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April 9, 2014

Evolution and Variations of the Winchester 1866

By Joel R Kolander

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Did our title grab your attention? It should have! One of the reasons we are so elated about our May 2014 Premiere Firearms Auction is the astounding number of Winchesters we have. But it’s not just the quantity, we have some of the most comprehensive collections of Winchesters that Rock Island Auction Company has ever seen – and when you sell 20,000 – 22,000 guns a year, that’s saying something! Out of this abundance of eye-popping Winchesters, today we’ll focus specifically on the extensive selection on Winchester 1866 lever actions in this sale.

Early Winchester rifles helped shape the country and tame the frontier. Their predecessors helped push firearm design and even served in the American Civil War. 

First off, let’s cover all four models of the quintessential Winchester 1866. We’ll start with this extremely rare, first model Winchester 1866 flatside carbine. Known as a “flatside” thanks to its flat loading gate and its lack of fore end flare or “lip,” these models were the first year production of the first Winchesters even if they did still bear the Henry patent. However, the patent wasn’t the only reminder they carried with them of their former namesake; they also have the telltale “Henry drop” at the rear of the receiver, an additional screw in the upper tang, and no exterior serial number.

Lot 1022: Extremely Rare First Model Winchester 1866 Flatside Carbine

The second model Winchester 1866 rifles are also easy to tell once you know the signs. These models have less of the “Henry drop” in front of the hammer, still bear the Henry patent, and in its early serial number range, the numbers are still placed on the inside of the gun. These guns are also no longer “flatsides” because the loading gate is scalloped and the front end of the receiver is flared to accommodate the fore end. Looking at this gun, it is hard to believe that it is over 100 years old! Look at the high condition of the brass and the beautiful wood.

Lot 3003: Outstanding Early Production Winchester Second Model 1866 Carbine with Henry Patent Barrel Address

Third Model Winchester 1866 rifles smooth out the “Henry drop” even more and are the first to have a serial number on its exterior. These models had those numbers behind the triggers (with few exceptions) and were the also the first to lose the Henry patent information. Instead they have the “King’s Improvement” lettering as can be seen in the picture below. This particular model was shipped in 1876 as indicated on the factory letter and is absolutely one of the finest Third Model Winchester 1866 saddle ring carbines we have ever offered for public sale.

Shown here with the “King’s Patent” lettering

The fourth and final stage in the evolution of the Winchester 1866 almost smooths the “Henry drop” out completely and moves the serial number to the rear of the tang, though there are variances to this serial number placement. The font of the serial number also changes from very block like to a more script-like appearance. These, of course, are only the most noticeable changes that took place in these iconic firearms. To list all the changes and to do so accurately, would take an entire book! Thankfully George Madis has provided just such a reference for the motivated collector. This particular fourth model Winchester 1866 is in such immaculate condition that the original polish marks from the Winchester factory steam powered belts still grace the brass receiver. Even light wear and tear can remove these marks, so their presence indicates a supremely high condition and remarkably well-preserved piece of firearms history.

Lot 1026: Stunning Winchester Model 1866 Saddle Ring Carbine
Just look at that case hardened hammer!

The evolution of the Winchester 1866 variations is only one facet of the exciting class of Winchester 1866 rifles present at this sale and the next gun is a clear indicator of that fact. Behold the ultra-rare, C.F. Ulrich engraved and signed, nickel plated Winchester model 1866 musket with its bayonet. Start with a Winchester 1866, which is a collectible in and of itself, now make sure it’s an extremely rare musket version, next make it even more rare with a special nickel finish, then make sure it’s downright scarce on account of its factory engraving, and complete this exercise in rarity by having those engravings be the work of Master Engraver C.F. Ulrich who happened to sign this remarkable firearm! Not to mention the matching bayonet. There’s not even a Ulrich rigned or engraved Winchester 1866 musket shown in R.L. Wilson’s The Book of Winchester Engraving nor in Madis’ authoritative work.

Note the C.F. Ulrich stamp to the right of the serial number

The previous gun is amazing in its own right, but the fact that the final gun came to be in the same sale is a near miracle. It is another amazing Winchester 1866, with nickel plating on its barrel bands, receiver, hammer, lever, and carbine buttplate. It too exhibits a full grade coverage of Germanic scrollwork on a punch dot background with scalloped borders. The gun even has the distinct honor of also being signed by this C.F. Ulrich, but the true “Wow factor,” as if those reasons weren’t enough, comes from this gun being consecutively serial numbered to the first! These guns did not come from the same collection nor even the same consignor. They both just happened to come to the world’s #1 firearm auction house for a sale that will have collectors clamoring.

Wondrously enough, this is not the only pair on consecutively number Winchester 1866 models in this auction! RIAC will be selling a pair of consecutively serial numbered Winchester 1866 muskets in near new condition! If you visited us at the Las Vegas Antique Arms show then you already know that these guns are as close as it gets to looking like the just left the factory floor. To have two of such superior quality, let alone two that are consecutively serial numbered, after the many years since their production, is almost unfathomable.

But consecutive serial numbers isn’t all our Winchester 1866 models have to offer. There will be special finishes, muskets, saddle ring carbines, sporting rifles, and signed Ulrich engraved pieces, and supremely high condition examples. If you love early Winchesters, you’ll be hard pressed to ever find more variety and better condition than at our May Premiere Firearms Auction.

Keep in mind, these are only a few selections of a single model from a sole manufacturer. Let this be an indicator of the quality and quantity of first-class collector and investment grade firearms that permeate this entire sale. To see more of what is appearing in this auction, please visit our online catalog. Thank you for taking some time to look at all these amazing items! We promise to post more in the days ahead.

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