One of the best illustrations of the Confederacy’s lack of manufacturing capacity when compared to that of the Union is the small number of revolvers that were produced in the south during the American Civil War. At least eleven southern companies were established for the purpose of manufacturing revolving handguns during the war, and the total output of all of these companies (using the most generous of estimates) was slightly less than 9,500 pieces. By comparison, Colt manufactured and delivered some 58,955 M1860 Army revolvers during 1863 alone, and delivered a total of 127,157 of the handguns between 1861 and 1863. The most successful of the Confederate handgun manufacturers, Griswold and Gunnison, delivered an estimated 3,700 revolvers circa 1862-1864; about 6% of Colt’s output during 1863 alone! Nearly 70% of all Confederate handguns were manufactured by three of the southern manufacturers; Griswold & Gunnison (approximately 3,700), Leech & Rigdon (approximately 1,500) and Spiller & Burr (approximately 1,450). Only one other maker, Rigdon & Ansley is believed to have reached the production output of 1,000 pieces. All of the other makers delivered no more than about 500 pieces with many delivering only a handful of revolvers. Interestingly, all four of these companies were located in Georgia at some point during the war, with both Leech & Rigdon and Spiller & Burr relocating there from Mississippi and Virginia, respectively.
The firm of Spiller & Burr was initially established in Richmond, VA at the beginning of the war for the express purpose of producing revolving pistols for the Confederacy. The company was a partnership between former Baltimore businessman Edward Spiller and Richmond steam engine manufacturer David Burr. The key to the potential success of the firm laid in a third partner, Lt. Colonel James Burton of the Confederate Ordnance Department. Burton was literally a world-famous machinist, firearms manufacturer and designer with a resume that was unequalled during the period. Burton had started his work in the world of small arms in 1844, when at the age of 21 he went to work at Harpers Ferry as a machinist in the Rifle Works that had been established some two decades earlier by John Hall. Hall’s facility was a state of the art manufacturing center based upon the concept of interchangeable parts and assembly line production. During his decade long tenure at Harpers Ferry, Burton would be greatly influenced by Hall’s work and would eventually rise to become the Acting Master Armorer, and would also be responsible for the United States adoption of conical, expanding base ammunition. Known generically as the Mini” Ball, due to its introduction by French inventor Claude Mini”, it was actually Burton’s modified version of the projectile that was adopted by the US Ordnance Department in 1855, ushering in the era of smaller caliber rifled longarms for use by all US troops. Interestingly, with his career skyrocketing in his short time at Harpers Ferry, Burton accepted a new job in 1854 with the Ames Manufacturing Company, which not only produced small arms, but also the machines to manufacture small arms. The following year, Burton took on the daunting task of becoming the Chief Engineer of the newly established British Royal Small Arms Manufactory at Enfield Lock. His initial project involved the installation of the new manufacturing machinery and establishing the assembly line at that facility. Burton remained in this position through 1860, when he was hired by the Richmond Firm of J.R. Anderson & Company to oversee the installation of equipment to produce small arms in the old Virginia Manufactory facility in Richmond. The following year Burton was made the superintendent of the armory, and he subsequently supervised the installation of machinery the state of Virginia had captured when it took over the Harpers Ferry Armory in April of 1861. With Burton’s wealth of experience, and with his direct line of communication to the Confederate Ordnance Department, Spiller & Burr were undoubtedly confident that they would be able to establish their factory and secure a large contract to produce handguns for the Confederacy. To that end a contract to manufacture 15,000 .36 revolvers “on the pattern of Colt’s pistols” was granted to Spiller & Burr on November 20, 1861. The only delay in beginning the manufacture of the guns was obtaining the machinery necessary, which Burton was to supervise the installation of, while at the same time attending to his various duties at the Richmond Arsenal. The plan went somewhat awry the following May, when Burton was transferred to Macon, Georgia to establish an armory there. Spiller & Burr followed Burton south, and their factory was established in Atlanta, Georgia; about 80 miles north of Macon. By the end of 1862, the firm had only managed to produce a small number (estimated at less than fifteen) of sample revolvers that were subsequently shipped to Richmond for inspection by Major Downer, the newest superintendent of the Richmond Armory. Downer’s assessment of the pistols was essentially positive, but he suggested a number of minor changes that would be significant improvements to the guns.
Although the contract specifically called for production based “on the pattern of Colt’s pistols”, the product delivered by Spiller & Burr was in fact a near identical copy of the Whitney “Navy” revolver, with the significant difference that the frame, grip strap and back strap were all cast as a single piece from brass, rather than being made of steel as was the case with the Whitney guns. It is generally believed that the change was made due to Spiller & Burr acquiring the plans and some machinery to make the pistols from the S.C. Robinson Company of Richmond, who had intended to produce the handgun, but decided instead to concentrate of the manufacture of a Sharps pattern, breechloading carbine.
Like the Whitney, the Spiller & Burr was a six-shot, single action percussion revolver with two-piece wood grips, an octagonal barrel and a toggle link loading lever. Like the Whitney, the linked loading lever included a cylinder arbor pin that was secured by a rotating wing-nut that allowed a curved key-way cut into a screw to be aligned in such a way as to allow the removal of the assembly, thus freeing the cylinder to be removed from the frame. The Spiller & Burr was such a close copy that it included the space between the front of the cylinder and the frame that was found on the Whitney revolver, with only the threaded end of the barrel coming in close contact with the cylinder, and the loading lever was retained by the early Whitney style ball detent system. Downer’s commentary noted several minor defects that he felt should be corrected and one major defect that was essential to be remedied. His comments were as follows:
“I have examined the pistols made by Messrs. Spiller and Burr and Co. and find no defect which will but remedy themselves as the machines and tools become adapted to the work required, except as are incidental to the model. I think the style of the catch of the ramrod is faulty and I would recommend a spring and catch like that of the Colt’s pistol. I would also recommend a slot cut in the base of the cylinder between the nipples in which the face of the hammer will fit. The caliber of this pistol is somewhat smaller than the Colt’s. I think rounding of the muzzle of the pistol is an improvement. I would beg to suggest however that I think a plain brass mounting is superior to plated.”
Author William Gary in his work Confederate Revolvers notes that one of these “First Model” Spiller & Burr revolvers survives today (#13) which has a plated frame, a ball catch lever, no safety slots on the rear of the cylinder, exposed barrel threads, a thinner brass frame with a gap at the front and a bore slightly smaller than .36 caliber. All of Downer’s recommendations, as well as some later ones from James Burton were eventually taken to heart by Spiller & Burr and subsequently the “Second Model” Spiller & Burr revolvers were produced with thicker brass frames and top straps that were not plated, with no gap forward of the cylinder, safety slots on the rear of the cylinder, a Colt style loading lever catch and a consistent .36 caliber bore. However, the next batch of Spiller & Burr revolvers that were delivered to the Macon Arsenal in the spring of 1863 for inspection are believed to be of the “First Model” as well. Of these forty revolvers, thirty-three (about 83%) were rejected by Burton for, to quote Mr. Gary, “such serious and fatal defects that they could not be repaired.” Mr. Gary notes that the newly re-designed Second Models started the serial numbering system over again at 1, thus the first fifty to sixty revolvers of the Second Model series share numbers with earlier, First Model guns. He furthers notes that only two “First Models’ are known to him, #13 and #23. It appears that the issues involved in modifying and strengthening the guns disillusioned Spiller & Burr sufficiently that in June of 1863 they asked the Confederate government to buy out their operation and take over production. The Confederacy declined, and Spiller & Burr continued to produce the revolvers at a snail’s pace, eventually delivering some 840 pistols by January of 1864. That same month, the Confederacy acquiesced to the firm’s request and took over the company, moving production to Macon. There some additional 400 to 600 revolvers were completed. It is generally believed that most of these guns were simply assembled and finished from completed parts on hand at the time of the takeover. As Sherman’s Bummers approached Macon during the end of 1864, the Macon machinery was packed up for transport south and was never reassembled, ending the production of the Spiller & Burr revolver, with a grand total of between 1,250 and 1,450 being produced over a slightly less than two-year period.
Like most Confederate made revolvers, the Spiller & Burr handguns show a combination of crudeness in fit and finish and a level of workman like quality in the areas that truly mattered. The cast brass frames often show minor flaws, and nearly always show tool and file marks of their hand finishing. The frames vary in coloration based upon the exact composition of the brass used to cast them, with some showing a decidedly redder color than others due to high copper content. While tool marks might be present on the interior, the exterior is usually well polished and the fit of metal parts is usually fairly good. The octagonal barrels were blued, and while they usually vary between 6” and 7” in length, the seven-groove gain-twist rifling is typically well cut and consistent. Like so many Confederate made arms, the Spiller & Burr often shows cryptic letter markings on concealed surfaces, with the letters M, J, G and E often found on the frame under the grips. The guns are typically serial numbered on all the major components, with the cylinders only being found numbered on about half of the surviving examples. The barrels of approximately 20% of the production are marked SPILLER & BURR on the top flat, near the frame, but the large majority of production was unmarked. Roughly half of the extant examples are stamped C.S. on the lower front of the frame, with the mark found on both the right and left sides. It is not clear if this represents an inspection/acceptance mark or not. The only thing that appears to be consistent about Spiller & Burr markings is that they are not consistent, and even the serial numbers (which are the most consistent of the marks) are not always present everywhere they are expected to be; and are sometimes present in places that they are not expected!
The Spiller & Burr revolver offered here is in about VERY GOOD+ to NEAR FINE condition, and in terms of Confederate firearms which often show heavy wear and use, it is really a “very fine” example. The gun is well documented as it is listed by serial number on page 74 of the seminal book Confederate Handguns, published in 1963 and written by William Albaugh III, Hugh Benet Jr. and Edward Simmons. The gun was recently de-assessed from the prestigious Horn Foundation Collection, and had been on loan to the Frazier History Museum in Louisville, KY for most of the last two decades.
The gun is complete and correct in every way, and 100% original with the exception of a repaired/replaced mainspring, as well as the small catch that secures the loading lever/cylinder arbor pin. Like many of the early production revolvers, this gun is unmarked externally except for serial numbers. The matching serial number 517 is present externally on the bottom of the grip frame, on the upper flat of the loading lever, and on the cylinder. The number is also present in concealed areas, including the top flat of the arbor pin, on the frame under the triggerguard and on interior of the triggerguard plate as well. Interestingly, while the gun has a numbered cylinder which is only encountered about 50% of the time, the barrel is not numbered. The only other marking present is the cryptic letter M on the left side of the frame, under the grip. The pistol actually retains some minute traces of original blue on the 6 15/16” long barrel (6” measured to the frame, rather than the cylinder), primarily in the protected recessed where the barrel meets the brass frame. However, some tiny flecks of faded blue are present scattered throughout the smooth plum patina on the barrel. The cylinder shows the typical flaws and pattern associated with its twisted iron construction, a characteristic found on Griswold & Gunnison revolvers a well. Despite these flaws, the rear face of the cylinder is well machined and the revolver still times, indexes and locks up appropriately, and remains in good mechanical condition. The mainspring feels a little weak and is either a replacement or has been repaired. In fact, in his notes regarding the gun in his book, Albaugh notes “Main spring broken”. The loading lever remains fully functional and locks into place as it should. The lever shows a very minor bend, likely the result of repeated use, and the metal not being tempered as well as it should have been. This is barely noticeable, but the inconsistency is apparent when looking at the lever along the bottom of the barrel. It is possible that this is also another indication of the somewhat slip shod quality control at the Spiller & Burr factory. The revolver has a crisp bore that shows fine rifling and only some lightly scattered pitting and some accumulated dirt and dust. The revolver retains its original and very distinctive brass, cone shaped front sight. The brass frame has a lovely, uncleaned, rich butterscotch patina that is very attractive. The frame shows some of the expected minor casting flaws as well as the usual rough hand finishing with tool and file marks present. The interior of the triggerguard shows casting flaws as well. The barrel, cylinder and loading lever are mostly smooth, with matching even patina throughout and only some lightly scattered pinpricking and light surface oxidation with little real pitting present. The two-piece walnut grips are in VERY GOOD condition and are solid and complete with only the right panel showing a small repaired chip at the lower, trailing edge. Otherwise the grips show only some light handling marks and minor mars as would be expected.
Overall this is a very nice example of a scarce Confederate manufactured Spiller & Burr Revolver. The gun is in really nice condition and displays wonderfully. It comes from an important collection and spent nearly 20 years on loan to a major museum. As with any Confederate handgun, the fact that this one was documented by Albaugh some 54 years ago gives the gun solid provenance. The revolver is additionally photographed and published on page 59 of the Confederate book in the Time Life Series Echoes of Glory and on page 91 of William C. Davis' Fighting Men of the Civil War If you have always wanted to add a fine example of a Confederate made handgun to your collection, this would be a hard gun to upgrade from and is priced very fairly for such a scarce southern made revolver that has been well documented and published several times. A copy of the Frazier History Museum collection notes on the revolver are included with the gun.
Provenance: Howard Mansard Collection (c1950s), R.A. Pritchard Jr. Collection, Don Tharpe Collection, Horn Foundation Collection - on loan to the Frazier History Museum.SOLD