Sunday, January 22, 2012

Colt Revolver Trigger Guard

Yesterday I visited one of the areas I'd been researching to see if I could find some Civil War relics.  I ended up hunting in a spot a mile or two down the road from where we'd intended to hunt at the location of what had been an old homestead at the time of the Civil War.
One of the things that made this a particularly exciting area to search was the abundance of old glass and ceramic shards that littered the area.  It was difficult to take a step without seeing broken shards or pieces of brick.
In the midst of this debitage, I got a great audio signal on my E-TRAC.  Due to the amount of iron in the vicinity, I was hunting in two-tone ferrous mode and swinging really slowly.  The high tone really stood out and was solid and repeatable from all directions.
A few yards away, Tony was sitting on the ground eating his lunch.  I said, "Uh oh, I've got a good signal here."  He got up, chewing, and watched me dig a plug.  I turned it over and out popped this:

 It's the solid brass trigger guard assembly of a Colt percussion revolver.

There are many varieties of Colt pistols with the two main variants being the Colt 1851 Navy Revolver in .36 caliber and the Colt Army Model 1860 in .44.  Both "belt pistols" used the same frame and both were single action, black powder, cap and ball pistols.

The serial number on the trigger guard I found is readable on the leading edge of the plate behind the mounting screw as in the one pictured above.

It's probably not apparent from the photo, but the serial number is 85997.  If it's from a model 1851 Navy Revolver, that would put it's manufacture in 1858.  If the trigger guard is from an 1860 Army Revolver, it's year of manufacture is 1863.  If I'm able to definitively identify the model, I'll post an update.  Either way, it's likely that this pistol saw action in the Civil War.

One rather odd thing I noticed when researching this piece was that another dug trigger guard posted on Corinth Civil War Relics has almost the exact same deformation.  Here's the guard as posted on that site ...
I'm wondering if the similarity is evidence of intentional destruction to render the weapon inoperable?  If anyone has any information about this, please drop me a line or comment on the blog.

This apparently very old bottle was a surface find.  The particular house we were hunting was there at least as far back as 1815 and probably for longer than that.  Judging by the color, form, and extreme thickness of this bottle mouth, I'm guessing it's early 19th or late 18th century.
One more neat find at this site was an old Mercury dime.  The date is 1918.  It's not often you hunt a location that was occupied for a century!

1918 Mercury Dime
I'd like to thank the gracious landowner for allowing us to hunt on their historic property.  This one deserves another visit soon so stay tuned.  For an overview of the design and history of these two great cap and ball revolvers, I highly recommend this excellent video by Mike Beliveau.

A scout carrying his "Colt Revolving Belt Pistol" in Brandy Station, VA.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Site Survey Saved by Silver

As I mentioned elsewhere on the blog, I've been spending a lot of time lately doing research on some local Civil War camp sites.  Last week, having identified a likely prospect on the map, I visited it in person to check it out.  My friend Tony Stevenson of Detecting Saxapahaw came along for the adventure.

As it turned out, this was a day from the twilight zone.  We got lost en route, several landowners weren't answering the door, and I'm pretty sure we found the headquarters of a cult.  To top things off, when we were completely famished and decaffeinated, we couldn't locate so much as a vending machine.  When we finally found an old country store and approached the register with arm-fulls of gatorade, pop-tarts, etc., the elderly proprietor informed us that she only accepted cash of which we had exactly none.

In any case, after walking several miles and detecting for very little of that time, we ultimately came up empty-handed at this particular location.  I haven't given up on the site by any means and will update readers on progress down the road.  But after a few hours of hiking and nothing but threshold tone, Tony and I decided to relocate the hunt to one of his sites where he'd previously made some good finds including a US belt plate.

My first find at this new locale for me was this nice flat button ...

I'm unable to discern what the writing says although Tony, with clearly superior detail vision than I possess, offered a translation in the field.  I'll have to follow up with him and will update the blog once I have it.

[UPDATE:  Tony just emailed me this awesome picture that shows what the button says.  Thanks Tony!]
The second find was really a fun one.  I've been hunting primarily with my GPX 4800 lately.  And, as fantastic a machine as it is for finding deep relics, it's really a binary detector in that it can only tell you whether a target is iron or whether it's not.  I should note that that's a limitation of all pulse induction machines and that the GPX has the absolute best iron discrimination available.  But on this particular day, I was using my other Minelab detector, the E-TRAC, which is a VLF machine and which has the ability to provide much more information about the target than any PI machine currently available.

In fact, the E-TRAC provides more details on the nature of a target than any other VLF machine on the market, too.  Rather than utilizing a single integer value to characterize alloys, E-TRAC provides two values—a ferrous number and a conductive number that combined are what Minelab calls Smartfind.™

Without going into too much detail, the FE value is a scale from 1 to 35 and the CO value ranges from 0-50.  The beauty of this system is that, while several targets can possess identical values on one scale, the chances of their sharing both CO and FE values are low.  For example, a square nail and a silver quarter both sound good and might even have the same VDI number (to use White's method of classifying targets).  On an E-TRAC they will share the same CO value, but the FE value will be different, allowing the detectorist to tell the difference between valuable and trash targets.

E-TRAC Screen showing FE and CO values for a target.
That being said, any system of classifying metallic targets is prone to some error given soil conditions, depth, and proximity of adjacent targets.  But shortly after finding the flat button, I got an absolutely rock-solid 12-45 reading.  To any E-TRAC owner, that number means one thing: SILVER DIME.  I dug a large plug, flipped it over, and sure enough, out popped this guy.
Cool, a "Seated Liberty" dime.  Flipping it over, I made out the date of 1891 which you may or may not be able to discern in the regrettably poor quality photo below.

1891 Seated Liberty Obverse
This find was literally the silver lining to an otherwise somewhat exasperating day.  Thanks to Tony for sharing his cool site and for the camaraderie.  I promise we'll locate that camp soon!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Relic Hunter by Howard Crouch

Happy New Year everyone. It's been especially silent here at Silent Remnants lately primarily because I've gone into research mode, using the holidays to immerse myself in North Carolina circa 1865 and locate some promising places to detect.

Happily, I've managed to identify some interesting locations on the map and via on-site surveys and I'll update readers on the results of that groundwork soon.

In the meantime, I thought I'd share some thoughts on one of the books Santa brought me and which I've been thoroughly enjoying over the past few days —it's "Relic Hunter: The Field Account of Civil War Sites, Artifacts, and Hunting" by Howard Crouch.

This book was published in 1978 and relays, through conversational anecdotes, the incredible experiences of die hard relic hunters in Northern Virginia hunting in the 1960's and 70's. It's a fascinating read from several perspectives.

First, some of the individuals hunting in the 60's knew men who had actually spoken with Civil War veterans. Some of the campsites the relic hunters explored were mentioned by their grandfathers who retained memories of tales shared by their own grandfathers. In many cases, relic hunters could walk right into a large camp and see the outline of the huts and the crumbling chimneys, dormant since the troops last used them. It's this sense of time that makes "Relic Hunter" such a fantastic read. When we dig an artifact that's 150 years old, it can sometimes seem like an immense span of time. But it's actually only a few human generations that separate our world of iPhones, satellites, and M1A1 Abrams Tanks from the era of horses, steam, and blackpowder.

The main appeal of "Relic Hunter" is, of course, reading what it was like to be the first person to hunt a Civil War camp or even, in some cases, a battlefield, something that, for detectorists today, is unfathomable.

For example, one hunter discovers a section of the Monocacy battlefield in Maryland that was "full of everything—US box plates, hat ornaments, flat buttons, and one really pretty, big, round hat wreath. Shell fragments and pieces of fuse were all over." Other hunters describe a typical day's hunt as yielding 3 plates.

One of my favorite stories from the book concerned efforts to restore a section of the Chancellorsville battlefield in 1932. William K. Howard was riding his horse through an area he'd passed through several times before, "when [he] just happened to look down and see this saber stuck upright in the ground. It was dark and weathered down to a point where it blended right in with the trees."

Howard returned to the site with a crew and it turned out to be the shallow grave of a cavalryman, quickly interred by his fellow soldiers where he fell, the saber he'd wielded in battle had become the headstone of his grave.
The book is full of stories such as this and replete with black and white photos of box plate after incredibly rare box plate and other incredible relics.

The only downside to "Relic Hunter" (and this is a minor quibble) is the recurring theme that relics, like the world of the 1860's, have disappeared. As Crouch puts it, "The days of the easy pickings on battlefields and large winter camps are all but gone ... Good sites are hard to find...and every piece coming out of the woods is gone from the soil forever. In contrast to game hunting, the digging sport exists on a non-recurring resource and consequently must surely end one day in the not too far distant future."  This is all true, but newcomers to the hobby may find Crouch's comments a tad deflating.

Only a few pages of the book are dedicated to telling the reader "how" to find places to look for relics. There is a single chapter (27) that deals with methods and it contains valuable advice.

But the main appeal of this book is to put yourselves in the shoes of relic hunters who were the first to re-enter the world of the Civil War.  If you're looking for some inspiration to do more research or to get out and hunt, this book will certainly provide that in droves.  Highly recommended.