The Mystique Of The Copper Queen

Link to the Last Days of the Old West
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This 4 3/4" Colt Frontier Six Shooter in .44-40 shipped to the
Phelps Dodge Mercantile in Douglas, Ariz. — the successor to
the Copper Queen Company Store — in 1919.

A “Copper Queen Colt”! The very name makes the pulse quicken! But what is a Copper Queen Colt and why are they so desired? The answer lies in the territory of Arizona’s history.

Most of us know at least part of the history of Tombstone. The gunfight at the O.K. Corral cemented it in the minds of history buffs and movie lovers for generations. But, few know about another mining town about 20 miles or so to the southeast called Bisbee.

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Arizona was still a territory when this Colt SAA was shipped
to the Copper Queen Store in 1907.

In The Beginning

The story of the Copper Queen starts like many stories of the southwest. In May of 1877, Lt. John Rucker and 15 men of Company C, Sixth Cavalry, were performing a reconnaissance, searching for signs of renegade Apaches. Scout Jack Dunn knew his business and suggested they check out the cool mountain springs and refresh their stock in the lush valleys of the Mule Mountains.

Dunn searched the canyons, finding water and something else. An outcropping of rock had the appearance of minerals indicating lead, copper and silver. Returning with the Lieutenant, they agreed the ground looked promising enough to stake a claim but at the moment they were too busy chasing Apaches to do it themselves. Unfortunately, the man they selected to stake the claim cut them out of the deal and none of the fabulous underground wealth made it into their pockets.

Unlike Tombstone, few precious metals were found in the new mining district but there were vast veins of base metals, some running as high as 25% copper. Investors, miners and speculators rushed in. There was no limit to the wealth beneath their feet and they gave the mines names to match the excitement — the Copper King, the Copper Prince, and of course, the Copper Queen.

Then, in 1886 the Copper Queen Consolidated Mining Company opened the Copper Queen Mercantile. Generally, the company store had a bad reputation for keeping mine workers perpetually in debt. This was not the case at the Copper Queen Mercantile, affectionately called “The Merc” by locals. Between local competition and a patriarchal corporate policy, the prices were kept economical and all Bisbee citizens could find the latest fashions and home goods. If a bartender, gambler, rancher, soiled dove or clergyman needed anything from soup to nuts, they went to The Merc.

As the Copper Queen Consolidated Mining Company expanded to other locations, so did the Copper Queen Mercantile — in Douglas, Lowell, Warren, Morenci, Naco, and Dawson and Tyrone, New Mexico. As the Merc grew into the largest retailer in the western U.S., it used its buying power to become a wholesaler to its competitors.

Among other products, Copper Queen Mercantile sold Colt firearms — many of them. If anyone needed a Peacemaker or one of the new-fangled semi-autos, The Merc could oblige.

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From the Leo Loyd Collection. The letter from Colt verifying the SAA
was shipped to The Merc in 1907. Keep in mind Arizona was still
almost five years to the day (Feb 14, 1912) from becoming a state!

Shipping Records

From the beginning, Colt has kept detailed records of their firearms. Their log books state the model, serial number, barrel length, grip material, finish, ship-to location and the number of guns in the shipment. It may also list the person placing the order, unique grips and engraving.

As the Copper Queen Mercantile grew, it bypassed the jobbers in New York, Cincinnati and Chicago and, in 1892, started ordering guns directly from Colt. Thus was born the Copper Queen Colt.

So what makes a Colt shipped to the Copper Queen Mercantile special? All collectors want a physical link to the past and a Copper Queen Colt is a tangible piece of the wild west of the Arizona Territory.

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These Bisleys were ordered together in 1906 with pearl grips but
became separated over the next 112 years. Through perseverance
and luck, they were reunited, one with the original grips, one without.
Photo: From the Ten Below Firearms collection

The Wild Frontier

While Bisbee became the third largest metropolis in Arizona and challenged Prescott, Phoenix and Tucson for modern conveniences, it was still a mining town with every vice available 24/7 in Brewery Gulch. One said it was “the hottest spot between El Paso and San Francisco.”

The local newspapers filled their pages with stories of saloon gun fights, rustlers and outlaws but few rose to the heights as Augustine Chacon. This small-time outlaw was crowned King of the local crime elements by editors from San Francisco to New York. Robberies and murders in the southeastern Arizona Territory were blamed on Chacon. When cattle were rustled, horses were stolen, a lone miner was found dead at his claim or a stage held up, it was Chacon.

With a bogeyman named Chacon terrorizing the lonely canyons, people wanted the comfort of a Colt in their pocket, desk drawer or holster. It didn’t matter if the stories were made up or witnesses never existed. Chacon stories sold newspapers and guns.

In truth, Chacon’s associates Burt Alvord and Billy Stiles were more dangerous. As trusted lawmen, they crossed the line into armed robbery and murder. They staged robberies and then joined in the pursuit to mislead their fellow officers. According to some historians, they even went so far as to kill two men, dig up their corpses and send them back to the Arizona Rangers in the hopes they would be thought dead. The plan didn’t work. Ultimately, both outlaws returned to the right side of the law.

In reality, they were small potatoes to the rough elements ruling the saloons and bawdy houses in the neighboring border town of Douglas. Douglas was important for the Copper Queen Consolidated Mining Company as it had two smelters turning ore into copper ingots and rail lines to take the copper to the industrial east. But, it also had outlaws with no qualms about ambushing the Arizona Rangers. The captain of the Arizona Rangers, Tom Rynning, made it clear in his autobiography Gun Notches how rough the area was.
The area was ripe for cattle and horse theft as the international border was right there. A ready market for cheap beef on both sides made the “midnight cattle drive” commonplace.

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As seen in this postcard from the 1970s, Sacramento Hill had ,br> been mined into a pit. Bisbee is in the background. The Colt
Bisley was heavily favored in the American Southwest.

Riots

No history of the area would be complete without mentioning the 1906 labor riots in Cananea, Mexico. The Mexican miners wanted higher pay and shorter hours to match their American contemporaries. When their demands went unheeded, riots broke out and American workers were slain. The remaining Americans forted up in the home of the mine’s general manager’s house and exchanged gunfire with the rioters while the women and children of American miners attempted to take a train north to Naco.

Hearing of the situation, Rynning, a few of his rangers, and a couple of companies of Americans commandeered a train and headed across the border in violation of international law. Luckily, the Mexican governor and a high-ranking general arrived and commissioned Rynning into the Mexican Army. The riot was quelled and Rynning and his volunteers returned home as heroes.

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The town of Bisbee in the early 1900s as it wandered down the
twists of Tombstone Canyon. The bulk of copper-rich
Sacramento Hill is in the distance.

On The Hunt

If setting out on a journey to collect a Copper Queen Colt, you need to know the dynamics of the quest. Colt kept detailed records but the ledgers were segregated by model. To make matters more confusing, the Copper Queen Mercantile was rebranded to the Phelps Dodge Mercantile on March 31, 1917. Shipments were made predominantly to Bisbee and Douglas but they also went to other Copper Queen locations, including the corporate offices in New York.

Several historians have listed Colts shipped to Waco, Texas as being a Copper Queen. Research has shown no Copper Queen or Phelps Dodge facilities were ever in Waco. However, it is believed by many collectors these guns were shipped to Naco, a small town on the Arizona/Mexico border.

Decades ago, gun historian Keith Cochran researched the Colt archives extensively and produced a list of Colt Single Action Army revolver serial numbers shipped to the Copper Queen Store. This can be found in his Colt Peacemaker Collector Handbook & Guide. Since then, other collectors have built on the list and it is estimated over 700 have been identified.

While most associate Colt’s famous Peacemaker with Arizona, Colt historian and author William Goddard listed more than 200 semi-automatic pistols shipped to the Copper Queen in his book The Government Models.

We should assume other models of the time period were shipped, including the M1877, M1878, the highly collectible Colt Lightning rifle as well as other models.

Perhaps the most productive route to find a Copper Queen gun is to go to every regional gun show and talk with “Old West” firearms dealers. Build a relationship with them and let them know you are in the market. The key is to have cash ready to jump when a deal manifests itself.

Another way is to keep an eye on the online gun brokers or one of the higher-end auction houses for a lettered Copper Queen Colt. Don’t expect them to go cheap!

The most exciting way is to buy a Colt in the right time frame and then pay the Colt Archives to research the serial number. Sometimes you win the lottery and it’s a Copper Queen Colt!

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