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August 12, 2016

The Silver Winchester of Ira Paine: “Master Shooter of the World”

By Joel R Kolander

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Lot 3014: Documented Extremely Rare Exhibition Panel Scene Factory Engraved German Silver Frame Winchester Model 1866 Lever Action Rifle with Factory Letter Connected to Exhibition Shooter Chevalier Ira Paine

The Man

Not many people today know the name of Ira A. Paine. No further proof of that fact is needed in this information age than when the man doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia page. Now that’s obscure! He has no biography, official or otherwise, and few readily available materials exist on the man outside of a handful of early 20th century articles of his contest results and his eventual obituary. Even information as basic as the man’s middle name is disputed (Anson? Albert? Abner?). Unsung as Ira Paine is today, he was far from some nobody off the street. In his day, he was nicknamed, “The Master Shooter of the World” and “King of the Pistol.” His feats with rifle, shotgun, or pistol  were legendary and seldom has such proficiency existed then or since. He was showered with awards and heralded by heads of state and royalty the world around. Truly a forgotten master of the shooting arts, Mr. Paine has largely gone the way as his hobby and descended into obscurity.

Ira Paine

In the limited materials available on Paine, it is never specifically mentioned that he was born into
wealth, however, this is no doubt the case. On February 11, 1837 he was born in Hebronville, Massachusetts to Ira Sr. and Elizabeth Paine. Hebronville was a mill village in southwestern, Attleboro, very near the larger towns of Pawtucket and Providence, both located in nearby Rhode Island. This has often resulted in some confusion as to the man’s true birthplace. Little is mentioned of Paine’s young life other than he became an accomplished plumber and gas fitter, specifically mentioned in his obituary as “one of the finest in the state.” Granted, this does not initially sound like a blue blood upbringing, but soon his interested ventured into solo voice and young Ira became a highly educated professional vocalist with an outstanding tenor sound. His professional performances with a vocal quartet are documented and brought him further acclaim. It is claimed in several sources that Paine performed in minstrel shows, but this author has not seen any evidence to either confirm or deny.

His education already varied from plumbing to vocal technique, yet Paine was satisfied by neither. He took a strong interest in the outdoors, which branched into firearms. He would retreat to the woods and practice shooting voraciously when not at work, resulting in his rapid ascension at a local yacht club’s pigeon shoots. At the time, target shooting was considered a refined sport for gentlemen and ladies.  Most universities fielded shooting teams and the popularity of the sport was immense. Such popularity has not escaped the eye of history; noted Smith & Wesson Historian Roy Jinks once wrote, “The rivalry between the Harvard and Yale pistol teams was as great as it was in football.”

Young Paine quickly became a top member and the club would pit him against the top shots of other clubs, earning both the yacht club and Paine many accolades. Not just satisfied with his proficiency with the shotgun, he quickly also became a crack shot with the rifle as well as the pistol. Paine took a particular delight in his expertise with a pistol, because while numerous sharp shots existed with a rifle or shotgun, very few showed mastery over the pistol. Ambidextrous with any firearm, Paine was performing shots that witnesses had previously thought impossible and this was to be a common theme throughout his illustrious career. Around this time Paine married his wife who would play a large role in his early shows. Not documented until now, vital records from Massachusetts show that Paine was married to Margaret E. McLaughlin on August 21, 1856 in the city of Worcester. The very next year, they had their first child, a daughter named Marietta F. Paine.

It was at this time of incredible local success that Paine decided forgo his career in the arts to take his guns on the road to become a professional exhibition and competition shooter. The transition from competitive shooter to exhibition shooter may be lost to time, but it is easy to assume that Paine went on to experience further success at larger, regional contests to further build his fame and draw. A 1917 copy of the Nation Rifle Associations “Arms and the Man” magazine states the following of Paine’s first tour.

“During his first tours of this country he used a Stevens pistol exclusively. Some of his favorite shots at that time included breaking a small glass ball at 12 yards; shooting glass balls the size of a walnut from the top of a helmet worn by his wife while she walked about the stage; smashing swinging balls; shooting the “spots” from playing cards held by his wife, and then splitting the card, when held edgewise by a single accurate line shot.”

These dangerous and outstanding exhibitions of skill with his Stevens Lord Model pistol earned Paine his well-deserved fame and he was soon holding performances in every major city across the country. This new career began in 1860, but it is not documented how the 23-year old Paine avoided service in the Civil War.

In this early stage in his career, the .22 caliber sized holes in his targets from his Stevens pistol were often too small for the audience to clearly see. Even though using a smaller caliber was more difficult, he switched to a larger cartridge. He first used a dueling pistol made by fine Parisian gunsmith Gastinne Renette, but apparently found it unsatisfactory. Historian Roy Jinks states that Paine worked tirelessly with the manufacturer to determine the most accurate revolver. Reportedly after the two had fired thousands of rounds and carefully documenting their results, they came to the conclusion that the Smith & Wesson New Model No. 3 would be Paine’s new tool of his trade. Renette and Paine shared a mutual respect and would remain friends.

By 1866 he had traveled to Europe to take on the top shots of the British military in head-to-head competition. He bested their Captain Patten and Captain Skelly and now the fame of the one-time plumber spanned nations. He would spend the next several years in Europe performing and showing his skills before kings, queens, czars, military men, and other sharp shots. Paine remained in Europe for over six years performing in every capitol city and royal palace, astounding his audiences along the way.

From available sources one infers that Paine then returned to the states to give his homeland another taste of the shows his European audiences had so enjoyed. His obituary states that the same year of his return, 1872, that Paine “became champion pistol shot of the United States.” Throughout the 1870s he enjoyed a good many challenges and rivalries, most notably against Captain Adam Bogartus, an expert with the shotgun. The exploits of the two and their competitions defines a level of expertise that defies comprehension. Bogartus won the majority of the matches, but even those were seldom by more than 2 birds. The high publicity matches between the two, dating back to 1871, were also an excellent chance to develop some of the new inventions of recreational shooting such as the glass ball, the trap, and the clay pigeon. Both Cpt. Bogardus and Paine made contributions to the trap device and ball, but neither can claim either invention, despite claims in both camps to the contrary. Paine took to the glass balls early, as did audiences, and he would often fill them with feathers that would erupt in a spectacular burst that thrilled the crowds that still liked to “see the feathers fly” from when live birds were used in the shooting exhibitions.

However, it is also in the 1870s that Paine’s life takes some unexpected personal turns. After hiatus from census records for some time, he pops up on the 1870 Federal census with his wife Margaret and their daughter Marietta F. Paine, as living in Rhode Island and with Ira’s occupation listed as “gas fitter.” On August 12, 1872, Marietta married one Mr. Albert Henry Wakefield in Johnston, RI where the marriage certificate lists her age as a tender 15. Mr. Wakefield was 23. A quick scan for marriage licenses reveals that the Ira Paine married Annie Ratlidge Parker Collins, a 29-year old widow from Massachusetts. The two were married on January 20, 1875, in Brooklyn. Unfortunately there was not adequate time before this article published for a proper investigation for the result of Mr. Paine’s first marriage to Margaret. It may have ended in her death, a divorce, or may have even been supplanted by the beginning of a second family during Paine’s many travels. No death record exists for Margaret in Massachusetts, so she may have died in nearby Rhode Island, or the two could’ve simply divorced. To muddy the waters even further, Paine’s obituary also mentions a marriage to “Miss Anna Marchant while abroad,” around 1883. No further information could be located on this potential third marriage (or confusion of his second marriage) at this time.

Unclear personal life aside, Ira Paine left the United States again in 1881, and set out again once more to thrill the crowds of Europe. He again made appearances in nearly every major city “such as Brussels, Paris, Berlin, Bordeaux, Madrid, Barcelona, Lisbon, Hanover, Breslau, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Warsaw,” and many English cities. However, it was General Von Kameke, the German Minister of War, who on March 12, 1882, “in the presence of the Royal Family and 4,000 troops, pronounced him ‘the most wonderful shot the world has ever seen.'” On December 8 of that same year, “he was knighted and decorated by the King of Portugal at Lisbon in the presence of the American Minister,” – a reward for Paine’s fine exhibition for the King who joined Paine in some shooting after the show. It was during this same performance that the King of Portugal made Ira a chevalier of an ancient military order. When researching Paine it is impossible to not find him referred to as Chevalier Ira Paine.

He would shoot at the most prominent European armorers and manufacturers of the day. He defended his honor in Paris after accusations flew that his wife was little more than a magician’s assistant, and aiding Paine’s “shots” via trickery or slight of hand. He bested famed duelist Henri Cartier at the Gastinne Renette gallery, and demolished Josef Schulof in Vienna. It is documented that when leaving Vienna, Paine, “was fairly loaded with souvenirs” and that “the five judges of the great pistol match… presented him with a magnificent gold medal, inscribed, ‘The Master Shot of the World; from Vienna Friends.'” After four years abroad, Chevalier Paine again returned home to the United States and began plying his exhibition shooting act in a traveling circus known as “Frank A. Robbins’ New Shows, Museum, 2-Ring Circus, and Monster Menagerie.”

The general manager of this circus was one Mr. William L. Loper. According to Mr. Loper’s descendants, one summer around 1888, “Robbins and his girlfriend absconded with the season’s receipts and fled to Canada,” leaving Loper to “pay off the performers and help get what was left of the circus to Frenchtown, New Jersey, where the circus wintered.” Robbins would go on to form other circuses and carnivals until his untimely death in 1920 after falling through a skylight and plunging 20 feet to his doom.

William Loper on the other hand would become a fast friend of Paine. It could’ve been the two were natural colleagues or perhaps Paine was showing his appreciation to Loper for holding the circus together after Robbins’ ill-advised departure, but whatever the case, Paine gave this Winchester to Loper at that time and it has remained in the family ever since – approximately 128 years. Loper passed this incredible rifle on to his daughter, who in turn bequeathed it to her grandson. This rifle has never been seen or offered to the public in that time.

Chevalier Ira Paine passed away suddenly the very next year, in 1889 while in Paris, France. It is thought to have been heart trouble attributed to his stout figure and obesity, though a conclusive cause of death is not documented for history

The Gun

This incredible Winchester likely began its life in 1870 based on its 36200, hand engraved serial number. The notes of its factory record state that it is a:

“Special gun transferred from back bookReceived in warehouse on (no date recorded)Shipped from warehouse on May 6, 1878“This may indicate that this gun was held and maintained at the factory and was likely used as an exhibition piece. One look at the rifle clearly shows that this is a distinct possibility. Upon first glance, the gun may appear to have a silver plating. However, after careful inspection, Rock Island Auction Company is astounded to reveal that this 1866 rifle possesses a solid German silver frame, one of two known. Engraving is attributed to Conrad Ulrich and is some of his finest work. Not coincidentally, it could be considered a companion piece to Winchester 1866 serial number 26283, attributed to Gustave Young R. L. Wilson. SN 26283 is generally considered a Young masterpiece and one of the finest Winchesters ever created. Both unsigned rifles indicate extremely similar styles in their scroll similarities, the light hand used in each, and the unique depth of field utilized in the panel scenes. Both rifles are also marked by a distinct rear sight.

A comparison between the Ira Paine rifle and Winchester SN 26283. Top photo taken from R.L. Wilson’s book “Winchester Engraving”

Floral scrollwork covers nearly every surface of the silver frame, creeping up the barrel and forend before reappearing at the muzzle in abundance. In fact, barrels featuring this level of work are frequently seen on the vaunted “1 of 1,000” rifles. While solid German silver comprises the frame, cartridge elevator, and forend cap, other parts are plated in nickel such as the barrel and lever. The loading gate remains a vivid nitre blue and the hammer still displays hues of its case hardening.

But enough of what can be shown to you in photos. What makes this gun so incredible? Why is it so benchmark breaking? Besides the aforementioned solid German silver frame, a barrel that would not look out of place on a 1 of 1,000, and some of Conrad Ulrich’s finest work?

1. This is one of 24 Winchester 1866 rifles that letters.

2. Factory letter also states this gun has “3x checkering”on its “varnish finish” and highly figured walnut stock.

3. Not listed on the factory letter is the shotgun buttstock, another highly desirable, special order feature.

4. After Paine gave this rife to William P. Loper (circa 1888), it remained in that family ever since. That’s 128 years! It has not been photographed or offered to the public in over a century!

5. Did we mention that Chevalier Ira A. Paine is actually photographed with this wondrous Winchester? With the abundance of silver, nickel, and the presence of a shotgun butt, the rifle offered by Rock Island Auction Company is unquestionably that seen in the below photo.

The Mystery

There are also some curious markings on this Winchester. The collector fortunate enough to take this masterpiece home will have some interesting detective work ahead of them.

1. Working Hours?

When disassembling the firearm to verify its solid German silver frame, Rock Island Auction Company came across some utterly fascinating markings located on the side of the tang. Not visible when the gun is fully assembled, they indicate a daily occurrence in the month of July. Is this is a list kept by Conrad Ulrich himself of the time spent on this gun? It is unknown at this time, but that certainly seems a reasonable speculation. If that is the case, it is also interesting to note how Ulrich worked so diligently for so long, but then began taking breaks from this work before finishing it toward the end of that same month (the last scratching indicates July 27).

2. Roman Numerals?

Under the forestock is another curious marking: what appears to be the Roman numeral 14. Were this marking done in an area that disassembly was not required to access, one could safely assume it would have been “added” after it left the factory. After all, why would Winchester visibly mark one of their prized exhibition rifles in such a way? However, since this resides in a “hidden” area of the rifle, this author feels it safe to assume that the marking was placed their during its creation or time in the factory. Also, given some of the other markings in hidden areas, this could be yet another marking by Conrad Ulrich. Debating its meaning is another matter entirely.

3. C 20?

Opposite the Roman numerals, on the corresponding barrel flat, under the forestock, appears “C 20.”  Is this another factory designation? Another message from Ulrich? All the other markings on the gun, including the serial number and address, are hand engraved, yet these are clearly stamped, especially when one sees the faint “0” behind the clearly stamped one. But were these stamped over Ulrich’s original markings? Looking closely at the “2” we can see a more “ghosted” two behind it. Is this another missed strike of a stamping or an attempt to clarify Ulrich’s writing, which in #1 was shown to have been quite informal at times?

This is truly an exceptional rifle, owned by a man nearly lost to history, that sets a benchmark all its own when it comes to rare, fresh, and absolutely incredible high end Winchester rifles. It’s unclear what determines whether a famous shooter will be remembered. Why do we know names like Annie Oakley, the Famous Topperweins, Bob Munden, Jelly Bryce, or Herb Parsons and not sharp shots such as Paine or several of his contemporaries also mentioned in this article? The floor is open for theories and suggestions, but one thing remains certain: this ground breaking Winchester, finally revealed to the collecting public, will not be forgotten anytime soon.


Himmelwright, Abraham Lincoln Artman. Pistol and Revolver Shooting. New York: Macmillan, 1915. Print.

“Ira Paine Dead.” Evening Bulletin [Providence] 1889: n. pag. Print.

Jinks, Roy G., and Sandra C. Krein. Smith & Wesson: 1852-1965. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Pub., 2006. Print.

“Thirty Years Ago With the Hand-Gun, Part 2 – The Story of Ira Paine.” Arms and the Man 16 June 1917: 225-26. Print. Vol. LXII, No. 12.

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