Whenever possible, it's always a great idea to get your information straight from the source, and there's no better resource on antique Winchester rifles than specialist, LeRoy Merz. Merz represents one of many who've dedicated their professional careers to the firearm collection industry. Get to know the infamous firearms company that's still in business today and the notable weapons that have cemented their historic legacy from the words of the expert himself.
The Winchester Repeating Arms Company's Significance
Officially launched in 1866, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company was founded by Oliver Fisher Winchester who, after securing control of the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company in 1857, was able to fully invest in his capitalist vision of dominating the firearm market and creating economic prosperity for him and his family. The first official Winchester rifle was released that very year, titled the Model 1866 aka "Yellow Boy." This lever-action rifle marked an important moment in the company's future, as an investment in the lever-action rifle allowed the Winchester name to transcend its physical form and become a cultural icon with the release of its Model 1873 rifle aka the "Gun that Won the West."
The Collectors Market for Antique Winchester Rifles
Merz attests to the fact that "everyone from doctors, farmers, construction workers, musicians, college students, [and] the insurance salesman next door," can be an antique firearms collector. A lot of first-time collectors are drawn to the "romance of the Old West" as Merz calls it, but as they get into the collecting community, they realize just how many types of guns the company made over the course of its hundred plus year history, and this challenge is often an aspect that draws them back purchase after purchase.
Identifying Antique Winchester Rifles
Whenever you're assessing any antique for authenticity, you'll want to look for maker's marks, company logos, serial numbers, and other unquestionable identifiers to help validate your authenticity claim. According to Merz, "Winchester [rifles] almost always have a 'legend' on the barrel, which lists the address of the factory, New Haven CT, and other information. Also, the model and serial number are usually stamped into the metal somewhere."
Notable Winchester Rifles to Collect
Over the course of its history, Winchester has manufactured millions - if not billions - of firearms, meaning that there are a lot of weapons out there for you to collect. Merz's research reveals that before 1930 the company had "made over a million Model 1892s…a million Model 1894s… a million Model 1895s…and three-quarters of a million Model 1873s." Here are some of the most notable models that Winchester produced during the 19th and 20th centuries:
- Model 1866
- Model 1873
- Model 1876
- Model 1885
- Model 1892
- Model 1894
- Model 1895
- Winchester 22
Antique Winchester Rifles' Value
As with many mechanical antiques, not only is the item's condition significant in determining its value, but also the percentage of original parts is as well. According to Merz, "the gun should ideally retain all the parts and finish that were originally on it when it left the factory," since "any later alterations from the original configuration, or wear to the finish, impact the value negatively."
Collecting these antiques is "similar to ordering a car today," Merz says. "You could get the basic model, but many special-order options were available, which increase the resale value." He admits that it's the same when it comes to the gun's condition; "Old guns with the original blue finish are worth much more than ones where the finish has worn away."
Costs Associated With Collecting Antique Winchesters
There's definitely a reputation that the firearms industry is incredibly expensive, but Merz assures that "no matter what their budget is, people can start collecting at any level" and that no matter if you're looking for something that costs a few hundred dollars to a hundred thousand dollars, "there really is something for everyone."
Browsing through LeRoy Merz's company's website attests to the fact that there's an entry point for collectors of all socioeconomic backgrounds. Take this Winchester Model 60, a 22 caliber rifle that's listed for only $475, and compare it to this limited edition Winchester 1873 rifle that sold for around $250,000. Essentially, you shouldn't let your budget be a deterrent from beginning a collection, but you should also recognize what types of antiques you can afford based on that budget.
It's Important to Contextualize These Firearms' Legacy
While holding a fully functioning antique firearm is absolutely thrilling, it's important to recognize the part that these weapons played in the attempted genocide and immoral assimilation of the Native population in the North American continent. Although it's tempting to get lost in the mythos surrounding the 'Wild West,' you shouldn't forget that many of these antique weapons (particularly those made during the 1870s and 1880s) could have been used to commit violent atrocities against the Native populace. In short, it's important to remember that collecting history isn't synonymous with commemorating it.
Antique Winchester Rifles Have Endless Appeal
There's something beautiful in the delicate way that antique firearms were designed; these dual-functioning status symbols and protective tools are just as beloved today as they were a hundred years ago, and experts like LeRoy Merz continue to keep the tradition alive through their research and the support their provide to finding collectors the models they've always been looking for.