A Model 1886 Winchester rifle presented to the man who captured Apache leader Geronimo 130 years ago this August is now the most expensive single firearm ever sold at auction, after hammering down for $1.1 million at Rock Island Auction Company’s spring sale that concluded May 1.
Other guns have sold higher as a pair, but no other single firearm surpasses this auction record. The previous record holder was an 1849 Colt pocket revolver, serial no. 63306, that hammered for $950,000 at Sotheby’s New York in 2012.
Starting from their Arizona Territory headquarters at Fort Huachuca, Capt. Henry W. Lawton and his troops ferociously tracked Geronimo and his warriors through a desolate landscape for months before succeeding in convincing the Apache leader to surrender, for the final time, in 1886. Geronimo’s capture marked the end of the Apache Wars, even though troops would still face problems with Apaches, particularly the Apache Kid’s outbreak in 1889. But the Apaches’ overall 200-year reign of terror, starting with their attacks on Spanish missions in the late 1600s, was given a death blow with Geronimo’s capture.
The journey to the official surrender meeting with Gen. Nelson Miles was precarious. The Apaches remained armed, to protect themselves against Mexican enemies. At any point, the warriors could have changed their minds and escaped into the nearly inaccessible Sierra Madre Mountains. But they all pressed on, captors and captured, before ultimately meeting with Gen. Miles on September 4. Four days later, Geronimo and his people were on a train to Florida.
A Civil War comrade and friend of Lawton’s, Lt. George E. Albee, worked for Winchester Repeating Arms and, upon hearing the news of Lawton’s capture, presented his friend with a Model 1886, serial number one. The only marking of this historic exchange between two military buddies is a small inscription behind the rear sight on top of the octagon barrel that reads: “Albee to Lawton.”
The rifle was sold at auction with a pocket watch presented to Lawton at a banquet in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on September 27, 1886. Made by E. Howard & Co. in Boston, the watch was engraved with a message from the “Cattlemen of Central New Mexico” expressing their gratitude for Lawton’s “gallant service in the capture of the Apache Indian Chief—Geronimo—and his band.” Every link of the watch chain is inscribed with the names of the men who had accompanied Lawton on his chase to capture Geronimo.
“It is an honor to be entrusted with an American treasure,” says Kevin Hogan, Rock Island Auction president, about the record-breaking rifle. “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.”
The historic rifle is showcased here, along with other notable Western Americana lots that sold in May.