While Winchester coined the expression the “Gun That Won the West,” most aficionados of American firearm history consider Samuel Colt’s invention the “Handgun that Won the West.” Certainly, western historians and enthusiasts are more than familiar with the Colt single-action Army revolver, but it’s quite possible that without Colt’s first invention—the Paterson—this legend of the West would not have been born.
For most of his life, this fervent collector of many things has amassed antique firearms—none of which has been fired since acquisition.
“You wouldn’t want to,” he once quipped. “In the 1830s, there were hundreds of makers of arms—hundreds. But, nobody perfected them like Sam Colt.”
Like many youngsters of the post World War II era, LeVett was keen on popular singing cowboy and movie star, Gene Autry. A dream come true for any would-be cowpuncher, the 9-year-old LeVett actually met Autry, who greeted the lad with “Howdy, little cowboy.” Autry had his favorite mount, Champion, and wore two Colt .45 pistols—and, according to LeVett, that’s the year he started collecting guns. Today, LeVett is the largest private collector of Paterson Colt firearms in the world, collaborating in 2003 with R.L. Wilson on The Paterson Colt Book.
“We are so excited to have such a rare Colt Paterson in our collection,” explains CFM Curator Ashley Hlebinsky. “Many people consider a Colt as the ‘Handgun that Won the West,’ and this newly-acquired Texas Model Paterson from Denny LeVett showcases the birth of Samuel Colt’s genius.”
This Colt Paterson is a five shot, .36 caliber revolver developed near the start of 1836. This elegant pistol was certainly not Colt’s first financial success, but the adoption of the Paterson by Colonel John Hays and Captain Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers, would mark the beginning of success for Samuel Colt.
The Paterson is named for the New Jersey city where Samuel Colt produced the model before his Patented Arms Manufacturing Company declared bankruptcy in 1842. As war with Mexico erupted four years later, Colt obtained more financing and began to manufacture a new, more powerful revolver in his Hartford, Connecticut, factory. Then, in 1873, the famous Colt single-action six-shooter came on the firearms scene.
“I visited the Center of the West in 2003 to see the wonderful Colt Exhibition—and connected there with Tom Selleck and Al Simpson,” LeVett says. “I’ve been crazy about the Center ever since; it’s the best in the country.”
A real estate magnate, financier, and part time actor, LeVett grew up in Iowa Falls; he left the state to attend the College of the Pacific, now the University of the Pacific, in California. He became a collector of books, miniatures, model cars, wine, full-scale “real” cars, posters, and firearms—among many other subjects. At age 21, he began to buy real estate in what would eventually be dubbed Silicon Valley. He ultimately formed Strutz LeVett to expand his real estate holdings, including his crown jewel, Cypress Inn at Carmel-by-the-Sea, which he owns with Doris Day.
“The significance of the Colt Paterson simply can’t be over stated,” says Center of the West Executive Director and CEO Bruce Eldredge. “There is so much legend, myth, and truth associated with Sam Colt, that the story of the American West is incomplete without the Colt name. And, Denny LeVett loves the West as much as we do; his gift is a major addition to our firearms collection.”
Read more about the Cody Firearms Museum at centerofthewest.org/explore/
About Buffalo Bill Center of the West:
Since 1917, the award-winning Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming, has devoted itself to sharing the story of the authentic American West. The Center, and affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, is currently operating its winter schedule, open 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Thursday – Sunday.