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November 24, 2020

Walter Winans and the Guns of an Olympian

By Mike Burns

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The postponement of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan until next year was a huge disappointment for many people around the world. However, there is still much to be excited about before opening ceremonies begin on July 23–such as the introduction of five new sports to the Games. That’s right, surfing, sports climbing, skateboarding, baseball/softball, and even karate will all be events held during the 2021 Olympic Games.

The logo of the Olympic Games.

While certainly unique, this is not the first time that games have been added to the Olympic venue and they are quite far from the strangest. In fact, the Olympic Games used to feature a wide array of events extending far beyond physical competition that included contests of craftsmanship. From 1912 to 1948 the Olympic Games held events in categories including architecture, music, literature, painting, and sculpting.

It is this interesting departure into the unusual and fascinating history of the Olympic Games that serves as the primary segue into today’s topic: the American horse breeder, writer, and two-time Gold medalist, Walter W. Winans.

Walter Winans

Winans, an accomplished man in many regards, is the only person to win an Olympic gold medal in a sport as well as in an art. Winans won twelve straight British revolver championships and was an avid hunter who amassed a jaw dropping collection consisting of thousands of stunning big game animals. Along with excelling in hunting and sport, Winans also wrote ten books throughout his life, professionally raised and raced horses, and was a skilled sculptor and painter.

This December, Rock Island Auction Company is honored to host a rare and beautiful assortment of revolvers owned by the two-time Olympic medalist. While Walter Winans’ guns might be patiently awaiting bids in the RIAC warehouse, their story really begins thousands of years ago in ancient Greece.

Ancient Olympic Games

Were the ancient Olympic Games anything like the ones today? Yes, while more violent, these ancient games share many similarities with the ones held in the current era.

The Olympics Games, much like today, were a series of athletic contests held every four years that witnessed the very best athletes of the known world. Like the modern Olympics, these games opened with a ceremonial fire, were held in various locations, and even included many of the modern events still held today such as running and shot put.

Artist depiction of the ancient Olympic Games in Greece.

Also much like today, athletes were celebrated and admired in society. Notable Olympic victors included Leonidas of Rhodes (viewed by some as the greatest sprinter of all time), Cynisca of Sparta (the first woman to be listed as an Olympic victor), and even several Roman Emperors including the infamous Emperor Nero who steered a ten-horse chariot in 67 A.D. after bribing organizers to let him compete.

Unlike today however, these contest were brutal and had seldom regard for the value of human life. These games were highly competitive and often violent resulting in injury or even death; these games weren’t just for honor and glory, but to pay honor to the god Zeus above all else.

Depiction of ancient chariot races.

The games were chaotic, consisting of little regulation or rule. Boxers fought without weight classes, time limits, or scoring, while high-speed chariot races resulted in gruesome collisions. All athletes were naked, punishments were swift and severe for cheaters, and–while judges were frequent–referees were practically nonexistent.

Despite their barbarity, the Olympic Games were insanely popular among the population with many scholars estimating the number of attendants ranging above 40,000 people per day at its peak. Lasting for more than 1,000 years, these games were highly valued throughout Greek culture and tradition and influenced much of modern western culture.

As the Greeks began losing power in the area due to increasing Roman influence, these ancient Games began to decline in importance and popularity. While many argue about the exact date, many historians accept 426 A.D. as the official end to the Games when Roman Emperor Theodosius II ordered the destruction of all Greek temples.

Modern Olympic Games

The ancient games might have ended millennia ago, however, their influence and impact on society lasted long after the days of Athens and Sparta. For centuries other cultures, groups, and organizations have attempted to recreate the spectacle that once captivated the ancients so tightly. “Olimpick Games” were held in England throughout the 15th century and a series of Olympic festivals were once held in France during the 18thcentury that famously introduced the use of the metric system into sport.

Image from the opening ceremonies during the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.

While all these past iterations may be interesting, it still leaves the question of when the first version of modern Olympics took place. A fitting tribute to the originators of the Games, the first Olympics under the oversight of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), were held in the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens in 1896 and consisted of 14 nations, 241 athletes, and 43 different events. Since then, the Olympics have once again captivated the world–growing in popularity over the past century to become a global phenomenon and a cultural peace zone that extends beyond culture, religion, and race.

A silver medal was awarded to the winner of each event. The current system of gold, silver, and bronze medals was not implemented until the 1906 Olympic Games.

Today, thousands of athletes from across the globe compete in a wide array of competitions that test the limits of human strength, resilience, and passion. Only a few rare moments in history have led to the cancelation or postponement of the Olympic Games including World War I, World War II, and, more recently in the summer of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sculpting, Music, and Shooting... in the Olympics?

As mentioned at the beginning of the article, many different sports, competitions, and events have circulated through the Olympic Games through its entire history. While some have stayed a reliable constant such as cycling, fencing, and gymnastics, the Olympic Games have seen some interesting competitions in the past that have gone out of favor such as the Tandem Bicycle Sprint (prevalent in the Games from 1906-1972), Tug of War, and even Live Pigeon Shooting during the 1900 games in Paris (the only Games where live animals were killed for sport).

Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games.

However, even more interesting are the competitions that were included in past Olympic events that stepped out of the realm of physical competition completely. Pierre de Coubertin–a French Baron and founder of the modern Olympic Games–had envisioned a global event that would educate both the body and the mind and, after the success of the first modern Olympiad in 1896, was determined to have artistic competitions included in future events. Combining sport and craftsmanship, works of art would center on the topic of athletics. Inspired by sports, these competitions were separated into five distinct categories: architecture, literature, music, sculpting, and painting.

Pentathlon of the Muses.

As time progressed, these categories, known as the Pentathlon of the Muses, were expanded upon even further including competitive categories in dance, film, and theatre. While these competitions might seem foreign or strange, they were taken very seriously at the time with noted composer Igor Stravinsky even residing as a judge during the 1924 music competition in Paris.

Alongside other athletes, many esteemed artists, musicians, writers, designers, engineers, and other prominent figures of society like nobles and royalty would even compete. Pierre de Coubertin even entered the 1912 Games under the pseudonym “Geoge Hohrod and Martin Eschbach,” for his literary work “Ode to Sport,” for which he won the gold medal.

Who Was Walter Winans?

Only one person has won Olympic gold medals in both the sports and art competitions, Walter W. Winans. Winans was an American marksman, horse breeder, and artist who lived during the late-18th and early-19th centuries.

Walter Winans racing a horse.

Born the son of an American construction worker who operated in St. Petersburg, Walter Winans spent his childhood growing up in the Russian Empire. At 18, Winans took up residence in England where he spent much of his life.

While technically a U.S. citizen, Winans never even set foot in the United States until he was 58 years old and spent much of his life in England. Questions raised later would require Winans to swear an oath of allegiance to the United States before being allowed to compete in the 1908 Olympic Games.

"An American Trotter," by Walter Winans.

Winans won the gold medal as a marksman in the running deer competition during the 1908 Summer Olympics in London, and a gold medal for his sculpture “An American Trotter,” at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. The competition was fierce during the 1912 Games as Winans beat out George Dubois, a French hurdler, Prince Paolo Trubetskoy, a personal friend famed Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, and even Rembrandt Bugatti (brother of THAT car manufacturer). As was stated earlier, these games were taken incredibly seriously.

A skilled painter and sculptor, Winans had samples of his work on exhibit at the British Royal Academy fourteen times throughout his life. His statuette entitled, "The Spanish Trot," was on view in the art exhibition in connection with the Paris horse show of 1910, his "Cowboy Mounting a Bucking Bronco" was awarded a medal at the Paris exposition of 1900, and Buffalo Bill's Wild West show supplied the model.

Beyond this incredible accomplishment, Winans also effectively demonstrated the sport of pistol dueling during the London 1908 Olympic Games. Prior to 1886, civilians were not considered competent enough by to handle revolvers nor compete in tournaments at Wimbledon with them. Winans changed this notion.

Dueling was already highly frowned upon in society, with many countries outlawing the practice completely. While the gentleman's sport of pistol dueling did already exist, it was very dangerous for both contestants and spectators. The worries that live ammunition would accidentally be used instead of the wax cartridge alternatives commonly used. Because of this, many people were cautious around the sport, but Winans decalred himself a "believer in the duel" as a necessary evil to keep people polite. "Duelling is to the individual," Winanas once claimed, "what war is to the nation."

An expert marksman who competed internationally in various other shooting events beyond the Olympic Games, Winans was considered one of the best marksmen of his time. For example, Winans won the revolver competition in England twelve consecutive times, the dueling pistol championship in Paris in 1900, and won two gold medals at the Vienna Exposition of 1910 for most representative group of big game shot by one man (a selection of only sixty animals were displayed out of the over 2,000 he shot in total).

Walter Winans in front of his award-winning display of big game animals.

“One of Mr. Winans’ ambitions is to bring down a deer of every known species. He has hunted them in Siberia, Manchuria and Japan, and has accounted for at least one of every species known in Europe. It is said that he has shot more stags than any man living… Another of his hobbies is boar shooting. He won the Kaiser's gold medal a few years ago at Friedrichruhe by killing the largest boar of the season.” –San Francisco Call

Besides hunting and artistry, Walter Winans was also an expert horse breeder and racer. While an American citizen, Winans’ activates and efforts to promote the sport of horse racing had a long lasting impact on the rest of Europe.

Walter Winans racing horses.

“Both he and his brother have done yeoman service in bringing the American horse into prominence, not only in England but in nearly every country of Europe where running and trotting races are in vogue.” –San Francisco Call

By cross breeding the American trotter horse that was known for its speed and the English hackney horse famous for its elegant and “flashy” stride, Winans was able introduce a horse that was faster and more visually appealing than any other available in Europe. His experiments with the breed were so successful in fact, that he won prizes for his work at English horse shows around the country.

Active in the racing community for his entire life, Winans died from a heart attack while competing in a horse race. At 68 years old, the two-time gold medalist still crossed the finish line before taking his last breath.

What Kinds of Guns Are Used by Olympians?

While shooting competitions have been present at nearly every single modern Olympic Games, many have fallen in and out of style throughout the decades. In 2021, there will be nearly 15 different Olympic events tethered to the sport of competitive shooting that include trap, skeet, target, and rapid fire competitions. Olympic shooting also extends into the Winter Olympic Games as well such as the biathlon that combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. As technology has advanced throughout the 20th century into the modern day, new equipment, regulations, and sports have entered and left the competitive fray.

Olympic logo for sports shooting.

But what types of pistols, rifles, and other firearms are used by Olympians? As one would expect, the answer depends on the competitive event, what is being shot, and how far away the shooter is from the target. For example, the modern pentathlon is a series of five competitive events consisting of fencing, swimming, horse riding, shooting, and finally a 3200 meter race. Prior to 2009, the shooting portion of the event involved a 4.5 mm (.177 cal) air pistol used by a shooter in the standing position about 10 meters away from a stationary target. More modern games have introduced lasers instead of actual projectiles preventing potential accidents and providing an extremely accurate measurement. The newly designed pistols even feature a slight delay between the trigger pull and the laser firing, mimicking the actual time it would require for a pellet to clear the muzzle.

Another pistol competition featured in the Olympic Games is the 25 meter rapid fire pistol event. Shot with .22 LR pistols, this event has been present in nearly every single modern Olympic Games since 1896 and has undergone various changes over its incredible long life-time. Today, the sport is limited to sport pistols, granting a more level playing field for all competitors. Interestingly enough, many gun manufacturers have focused on designing and producing new, regulation pistols, meant to conform to these new rules. For example, the Walter SSP is designed to optimize rapid fire action but also conforms to all the rules listed by the Olympic regulations.

Josip Glasnovic

Shooting competitions are not just limited to pistols and handheld firearms; as any enthusiasts can attest to, many of the most interesting competitions involve rifles, shotguns, and air rifles. One such competition is the trap shooting competition. The single-target Olympic trap event is another event tied very closely with the history of the modern Games dating all the way back to the second Olympiad in 1900. Trap shooting is typically shot with a 12 gauge shotgun that can be specialized to improve accuracy, recoil, and comfortability when operating. In 2016, Croatian shooter Josip Glasnovic won the gold in trap during the Summer Olympic Games in Rio. Glasnovic is an avid supporter of Beretta shotguns and uses a DT11 Trident Beretta at the range. Trap is considered to be one of the most difficult target shooting competitions in the field of sports shooting not only because of the distance the shooter remains from the targets, but also because of the speed at which the clay pigeons are traveling.

The Guns of Walter Winans

Besides all of his amazing accomplishments achieved over his incredible life, Walter Winans was a gun enthusiast above all else and amassed an impressive collection of beautiful and stunning rifles, shotguns, and pistols throughout his career. This December, a rare opportunity to own the guns of an Olympian has presented itself at Rock Island Auction Company’s exciting Premier Auction. On top of an already impressive guest list of celebrities and world leaders, this auction also hosts a gorgeous collection of pistols owned and used by two-time gold medalist, Walter Winans.

Lot 269: Famed Marksman and Olympian Walter Winans Shipped Pair of Exhibition Quality Engraved and Gold Inlaid Smith & Wesson New Model No. 3 Target Revolvers with Pearl Grips and Factory Letters

Lot 269 is a highly attractive pair of Smith &Wesson New Model No. 3 Target revolvers owned by Walter Winans. Featuring magnificent, exhibition quality floral motif engraving by master engraver, Eugene Young (son of Gustave Young), these target revolvers boast beautiful pearl grips that feature gold Smith & Wesson medallions. Impeccably adorned with European influenced leaf, branch, and flower motifs, the revolver is littered with beautiful gold inlays. Each revolver comes with a factory letter that states the revolvers were shipped together on April 29, 1903 and delivered to noted marksman and Olympian Walter Winans in London, England. Estimated at $45,000-70,000, these revolvers are beautiful, accurate, and historic.

Lot 270: Cased Documented Exhibition Gustave Young Factory Engraved and Gold Plated Smith & Wesson New Model No. 3 Target Revolver Displayed at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago Shipped to Famed Marksman and Olympian Walter Winans with Factory Letter

There is a saying at Rock Island Auction Company that gold is good and many Olympians would certainly agree. Gold inlays can transform a standard hunting rifle or shotgun into a work of art, gold medallions can add a taste of class and eloquence to a simple revolver, and gold plating can make a man feel like a king. Perhaps this is what Walter Winans had in mind when he purchased this outstanding S&W New Model No. 3 Target Revolver found in lot 270. Featuring highly sought after factory engravings from Master Engraver Gustave Young, this revolver falls into a very special serial number range of exhibition quality S&W New Model No. 3 revolvers displayed during the 1895 World’s Columbian Exposition where S&W displayed some of finest revolvers ever produced by the factory. Estimated at $17,000-$27,500, this illustrious gold revolver is not only a remarkable piece of history, but it is a gorgeous reminder of the beauty a firearm can exude.

Lot 275: Rare "Club Gun" of Famed Marksman and Olympian Walter Winans Smith & Wesson New Model No. 3 Target Single Action Revolver in .45 Caliber

Smith and Wesson guns with a zero prefix serial number, such as lot 275, are often referred to as "Club Guns" because many were shipped to clubs for shooting prizes, notable shooters, and S&W company personnel. S&W factory records show that this Smith & Wesson New Model No. 3 Target Single Action revolver in .45 caliber was shipped on November 6, 1899 to famed marksman Walter Winans. The New Model No. 3 was the first revolver offered by S&W with factory target sights. Generally encountered in .44 S&W Russian, .32-44 and .38-44, this example is now chambered for an unknown .45 caliber (definitely not .45 Colt); having been bored out from its original .455 chambering, widely used in the British Empire. Estimated at $2,000-$3,000, this remarkable piece of history and technological rarity can is available at Rock Island Auction Company.

The Legacy of Walter Winans

Truly a renaissance man, Winans made history because of his achievements at the 1908 and 1912 Olympic Games. This December, a rare collection of revolvers owned by Winans will be available during Rock Island Auction Company’s exciting Premier Auction, dubbed the “Sale of the Century.”

Rock Island Auction Company's next Premier Auction takes place December 4-6.

Featured alongside collections from the likes of Tom Selleck, Annie Oakley, Elvis Presley, and even Theodore Roosevelt (albeit not the first time), this massive auction is filled with incredible items from across history. Search online now to see the thousands of lots waiting for new collections. Place your bids now.

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