The world’s most expensive rifle–setting the record at auction for $1.265 million–is a lever-action Winchester, with a blued and case-hardened finish, engraved only with “Albee to Lawton.” It’s an unadorned Model 1886, serial number 1, given to Captain Henry Ware Lawton to celebrate his successful campaign against Geronimo, the fierce leader of the Chiricahua Apache tribe, a key event leading to the end of the brutal Apache Wars.
The rifle was auctioned as part of a lot of Lawton’s belongings including an engraved gold-plated C. Howard & Co. pocket watch and matching engraved gold chain, also in recognition of his work hunting down Geronimo. Lawton received prominent awards and medals during his career, including the Medal of Honor, rising to the rank of Major General before dying in battle during the Philippine–American War. Lawton’s part in the search for Geronimo still stands out to this day as a cornerstone of American history.
A plain and undecorated Model 1886, the Winchester is in very good condition for a rifle of its vintage, and it speaks well to Lawton’s character. He was solder’s soldier, never willing to issue an order he himself wouldn’t take, who knew well how critical his mission was: present the terms of Geronimo’s surrender and deliver Geronimo and his men to General Nelson A. Miles. Anything less than success could lead to escalation and possibly total war in the Arizona and New Mexico territories.
The rifle was a gift from Lawton’s friend Lieut. George E. Albee, a friend, veteran and fellow Medal of Honor recipient. Albee served with Lawton in the American-Indian Wars and later worked with Winchester Repeating Arms. His close connection to the company is credited with him acquiring the first ever production Model 1886, with a 26-inch octagonal barrel and full-length magazine. One of John Browning’s most famous designs, this rifle is chambered for .45-70 and is still in 90 to 95 percent original condition.
It’s no wonder this collection sold for as much as it did. It’s got everything: a fantastic rifle that by itself is a part of the history of the West, given to a beloved military legend, celebrating his part in a turning point in the American story. And it came with a gold watch. The set is well-documented, with scores of records preserving the provenance, and in typical Rock Island Auction fashion, includes amazing photos of each piece in perfect detail.
The story of the hunt for Geronimo is both interesting and important. To understand it Rock Island Auction put together a short series titled “The Prize for Capturing Geronimo” (part II can be read here) chronicling the long and bloody offensive to capture or kill Geronimo and his band.
What began as a no-holds-barred mission to bring back Geronimo dead or alive over time developed into a larger campaign that would determine the stability of the American West, Mexico, and the state of American-Indian relations for the foreseeable future. Lawton was given the difficult — some thought impossible — task of trying to drag a peaceful solution out of the increasingly-desperate conflict.
It would take months of non-stop pursuit, an army 5,000 strong, lead by 500 Apache and 100 Navajo scouts, with the support of thousands of militia volunteers and a network of signaling towers built across the Southwest to eventually exhaust and negotiate the surrender of Geronimo and his estimated three dozen or so remaining warriors.
Geronimo lived out the rest of his life as a prisoner of war. He died of pneumonia in 1909, in Ft. Still, Okla. at the age of 79.