One of the most expensive rifles ever sold belonged to the cavalry officer who captured Geronimo.
In April, 2016, one of the rarest and most desirable Winchester rifles of all time landed on the block at Rock Island Auction. It was a Winchester Model 1886, serial number 1, and it belonged to Henry W. Lawton, a captain in the 4th Calvary. The rifle sold for an impressive $1,265,000.
Lawton and his men were credited with the September, 1886, capture of Geronimo and his group of Apache fighters after a 1,300-mile chase across Mexico and the Arizona Territory. Geronimo’s capture effectively marked the end of a 25-year battle between the United States government and Apache forces. Lawton received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service and the rifle was presented to him as a gift by Lieutenant George E. Albee, a fellow Medal of Honor winner who was a close friend of the Browning family. In addition to the rifle, the lot contained a gold pocket watch made by C. Howard & Company that was presented to Lawton by the Cattlemen of Central New Mexico after Geronimo’s capture.
Lawton was born in 1843, enlisted in the 9th Indiana Volunteer Infantry in 1861 and subsequently re-enlisted in the 30th Indiana Infantry. During the American Civil War he fought at the battles of Atlanta, Shiloh, Chickamauga and other conflicts before being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in August, 1864 for distinguished gallantry at the battle of Atlanta. In 1867, he was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the 41st Infantry and four years later he transferred to the 4th Calvary and fought against the Kiowa and Comanche before being named a Captain. In 1886, under orders from General Nelson A. Miles, Captain Lawton and Captain Gatewood led a force comprised of Calvary officers and Apache scouts into Mexico in pursuit of Apache leader Geronimo and his Chiricahua fighters. After trailing Geronimo for more than 1,300 miles across the desert landscape Lawton captured Geronimo and negotiated the Apache leader’s surrender. Lawton was later named a Major (1888), a Lieutenant-Colonel (1889) and finally a Colonel (1898). He fought in the Spanish American war, including service at the Battle of San Juan Hill, and in 1899 was promoted to Major-General and traveled to the Philippines to lead the 1st Division, VIII Corps soldiers. On December 19, 1899, he was killed at the Battle of San Mateo and was honored as a hero for his lengthy and distinguished service record. The town of Lawton, Oklahoma is named in his honor.
The rifle that Lieutenant George Albee presented to Lawton was a Winchester Model 1886 Sporting Rifle in .45-70 outfitted with a 26-inch full octagon barrel and a full-length magazine tube. The following is a description of the rifle from Rock Island’s records:
“The barrel has a standard sporting front sight with nickel silver blade and a folding leaf rear sight marked ‘1876’ at the top of the leaf. The barrel, magazine, bolt, and loading gate are blued and the forearm cap, receiver, hammer, trigger, lever and crescent buttplate are color casehardened. The stock and forearm are straight grain American walnut with a polished finish. The factory inscription ‘ALBEE TO LAWTON’ is located on the top barrel flat between the rear sight and the receiver. The serial number ‘1’ is stamped in script on the lower tang between the lever and the rear tang screw. The two-line legend (MANUFACTURED BY THE WINCHESTER REPEATING ARMS CO. NEW HAVEN. CONN. U.S.A.) is roll-stamped on the top of the barrel ahead of the rear sight. ‘45-70’ is stamped in script numerals on the top barrel flat between the inscription and the edge of the receiver. The upper receiver tang is roll-stamped MODEL 1886 between the tang screws. The 1884 and 1885 patent markings found on the lower tang of later production rifles are not present on this rifle.”
The Winchester’s condition at the time of sale was listed as Excellent. Rock Island listed the condition of the bluing on the barrel and the magazine tube as 95 percent, and the bluing on the bolt was near-perfect. The case colors on the receiver was listed at 90 percent, and the condition of the color case on the forearm cap, hammer, trigger, lever and crescent butt plate were listed at 95percent. Even the wood stock remained in superb condition, with “a few scattered and relatively minor handling marks.” Estimated sale price was $500,000 to $750,000 at the time of sale, so the Lawton Winchester sold for well above its expected value.
Lawton’s lengthy military career is quite impressive, and he stands as one of the preeminent American soldiers of the nineteenth century. His military career spanned nearly forty years, and he fought in some of the most important engagements in our nation’s history. It’s unlikely that anyone will ever match his record of service, so it’s no surprise that his personal rifle brought such a high price. We’re not likely to see a weapon of this quality and historical significance for sale any time soon. –Brad Fitzpatrick
For more information about Rock Island Auctions visit their website at www.rockislandauction.com
Photo courtesy Rock Island Auction