Times and many others dubbed, "The Atomic Age."



In that age was a man named Robert "Bob" L. Hillberg.  Bob had an interest in firearms from an early age, an interest he credits largely to his outdoorsman father and his gift of a Browning Auto-5 20 gauge shotgun to the high school junior that endured countless disassembling and reassembling in his Minneapolis, Minnesota boyhood home.  Through the years he purchased more firearms, became familiar with mechanical drawing thanks to his father's accomplishments as an artist and draftsman, and obtained early employment in machine operation for large local companies such as Ford, Minneapolis Honeywell, some local flour mills, and others.  With this basic experience, Bob began building some firearm accessories and still had a passion for the internal workings of a firearm.  It was always a hobby for him, even after he graduated high school and left for the University of Minnesota's School of Mines as an student of mining engineering.

While attending college his career as an engineer, machinist, and gun designer encountered an unexpected and pleasant opportunity.  In 1936-37 Bob had designed and developed a new submachine gun that utilized the Colt .38 Super and actually built a working model of it at the U.S. Naval Air Station, Wold-Chamberlain Field, Minneapolis where his duties as a reserve member gave him access to the machine shop.  Well, in 1938 summer vacation rolled around and with his working prototype and drawings in hand, Bob ventured up to Connecticut to sell the gun to Colt.  The legendary manufacturer, already manufacturing Thompsons (which were selling poorly), and with no war going on, didn't have much need for a new SMG design at the moment, but they instantly recognized Bob's ability and offered him a position.

Snatching this opportunity of a lifetime by the tail, Bob accepted and began working in many various positions for Colt resulting in a wide variety of skills and training in many different areas of firearms manufacture.  Obviously, this would be a huge benefit for the young designer as his career developed.  Two years later, in 1940, Hillberg would turn that experience with Colt into a position in the research engineering department at Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Corporation.  In his time there he developed a new 20mm aircraft cannon and began work at home on a personal side project of a new military carbine to enter into the U.S. government's competition for just such a rifle.

"Reciprocating barrel carbine designed by Bob Hillberg while working at the Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Corp. during World War II.  It was never brought into production."  - Taglienti, p. 17


Two years later, and taking the designs for the cannon and the carbine with him, Hillberg left for the Ordnance Department of Bell Aircraft, returning him again to his aspiration of working with firearms.  Now he was a project engineer and was up to his eyeballs in firearms ideas and projects, which author Antonio J. Taglienti, who penned the authoritative work on Hillberg & his Wolverine, lists as: "Boeing B-17 turrets, .50 cal machine gun feeding systems, gun mounts, boosters, gun sight systems, bomb racks, rocket releases, and a 20 mm continuous belt feed mechanism for submarines and ant-aircraft guns."  Hillberg even had a prototype of his carbine made and interests were piqued in both Canada and Russia, but WWII ended before any further headway could be made.  In fact, Bell closed their Ordnance Division after the war and Hillberg went to work for Republic Aviation again making the feed systems, gun mounts, and bomb racks that he had familiarized himself with at Bell.

Hillberg's employment at Republic bears special mention because even though he was again working in the aviation sphere, his heart still remained true to firearms engineering.  At his home, Hillberg realized that the three most popular cartridges at that time the .22LR, .32 ACP, and .380 ACP were all .006 inch different in overall length.  Combined with his passion for small arms, Hillberg set about designing a single pistol utilizing replaceable barrels and magazines that would be capable of firing the three distinct cartridges.  His new compact pistol was called the "Hillberg Tri-Matic" and it used many characteristics revered by Hillberg: simplicity, efficiency, easy assembly/disassembly, and low cost of manufacture.  These qualities made Hillberg a good designer favored by his employers, but they also would be his calling cards for many of his designs, including the Whitney pistol.

Hillberg's 1949 drawing of the Hillberg TRI-MATIC pistol from p.19 of the Taglienti book.

It wouldn't take long for the man with firearms design in his blood to return to that industry and in 1951, Hillberg went to work for High Standard with the intention of making the Tri-Matic.  However, High Standard kept him busy with projects ranging from gas operated sporting shotguns, to the military applications such as a .308 NATO tank machine gun and the U.S. military's brief flirtation with replacing the M1911-A1 with a sidearms capable of firing a 9mm Parabellum utilizing a delayed blowback action.  In his development of these military arms, he became familiar with a machining company called Bellmore-John Tool Company, a much smaller organization than the established High Standard, but one that had an excellent reputation.  Long story short, working for BJT would give Hillberg much more control over his own direction, so he approached the company and began working for them in 1954.

Already having a desire to design and make a new .22 caliber pistol, Hillberg's first order of business after this hire was to begin putting pen to paper and making his long time ideas a reality.  Working out all the kinks took Bob into 1955, when the first prototype of the Whitney pistol (still dubbed a Tri-matic at that point) was made at the BJT facility entirely by hand, it functioned flawlessly and was given the serial number 1.  Hillberg now had full drawings and a functioning prototype with a sleek, space-age appearance.  It was time to make some money for all his hard work and what would happen next would determine the fate of the company and the pistol.

Image of Hillberg's patent from p.100 of Taglienti's book


BJT being a small company, Hillberg wanted to either sell the gun outright to an established manufacturer or "else have it produced and marketed by one of the leading gun companies on a royalty basis" according to Taglienti.  After all, BJT was just a machinist shop.  They made dies, tools, and patterns.  They didn't have the production facility, workers, marketing team, etc. necessary to successfully bring a new sporting pistol to the American public.  Despite these setbacks, BJT decided to produce the new pistol themselves, which meant they were going to need a lot of capital to build a new factory, hire new skilled workers, machinery bought, and marketing to be done.  The two men had plenty of experience with the engineering portion of firearms, but were somewhat helpless when it came to sales and marketing.

To that end, Hillberg and Howard Johnson, execs at BJT, were referred by a friend to see one Mr. Jacques Galef, a nationally known firearms distributor who was able to help said friend when he was in a jam.  Galef was immediately impressed with the pistol and even more impressed with its performance at a local firing range where the gun was fired by Hillberg so quickly that Galef swore it was the fastest firing pistol he'd ever seen!  Never mind that Hillberg could make most any semi-auto fire that quickly and tried to tell his potential client just that, Galef was won over.  He would market the gun and placed an order for 10,000 pistols.

One of the Whitney pistols to be sold at Rock Island Auction Company's 2014 July Regional Auction in Lot 2384.
Hillberg and Johnson left the demonstration in New York City as elated as any two men should be who have just completed a major step toward success.  Soon thereafter, April 1955 to be specific, a contract was drawn up and agreed to by both parties.  In it Galef agreed to purchase 10,000 pistols as originally offered and to furthermore purchase no less than 10,000 in every subsequent calendar year.  For his guaranteed repeat business, Galef would maintain exclusive distributorship over the pistol.  The men at the newly formed Hillson Firearms (named by combining HILLberg & JohnSON) had also determined a market strategy.  Hillson Firearms was intended to manufacture an entire line of sporting arms using this little .22 pistol to get their foot in the door of the firearms industry.  That in mind, they priced their pistol for wholesale at $16.53/piece.  In their minds, it would realize minimal profit in turn for getting their name out there at a price attractive to firearms enthusiasts.  In the authoritative book, "The Whitney Wolverine," Taglienti states, "It appears somewhat amazing in retrospect, that Johnson and Hillberg felt they could produce a pistol and wholesale it to the distributor for $16.53 each, and realize a reasonable profit from this, even considering the relative value of 1955 dollars.  Nevertheless, their cost studies had shown this to be entirely possible, and they eagerly entered into the agreement."


Eli Whitney
After securing their financing at the First National Bank and Trust Co. of New Haven with their signed letter from Galef, Hillson Firearms began not only choosing a location for what was to be their factory, but also began considering a name change.  Those two birds were to be taken with a single stone, when they renamed Hillson Firearms to Whitney Firearms, Inc., inspired by historical inventor Eli Whitney.  Not only is his name well known to school children everywhere for his invention of the cotton gin, but the Whitney name is especially well known to firearms collectors thanks to Whitney's manufacture of U.S. Model 1785 muskets (among others) at the turn of the century as well as being the innovator behind the interchangeability of gun parts.  It didn't hurt that the name was public property, enjoyed rich associations with American history and invention, and was already revered locally.  To Hillberg, there was also the added symbolism of Eli Whitney's innovation combined with his desire to produce high quality guns at a low cost, while remaining easily serviceable.  The upstart company with its new moniker even sought to obtain the land that the old Whitney Armory had occupied.  However, that land was now owned by the New Haven Water Company, who had no desire to sell.  A new property was quickly discovered within a mile, but the location was technically in neighboring North Haven, Connecticut and not the manufacturing center of American firearms, New Haven.  It mattered little.  The company would still list New Haven on most of its materials and even on the side of the pistols.  If only the problems to come were as simple to resolve.

In 1956, production started slowly, as it does for many manufacturers until they get their feet wet.  The good news was that it was ever increasing and profits were expected to be seen soon.  Only when summer rolled around, so did the grim realization that by selling the pistols at $16.53 per unit, they were lucky to break even.  They changed a few things to cut costs, but the only thing that could have truly saved the fledgling gun maker would have been a +$3.00/unit change to their contract with Galef - not exactly something a savvy businessman would agree to.  That summer the factory was pumping out around 330 guns per week and with each one, the company was losing money.

The second Whitney Wolverine in RIAC's July 2014 Regional Firearms Auction appearing in Lot 2430

The problem with selling on the cheap and making marginal profit is that one's success is based on sheer volume.  The hopes are to supplant the mark up with the sheer number of items sold, even if each one earns a minimal amount.  Undercutting the competition is one thing, selling for a bargain is another. The situation became even more dire when Galef sent word for the company to hold back on their deliveries to him.  He already had a warehouse full and they weren't exactly selling as well as anyone had hoped they would.  Taglienti describes it succinctly when he writes, "This was a devastating blow to Whitney.  They were locked into Galef by the exclusive distributorship contract and weren't permitted to sell to anyone else.  But now Galef didn't want anymore!"  Whitney needed to expand their sales and quickly or they'd become bankrupt more quickly than their little pistol could shoot.

Finding new prospects seemed promising at first with interest coming in from the West Coast and large chains such as Sears and Montgomery Ward.  Any new contracts would've paid a royalty to Galef and saved the company from going under, but the deal fell through.  They even had an offer to sell them in Mexico, but poor sales and new import laws squashed the deal.  They even tried to redesign the gun, changing the very cosmetics which gave the Whitney its appeal.  However, not wanting to risk the headache and fund drain of a legal battle with Galef the pair simply decided to sell what they could to repay their debts.  They sold to a Charles E. Lowe Sr. in 1957, a fellow machinist who owned a shop in neighboring Newington, Connecticut, and who was made fully aware of the current company's situation.  Hillberg and Johnson walked away from the business they had built after constructing only 10,793 pistols of which 10,360 were delivered to J.F. Galef & Son.  It would have been a crushing moment for the lifelong small arms designer who was on the verge of seeing his dreams come true.

Lowe changed the name from Whitney Firearms, Inc. to Whitney Firearms Co. and was keen on resuming production of the pistol, the design no longer being bound by agreements.  Production began slow, but was slowly gaining momentum as ads began appearing in some of the nations most well-known firearms magazines.



However, in February of 1958, J.L. Galef & Son brought suit to the new company claiming breech of contract.  Whitney claimed they were in no violation: not only had the prior agreement been satisfied with the delivery of 10,000 pistols, but they weren't even the same business.  They claimed that Lowe had not purchased the business, but had personally bought only the physical assets and patents and then leased those to the new company.  The lawsuit threatened to go on for some time and sales were slow for the new company and its owner.  Besides, if Galef won the suit, all the profits from the pistols piling up in the Whitney warehouse would be awarded to him.  Production stopped.  The case was eventually settled, but all the excitement and energy surrounding the pistol had vanished.  Instead of picking up manufacture again, the new Whitney Firearms Co. decided to liquidate and sold the remaining 1,100 pistols wholesale to miscellaneous distributors.  It was the end of a journey once as promising and bright as a shooting star, but that faded just as quickly.

Why Did It Fail?


There are many supposed reasons the pistol fell short of success. Obviously the binding agreement with Galef was a huge contributing factor for several reasons: nonadjustable price, little to no profit, and a factor not yet discussed was that Galef was only selling them via the mail (a legal and common practice at that time).  Whitney had expected to see their guns in the windows and cases of firearms and sporting goods stores across the country, but the young manufacturer had no idea of Galef's mail order practice until they began receiving their warranty cards back from their buyers.  Whitney had zero input or knowledge on how Galef was going to conduct sales and marketing of the pistol.

Another issue may have been the lack of a consistent name.  Most guns, or products in general, go by one name during their lifespan.  The Whitney pistol went by many.  It began as a product by Hillson Firearms and was at that time still known as the Tri-Matic, even though the design of the original Tri-Matic and the Whitney pistol had little in common and the original was only ever built as a prototype.  When the deal was first struck with Galef, the company still bore the Hillson name and briefly an ad appeared for the Hillson-Imperial.  Nevermind that the Hillson name never appeared on one of the Whitney pistols, it is likely the marketing efforts of someone at Galef.

If you recall from earlier, Galef was extremely impressed at the pistol's initial demonstration.  So impressed, he exclaimed that, "it shoots like lightning!"  He all but insisted it should be called the Lightning, so this name too appeared in advertising placed by Galef.  The name was never placed on any of the pistols.  At long last the name "Wolverine" was given to the little plinker, but there is no single reason as to why.  Some again give the origin's credit to Galef and him wanting the pistol to be associated with wild animals and the outdoors, things that were commonly used in their marketing.  Alliteration is never mentioned as a reason for the name "Wolverine," but it's hard to imagine it had no bearing on the decision.  The other possibility is that because Bob Hillberg himself was a college football fan, specifically that of the university of Michigan Wolverines, he chose the name in honor of his beloved team.  It would be a short-lived tribute as a business only miles away from the original Whitney plant, the Lyman Gunsight Company, had already used the name for one of their scopes.  The owners being friends, Whitney dropped the name to preserve the friendship and avoid legal battles.

Note the designation as the "Lightning Model" and the J.L Galef name in the bottom right.

Here designated as the "Whitney Wolverine" it still lists J. L  Galef as the exclusive distributor.


The third reason can perhaps be more generally summed up as, "the market."  The Whitney pistol had some stiff competition from any number of sources:

  • Other more established plinking pistols could be obtained at the same cost or cheaper than the Whitney
  • Other handguns were carried in stock and didn't have to be ordered like the Whitney
  • A boom of military surplus rifles and pistols were available on the cheap, giving buyers more variety and bang for their buck.
It also had a style that the market may not have been ready to support and an aluminum frame that may have felt "cheap" and light to a market accustomed to heavy steel which was associated with durability and quality.

Ultimately, the gun and the company tied to it would flounder after less than three full years of on again off again production, robbing Hillberg of his much deserved success.  In fact, much of his early work would indicate the man was to receive no accolades at all!  His work on several prototypes all seemed to miss going to full production.  The weapons that he developed designed for insurgencies, such as the Winchester Liberator shotgun, saw no real lifespan and another compact weapon, the Colt Defender Mark I, an 8 barreled, 20 ga. shotgun designed for law enforcement, was introduced during the national recession and put out to pasture in 1971.  Trying again with the COP 357 Derringer, a back-up break action pistol for law enforcement, Hillberg's design again bit the dust as it was too bulky and had a heavy double action trigger pull (a design feature that Hillberg considered essential for simplicity in use).  Thankfully his work with various firearms and aeronautic companies throughout the years had earned him many patents such as several pistols, shotgun components, safeties, early gas operated shotguns, barrels, grips, and what appears to be a folding shotgun stock extremely similar to that popularized by the Franchi SPAS-12.

Patent diagram for the Winchester "Liberator" shotgun


Hillberg is an absolutely brilliant engineering mind that deserves much more recognition than he receives.  His was a labor of love that never really saw the success that he desired and some say deserved.  Robert L. Hillberg passed away on August 12, 2012 at the age of 94, but not before he got to see his Wolverine design reborn in 2005 from black polymer courtesy of the Olympic Arms Company.  To see the rekindled interest in his old pet project would be a source of pride for any engineer or designer.





SOURCES

Taglienti, Antonio J. The Whitney Wolverine: .22 Caliber Semi-automatic Pistol. Woonsocket, RI: Mowbray, 2008. Print.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Wild Days in Hell's Half Acre

Lots of people and places of the Old West get spun into tales of "Pecos Bill" size proportions.  One minute someone is a trying to make a living as a Marshal, the next they're riding tornadoes across the Texas plains.  Timothy Isaiah Courtright's (a.k.a. "Longhair Jim") tales since his death may not have gotten quite that large, but it might be safe to say that he was more feared after death than during his life.  Rock Island Auction Company has some mementos attributed to the late Western gunfighter in our upcoming July Regional Firearms Auction and after reading about the man's history we thought you might like to know it as well.

Longhair Jim Courtright

Tim Courtright was born in 1845 in Sangamon County, Illinois though even the earliest of these details are disputed, with birth dates ranging from 1845-1848 and some sources stating his birth took place in neighboring Iowa.  Though everyone seems to agree he was born in the spring.

Courtright's early life is even less documented than the rest of his life, though it is known that he was raised in Iowa, had four older sisters, a younger brother, and there is evidence that he enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War.  He served under Gen. John  "Blackjack" A. Logan, also from Illinois, who would eventually serve as an Illinois state senator, a U.S. congressman, and a U.S. senator.  Both men served together, but their futures could not have been more different.  Logan in addition to his political service, also ran unsuccessfully as the Vice President with James Blaine (losing to Grover Cleveland in 1884), is widely considered one of the most influential people in establishing Decoration Day (now known as Memorial Day) as an official U.S. holiday, and is only one of three people mentioned in the Illinois state song.  Courtright on the other hand... well, we'll get to that.

Knowing that Logan began his career with the Union army as a Colonel of the 31st Illinois Volunteers, which he also organized, one might think that is where the two men's paths crossed, but instead they both served together in the Seventh Iowa Infantry  In his Civil War service is where Timothy Courtright became "Jim," a mistake for Tim.  It is said that Courtright earned Logan's favor by taking a bullet for the future statesman.  However, after the Civil War there is no documented contact between the two men even though several legends say otherwise.  Logan resumed his political career after switching to the Republican party and Jim resumed looking for something to do.

Jim started his search in Fort Worth, where his long hair, twin revolvers, and reputation as a fast gun provided him many opportunities.  He tried farming in 1873, but after two years he couldn't make it work so he moved into town and found work as a Ft. Worth city jailer.  Ol' Jim must've been good at it since by 1875 he was hired as a Deputy City Marshal and the very next year he was elected as the City Marshal of Fort Worth.  In his personal life Jim had done pretty well for himself too.  Some sources state he had gotten married in 1870 to a Sarah Elizabeth "Betty" Weeks and had 2 to "at least three" children, though most stories rarely account for his family.  Wife, kids, respectable job, Jim was living the good life, even if his job required him to take care of an area within Fort Worth called Hell's Half Acre.

Serving as the town's red-light district, Hell's Half Acre had more than earned its name with the usual assortment of dangerous vices that plagued burgeoning towns in the Old West: murder, gambling, muggings, stabbings, prostitution, fights, over served citizens, and about any crime you could think to commit.  Fort Worth was given a mixed blessing from its position on the Chisholm Trail, the superhighway of its time for cattle drives as well as one of the westernmost train stops for cattle shipments.  This meant that Ft. Worth needed stockyards, ranches, railways, and train stations.  The little town that almost went under during the Reconstruction was booming.  Unfortunately, its position on the Chisholm trail also made it one of the last pieces of humanity cowboys would see until they arrived in Dodge City, and one of the first they would see on the way back.  It resulted in no shortage of cowboys looking to dump their loot into any number of Fort Worth's ample saloons, bordellos, bars, dance halls, and gambling dens.  As the city enjoyed its rapid growth, so did Hell's Half Acre.

Map of Hell's Half Acre courtesy of Pete Charlton at
http://fortworthgazette.blogspot.com/2011_07_01_archive.html

Normally in an Old West story this is where you'd hear all about our hero's exploits and how he cleaned up this den of vipers with a mix of grit, fairness, swift justice, and some hot, flying lead.  Courtright had other plans.  He decided to play their game.

Some say he had to kill a few troublemakers to get the respect of Fort Worth's criminal element while others say that Jim never was in but one gunfight in his entire life and instead used his badge to apply pressure where he needed it.  However he went about his business, it's difficult to find a source that doesn't mention Jim running some sort of protection racket possibly that may or may not have involved the town mayor.   If Jim took part in shootings in his life, this is certainly where they would happen.  You don't get to extort the vile underbelly of a notorious town without someone trying to kill you.

If Courtright killed anyone, it could have been in the name of the law against known criminals in self defense or it could have been the ultimate shakedown tactic used against someone who wouldn't ante up the protection money.  A badge and a bloodlust would have proved an intimidating combination for even the staunchest of holdouts.  Courtright must have been up to the task because his life's story doesn't end there.  His career is another matter.

When your job requires you to maintain a popular vote, then extorting money from your constituents is not exactly the best way to hold your office.  It was inevitable that Courtright was not re-elected as City Marshal in 1879, losing to S.M. Farmer, even though he had (allegedly) cut Fort Worth's murder rate significantly.  This sounds like an impressive accomplishment as well, until one realizes that the rampant and often violent crime in Fort Worth resumed after he left office.  Courtright wasn't in the business of cleaning up the town, after all, he was part of the problem. His job was to stem the flow of blood on the streets so that the population and the ever present string of cowboys wouldn't be afraid to spend their money.  Fort Worth having already lost Deputy Marshal Columbus Fitzgerald to a gunshot while trying to break up a street fight in 1877, showed no signs of slowing its bloody ways. After Jim lost his office Deputy Marshal George White was gunned down by a suspected horse thief in 1879 and Deputy W.T. Wise was killed in Oxford, Mississippi in pursuit of several murder suspects on the lam.

Jim's known whereabouts for the next several years are clouded at best.  His current career cut short, some sources say found employment as a U.S. Deputy Marshal, other sources state he hung about Ft. Worth unwilling to give up his protection racket and opened a detective agency as a front for the operation.  There are also those that state was invited to New Mexico, possibly to be a hired gun or foreman on the ranch of his old buddy Gen. John Logan.  More extreme stories paint him as a no-nonsense lawman who cleaned up the mining town of Lake Valley, NM with the barrel of his gun, pressuring key players until they were forced to act and then shooting them down when the did.  None or all of those could be true, but we do know that Courtright ended up in New Mexico at some point because he ended up with that area's law enforcement on his tail for murder.

Was this murder rap just Jim being too zealous in his duties of running off rustlers?  Was he resorting to his old protection racket tricks that had worked so well in Ft. Worth?  Was he framed?  What ever the circumstances were, without the badge people were much less understanding and so Jim high tailed it back to Ft. Worth to try and resume some semblance of this old life by starting the T.I. Courtright Commercial Detective Agency.  It didn't take long for the New Mexico law to catch up with Jim at his old stomping grounds, and with the help of some some Texas Rangers, they took him into custody.  Going back to Ft. Worth may have been a good decision for Jim; after he was arrested he was able to escape with the help of some old acquaintances (another great story in itself).  Now on the flip side of the law, Jim ran (sources site his destinations as varying as Canada and South America), but eventually turned himself in and was extradited to New Mexico once tempers had cooled and witnesses could not be retrieved.  All charges were dropped and Jim eventually returned to Ft. Worth to resume the detective front of his protection racket.  Clearly, it was a reliable, though not particularly profitable, line of work for him to resort to it on three separate occasions.  It may have provided some income to the wolf in lawman's clothing, but it would eventually be his downfall.

Luke Short

Enter Luke Short: a man who had tried to make a living as a gambler, but who had also made forays as a whiskey seller, Army Scout, cowboy, and saloon owner.  Despite the professional indecision in his early life, Short happened through Dodge City in the very late 1870s and became associated with many of that town's famous personalities such as Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson.  Not spending long there, he soon moved to Tombstone, a boomtown that could offer him a healthy supply of saloons, gambling halls, and newly wealthy inhabitants on which to ply his gambling trade.  His reputation of being a good gambler and excellent with a gun caused Wyatt Earp to telegraph him in June 1880 to offer him a job as a faro dealer in Leadville, Colorado.  As the picture shows, he also had a reputation as being somewhat of a dandy.  Short could often be found donning a silk top hat, long top coat, cane, and a fine mustache.  Allegedly, he wasn't just lucky in his gambling, but also with the ladies.

One of Short's more well-known gun fights took place in Tombstone on Feb 28, 1881 (some sources say Feb 25) with another well-known gambler/gunfighter Charlie Storms.  A few words were being exchanged by the two men, but Bat Masterson, a mutual friend to both parties, quickly cooled their tempers and sent them on their ways... or so he thought.  It wasn't long before Storms returned to seek out Short.  Sure enough, as soon as Short exited the Oriental Hotel, Storms grabbed Short as he was walking along the sidewalk, snatched him into the street, and pulled a cut-off Colt .45 revolver on him.  However, Short was quicker and shot Storms twice before he hit the ground at a range close enough to set the unlucky assailant's shirt on fire. Short was arrested, but it was quickly dismissed as a case of self-defense.  Either way, Short decided to move to Dodge City after that and in 1883 he bought an interest in the famous Long Branch Saloon, but later that year sold it after the mayor and his associates made the environment unfavorable for "undesirables."  He moved to Ft. Worth and it wouldn't take long for him to meet  Jim Courtright.

Short likely caught Courtright's eye quicker than most after moving into town and buying an immediate interest in the White Elephant Saloon, probably using the sale money from his interest in the Long Branch Saloon.  Almost certainly, Courtright took it upon himself to offer his "protection" to the new wealthy denizen.  Jim not knowing about Short's reputation seems unlikely given the way word would travel about gunfighters, especially wealthy ones who have a stake in well-known businesses, but at the very least he certainly underestimated Short's abilities.  Short however made no such mistake and declined Jim's protection in ways that various sources retell in various tones of hostility:  sometimes it is recounted as a casual conversation to less cordial versions including Short telling Courtright to "Go to hell!"  Regardless the tone of the conversation, Courtright wasn't pleased.  In fact, one person standing up to his protection racket could cause others to do the same, ending his livelihood and maybe even his life.  Courtright was in a bit of a corner and he knew he had to make an example of this newcomer before word got out to the rest of Fort Worth.

Short appears in this photo of the "Dodge City Peace Commission" in June of 1883.
L to R (Top): W.H. Harris, Luke Short, Bat Masterson, W.F. Petillon
(Bottom): Charlie Bassett, Wyatt Earp, Frank McLain, and Neal Brown

The Gunfight

February 8, 1887.  These two men have come to an impasse.  Each one has killed at least one man and likely several more.  They are both confident in their ability with a six shooter and both have their livelihoods on the line.  That night Courtright has allegedly been drinking, but stops by the White Elephant Saloon to send word for Short to come out for a talk.  Dressed, as always, in fine clothes Short came out and the two began to walk down the sidewalk talking.  About a block away the pair stopped in front of brothel owner Ella Blackwell's shooting gallery to talk quietly. Courtright eventually expressed concern that Short was armed.  The two men were facing each other and Short assured Courtright he had no gun, which was a lie, but then made a movement to prove it.  Some say his thumbs were in his fancy vest and he dropped his hands to open his coat, others maintain Short went to open his vest as he was walking toward ol' Jim.  Whatever the action, Jim loudly yelled, "Don't you pull a gun on me!" and quickly drew one of his own.  Unfortunately for Jim, he barrel allegedly caught on his watch chain for a split second, allowing Short to draw in time to fire one of the luckiest shots one could imagine - one that removed the thumb of his opponent.  In the days of single action revolvers, this was a fatal twist of fortune for Courtight.  Shot once, Jim allegedly tried the "border shift" of switching the gun to his other hand, but such an action was futile when faced with such an equally talented opponent (It also seems an unlikely action since Jim is alleged to have carried two guns.  Why not just draw the second?  Or both at once?).  Short fired three to four more shots, leaving the lawman-turned-tormentor dead where he fell.  It would become one of the very few face-to-face "showdowns" that Hollywood depicts so frequently and would leave Luke Short known as "The King of the Fort Worth Gamblers," though with little time to enjoy his new found infamy. His hard life as a gambler, drinker, and saloon investor would cause him to die of 'dropsy' (Edema) on September 8, 1893.

Where the duel actually took place.
Map Credit: Pete Charlton from http://fortworthgazette.blogspot.com/2011_07_01_archive.html

Courtright would be more remembered for his effectiveness against crime than his extortion and his funeral procession would stretch for 6 blocks with hundreds of mourners.  Short did not suffer for killing such a popular man and again had the charges against him dismissed as self-defense.  It seems like very little consequences would be had by anyone except for Jim.  However the very next week a prostitute known only as "Sally" would be found murdered and nailed to an outhouse door in Hell's Half Acre.  This event combined with Courtright's death would result in another crime reform campaign from the Fort Worth mayor's office in cooperation with the county attorney.  This campaign would be more effective than most by utilizing the first prohibition in Texas, but ultimately it would take a the martial law of a nearby WWI military camp (Camp Bowie) before the Acre would be cleansed from Fort Worth.

The photo of his headstone at Fort Worth's Oakwood Cemetery reads,
"Jim 'Longhaired' Courtright
1845 - 1887
U.S. Army Scout, U.S. Marshall, Frontiersman, Pioneer.
Representative of a class of men now passing from Texas
who whatever their faults were type of that brave courageous
manhood which commands respect and admiration.
Erected 1953
In memory of Jim by his descendants"

The item attributed to Timothy Isaiah Courtright, to be auctioned by Rock Island Auction Company, is what upon first glance appears to be a gamblers kit, until one realizes there are none of the cards, dice, or chips that typically comprise such sets.  After looking at the contents of this small chest, one would be more inclined to call it a "fightin' kit."


The box in and of itself is impressive.  Hardwood bears brass hardware and two plaques, one on top of the lid and the other on the front.  The top plaque reads "T.I. Courtright / Ft. Worth Texas" and the frontmost plaque reads "T.I.C. Commercial Agency" - the name from one of Jim's "detective agencies."  Pulling open the top lid of bottom drawer with open them both simultaneously and reveal the contents of a man living life on the edge in the Old West.



Contained within are all manner of instruments bearing the monogram of the late marshal.  First up, an engraved First Generation Colt Single Action Army revolver with antique ivory grips and the inscription of his full name, "Timothy I. Courtright" on the backstrap,





The next piece in the kit is a knife from M. Price (San Francisco) that measures 10 3/8" long and has T.I.C. carved into the handle.



And of course, what desktop valet would be complete without its hip flask?  This particular hip flask is glass with its top half protected by a leather sheath with a viewing window and its bottom half protected by a metal cup engraved "T.I.C."  Removing the metal cup to use it exposes the glass flask, a far cry from any flasks manufactured today.  The bottom drawer housed up to 38 individual cartridges plus one box of ammunition, as shown in the first picture.


We would be remiss if we did not mention that Rock Island Auction company has received no documented provenance for this piece other than the inscription and engraved initials on the pieces themselves.

This inscribed set is one of the numerous items appearing in Rock Island Auction Company's July 2014 Regional Firearms Auction.  To be held July 11, 12 & 13, there will be nearly 7,000 items in over 3,000 lots sold in just three days!  We'll have great collectibles like the one in this week's article, but also an extremely high number of modern pistols, revolvers, rifles, and shotguns from a who's who of firearm manufacturers.  To find out more about this auction (and to grab a sneak peak of our warehouse), you should click right here as well as stay tuned to our social media channels which are sure to post more pictures, stories, and updates every day!

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SOURCES:

DeArment, Robert K. Jim Courtright of Fort Worth: His Life and Legend. Fort Worth: TCU, 2004. Print.

http://fortworthgazette.blogspot.com/2011_07_01_archive.html

http://tchj.com/2013/11/08/oakwood-cemetery/

http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=23380

https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fcoaa