Ted Sewell, Skirmisher, Sutler & Collector

Before I introduce you to our first collector interview, I want to lay out some definitions/explanations of the terminology I'll be using. A Collector is any person who accumulates stuff (wives insert "junk" here for "stuff"). A Civil War Ordnance Collector, by my definition, is a person who accumulates civil war ordnance stuff. A Dealer is a person who sells or trades the stuff us collectors collect. Dealer and Collector, as definitions, are not exclusive or inclusive. Our first interviewee happens to be both.

Shelton "Ted" Sewell was born in Baltimore, Maryland. He started collecting blackpowder firearms in 1938, and acquired his first civil war piece, a Remington .69 caliber Rifle Musket, with Maynard primer, in 1939. Over the years he has bought, traded and sold thousands of civil war pieces. His favorite civil war arm is the Mississippi Rifle, and he presently has more than 40 in his shop. He acquired his first Mississippi in 1946, and has loved them ever since.

I caught up with Ted at the 25th McNeils Skirmish at Ft. Shenandoah near Winchester, Virginia. I asked Ted if he could give a budding collector just one tip, what would it be? "Any original piece is better than gold," he replied. And, I continued, if someone was just starting out collecting civil war arms, how should they approach starting? "Springfields!", he answered enthusiastically. Ted said that there are still many Springfields available, original replacement parts are still available for them, and there are plenty of books available to help the beginning collector build a Springfield collection.

What about the experienced collector? I asked Ted what new avenue he would recommend for someone already collecting. "Mississippis," he said with a smile.

Ted Sewell is the owner of Sewells Antique Guns, currently located in Burlington, West Virginia, just off US Rt. 50 and only 45 minutes from Ft. Shenandoah. Ted can be found at his shop, or at his booth at many of the N-SSA skirmishes at Ft. Shenandoah. He started shooting with the N-SSA in 1955, before there was a Ft.Shenandoah. One of my all-time favorite Ted stories is the tale about the early days of skirmishing. Percussion caps were hard to find, and Ted likes to tell the kids around camp about drilling out the nipples and using Kitchen Match heads for caps! He even had one of the old nipples awhile back. (The early days of the N-SSA hatched some wild stories, and I hope to share more with you in future columns.)

Because he has been a shooter since 1955, I asked Ted for some shooting tips for beginners. His number one suggestion - shoot a good bore, .577 or smaller. By good bore, Ted said he meant good to excellent rifling. Suggestion number two - size your bullets. A lot of beginning shooters overlook this important step. Sizing your bullets makes each round identical, a key to consistency. Ted also suggested using a shooters' nipple and sight protector. The nipple allows for more consistent ignition over the course of fifty to one hundred shots in a weekend, and the sight protector keeps your front sight protected when not in use.

I have one more collecting story. Years ago, a man walked into Teds' shop with a tar bucket. Sticking out of the tar in the bucket about 2 inches was a barrel, with what could have been a brass front sight. Rifling was evident upon inspection. The man asked Ted if he would be interested in acquiring the bucket and its' contents, and a deal was struck. Ted came to the next skirmish with the bucket, we built a fire, melted the tar and removed a percussion revolver. A few hours later, after rubbing that hogleg with camp fuel, an original Colt revolver began to appear. For very little money and alot of elbow grease, Ted had a collectable.

This was possible because (a) Ted was a known dealer with a regular shop and the man with the bucket knew where to take it and (b) Ted knows what the front two inches of a Colt should look like. A part-time collector/non-dealer is not going to get lucky as many times as the collector/dealer who goes to 10 gun shows a year, has a booth at the N-SSA Nationals and is known in the neighborhood as the antique gun guy. But, just to prove me wrong, there are stories like the one told by Bill Foster of Arkport, New York. Bill saw a civil war musket advertised in his local paper and went to check it out. The price was less than a new reproduction musket, but after Bill got there, he left with a 1862 dated Model 1861 Springfield, with Allen proofmarks still visible. "I was just looking for another gun to reenact with," he recently told me.

The morale of this months column, our first blush with collecting, is this: collecting civil war arms is a fascinating hobby, which can turn into a business for some. There are deals out there even today, if your lucky or you know where to look. Take all the ones you can afford to take. Until the next time, shoot safely and have fun.

(c) 1991 by Tom Kelley
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