It has a fine walnut stock and a very simple inscription that reads “Albee to Lawton.” But this 19th-century rifle has become the most expensive single firearm ever sold at auction according to the Rock Island Auction Company, which recently sent the historic piece to a new destiny with an undisclosed buyer. The price: $1,265,000.
“Other guns have sold higher as a pair, but no other single firearm surpasses this new world record. It was an honor to be entrusted with an American treasure,” said Kevin Hogan, president of the Illinois-based company.
The rifle itself was a gift from one Congressional Medal of Honor awardee to another. U.S. Army Captain Henry Ware Lawton and Lieutenant George E. Albee had been brothers-in-arms during the Civil War. The former continued his military career and saw combat in the Indian Wars, the Spanish American War and the Philippine American War. The latter went to work as a designer for the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.
After Lawton led a grueling but successful expedition which resulted in the capture and surrender of Apache leader Geronimo is 1886, his old friend was inspired to find a suitable recognition for the deed. His choice? The “Winchester Model 1886 Sporting Rifle (serial number 1)” which he obtained by virtue of his standing in the company. The gun survived in excellent condition.
“Perhaps telling that the gift is between two military men, the gun is not bathed in precious metals or covered with elaborate engraving. On the contrary, the gun remains quite handsome in its original configuration, and in near mint condition. The case hardening is vivid and is still abundant,” the bidding notes explained.
One hundred thirty years later, the rifle went up for auction. The auction company showcased the gun in late April, along with a pocket watch and a collection of historic documents. They expected the items to bring about $500,000; they drew well over twice that.
“Being serial number one and possessing such outstanding condition would alone be enough to draw six figures at auction. When you add one of the most famous names in the history of the Old West you, have a huge crossover appeal and set the stage for something special to happen,” Mr. Hogan said.
Find a comprehensive history of Lawton, Albee and the events here. Find the official description of the rifle here and a six minute video here
The auctioneer’s judgement of the rifle’s condition is laudatory: “Excellent. The barrel and magazine retain 95 percent of the original blue finish. Nearly all of the original blue finish remains on the bolt. The receiver retains 90 percent of the vivid original case colors with wear limited to the bottom where the case colors have faded. The forearm cap, hammer, trigger, lever and crescent buttplate retain 95 percent of the original case colors. The wood is excellent with much of the original finish remaining and showing a few scattered and relatively minor handling marks.”
Meanwhile, the Rock Island Auction Company reports it enjoyed $51 million in sales last year.
“For decades firearms have provided an alternative form of investment and this is clear proof of that. With firearms sales spiking in the previous two presidential election years and the new world record price, the future appears extremely rosy for the gun collecting market,” Mr. Hogan observed.