February 15, 2022
By Jeff John
Let’s cut to the chase. The most collectible lever-action rifle is a Winchester. Which Winchester is where things get a bit fuzzy, but if growth in value is all you’re considering, then stick with 19th to mid 20th century Winchesters—with condition, condition, condition all that matters. Winchesters are very popular with collectors because many can be documented by original factory records, unlike so many other makers. Such provenance adds to their appreciation values.
Before we go any further, let’s add that there are many other very collectible, high-quality lever actions made by Colt, Marlin, Savage and Eli Whitney. Most are far more scarce than Winchesters, and ones designed by Andrew Burgess—a Civil War photographer who became one of America’s most prolific arms designer—are, in my opinion, more intriguing mechanically.
Many times they’re priced less than a Winchester in similar condition. Few, though, cause the stampede the Big Red W does with collectors, so if value/appreciation is your primary concern, choose Winchester. The audience at the sale will be bigger.
Here are some tips to keep in mind. The highest return on an investment occurs only on original arms. Responsible sellers will stand behind them. The price for ones that were refinished or highly finished away from the factory should be commensurately lower in price and won’t appreciate as quickly as one authenticated by the factory or with solid provenance.
Caveat emptor—buyer beware—must always be on your mind, especially with arms having 95 percent or more finish. Be aware value can become diminished if meticulous storage conditions aren’t met. For example, case hardening fades in sunlight, and fingerprints can cause rust to form if not carefully wiped away. Too little preservative can allow rust as well, and too much preservative can cause wood to soften and discolor.
Of all the Winchesters, the first one—the Henry—“Saw the elephant.” Few have solid documentation, but the romance enhances their value. The Civil War-era Henry ushered in the repeating rifle era in a big way. It was the gun they said was “loaded on Sunday and shot all week.”
Such rifles were used heavily in their time and the survivors in even relic condition are now highly prized. Civilian Henry rifles, many of which saw hard use on the American frontier, normally sell in $16,000 range on up, with War-era ones about 25 percent more if conditions are similar. Many in that price range have replaced parts due to their long working lives, and ones in exceptional condition are very, very rare.
A beautiful early engraved, silver-plated Henry stocked in rosewood sold for only $66,000 at Morphy Auctions in 2018. Plain Henrys attributed to Civil War use often fetch around a one-third of that.
The Model 1866 rarely achieves a quarter of the Henry’s value in plain trim, but was in the Old West for quite a long time. While a few centerfires were made, they’re almost always in .44 rimfire. Many went to Mexico, where the rimfire remained popular even after the introduction of the stronger, centerfire 1873.
The “Improved Henry” Model of 1866 was made alongside the 1873 into the 1880s. While plain, late, well-used 1866 rifles may sell in $3,000 to $6,000 range, and were often used by Indians as well. Documentation often exists for the 1866. The one pictured sold for $100,000 at a 2019 Morphy Auction, and it’s engraved with an Indian hunting buffalo and is gold plated. If that seems a little low for the quality, one of the finest known 1866s engraved, signed by John Ulrich and gold plated sold for $598,000 at a Morphy Auction in 2018.
Winchester Model 1873
The Model 1873 has become one of the highly collectible Winchesters. The great beauty of the Model 1873 is the wide range of special-order features Winchester cheerfully offered. A wonderful collection could be amassed with no two exactly alike. Adding one of the very few “One of One Thousand” embellished ones could be a wonderful centerpiece of a collection.
While a nice, common 1873 can be had for between $1,500 and $5,000, an engraved, well-documented “One of One Thousand” sold for a whopping $448,500 at a Rock Island Auction about 15 years ago. Only a few more than 130 “One of One Thousand” versions were ever made, and there are now far more in circulation, so buyer beware.
The Winchester ’73 was there for the opening of the American frontier and popular on both sides of the law. With about three-quarters of a million made, the 1873 was the gun to have, and nothing beat it as the everyday working rifle of the Old West. Adding to the romance, nothing quite sounds the same as the “clank-clank” of its action working.
Caption Winchester 1873: The “One of One Thousand” Winchester has long been a holy grail with collectors. When authenticity is undeniable, prices can go through the roof. This one sold for $448,500 and has many special order options. (Photo courtesy Rock Island Auctions)
Winchester Model 1876
The Winchester 1876 was never very popular, and it’s one of those rifles just a little too heavy for the power of its cartridges. Normally not as highly collectible as other Winchesters, they still have a certain cachet—especially in .50 caliber—but only the carbine that served with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has achieved any real romance with collectors.
Not many were made, so they are scarcer than the prices would imply. But the ’76 had a “One of One Thousand,” and many were embellished otherwise offering a large canvas for the engraver, but case hardening over the same real estate is highly beautiful as well. The one pictured is a documented first year 1876 “One of One Thousand” rifle and sold for $90,000 at Morphy Auctions in 2018.
Winchester Model 1886
The next model really put Winchester on the map—offering power, smooth operation and unmatched beauty—although it came at a time when those qualities were on the wane. Still, John Browning’s Model 1886 Winchester defined big-bore lever action power for hunters until well after World War I. Surprisingly few were actually made, and only about 160,000 ever left New Haven.
Once again, Winchester offered a wide selection of options in finish, barrel lengths and magazine lengths along with far wider selection of big game calibers than the company’s previous lever guns. While highly finished arms generate five figures and more, average ones offer the shooting collector many things to pursue. The one pictured is a plain 1886 in .45-70, but it is almost in like-new condition, is a first-year rifle and sold at a Morphy Auctions for $25,200 in 2019. The rifle exhibits unparalleled craftsmanship.
Winchester Model 1892
A rifle made in far greater numbers than the 1886 is its little brother, the Winchester 1892. First offered in the same pistol cartridges as the older 1873, more than 1 million rifles were made before being discontinued in 1932. The ’92 came along after the frontier was settled, yet if you watch Western films and television, you’d think the little rifle served well before the Civil War as well.
The 1892 also was made in a wide variety of models with plenty of options. In its day, ammunition for the ’92 was up-powered to take advantage of the extra strength. Like the ’86, it offers the shooting collector a strong, wonderfully smooth lever action. When found in like-new condition, prices can be high even if in the common configuration of a standard working carbine. The .44-40 1892 Carbine pictured sold for $40,250 at Rock Island Auctions.
Winchester Model 1894
In sheer popularity, all must bow to the Winchester Model 1894. More than 7 million were made over its more than 100-year production life, and countless deer and other game animals have been felled by John Browning’s most enduring lever action design.
Even well used models sell at a premium, especially in the odder calibers. The plain, rather common .32 Win. Spl. carbine pictured made in 1950 with about 85 percent of that nice post-War Winchester blue finish sold for $923 at Morphy’s in 2021, while the highly finished, factory engraved .30-30 Win. rifle in 99.9 percent condition sold for $103,500 at a Rock Island Auction in 2021.
Winchester Model 1895
John Browning’s last lever-action rifle for Winchester was also one of the least successful, although it was chambered in many up-and-coming high velocity smokeless cartridges such as the .30-40 Krag and .30-06. President Theodore Roosevelt romanticized the 1895 in .405 Win. after taking it to Africa and calling it his “Big Medicine Rifle.”
Production numbers of the original (Browning/Winchester has reintroduced the rifle in modern times) are skewed by the purchase of these rifles during World War I by the Russian government purchase of 293,816 of the 426,754 total made—although the actual numbers are contested by sources.
The saddle-ring carbine version and hunting rifle in .405 are the bookends for romanticists, since the carbine seen commonly among the Arizona Rangers and Pancho Villa’s men along the Southwestern border. But prices haven’t approached the more popular rifles. The only known factory-engraved .30-40 saddle-ring carbine, still in exquisite condition, went for $22,800 at a Morphy auction in 2018, so collector interest in these rifles keeps it on the low end.
Winchester Model 71
The final lever action in this little study is the Model 71 in .348 Win. Fewer than 50,000 were made of this simplified 1886 action, and they are often found in excellent condition—due mostly to lack of ammunition. They were still made when production craftsmanship was high at Winchester and are beautifully finished.
Whether these rifles will ever take off with collectors remains to be seen, and they seem to sell at reasonable prices for the quality of the manufacture. The deluxe pre-World War II Model 71 shown in very high condition sold for only $3,163 at Rock Island Auction in 2021.