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Confederate Spiller & Burr Revolver


This is an early Confederate Spiller and Burr Percussion Revolver made in Atlanta, GA circa 1863. Essentially, it is a interpretation of the .36 caliber Whitney Navy revolver that was produced within a solely agrarian-based economy. And there within such a haste to wage war, lies a certain charm and mystique with these Confederate weapons. Production was around 1,400+ units in both Atlanta and later Macon, GA. Standard octagon barrel measures 6-7/8". Six shot cylinder with safety stops between the cones. Bore has correct seven-groove rifling with a slight gain twist that is heavier to one side. See photo. Mastor Armorer James Burton was awarded the contract for the manufacture of this revolver by the Confederate States government. As he was then in charge of the Richmond Armory as well as building the new national armory in Macon, GA, his business partner Edward Spiller was placed in charge of the operation of the plant.

James Burton was arguably the most skilled gun maker in North America at the time and had amassed quite an impressive resume in gun manufacturing by the outbreak of the Civil War. As a native Virginian, he sided with the South. Burton began apprenticeship work in Baltimore at a young age and from there, worked his way up from Armorer to Master Armorer at Hall's Rifle Works, part of the Harpers Ferry arsenal. This was followed by positions at Springfield Armory and Ames Mfg. By the 1850's, Ames was manufacturing some of the best machine tooling in the world. Called the "American System of Manufacturing", it was capable of producing interchangeable parts at tolerances within .003" with lightly trained factory workers tending the machines. As a consultant to Ames, Burton was responsible for drawing and implementing a complete set of Ames tooling for the Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifled Musket at the Royal Manufactory at Enfield. Only in his 30s, Burton would go on to become Chief Engineer at Enfield; a remarkable achievement for an American. He also modified the original Minie Ball design to the type most commonly used during the Civil War.

Given his vast talents and experience, it is little wonder that the Chief of Confederate Ordnance Josiah Gorgas turned to a very busy Burton to fulfill the need for a revolver to be manufactured completely within the Confederacy. Originally, the plant was to be located in Richmond but Atlanta was chosen as the designated site. Burton chose the existing design of the Whitney Navy Pistol as best suited for manufacture. Being tied to Richmond operations however, Burton's contract was more or less as a consulting engineer. He made drawings, jigs, fixtures, helped secure machinery, and wrote up the steps and procedures for manufacture of the new revolver. It was Spiller who was given with the task of running the factory. Everything else Burton did was through correspondence with Spiller with occasional visits to Atlanta. Like most operations in the South during the Civil War, Spiller experienced great deal of difficulty getting production underway. Due to shortages in almost everything imaginable which ranged from finding skilled workmen to materials, production was tediously slow and well behind schedule from the start. As Spiller became Burton's proxy, so did the materials. Brass was substituted for cast iron on the frames and in lieu of steel, barrels and cylinders were constructed of iron. As a result, few could pass Burton's proofing tests. In order to offset granular flaws in the iron that were causing cylinders to burst, bar stock had to be twisted prior to manufacture. This strengthened the metal somewhat by redistributing linear weaknesses in striations of the iron into a different direction. While, it could never compete with Northern steel, it could withstand modest level proofing tests. If you look closely at the photos, you can still see the diagonal twist lines of grain on the cylinder from this process. The same practice is also evident on the many cylinders of Griswold Revolvers.

This particular Spiller and Burr is serial number #126 which would suggest it was made in Atlanta although many were finished later after the plant was moved to Macon and production resumed by the Confederate States government. A few years ago, a man walked into a show with it. The man gave me a price which I agreed to but before I could pay him, he left telling us he'd be back. I waited for hours but he never returned. As I learned later, the man had gone to another dealer who just happened to have a Spiller & Burr in his display case and asked a higher price which he got. There went my Spiller and Burr. While it is just a part of what every collector will go through sooner or later, I had a hard time sleeping knowing that I had missed such an exciting find. It's not often that a real Confederate rifle, musket, or revolver comes to market, and seldom a newly discovered one. This one had been off the map and never seen by the collecting community so the next day I made a concerted effort to purchase it from the dealer. Apart from the extra cost, this was good as he is reputable, been in the business for many years, an ASAC member, and in addition to mine, can vouch for its authenticity.

In spite of everything it had been through, it was remarkably complete with one notable exception; the trigger guard plus some small mechanical parts were missing. Once we were able put the mechanics back in order, we sent it out to a master craftsman who hand-fabricated a proper brass trigger guard. This was expensive and took about a year to complete but well worth the investment as nothing on the reproduction market comes close to fitting or looking correct. There are several surviving examples in the low 100's to 120's serial range which gave us something to go by. I've seen 124 in a publication although we've had one collector tell us that he believed that the two Spiller and Burrs with serials consecutive to this one are also in existence.

Overall, this one is in NRA Antique Good+ Condition which is exceptional for a Confederate weapon. The right side of the brass frame is marked "C.S." The iron is in good condition with good edges, fairly smooth with a few pinprick pits here and there. The iron has mostly turned to a dark gray patina with what we believe to be traces of the original heat blue in protected spots on the barrel. Front sight is original with its unique stepped cone shape. Brass frame is solid with no repairs or cracks. Original walnut grips are in Very Good condition with 35% original varnish as well as original brass escutcheons. One small chip repair at toe of right grip. Decent mechanics. Fair+ to Good- bore with correct seven-groove rifling with slight gain twist. Call or write for more details.

Item# 1221

$17,850

 
 

 

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