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But it made the standard rifles look bad to potential buyers.

By the mid-1870s Oliver Winchester’s newfangled lever action repeating rifles—the Henry and Models 1866 and 1873— were well on their way to earning Winchester the advertising motto “The Gun That Won the West.” Even so, Winchester aggressively pursued a heavy advertising campaign to keep his rifles in the minds of every prospective purchaser. According to legend, the company discovered that one rifle barrel out of about every 1,000 shot a little more accurately than the other production-line barrels. So in July 1875 the company published the following announcement:

The barrel of every sporting rifle we make will be proved and shot at a target, and the target will be numbered to correspond with the barrel and be attached to it. All of these barrels that are found to make targets of extra merit will be made up into guns with set-triggers and extra finish and marked as a designating name “One of a Thousand” and sold at $100. The next grade of barrels, not quite so fine, will be marked “One of a Hundred” and set up in order in any style at $20 advance over the list price of the corresponding style of gun as shown in price list.

The first of these“super-accurate” Model 1873 and larger-framed Model 1876 rifles were marked on the breech end of the barrel 1 OF 1000 or 1 OF 100. Shortly afterward Winchester replaced the numerical markings with the words ONE OF ONE THOUSAND or ONE OF ONE HUNDRED in script and surrounded by scroll engraving. A band of the same engraving was added to the muzzle, along with platinum bands around each end of the barrel. The list price was $27 for the standard Model 1873 and $35 for the Model 1876. So at $20 more for the One of One Hundred, it cost about half the $100 price of a One of One Thousand.

It was a brilliant advertising scheme—produce an extrafancy, extra-accurate rifle that most people could not afford and then sell them a lower cost one they could afford. But the promotion quickly backfired. Instead of the One of One Thousands making the production-line Winchesters look more enticing, the advertising made it sound as if the standard rifles were inferior and inaccurate. So Winchester dropped the promotion in 1877.

The company ended up making only 136 Model 1873 One of One Thousands, eight Model 1873 One of One Hundreds, 53 Model 1876 One of One Thousands and eight Model 1876 One of One Hundreds. The advertising for these specially marked rifles was quietly for gotten, and for decades so were the rifles.

Because Winchester made so few One of One Thousands, there are few anecdotes about their use on the frontier. In a July 26, 1876, letter to Winchester, Montana pioneer Granville Stuart wrote of his One of One Thousand: “If the Sioux should come a little further up this way, it will be a mighty handy thing to have in the house. If poor Custer’s heroic band hand been armed with these rifles, they would have covered the earth with dead Indians for 500 yards around.”

Granville’s brother Thomas owned one, as did Wild West show exhibition shooter W.F. “Doc” Carver. Montana Senator William A. Clark owned an elaborately engraved, gold-trimmed Model 1876 One of One Thousand. In 1877 a One of One Thousand Model 1876, Serial No. 713, went to Montanan John Kelsey, a stagecoach line operator and U.S. marshal’s office guard. But perhaps the most documented One of One Thousand Model 1873 is Serial No. 18521, fully factory engraved, which was stolen from its original owner by Wyoming rustler Teton Jackson, who was captured by Johnson County Sheriff Frank Canton in 1885. The rifle was then auctioned off in Buffalo,Wyo., to sheep rancher D.A. Kingsbury, who gave it to a herdsman, who traded it to Billings dentist W.A. Allen, who owned it well into the 20th century before it ended up in a private collection.

Over the years, Winchester collectors generally ignored the One of One Thousand and One of One Hundred markings, considering them of little extra value. And then writer-historian Stuart Lake—who had popularized the long-barreled Colt Buntline Special in his 1931 biography Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal—wrote a story featuring a One of One Thousand Model 1873 Winchester that became the basis for the 1950 Jimmy Stewart film Winchester ’73. As part of the movie’s promotional campaign, Winchester and Universal Pictures offered a brand-new Model 1894 carbine to the first 20 people who could prove they owned an original One of One Thousand. The promotion struck a chord with Old West aficionados and made an icon of the One of One Thousand. Almost overnight every Winchester collector worth his salt wanted one.

And so the value of One of One Thousands has skyrocketed from $1,000 per gun in the 1950s to more than $100,000 per gun today, and gun experts consider the rifles the rarest of any U.S. production-line firearm ever made. The latest edition of Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms values a One of One Thousand Model 1873 in good condition (no original finish) at $37,500 and one in excellent condition (80 percent original finish) at $200,000; the rarer One of One Hundred is valued at $40,000 in good condition and $225,000 in excellent condition. The scarcer One of One Thousand Model 1876 is valued at $50,000 in good condition and $225,000 in excellent condition; the even rarer One of One Hundred is valued at $50,000 in good condition and $250,000 in excellent condition.

In September 2010 Rock Island Auction Co. of Moline, Ill., auctioned off two of the finest known examples of One of One Thousands. A factory-refurbished Model 1873, Serial No. 23385, that was sold in November 1876 and profusely engraved for the Centennial International Exposition, brought $276,000. And a Model 1876, Serial No. 1216, that left the factory on December 28, 1877, went for even more—$402,500.

In 1958 the wife of a friend of mine inherited an old chicken ranch near Sacramento. They found a Model 1873 Winchester One of One Thousand propped upside-down in the corner of the tank house, and they brought the rifle to me to properly clean up. It took me six months, and I had it for over a year. They finally decided they wanted $2,000 for it at a time most One of One Thousands cost about $1,500 and nice Colt revolvers could be had for $150 each. So I chickened out. Another friend of mine bought it, and before he died several years ago, he sold it for $100,000

Noted firearms historian R.L. Wilson sums up the rarity of the One of One Thousands in Winchester: An American Legend, noting he has only ever found about 25 percent of them. And he adds: “It is unlikely that the balance has been lost over the years; most are still out there. Most of these One of One Hundreds and One of One Thousands remain to be discovered, usually in attics of private homes, but sometimes they are in the hands of individuals who have no idea of the meaning of that magical ‘One of One Thousand’ inscription on the barrel of the rifle standing in a corner or in a closet.”

So happy hunting, folks. I found one once. Maybe you can, too.


Originally published in the February 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here