The 15 Most Expensive Old Guns That Have Sold at Rock Island Auction
By Joel Kolander
Gun shows and local gun stores have long been the preferred method for finding and collecting old guns. If you were a dedicated collector, you could even post a classified ad in the back of your favorite gun magazine to find or offer a particularly desirable example. However, with the rise of the internet and large auction houses specializing in collector firearms, these old ways are becoming less prominent.
The Global Leader in Gun Auctions
The biggest and best of those specialty auction houses is Rock Island Auction Company. Founded in 1993, the company has led the industry in sales every year since 2003 and shows no signs of slowing. Shattering their own industry records time and time again, their success is fueled by three different gun auction types designed to cater to collectors at all levels. In these auction types, collectors can bid on firearms in any numbers of ways, making it easier than ever to buy the old guns they want. RIAC’s success has also been aided by offering astounding, world-class firearms like the 15 shown below.
15 of the Most Expensive Old Guns Sold by Rock Island Auction
If a gun has made it on to this list, it most likely possesses a multitude of desirable traits that send collectors clamoring. They may be beautiful, rare, historically significant, belonged to someone famous, or they may be an unusual version of a very popular and beloved gun. Nearly all are so incredibly well-preserved that their condition defies belief. One thing they undoubtedly share, is a unique story: how it began, how it became extraordinary, and how that exceptional nature resulted in an enviable price point at auction.
15. The Finest Known Monarch Grade Savage Model 1899 Rifle.
Sale Price: $540,500
The Monarch Grade Savage Model 1899, a firearm so exquisite and detailed that it could be argued to be the finest gun Rock Island Auction Company has ever handled. From the meticulously beaded border around the carefully engraved animals, to the fancy grade checkering and highly figured wood, this old gun is unlike any Savage rifle RIAC had ever sold before. It even surpasses the opulent Savage Model 1899 rifle presented to Horas Dodge, one of the founding brothers of the Dodge Brothers Motor Company.
14-T. Colt Buntline Special Revolver
Sale Price: $546,250
While there are a number of rare Colts that collectors prize, no Single Action Army revolver is more famous, renowned, or sought-after than the “Buntline Special.” It is a legend of the American West, plain and simple. They take their moniker from Western writer Stuart Lake, who coined the term in his 1931 book Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall. In that largely exaggerated book, he states that dime-novelist Edward Zane Carroll Judson, who wrote under the nom de plume Ned Buntline, placed an order for five special Colt Single Action Army revolvers with 12-inch barrels, detachable walnut stocks, and a flip up, ladder rear sight to give to several prominent men. Unfortunately, all of this was written long after both Earp and Buntline had passed.
As with most folks that like to spin tall tales, such as Lake and Buntline, there is a lot of myth that surrounds these guns. While the guns certainly did exist (Colt exhibited them as “Buggy rifles” at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition), their genesis had little to do with Buntline or Wyatt Earp. Consisting of a very narrow serial number range, these old guns were available from the factory with 9, 10, & 16-inch barrels (not 12-inch). Their special frame allowed them to accept a skeletal, nickel plated stock (not walnut), though the topstrap did house a rear ladder sight.
While some of the few surviving examples have had their barrels cut to more standard lengths, an original Buntline in any condition is a holy grail for collectors of old guns.
14-T. The Thumbprint Walker
Sale Price $546,250
This instantly recognizable and collector-revered Colt Walker revolver, serial number 1078, is known simply as, “The Thumbprint Walker.” Only 1,100 Walkers were manufactured and less than a tenth of those were the civilian model. A mere 100 civilian revolvers were created as presentation pieces for people of influence both in and out of the military to kindle interest in the revolver. Such presentations were a frequently used tactic by master promoter Samuel Colt. Civilian Walkers are without a question the most difficult of all Colt firearms to obtain. Generations of collectors have never even had an opportunity to own one, let alone one of this quality and renown.
Making the Thumbprint Walker even more desirable is its remarkable condition. Most Walkers were “ridden hard and put away wet” so to speak. They led lives of hard use in Texas and Mexico. Though given their history and dwindling numbers, a Walker of any condition is prized old gun to be sought.
It is further complemented by a pine box and the beautiful period leather holster shown below, whose light color matches the golden hues of its one time occupant spectacularly.
12. Silver-Banded Texas Paterson
Sale Price: $575,000
A major purchaser of the Colt Paterson No. 5 revolver was the Republic of Texas in order to arm their Texas Rangers, thus earning these old guns the nickname of the “Texas” Paterson. This particularly pristine example appears to be unfired to this day, bearing 70% of its original finish (90% on the cylinder) and all seven of its rare German silver inlaid bands. It is one of the highest condition Colt Paterson revolvers extant. Ownership of this fantastic revolver is documented to Francis Bannerman as well as Robert M. Lee.
11. High Art Winchester Model 1886 by John Ulrich
Sale Price: $586,500
One of the finest craftsmanship examples of a 19th century Winchester is exhibited in this firearm. Crafted by Master Engraver John Ulrich, this stunning Winchester served as the company’s exhibition piece, showing off its top work. It was even once part of a major international loaned exhibition at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, England. It is every bit deserving of all the superlatives one could heap upon it.
The above video features this Winchester 1886 as well as the Savage 99 Monarch Grade from #15.
10. “On The Rocky Mountains”
Sale Price: $598,000
The top selling firearm of 2017 had collectors calling by the dozens asking “When is ‘On the Rockies’ coming up for sale?” This iconic and well-known Winchester 1866 lever action rifle with its gilded finish and pale, highly-figured maple stock would stand out in a sea of the world’s finest collector firearms. It is immaculately engraved, handsomely cased, and wonderfully preserved. Manufactured in 1871 in a serial number range well heeded by collectors for containing numerous Winchester presentation and exhibition pieces, “On the Rocky Mountains” has stood as a shining example for more than 140 years as a testament to the quality of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. It is no surprise that this old gun came to RIAC from the vaunted Robert M. Lee Collection. Watch our YouTube video on this extravagant Winchester rifle.
9.The Finest Iron Frame Henry in Existence
Sale Price: $603,750
Old guns like this are a miracle, plain and simple. There is no reason what-so-ever that it should be so miraculously preserved. It hails from an era before climate control, air conditioning, humidity control, or nitrile gloves, yet it gives us a startlingly close representation of how an iron frame Henry would have looked straight out of the New Haven Arms plant.
Most Henry rifles, as is well-known, are readily identified by their bright golden gunmetal receivers, commonly referred to as “brass.” Iron frame Henry rifles are rare birds indeed; accounting for an estimated 200 – 400 rifles made only during the very first few months of production. Those few surviving examples that remain today, are lucky to bear more than a trace amount of finish, making this near-pristine example an inky black, jaw-dropping spectacle of history and preservation.
8. The Engraved Colt Model 1849 Pocket of Brigham Young
Sale Price: $632,000
This elaborately engraved and cased Colt Model 1849 Pocket revolver was once the personal revolver of Latter Day Saint Leader and Utah Territory Governor Brigham Young. It came to RIAC from his direct descendants, never before having left the family. Even without the historic provenance this beautiful old gun would have certainly brought a pretty penny at auction. But when considering that it was a gift from the largest firearms dealer west of the Mississippi, H.E. Dimick & Co., to the second leader and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), its value took to new heights. Its flawlessly executed scrollwork is almost certainly executed by Master Engraver Gustave Young. With the combination of high condition, stunning aesthetics, and a one-of-a-kind history, it would have been a surprise if this revolver were not on this list.
7. The Finest Known Winchester Model 1876
Sale Price: $747,500
RIAC had the pleasure of auctioning more than one of John Ulrich’s master engraved pieces in 2018, and this special order Winchester Model 1876 has to be one of the highlights. It’s nearly impossible to pull your eyes away from the hypnotizing casehardening. Everything about it is flawless: from the delicately engraved wild game panel scenes to the stunning woodwork. RIAC President Kevin Hogan states, “It’s almost as if the engraver knew this gun was going to remain a time capsule because it so elegantly exhibits the condition, yet subtly accentuates it.” Combined with its impeccable condition, this is a tour de force of a rifle. Best of all, this magnificent old gun had never before been publicly sold.
From the utterly impeccable condition of the gun, to its well-documented past, this is one for the books.
6. Winchester Model One of One Hundred Model 1873
Sale Price: $805,000
Documented as the last produced of only eight Winchester “One of One Hundred” Model 1873 rifles, this old gun is a supreme rarity. Many collectors know of the Winchester Model 1873 “One of One Thousand” rifles, but the “One of One Hundred” models are even scarcer. This particular gun has documentation of use and, part of its story involves it traveling down the Amazon River with a previous owner. A firearm like this could tell some yarns.
5. Profoundly Rare and Equally Magnificent Cased Colt No. 5 Texas Paterson
Sale Price: $805,000
This cased Paterson revolver embodies all the characteristics of an investment grade collectible firearm: beauty, intrigue, rarity, desirability and unparalleled historical significance. Texas Paterson revolvers served as the immediate predecessor to the Walker Colt, and both are extremely important in the evolution of Colt firearms and the evolution of repeating firearms. As sought after by museums as they are private collectors, this particular Texas Paterson is an outstanding example with its 9-inch barrel, one-piece antique ivory grips featuring a carved shell, 5 silver bands, and casehardened frame, hammer, and backstrap. Making it even rarer is the lack of hand engraving performed on this silver-banded Paterson; typically such embellished arms would also bear fine factory engraving. Complemented by its original, mahogany factory case and full set of accessories, few guns are as well preserved or retain their accoutrements for so long. This phenomenal old gun has been in some of the world’s most prestigious collections and is featured in no less than 9 books written on fine Colts.
4. Ultra-Rare Documented Winchester “One of One Thousand” Deluxe Model 1876
Sale Price: $891,250
The “One of One Thousand” rifles of the Model 1873 Winchester are a rare prize indeed, but those specially treated Model 1876 examples are scarcer still – only 136 of the former and a scant 54 of the latter were ever produced. Of those manufactured, only 40 Model 1873 versions are thought to exist and TEN Model 1876 versions are still known to collectors. That sort of rarity among old guns drives value as clearly shown here. Combined with the fine condition, limited wear, and hailing from the vaunted collection of Robert M. Lee, this rifle brought an appropriately handsome price at auction.
3. The Finest Known Winchester Model 1886
Sale Price: $1,178,750
The finest known Winchester Model 1886. What else is there to say? When you want the best, you have to pay for the best. This is not only in immaculate condition but displays the absolute peak of 19th and 20th-century factory craftsmanship, never again to be duplicated. It’s also a grocery list of popular features that collectors of old guns love, such as a takedown model and being chambered in .50 Express, and came courtesy of the well-known Mac McCroskie Collection.
2. Winchester Model 1886, Serial number 1, with ties to Apache Leader Geronimo
Sale Price: $1,265,000
This 1886 Winchester set what was at that time the world record for the most expensive single firearm ever sold at auction, so it’s no surprise that it earns a spot on this list. Any Winchester in this high of original condition is quite valuable, but this particular model 1886 happened to be serial number one! If that weren’t enough, the gun was presented by firearms designer Lieut. George E. Albee to his friend and fellow Medal of Honor Recipient Capt. Henry W. Lawton, upon Lawton’s accepted surrender of Apache leader Geronimo.
What a humbling and exciting experience it must have been to be entrusted with this gun, to educate the collector community about it, and finally to place it with a steward who will keep it in just as pristine condition as it has been the last 130 years. If you haven’t read both parts of the remarkable story behind this old gun, you may do so at RIAC’s blog.
1. The “Danish Sea Captain” Civilian Colt Walker
Sale Price $1,840,000
This is the finest known Civilian Walker and only known cased original Walker that includes an original bill of sale from Samuel Colt himself. Traveling across the Atlantic with one of its owners to take up roots in Denmark, it stayed there for about one hundred years, avoiding the ravages of time and even the Nazis. A supremely rare old gun with excellent documentation and pedigree, it is no surprise that it comes from the Robert M. Lee Collection. This was the highest priced item sold in 2018 by RIAC and remains the highest priced single firearm ever sold at auction.
Large gun auctions have allowed amazing old guns such as these to receive the attention and spotlight they deserve. RIAC takes great pride in offering the pinnacle of collecting, but also catering to collectors at every level as well as sportsmen, hunters, recreational shooters, and investors. Given that nearly half of the list was sold during 2018, it would appear that the momentum is still gathering.