Legendary Master Engraver Gustave Young is easily one of the most renowned firearms engravers of all time. He is most famous for engraving some of the most spectacular Colt percussion revolvers and later Smith & Wesson revolvers. Despite his long career, long guns engraved by Young are incredibly rare. The Germanic master engraver had been active in Hartford, Connecticut, working for Colt c. 1854-1858 as the primary engraving contractor and then again as a "pistol maker" upon returning from a trip to Germany in 1861. He set himself up as an independent engraver in Hartford c. 1863-1869. One of his early clients as an independent engraver in Hartford was the nearby New Haven Arms Company. Young was still an independent engraver in Hartford for most of 1869, and then moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, where he engraved for Smith & Wesson. He only engraved a select few arms for other companies as an independent engraver, and Winchester firearms engraved by Gustave Young are nearly impossible to find let alone purchase. They are extraordinary rarities suitable for the most prestigious museum or private arms collections. This extraordinary rifle exemplifies precisely why; it is a true work of art. This is one of those incredible discoveries that are essentially unheard of. The rifle has been hidden away for generations, and it is our honor to offer it to the collecting fraternity. Oliver Winchester's Winchester Repeating Arms Co. produced several absolutely incredible exhibition pieces in the late 1860s and early 1870s for the World's Fairs and other major exhibitions both in the U.S. and abroad. Many of these rifles were then subsequently presented to important international dignitaries, some not until many years later, as part of the company's international marketing efforts. Rock Island Auction Company has had the pleasure of bringing several of these rifles to auction in recent years such as the German silver Model 1866 sn. 36200 sold in 2016, the Herman Leslie Ulrich signed 1876 Centennial Exhibition Model 1866 sn. 109651, and the President Marco A. Soto of Honduras presentation Model 1873 rifle sn. 18264 sold last May. Winchester had these rifles engraved by the finest engravers of the period, including Gustave Young, the Ulrichs, and L.D. Nimschke, and they are among the finest works of firearms art ever created and thus are not surprisingly among the most valuable antique American firearms. Factory records unfortunately are unavailable for many of these early rifles, but the factory records that are available for some, such as Model 1873 sn. 16139, confirms a select group of these rifles engraved by former Colt Master Engraver Gustave Young. For those that have handled and examined many Colts engraved by Gustave Young, the master engraver's hand in engraving this rifle is immediately evident, but this is especially noteworthy given how few Winchesters were actually engraved by Young. Very few Gustave Young engraved firearms are anything besides Colts and Smith & Wessons. The exceptional engraving on this rifle shares similarities with sn. 26283 pictured from the Johnie Bassett collection in the Antique Arms Annual from 1971 on pages 88 and 89 and noted as "A superbly engraved Model 1866 Winchester rifle, serial number 26283, made as an exhibition piece by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, c. 1867-68. The decoration is of the finest and most exquisite design and execution, and represents the superior work of the renowned Gustave Young" and also notes "He is known to have taken on commissions from Winchester, but only on rare occasions." That rifle is also shown on pages 24 and 42 of "Winchester: An American Legend" by R.L. Wilson and other publications. The description of that rifle could just as easily be applied to the current piece. This incredible exhibition/presentation engraved and gold inlaid Winchester Model 1866 was manufactured c. 1869 and was later discovered in Europe as has been the case with a few other factory exhibition engraved and gold plated Winchesters. The engraving is among the finest work ever executed by Young. The scrollwork is classic Germanic scrollwork and matches nicely with the engraving Young executed for Colt in the 1850s and also has similarities with his engraving for Smith & Wesson, especially his early work there. The three different animal heads inhabiting the scrollwork on the right side of the frame towards the rear, the left side at the front of the side plate, and the rear of the left side plate are all typical of Young's earlier engraving. The two canine heads in particular compare very well with the documented "Gustave Young List" Colt Model 1849 Pocket sn. 90389 solid by Rock Island Auction in May of 2022 for example. The engraving consists of borders and scroll panels at the muzzle and breech end of the barrel and on the gold plated forend cap, frame, and buttplate. The use of floral blooms within the scrollwork are common features in Young's work. The right side of the frame at the front features a detailed scene of a man on horseback armed with a rifle. The right side plate has a scene of showing what appears to be a spotted hyena taking an antelope or a similar species. The left side has a distinctive Swiss cross design at the front and a very detailed scene of a hunter with a rifle and his dog pursuing a tiger. The barrel has a dovetailed front sight with nickel-silver blade, the two-line Winchester address and patent marking, and a notch and folding ladder rear sight with 900 yard top notch. The serial number is marked on the lower tang under the lever, and a "G" is marked on the tang under the stock. The stock is nicely figured walnut. Sling swivels are fitted to the forend cap and bottom of the buttstock, and the stock compartment holds a four-piece cleaning rod. The Swiss Cross marking is particularly interesting and fits perfectly within the historical context. Most of the early Winchesters were made for the export market, and this rifle was no doubt engraved and gold plated for a special exhibition or presentation abroad as part of the company's international marketing. While the American Civil War had demonstrated the advantages of breech-loading and repeating firearms, the end of the war meant the American firearms market was flooded with surplus arms and halted large scale government orders. Many American arms manufacturers simply shifted to the production of different metal goods, and a few others such as Colt, Remington, and Smith & Wesson sought out foreign markets for their firearms. Oliver Winchester did as well and did so personally and aggressively. His company first began manufacturing the Model 1866 rifles around August of 1866. Prior to that, other "Improved Henry" pattern rifles were manufactured in limited numbers. To seek sales, Oliver Winchester himself went to Europe to promote his company in 1865-1866, including traveling to Switzerland. Much of the Swiss-Winchester story was covered by Herbert G. Houze in his book "Winchester Repeating Arms Company: Its History & Development from 1865 to 1981" and his American Society of Arms Collectors Bulletin in the Fall 2013 issue. The Swiss held trials in 1865 and 1866 to test and select new breech-loading rifles. Winchester submitted his new rifle designs to the Swiss trials at Aarau and proved their military capability. Given the transition from muzzleloading to breech-loading that was taking place across Europe and elsewhere, many were watching the results of the Swiss trials. At 300-1,000 paces, the Winchester was the clear winner. On page 58 of his book Houze wrote, "Winchester rifles averaged 14.5 hits at 300 paces, each 43 seconds. None of the other competing arms (Howard, Martini-Peabody, Remington, Spencer or Chassepot) were able to even approach that success." The results were widely reported, and targets and the recommendations for Winchester's rifles from the Swiss trials were reproduced in Winchester's 1873 catalog to promote Winchester's rifles. Initially, only a few hundred rifles were ordered for Swiss sharpshooters with Swiss style sights and stocks in a joint effort with some of the components manufactured in Switzerland, but Houze's research indicates the Swiss government then ordered at least 15,000 Winchester rifles prior to this rifle's production. Despite these initial orders, the Swiss instead ultimately adopted the domestically produced Vetterli rifles designed by Johann Friedrich Vetterli. While further orders from the Swiss were not forthcoming, the French purchased 6,000 Model 1866s, and others were purchased by Chile, Japan, and other countries around the globe. The Ottoman Empire proved to be the best customer for the Winchester Model 1866; they purchased around 50,000, and many saw use in the 1877 Russo-Turkish War. Foreign sales continued to be a major part of the company's production into the 1870s. Thus, the company may have presented this rifle as part of their efforts to regain Swiss contracts or perhaps as a thank you to one of the Swiss officers or government officials that had been involved in the earlier contracts. Unless further documentation comes to light, we may never now the precise reason for its engraving. However, the other high end Winchesters from the late 1860s and early 1870s clearly demonstrate the finest Winchesters of the era, especially the gold plated rifles, were first used as factory exhibition pieces prior to being presented to influential leaders. This rifle may have possibly been at the 1873 World's Fair in Vienna. There were also many other international exhibitions in the period, including the Annual International Exhibitions held in London in 1871-1874. Given we know Winchester was using the results of the Swiss trials to promote their wares, the Swiss Cross emblem may have been specifically chosen for this highlight the success in those trials while the hunting scene were fitting for a rifles displayed in London given the British Empire's reach into Africa and the Indian sub-continent where Winchesters would prove to be fitting hunting rifles.
Exceptionally fine. The engraving remains crisp throughout. The barrel and magazine tube retain 85% plus of the original dark blue finish. The loading gate, sights, and many of the screws and other small parts also retain the vast majority of their original blue finish. The hammer retains nearly all of the vibrant original case colors, while the lever has mostly gray and brown patina. There is 75% plus original gold plating remaining on the frame and forend cap, otherwise attractively aged patina on the balance of brass. Wear is very limited throughout and is mostly from age and light handling. The wood is very fine and has attractive figure, several mild scratches and dings, some very tiny flakes at the edges of the wrist, and minor overall wear. Mechanically excellent. This rifle is an extreme rarity. Winchester's engraved by Gustave Young are nearly impossible to find, and new examples never before seen by collectors are even more so. This incredible rifle very well may be tucked away and never seen again in our lifetimes, so do not miss out on your opportunity to own this incredible work of art.