Note: Originally published May 10, 2016.
A Model 1886 Winchester rifle presented to the man who captured Apache leader Geronimo is now the most expensive single firearm ever sold at auction. The lever action, Serial No. 1, drew $1.265 million at Rock Island Auction Company’s most recent sale. Other guns have sold higher as a pair, but no other single firearm surpasses this new world record.
“It is an honor to be entrusted with an American treasure,” said RIAC President Kevin Hogan. “Being serial number one and possessing such outstanding condition would alone be enough to draw six figures at auction. When you add one of the most famous names in the history of the Old West you have a huge crossover appeal and set the stage for something special to happen.”
It’s easy to see why the 1886 did so well on the auction block. The rifle’s low serial number, intriguing history, and exceptional condition combined to make it a tempting lot at the sale.
The Winchester was presented to Capt. Henry W. Lawton, leader of the U.S. military force sent into Arizona to hunt down the renegade Apache Geronimo in 1885 and ’86. Geronimo and several dozen of his followers had been stealing and killing on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border for years, so the U.S. Army sent 3,500 men — later 5,000 — to track him down and bring an end to the raider’s atrocities.
Leading by the principle of “Never ask anyone to do something you wouldn’t do yourself,” Lawton remained popular with his men as they marched across the searing desert. The year 1886 was a particularly hot one, with Lawton himself losing 40 pounds from the march. In July of that year, Lawton and his men surrounded one of Geronimo’s camps but found only supplies where the raiding party had been. Try as they might, the troops could never catch up to and capture the Apaches during the long, hot summer.
Eventually the Indians moved into the Mexican Sierre Madres. The military ultimately followed an Apache woman back to the Indians’ hideout as she returned from buying food in a nearby Mexican village. On Sept. 4 the infamous Geronimo surrendered to Lawton, his fellow soldier 1st Lt. Charles B. Gatewood, and the United States.
Upon the completion of his mission Lawton received the Winchester 1886 as a gift from his friend Lt. George E. Albee, both of whom were Medal of Honor recipients. The two had been friends in the Civil War, going their separate ways after 1865 — Lawton onward in his military career, Albee to work for Winchester.
The words “Albee to Lawton” appear on the barrel just behind the folding rear sight.
The rifle is chambered in .45-70 and sports a 26-inch octagonal barrel, with a full-length magazine running below it. They both retain 95 percent of their original blueing, as do the hammer, trigger, lever, and buttplate. The receiver still has 90 percent of its color, while the bolt is nearly 100 percent intact — all this despite its more than 100 years in existence.
It was auctioned with a gold watch of Lawton’s (shown in the first image).
The world-record sale comes on the heels of Rock Island Auction Company’s record setting 2015 sales total of $51 million. It also ties closely to the FBI’s report listing March 2016 as the 11th consecutive month of NICS background checks where each month’s total is larger than the same month a year prior.
“For decades firearms have provided an alternative form of investment and this is clear proof of that,” said RIAC CEO Patrick Hogan.
With firearms sales spiking in the previous two presidential election years and the new world-record price, the future appears extremely rosy for the gun-collecting market.
Be sure to subscribe to Sporting Classics for a special feature on firearm auction houses in the upcoming 35th anniversary issue. The issue will mail to subscribers beginning mid-June and hits newsstands July 5.