December 17, 2020
By Joel R Kolander
Share this post:
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 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 here.
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.
Offered here is a fully documented work of firearm art by the renowned Master Engraver John Ulrich. After leaving home as a young man, the gun’s original owner went to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia where this relief engraved Winchester 1873 was on display, likely drawing his interest to the model.
J. Ulrich Exhibition Relief Engraved Winchester Model 1873, $718,750 (May 2021)
This transcendent Winchester is engraved by John Ulrich with gold inlay that was commissioned as a factory display piece for the 1876 Centennial Exposition and later presented by the company to the Honduran President Marco A. Soto. The piece is adorned with meticulously engraved wilderness scenes including buffalo hunting, elk hunting, a moose, a bear, a turkey, an elk, a squirrel in a tree, and a fox. This Model 1873 certainly fits well with Soto’s opulent tastes and was almost certainly given in thanks or persuasion for the contract between Honduras and Winchester.
The Winchester factory presented this spectacular piece of Wild West history to poet-scout John “Captain Jack” Wallace Crawford who in turn gifted it to close friend and cowboy poet James Barton Adams. It has a factory exhibition finish and rare presentation plaques and is in outstanding condition. It holds 99 percent of the nickel finish and 98 percent of the gold finish. The state of preservation of this Winchester allowed it to sell at twice its estimated price.
The Winchester was a deluxe factory display piece shown at the New York Exhibition of Industry and Science in 1898 and the Pan-American International Exposition in Buffalo in 1901. Crawford received it from Winchester in 1902. He gave it to Adams the following year after Adams lost his Denver house and collection of western memorabilia to a fire.
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 vibrant casehardening. Everything about it is flawless: from the delicately engraved wild game panel scenes to the elegant 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 improbable condition of the gun, to its well-documented past, this is one for the books. At the April Premier Auction of 2018, this wonderfully preserved specimen went for $747,500.
Rock Island Auction Company brought a Colt Single Action Army revolver to auction in May of 2022, but not just any Colt: a "Lot Five" Ainsworth inspected U.S. Cavalry Model attributed to the 7th Cavalry and documented as battlefield pick up after the Battle of Little Bighorn.
John A. Kopec, a premier Colt SAA expert, examined this extraordinary revolver and concluded, "We have truly enjoyed reviewing this very significant 'Custer-Era' revolver, and believe that it may be the finest representation of a 'Lot-Five' revolver we have ever had the privilege to examine."
The condition on this revolver is a high rarity for an unaltered Single Action Army Cavalry Model. Of the 12,500 Ainsworth-inspected Colt SAA revolvers, only 1,285 are known today, and the number associated with the Little Bighorn are fewer still.
Manufactured c. June 1874, this Colt SAA has not been found recorded in the National Archives. However, Kopec indicates the revolver "was one of the 'prime' lots from which those revolvers which had been issued to the Seventh Cavalry were drawn."
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.
This is a fine example of the rarest and probably most desirable variation of the Winchester Model 1873 rifle - the "One of One Hundred" rifle. This ultra-rare rifle would be a stand-out piece in the finest collection of Winchester rifles and is the very last Model 1873 "One of One Hundred" manufactured!
During the December Premier Auction in 2018, this rifle sold for an amazing $805,000 at Rock Island Auction Company.
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.
Paterson revolvers are exceptionally rare and highly sought after by collectors. It is no wonder this example sold at the May 2014 Premier Firearms Auction for $805,000 at Rock Island Auction Company.
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. It sold in May, 2014, for $805,000 at Rock Island Auction Company's Spring Premier Auction.
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.
This is an exceptional, totally original example of a documented Winchester One of One Thousand Model 1876 "Centennial Rifle" with Cody Firearms Museum letter. 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.
The immense artistry of engraver Louis D. Nimschke is fully on display in this silver-framed tour-de-force offering that also bears the historic weight of being presented by one South American head of state to another.
This may be the German-American engraver’s masterpiece if not the most extravagant Winchester ever created. It features six solid silver bands, solid silver mounts, cast solid silver frame, carrier block, butt-plate, end cap, and lever.
The gun was made as a presentation from the president of Peru, Jose Balta, to the president of Bolivia, Mariano Melgarejo. The silver involved in this piece is believed to have been supplied to Winchester from Peruvian silver mines. A spectacular rifle, and a firearm more than worthy of its auction price.
The Colt Walker has long been the single most essential and necessary piece for many, if not all, of the iconic, important and influential 19th Century fine American arms collections over the last century. The Colt Walker represents so much more than just the combination of wood and metal. Colt Walkers are a tangible piece of the American spirit at such a pivotal time in our illustrious history.
This E Company No. 120 U.S. Colt Model 1847 Walker revolver sold during the September 2019 Premier Auction for $1,035,000 making it the FOURTH gun sold over $1 million in a five auction span at Rock Island Auction Company.
They exhibit grit, vision, conquest, expansion and success. The literal embodiment of manifest destiny. They represent the birth of an empire, the awakening of American manufacturing might, the American West and the first American industrial tycoon: Col. Samuel Colt.
Simply put, Colt Walker E Company, 120 is the final military contract Colt Walker ever produced, but the story of this Walker is not so simple. It has a rich history in the place of Colt firearms, an immaculately documented provenance, and a condition that ranks it as one of the finest examples in the world. The revolver sold in September of 2019 for $1,035,000 making it the FOURTH gun sold over $1 million in a five auction span at Rock Island Auction Company.
Only two founders, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton served in the Continental Army with distinction. Thus, few firearms owned and used by founding fathers during the American Revolutionary War survive, and none are known, other than this pair, to remain in private hands. It's no surprise they earned a spot on this list.
Alexander Hamilton, who graces the $10 bill, was a Founding Father, revolutionary war patriot, and first United States Secretary of the Treasury. His story became a Broadway phenomenon and renewed interest in this key figure in the nascent history of the United States. Hamilton's pistols are in fine condition and fully functional.
Icons of the new republic and tools of the revolution likely used at the Battle of Yorktown, these impeccably documented pair of flintlock holster pistols have light scroll engraving and are inscribed “AH.” These sidearms were presented to Hamilton by General Philip Schuyler, his father-in-law, and rank high on the list of elite firearms sold by Rock Island Auction Company.
The finest known Winchester Model 1886. What else is there to say? When you want the best, you have to pay for the best. Not only in immaculate condition, this rifle also displays the absolute peak of 19th and 20th-century factory craftsmanship, never again to be duplicated. It bears a grocery list of popular features that collectors of old guns love, such as a takedown model and being chambered in .50 Express. It came courtesy of the well-known Mac McCroskie Collection, a grouping well-known for containing fine arms in only the highest condition.
The engraving, executed and signed by master engraver John Ulrich, features highly detailed, gold inlaid animal scenes that depict a crouching cougar and grazing deer on the right side of the receiver, a vignette of a grizzly bear and two hounds on the left side of the receiver and a moose head vignette on the underside. The animal scenes and vignette are surrounded by arabesque scrolls highlighted by gold and platinum borders.
During the September 2018 Premier Auction, this beautifully engraved rifle sold for $1,178,750.
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.
This historic Winchester Model 1886 rifle serial number 1 and pocket watch presented to Medal of Honor Recipient Captain Henry W. Lawton following the Surrender of Chiricahua Apache Leader Geronimo sold for $1,265,000 in May of 2016.
This combination of Winchester Model 1886 (serial number 1) presented to the officer credited with the surrender of Geronimo and the very high quality watch and chain presented to Capt. Lawton by New Mexico cattlemen is one of the most important and historic firearms groups ever offered by the Rock island Auction Company.
General Henry W. Lawton's career involved distinguished combat service in the Civil War, Indian Wars, Spanish American War and Philippine Insurrection. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for gallantry in action during the Civil War, ended the Apache Wars, and was killed in action leading troops in the Philippines. ANY firearm associated with Lawton would be a rare and historic piece. This first production Winchester Model 1886 rifle with factory presentation to Henry W. Lawton from a fellow soldier following the surrender of Geronimo combined with a presentation watch and chain for the same action is a one-of-kind group.
It was a humbling and exciting experience 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.
Ordered shortly before his 54th birthday, this revolver is not only extremely beautiful but carries serious historical significance with it. It was said that after an attempted assassination on his life failed only four days prior to ordering this gun, Roosevelt never left home unarmed again.
Unlike many of the other famous firearms owned by Roosevelt that have been institutionalized (such as his Holland & Holland Double Rifle "Big Stick" now on display at the Smithsonian), this Colt Single Action Army revolver is a recent discovery and is perhaps the most highly embellished firearm owned by the 26th President still in circulation. Its significance is further amplified by the impeccable documentation placing this specific revolver in the hands of Theodore Roosevelt late in his 1912 presidential campaign for the "Bull Moose" Party.
The revolver features beautiful engravings by Colt Master Engraver, Cuno Helfricht. Mainly consisting of classic scroll patterns backed by punch-dots, as well as some entwining lines, checkered patterns, and floral accents, it is incredibly difficult to spot even one small portion of the revolver that isn't magnificently covered. Chambered in .38 Long and featuring carved steer head grips, Colt seems to be boasting its ability to walk a tight rope between brute strength and refined beauty. While a Colt medallion immediately catches the eye, it is the contrast between silver and ivory tones on the gun that captivates the viewer's attention. Estimated at $350,000-$550,000, Theodore Roosevelt’s revolver blew past this evaluation and sold for a whopping $1,466,250.
The Millikin Dragoon is a virtual superstar, and is among those few elite antique firearms recognized by the collector fraternity with a nickname. In the words of noted Colt historian R.L. Wilson, is “one of the classics of Colt collecting.” The Millikin Dragoon is a type of revolver with an unprecedented level of historical pedigree, ownership pedigree, artistic merit and condition that collectors usually can only fantasize about owning. A one gun tour de force which transcends fine arms collecting in way that it has the ability to instantaneously reveals itself as fine art, a steel canvas by definition.
An extraordinary cased Colt Third Model Dragoon, the Millikin Dragoon is a perfect storm of immaculate condition, Gustave Young’s master engraving, remarkable Civil War history, and a provenance that is above reproach. Even before it crossed the auction podium, we could safely state that it was one of the finest pieces we had ever had the privilege to share with the world. Its incredible and justified price merely confirmed the fact.
In May, 2019, quite possibly the finest individual piece ever offered by Rock Island Auction Company was sold for a jaw-dropping $1,667,500.
The Colt Walkers have long been the single most essential and necessary piece for many–if not all–of the iconic, important, and influential arms collections of the last century. Their appeal is, of course, for good reason. They transcend percussion Colt collecting, American arms collecting, and military arms collecting.
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 astonishing Walker revolver sold for $1,840,000 in April of 2020, at the time making it the highest priced single firearm ever sold at auction.
Napoleon Bonaparte is an extraordinary historical figure and this exquisitely-crafted set of gold-encrusted weapons is worthy of someone who shaped modern Europe. A rising star of the French Revolution when the leaders of the Republic gifted it to him in 1797, Napoleon was lavished with this garniture that includes a rifled carbine, a pair of rifled carriage pistols, a pair of pocket pistols, and a “glaive” sword and scabbard. He would overthrow the Republic two years later, wearing the sword on his hip as he did.
The set is among the most significant set of arms from the French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars in private hands. The arms, covered with amazing engraving and embellished with Greco-Roman symbolism and other scenes, came from the renowned Versailles Manufactory led by Nicolas-Noel Boutet. Boutet remains one of the most renowned European arms makers in history.
Napoleon gave the set to Marshall Junot, Duke of Abrantes, with whom it remained till his death. The Duchess of Abrantes, with her extravagant lifestyle and denied a pension by Napoleon after his return from Elba, sold several scarce and precious items, including the garniture. The set was purchased by an officer serving under Napoleon. Following the Battle of Waterloo and the final defeat of Napoleon, the weapons set went on display in London in 1816 and set the clear provenance to Napoleon.
Before being displayed, the weapons were sent to Boutet, whose name is engraved on every article, to be cleaned, reconfirming him as the manufacturer. At the time of its sale it was the new top-selling item for Rock Island Auction Company and the second highest price for a fine arm ever sold at auction. It led the way in what was then the second largest gun auction to date!
Ulysses S. Grant's New Model Army Remington revolvers, presented to the Civil War general and eventual President of the United States, are an American treasure in the same lofty echelon as President Abraham Lincoln's engraved Henry Rifle or President George Washington's flintlock pistols. They were likely presented to Grant after he captured Vicksburg on the Fourth of July in 1863 and thus secured the length of the Mississippi River for the Union.
Grant's Remingtons, numbered 1 and 2, are arguably the most significant firearms discovered from the Civil War. The exquisite revolvers had remained hidden from the modern world until their 2018 unveiling at the Las Vegas Antique Arms Show. Currently, these firearms constitute the most elaborate and historically significant known set of revolvers manufactured during the Civil War
"Items owned by Grant are among the most desirable 19th century American artifacts, particularly artifacts presented to, owned by, or used by General Grant during the Civil War," said Kevin Hogan, President of Rock Island Auction Company. "They're significant works of American art, a powerful piece of American history, and completely fresh to market. It's an incredibly exciting time to be a fine arms collector."
This historic set is covered with the artistry of L. D. Nimschke, one of the most renowned master engravers of the 19th century, and features grips carved with Grant's portrait. When it comes to condition, rarity, and immense historical significance, Grant's Remington revolvers represent the highest level of the fine arms collecting pursuit, and found a price worthy of their lofty stature with the number one firearms auction house in the world, Rock Island Auction Company.
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. Six of these items were sold in 2021, demonstrating that the interest in firearm collecting continues to trend upward, and the future looks brighter than ever.
As always, if there are any questions regarding consignment, future auctions, or registration, please contact Rock Island Auction Company. Expectations will always be set higher, so make sure to check back here after every auction for updates to this list.
Congressman Alfred Ely helped recruit soldiers to the 13th New York Volunteers to fight in the Civil War. Concerned about their preparedness, heRead more
Please login to post a comment.