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October 30, 2015

Winchester 1866: A Smart Collector’s Choice

By Joel R Kolander

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If you’ve been collecting firearms for even a small amount of time, you know about the iconic Winchester 1866 rifle. A direct descendant of the developmentally significant Henry rifle, the Winchester 1866 was the first firearm produced under the Winchester name. While not seeing any measurable military use, they enjoyed a prolific use by citizens and pioneers headed West to conquer an untamed nation. Winchester followed up its success by releasing the Model 1873 and Model 1876 in subsequent years, which grew the brand manufacturer ever larger and offered the public a bevy of new calibers and special order options.

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. 

Next year is a notably special year for collectors of Winchester rifles. It marks the sesquicentennial of the beloved manufacturer and the attention that will be brought to these important rifles is likely to spur an increase in their desirability. Thankfully, Rock Island Auction Company has come into a healthy number of these classic rifles, which will be appearing in the 2015 December Premiere Firearms Auction. In fact, there are 32(!) Winchester 1866 rifles in numerous configurations that will be available. There are exceptional presentation pieces, tried and true saddle ring carbines, early production models, and everything in-between. Here is a look at a handful of these rifles, hopefully with at least one example for every budget.

Lot 3050: Historic, Deluxe, Factory Engraved Presentation Winchester Model 1866 Lever Action Rifle.

This rifle is tied with a saddle ring carbine for the highest estimate on a Winchester 1866. Manufactured around 1869, this is definitely a deluxe version: factory engraved, fancy walnut stock with the high polish “piano” finish, and is gold plated on the receiver, forearm cap, and crescent buttplate. As if the embellishments weren’t enough, all the visible serial numbers match and it is engraved with the name of the “Montgomery Guard,” part of the California State Militia. The Montgomery Guard was formed in 1859, served throughout the Civil War, was mustered out of service in 1866, before being reborn again in 1868 as Company A, 1st Infantry Battalion of the California National Guard. The combination of special features and historical significance is one that many collectors find irresistible. We look forward to seeing where this very special Winchester will call home.

Lot 1017: Exceptional Winchester Model 1866 Saddle Ring Carbine.

This is the saddle ring carbine tied with the above rifle for the top estimate among Winchester 1866 rifles. While the rifle hangs its hat on its decoration and military ties, this SRC (saddle ring carbine) finds its high estimate based on its sterling condition. Even after nearly 150 years, this gun is a near checklist of what collectors look for regarding condtion: high amounts of original blue finish, nice mustard-colored patina on the brass receiver, tight wood to metal fit, and screws that have not been mangled over time. Even the buttplate, a location many guns are rested upon and prone to finish loss, still shows attractive case hardening. We could go on about other original parts and its condition, but take our word for it, guns in this high of condition are only going to become more and more rare as time marches on.

Lot 43: Winchester Model 1866 Lever Action Musket

This is the only Winchester 1866 Musket that we have in the 2015 December Premiere Auction. Now, before I receive a bunch of comments correcting me about this being a musket, let me explain. True, this rifle is not a musket. It is not muzzle loaded nor does it use flintlock or percussion systems. “Musket” was one of the three types of Winchester 1866 rifles that were available for purchase. There are the standard length rifle, the carbine, and the musket. The carbine is obviously shorter than the rifle primarily for use while mounted on a horse, hence the “saddle ring carbine” name. The “musket” Winchester 1866 is a longer rifle with a longer forearm and necessary extra barrel band. Differences between the three are easy to spot when comparing the photos of this Winchester with those of the previous two examples. They were made primarily to appeal to military decision makers who were reluctant to leave their trusty muzzle loaders for new “repeater” technology.

A benefit to whomever wins this Winchester, besides potentially having a Winchester 1866 of each barrel length, is the price. It’s condition, listed as “fair” in our catalog, provides an excellent opportunity for someone to put a legendary rifle in their collection for a very attractive price. Further sweetening the deal? This particular Winchester 1866 musket was made in 1870, qualifying it as an antique.

Lot 1017: Rare First Year Production Winchester Model 1866 Saddle Ring Flat Side Carbine

Here’s another Winchester  1866 that advanced collectors are sure to have their eyes on. Being a 66, it already receives its fair share, but being a rare, first year production is a prized possession for any collection. One of the features that makes these early models so easy to spot is what is called the flat gate, resulting in what is known as a “flat side” carbine. They are also called flat sides because the receiver is flat where it meets the wood of the forearm. Receivers of later models flared out slightly before meeting the wood.

Looking at the loading gate in the previous three examples, one notices a certain contour added to the cover of the loading gate to ease loading the gun at the breech. Early models did not have that contour; instead, the gate was flat. Early models also often possess other early traits, many of which were carry overs from the Henry rifle that disappeared in the subsequent models of the Winchester 1866 (there are four models total). Besides the flat gate, this SRC also has the early traits of: Henry and King patent dates on the barrel, a two screw upper tang, and a Henry style rear receiver profile, known as the “Henry drop.” This term refers to the rounded downward curve of the top of the receiver as it proceeds to the wrist. As Henrys turned into Winchesters and subsequent Winchesters became more refined, that drop and the adjacent angular transition into the straight grip grew more streamlined and less defined.

Making this flat side even more desirable is the fact that it is all original. These guns were “working guns” that saw lots of hard use. To find one at all, let alone in this condition is an impressive feat and a fantastic addition to any collection.

Lot 1022: Attractive Panel Scene Engraved Winchester 1866 Carbine.

Gorgeous wood and some well executed panel scenes make this Winchester 1866 a 150-year old piece of eye candy. The gun was manufactured in 1871 and the custom engraving was performed in the mid-20th century. Even though the gun is not in its original form, its tastefully and professionally performed embellishments should earn this gun 5-figures at auction. The entire left side of the receiver has been transformed into a single, bordered panel scene of a horse-borne hunter culling a buffalo from a herd fleeing across the plains with towering pines, majestic mountains, and a swirling sky providing the backdrop. The right side of the receiver breaks down into several framed scenes or subjects, which is a far more common style to see on even the finest of engraved firearms. The scene to the rear of the loading gate is a frontiersman firing at a bear that is nearly upon him, which is bordered by Ulrich-style scroll work. A small oval forward of the loading gate features the framed head of a bison. The receiver and buttplate are also gold plated. While some post-factory work has taken place on the gun, the barrel, magazine, barrel bands, hammer, lever, and trigger all still bear the original blue and casehardened finish, making for a very attractive gun with tangible links to its original configuration.

Lot 6: Very Fine Winchester Model 1866 Saddle Ring Carbine with Factory Letter.

Another interesting SRC! Not only is it rated as “very fine” condition, but it likely has retained that condition despite being to South America and back. The underside of the stock behind the tang is stamped with a banner cartouches that contain the script letters “AOS” (shown above). Experts believe that this cartouche was a marking applied to some of the nearly 12,000 Winchester 1866 carbines in the 135,000-148,000 serial number range that were sold to a location in South America (possibly Argentina) in 1877. This marking is described and illustrated on page 65 of “THE WINCHESTER BOOK” by George Madis. It’s always good to see a Winchester 66 back home Stateside! Encyclopedic collectors of this model will find this an intriguing and most desirable piece.

Henry Rifles of Note

With he upcoming surge in Winchester 1866 lever actions on the horizon, some of that popularity is likely to spill over into the Henry rifles and other guns produced by new Haven Arms that gave rise to these celebrated lever guns. Fortunately, RIAC will also feature several outstanding Volcanics and Henry rifles, two of the latter come to us from the renowned Mac McCroskie Collection. Here are a few of them in brief.

Lot 1038: Exceptional New Haven Arms Henry Second Model Lever Action Rifle from the Legendary Mac McCroskie Collection.
Lot 25: Scarce Deluxe, First Model Factory Engraved New Haven Arms Co. Henry Lever Action Rifle.
Lot 3008: Fine Civil War Martially Inspected New Haven Arms Company Henry Lever Action Rifle From the Legendary Mac McCroskie Collection.
Lot 15: The Only Known Matching Pair of Consecutively Serial Numbered Volcanic Arms Lever Action Carbines with 16 1/2 Inch Barrel.

Much of the information presented in this article will be old hat for seasoned Winchester collectors, but for those more familiar with other genres, hopefully this shines a light into the variety, features, history, and embellishments that collectors of these guns seek out. Also, make no mistake, Winchester 1866 rifles are anything but commonplace. Don’t let the abundance of them in this auction fool you into thinking anything else. Take the opportunity to pick the ones you want for your own collection, before the rush on these quintessential lever guns is on.

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