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Winchester lever actions are often thought of as a working man’s rifle and are most frequently seen in their standard configurations from model to model and from carbine to rifle. There were, however, many Winchester buyers who wanted something a little more special. Whether it was an alternative sight, certain finishes, or perhaps the addition of some engravings, many different options were offered by Winchester for those who were willing to pay extra. The large number of special order options led to an extremely wide variety of configurations, many of which are immensely collectible to this day.
The desirability of special order and deluxe Winchesters led to many such modifications being done after leaving the factory. Sometimes these modifications were made because owners wanted to include additional features, to save money by having the modifications done by their local gunsmith, or simply wanted to replace worn out or broken parts themselves. Today, the value of these special guns is on the rise, but modifications and features mentioned earlier can often be dismissed as counterfeit factory originals.
This special order Winchester Deluxe Model 1876 lever action rifle was accompanied by a factory letter listing it as being 50-90 Express caliber with an octogon barrel and casehardened finish. It realized $88,125, more than $20,000 more than its estimated high value.
Due to this, extreme caution is advised, especially for beginning collectors. The best way to confirm a factory original special order or deluxe is to acquire a factory letter from Winchester. Unfortunately, this is not possible with every gun, so here are some tips and tricks that the specialists at Rock Island Auction Company use to identify if a gun has factory original special order features or is a factory deluxe gun.
The debate over the value of a “factory letter” is one that seems to pop up from time to time in gun forums. A Winchester factory letter can definitely add to the value of an antique gun for collectors who want to know the Winchester's heritage. How did it leave the factory and where did it go? The cost of a letter — ranging from $10 to $350 — is often seen as adding value to an already valuable gun.
Historic First Model Winchester Deluxe Model 1873 rifle inscribed to Major E.R. Hopkins in 1878 with a factory Letter and a George Madis letter of research.
At the very least, a factory letter or an authentication letter from a respected researcher can provide basic shipping information on where it went, when it left the factory, a basic description of the gun, and any special features like grips and finish. A factory-lettered firearm likely will have the document displayed with it at a gun show.
This article will be focusing on the “original six” Winchester lever actions, those being the Models 1873, 1876, 1886, 1892, 1894, and 1895. Some of the information provided here can also apply to other models of Winchester lever actions, including the Model 1866 (though they won’t be officially included as they don’t share as much in common as the six discussed). Hopefully, some of these tips will allow a beginner to be fairly confident in determining if a Winchester has special order features or is a deluxe. It is important to keep in mind that all of these features can be done outside of the factory, often near or even better than factory quality.
After acquiring a factory letter, the best way to identify a factory original special order or deluxe gun is to look for markings. On most of these “original six” lever actions, these markings can be found on the lower tang which can be accessed by removing one or two screws on the upper and possibly lower tangs. After doing this, the buttstock will slide off and the first markings will be visible on the left side of the lower tang. The most common of these will be an assembly number, sometimes followed by letters. This assembly number may also be found in the upper stock mortise of the buttstock that was just removed, on the butt plate, as well as possibly on the wood under the butt plate. If these two or three numbers match and look original, it increases the odds of the special features being original. Some examples of letter markings and their meanings can be found below. These letters will most commonly be found directly following the assembly number on the lower tang.
As mentioned before, markings, just like anything else, can be faked and will not necessarily be present on every gun that has these features original from the factory. However, if the markings look original and match up with the configuration of the gun, chances are it is factory original work.
Barrels are another common special order feature that are easy to spot on Winchester lever actions. However, they are also a part that is very commonly replaced or changed over time. Identifying a factory original barrel would take a whole other tutorial; so for the purposes of this article, assumptions will have to be made regarding authenticity. Most of the “original six” standard barrel shapes were either octagon or round. If looking at a half-octagon barrel, it is very likely that it was special ordered. These models also generally have standard barrel lengths for the rifle and carbine. In these models, the standard rifle length is usually either 24 or 26 inches, and for the carbine, generally 20 inches. Barrels longer or shorter than these lengths were very likely special ordered, although a few of the models were also made in, what is referred to as, a “trapper’s carbine,” which were found in barrel lengths shorter than the standard carbine and the “muskets” which generally have 30 or 32 inch barrels, but were not special order guns. Use the chart below to help identify standard barrel lengths in each of these Winchester lever actions.
For butt plates, first check that the wood to metal finish around the butt plate is flush. A poor fit is usually a dead giveaway that the butt plate has been changed since the gun left the factory. Again, for most of these models, the general rule is that carbines will have the gently curved “carbine butt plate” and rifles will have a “crescent butt plate." A butt plate other than these two options, that fits well, will likely be special order. This is also a feature that can be double-checked on some models using the markings in the table above, which have been found to be present on guns which have a special order butt plate.
Special order sights and set triggers are often one of the most difficult aspects to determine factory originality with. These parts were easy to swap out and were most often changed after the gun left the factory. Many of the special order sights offered on these models were made by popular sight companies of the time such as Lyman or Marble, and like set triggers, were very popular aftermarket additions at the time. This has led to large numbers of these guns fitted with sights or triggers that appear to be special order but were really fitted by a previous owner who just wanted to upgrade the gun. Thus, the best way to determine if a gun has special order sights or a set trigger is to acquire a factory letter.
The wood on these guns is also a potentially special ordered piece that is very often seen done during the guns service life, rather than at the factory. Often this was simply due to the original wood being damaged or worn out, or simply because a previous owner wanted to upgrade the wood on the gun to something a bit flashier. As with the butt plates, besides a factory letter, the best way to determine originality of special order wood is to assess the fit. This is certainly an acquired skill, so if uncertain, it is recommended that a specialist assess the gun, such as the ones working at Rock Island Auction Company. On the “original six” models the standard wood was usually smooth, straight grain, oil finished, and with a straight grip stock. Many of these models had a deluxe version available which, depending on who you ask, is or isn’t considered a special order. These deluxe guns are often most easily identifiable by their checkered wood with pistol grips. Some special order options were checkering or carving in multiple patterns, cheek pieces, pistol grips, or fancy grain. Some of these options can be double checked with the markings above such as the “XXX” marking for fancy grain, “CP” for cheek piece, or “CF” for a custom fit pistol grip stock.
When looking at most of these “original six” lever guns the standard finish will generally be blue. This differs for the Model 1866 as well as some models that had case colored receivers standard, such as the Model 1886 up until 1902. However, on many of these guns, other finishes such as gold, silver, or nickel were offered, as well as case hardening on those which didn’t come with it standard. As with many of the other features, due to the skill of some gunsmiths and restoration services, it can be difficult to determine the originality of finishes. Like with other features, the best way to confirm a factory original special order finish is to get a factory letter for the gun being assessed. If a letter isn’t an option, it is highly recommend to have it assessed by an expert, or multiple experts.
Factory original Winchester engraving can add immense value to a special order gun. For beginners, it can often be very difficult to identify whether the engraving on a lever action was done at the factory or not. For that reason, it is recommend to first compare the gun to the patterns of Winchester engraving outlined in R. L. Wilson’s “The Book of Winchester Engraving,” and having it assessed by a specialist like ones that work at Rock Island Auction Company. However, the best way to confirm if the engraving was done by one of Winchester’s factory engravers, like many of these other special order features, is to acquire a factory letter if possible. If interested, inquires regarding the assessment or consignment of a possible factory engraved Winchester lever action should be directed towards Rock Island Auction Company.
Hopefully, this information will be helpful in the future to identify special order or deluxe Winchester lever actions. If interested in consigning a Winchester, please contact Rock Island Auction Company at 1-800-238-8022 or through the consignment page. If interested in purchasing a special order or deluxe Winchester, take a look at the catalogs for upcoming Premier Auctions, as there is always a wide variety of configurations available, in almost any price range.
This special order Winchester Deluxe 1886 takedown lever action rifle comes with a number of special features, but the accompanying Winchester factory letter lists the trigger incorrectly. The rifle realized $152,750, well above its high estimated value of $65,000.
Cornell, J. M. (2016). Standard Catalog of Winchester Firearms. United States: Krause Publications.
Madis, G. (1981). The Winchester Handbook. United States: Art and Reference House.
Wilson, R. L. (1975). The Book of Winchester Engraving. United States: Beinfeld Pub..
Fjestad, S. P. (1992). Blue Book of Gun Values. United States: Blue Book Publications.
The Winchester Arms Collectors Association. (n.d.). The Winchester Arms Collectors Association. Retrieved May 29, 2020, from https://winchestercollector.org/
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