Published: June 21, 2022
Review by W.A. Demers, Photos Courtesy Cowan’s Auctions
CINCINNATI, OHIO – On June 8, Cowan’s, a Hindman Company, offered a compact sale of 244 lots comprising the frontier firearms from the lifetime collection of Larry Ness of Yankton, S.D.
Assembled over the course of nearly 50 years, the collection, which was sold in its entirety, was one of the most comprehensive offerings of Native American used and related frontier-era arms to ever come to market, and the sale offered a rare opportunity to acquire some of the most desirable firearms from American history. The sale totaled $929,310 with a 93 percent sell-through rate. There were more than 2,700 registered bidders and three online platforms.
The sale contained firearms from the Battle of the Little Big Horn, including a Winchester 1st Model 1876 rifle attributed to Sitting Bull. It doubled its high estimate to sell for $132,000. The rifle came with extensive documentation supporting the attribution to Sitting Bull (circa 1831-1890). The rifle was supposedly recovered from Sitting Bull’s cabin on the day that he was killed (December 15, 1890) during a botched arrest attempt by US Indian Police. With other weapons recovered the same day it was turned in to Standing Rock Reservation Indian Agent Major James McLaughlin (1842-1923). All of these documents were included with the rifle.
The firearm itself sported a 28-inch octagonal barrel with full magazine and bore serial number 3536. Manufactured circa 1877, it had a blued finish, smooth, straight-gripped walnut stock with crescent butt plate and smooth forend. Its barrel was marked in two lines forward of the rear sight: “Winchesters-Repeating-Arms New Haven, Ct/Kings-Improvement-Patented-March 29, 1866. October 16, 1860.” The upper receiver tang was marked “Model 1876” and the serial number was on the lower tang. That number places this gun at the very end of the 1st Model “open top” Model 1876 production.
An Indian-captured 7th Cavalry US Model 1873 trapdoor carbine in its original “Custer Era” configuration was the second highest selling long gun in the sale, finishing at an above-estimate $48,000. It featured a 22-inch barrel length with a blued and color case-hardened finish. Its lock was marked with the “US Spread-Winged Eagle” and in three lines “U.S./Springfield/1873.” The Springfield trapdoor cartridge rifle and carbine was produced for the military in 1873. The trapdoor mechanism employed a hinged breechblock that rotated up and forward, resembling the movement of a trapdoor, to open the breech of the rifle and permit insertion of a cartridge. The hinged breechblock caused these rifles to be named “Trapdoor Springfields.” Another trapdoor, a heavily tacked US Model 1870 Springfield rifle earned $16,800. The .50-70 caliber rifle had been shortened to “carbine” with its barrel cut from 32½ inches to 24 inches and forend cut back as well with the upper barrel band removed.
Two percussion plains rifles by Samuel Hawken (1792-1884) were sold. The Hawken name is synonymous with the rifles of the Great Plains and pre-Civil War frontier expansion. Jacob Hawken moved to St Louis from Hagerstown, Md., in 1818 and was followed by his younger brother Samuel in 1822. Jacob had learned the trade of gun-making from his father Christian and also spent time working at the US Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. The brothers introduced the prototypical “Plains Rifle,” also referred at times as the “Rocky Mountain” rifle. Fetching $33,000 was a .54 caliber rifle with a 36-inch octagonal barrel secured by two wedges. Its barrel was marked “S. Hawken St Louis” and an unmarked, single-screw percussion lock was unadorned and equipped with double-set triggers. A restored percussion plains rifle by Samuel Hawken was bid to $24,000. In .58 caliber with a 35¾-inch-long octagonal barrel secured by two wedges, its barrel was marked “S. Hawken St Louis.” Unmarked, its single-screw percussion lock was lightly engraved and equipped with double-set triggers.
Next in the Hawken lineup was a rare Hawken-marked Spencer carbine alteration to a heavy barreled plains rifle selling for $20,400. Catalog notes state that these Hawken-marked Spencer plains rifles were really assembled by J.P. Gemmer, after Gemmer bought Samuel Hawken’s shop circa 1862. Gemmer likely utilized left over parts in the shop inventory to create these scarce rifles. This example was .52 caliber (56-56 Spencer) with a 29-inch double keyed heavy octagonal barrel.
There was also a shortened J&S Hawken percussion plains rifle, a .56 caliber with a 27½-inch-long, wedge-retained octagonal barrel that made $17,400 and an S. Hawken marked full-stock percussion “plain” rifle, .42 caliber, 39-inch-long wedge retained octagonal barrel that went out at $15,600. Catalog notes explain that the term “plain” rather than plains derives from the fact that the full-stock form and brass furniture are more indicative of the Maryland styling of the Hawkens’ early days and their lighter “sporting rifles.” Notes further state that Ness’ folder of information regarding this gun indicates that the rifle was inspected by noted Hawken collector and authority Rudyard Rapp. At one time, Rapp wrote a letter about the gun stating that it was acquired at a farm auction in the 1980s from the descendants of the Kessel family of Ava, Ill., who were the original owners, their ancestor having acquired the rifle from the Hawken shop in St Louis during the period of use.
One of only three known to exist, a rare Sharps Model 1855 sporting rifle was notable, bringing an above-estimate $18,000. Sharps factory records are fragmentary at best for this period, and in his book on Sharps firearms Frank Sellers noted that only 12 Model 1855 sporting rifles were produced. However, more recent scholarship has suggested that this information may be in error, as there was no source documented to support the claim. Be that as it may, this .427 caliber rifle with 26-inch octagonal barrel, serial number 20824, is undoubtedly a rare surviving example.
Early historical firearms in Ness’ collection, like flintlocks and muskets, were among the sale’s top highlights. A Leman flintlock chief’s grade rifle brought $15,000 against a $7/10,000 estimate. A .42 caliber with a 40¾-inch pinned octagonal barrel, its lock was marked in three lines “Leman/Lancaster Pa/1840.” Henry Leman worked in Philadelphia from 1831 to 1834 then relocated to Lancaster, Penn., where he worked until his death in 1887. He produced some arms under the trade name Conestoga Rifle Works and was a prolific contractor producing all forms of sporting and military style arms with some estimates placing his output at more than 100,000 guns during his working life. Also, an American Fur Company marked flintlock Northwest trade gun by Sargant & Son sold for $9,900, and a US Model 1842 Springfield musket attributed to the warrior “Good Lance” and collected at Wounded Knee went out at $10,200.
Prices given include the buyer’s premium as stated by the auction house. Cowan’s arms and armor department has online sales on July 6 and September 8. The next live auction will be on October 26 at Hindman in Cincinnati. For information, www.cowanauctions.com or 513-871-1670.
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