Share This Article

Most of the single-shot and repeating rifles recorded in Old West photographs are of a utilitarian nature. For hunting and self-defense purposes these long arms needed to be functional, serviceable and efficient, not necessarily attractive. But not all rifles were created equal; some were plenty fancy. Many examples survive of highly embellished shoulder arms presented to, or carried as a vanity by, frontier Westerners.

In the latter half of the 19th century it was customary for grateful townsfolk or businesses such as Wells, Fargo & Co. to present exemplary lawmen, soldiers and other figures in the line of duty with special firearms. One such figure was Stephen Venard, former marshal of Nevada City, Calif. In the early morning hours of May 15, 1866, a trio of armed bandits held up a Wells, Fargo stagecoach near Nevada City and made off with $7,900 in gold dust and bullion. Venard, armed with a 16-shot Henry rifle, took chase later that day as part of a posse. After the posse split up, Venard happened upon the robbers and fired just four shots to kill all three. He recovered the stolen loot to boot. From an appreciative Wells, Fargo he accepted only half of the $3,000 reward, sharing the rest with the other posse members. The company also presented him a gold-mounted Henry rifle with an inlaid plaque on the left side of the buttstock, engraved with thanks for His Gallant Conduct, May 15th, 1866.

James H. Cook—hunter, rancher, amateur paleontologist and author of the 1923 book Fifty Years on the Old Frontier—came to appreciate his own Henry in Texas in the early 1870s after trading his Spencer for it. “This rifle proved to be a most accurate shooting piece,” he recalled, “and I had the satisfaction of knowing that nobody in Texas had a better shooting iron than I.” Cook also became the proud owner of a Winchester Model 1873 with an engraved frame and checkered high-grade buttstock.

Presenting an embellished, engraved rifle to oneself was not out of the ordinary. Montana pioneer Granville Stuart owned a .44-40-caliber Winchester Model 1873 “One of One Thousand” rifle engraved with his name and the model year. Not that he wasn’t deserving. Known as “Mr. Montana,” Stuart proved his worth in the territory and, later, the state as a prospector, cattleman, businessman, vigilante leader, politician, civic leader and author.

Lieutenant William B. Wetmore, who served with the 6th U.S. Cavalry on the Kansas and Colorado frontier between 1872 and 1875, was repeatedly cited for gallantry, notably for his role in a successful engagement with renegade Southern Cheyennes on the Red River in Texas on August 30, 1874. It is not known whether he received a rifle for his achievements, but as a personal vanity he was known to have owned a Winchester Model 1866 and a Model 1873, each engraved on the left side of the frame with his name and regiment.

Lever-action repeaters were not the only fancy rifles on the frontier. Prized single-shot rifles got the same treatment.In the late 19th century the first-rate match shooters of Colorado’s Central City Rifle Club used Stevens, Ballard and Winchester single-shot rifles, some bearing finely engraved game scenes, as well as checkered walnut butt stocks and Swiss-style butt plates that were indispensable in maintaining a steady grip when shooting offhand (standing unsupported). Officials at high-stakes matches sometimes presented fancy rifles as prizes. But more often a well-to-do individual would purchase such a fancy piece so that he could carry his “Sunday best” seven days a week.

Antique gun collectors are always on the hunt for superbly engraved rifles, whether repeaters (Winchesters and Henrys) or single-shot models. Among the more sought-after engravings are the works of “steel canvas” artisans Louis Daniel Nimschke and Gustave Young, both of whom were born in Germany. Between1850 and his 1904 death Nimschke, working out of his shop in New York City, engraved more than 5,000 firearms for Colt,Winchester, Remington, Sharps, Smith &Wesson and other makers. Young, who worked for Colt and then Smith & Wesson,was known for his dog’s head and other animal designs. Examples of these 19thcentury works of art (rendered on six-shooters as well as rifles) can reap tens of thousands of dollars from collectors.

Given that such embellishments didn’t prevent some owners from using their expensive weapons as working firearms, it’s fortunate collectors can still find pristine examples—the finest with engraved frames and barrels and finely checkered and highly figured walnut stocks. At middle left is a beautifully engraved Model 1893 Marlin repeating rifle that retains nearly 98 percent of the case colors on its receiver, boasts a beautiful game scene on the left side of its frame and bears fine-lined checkering on its walnut stocks. The Model 1860 Henry and Model 1866 Winchester on the previous page are particularly well-preserved examples of engraved rifles from the early metallic cartridge era. The single-shot Marlin Ballard No. 6 ½ at top left is an example of an artful firearm that was used regularly, not simply hung on a wall to be admired. This particular rifle was not a special order but available in this engraved form straight from the catalog, though at no small cost—$35 in 1880 (more than $800 in inflation-adjusted bills). It was likely owned by a wealthy member of an organized rifle club and saw, like many other embellished Western guns, both showy and utilitarian service.


Originally published in the June 2015 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.