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Friday, October 30, 2015

Winchester 1866: A Smart Collector's Move

If you've been collecting firearms for even a small amount of time, you know about the iconic Winchester Model 1866 rifle. A direct descendant of the developmentally significant Henry rifle, the Winchester '66 was the first firearm produced under the Winchester name.  While not seeing any measurable military use, they enjoyed a prolific use by citizens and pioneers headed West to conquer an untamed nation.  Winchester followed up its success by releasing the Model 1873 and Model 1876 in subsequent years, which grew the brand manufacturer ever larger and offered the public a bevy of new calibers and special order options.

Next year is a notably special year for collectors of Winchester rifles.  It marks the sesquicentennial of the beloved manufacturer and the attention that will be brought to these important rifles is likely to spur an increase in their desirability.  Thankfully, Rock Island Auction Company has come into a healthy number of these classic rifles, which will be appearing in the 2015 December Premiere Firearms Auction. In fact, there are 32(!) Winchester 1866 rifles in numerous configurations that will be available.  There are exceptional presentation pieces, tried and true saddle ring carbines, early production models, and everything in-between.  Here is a look at a handful of these rifles, hopefully with at least one example for every budget.

Historic, Deluxe, Factory Engraved Presentation Winchester Model 1866 Lever Action Rifle

This rifle is tied with a saddle ring carbine for the highest estimate on an 1866.  Manufactured around 1869, this is definitely a deluxe version: factory engraved, fancy walnut stock with the high polish "piano" finish, and is gold plated on the receiver, forearm cap, and crescent buttplate.  As if the embellishments weren't enough, all the visible serial numbers match and it is engraved with the name of the "Montgomery Guard," part of the California State Militia.  The Montgomery Guard was formed in 1859, served throughout the Civil War, was mustered out of service in 1866, before being reborn again in 1868 as Company A, 1st Infantry Battalion of the California National Guard. The combination of special features and historical significance is one that many collectors find irresistible. We look forward to seeing where this very special Winchester will call home.

Exceptional Winchester Model 1866 Saddle Ring Carbine

This is the saddle ring carbine tied with the above rifle for the top estimate among Winchester 1866s.  While the rifle hangs its hat on its decoration and military ties, this SRC (saddle ring carbine) finds its high estimate based on its sterling condition.  Even after nearly 150 years, this gun is a near checklist of what collectors look for regarding condtion: high amounts of original blue finish, nice mustard-colored patina on the brass receiver, tight wood to metal fit, and screws that have not been mangled over time.  Even the buttplate, a location many guns are rested upon and prone to finish loss, still shows attractive case hardening.  We could go on about other original parts and its condition, but take our word for it, guns in this high of condition are only going to become more and more rare as time marches on.

Winchester Model 1866 Lever Action Musket

This is the only Winchester 1866 Musket that we have in the 2015 December Premiere Auction.  Now, before I receive a bunch of comments correcting me about this being a musket, let me explain.  True, this rifle is not a musket.  It is not muzzle loaded nor does it use flintlock or percussion systems.  "Musket" was one of the three types of Winchester 66s that were available for purchase. There are the standard length rifle, the carbine, and the musket.  The carbine is obviously shorter than the rifle primarily for use while mounted on a horse, hence the "saddle ring carbine" name.  The "musket" Winchester 1866 is a longer rifle with a longer forearm and necessary extra barrel band.  Differences between the three are easy to spot when comparing the photos of this Winchester with those of the previous two examples. They were made primarily to appeal to military decision makers who were reluctant to leave their trusty muzzle loaders for new "repeater" technology.

A benefit to whomever wins this Winchester, besides potentially having a Winchester 66 of each barrel length, is the price. It's condition, listed as "fair" in our catalog, provides an excellent opportunity for someone to put a legendary rifle in their collection for a very attractive price.  Further sweetening the deal?  This particular 1866 musket was made in 1870, qualifying it as an antique.

Rare First Year Production Winchester Model 1866 Saddle Ring Flat Side Carbine

Here's another Winchester that advanced collectors are sure to have their eyes on. Being a 66, it already receives its fair share, but being a rare, first year production is a prized possession for any collection.  One of the features that makes these early models so easy to spot is what is called the flat gate, resulting in what is known as a "flat side" carbine.  They are also called flat sides because the receiver is flat where it meets the wood of the forearm.  Receivers of later models flared out slightly before meeting the wood.

Looking at the loading gate in the previous three examples, one notices a certain contour added to the cover of the loading gate to ease loading the gun at the breech.  Early models did not have that contour; instead, the gate was flat.  Early models also often possess other early traits, many of which were carry overs from the Henry rifle that disappeared in the subsequent models of the 1866 (there are four models total).  Besides the flat gate, this SRC also has the early traits of: Henry and King patent dates on the barrel, a two screw upper tang, and a Henry style rear receiver profile, known as the "Henry drop." This term refers to the rounded downward curve of the top of the receiver as it proceeds to the wrist.  As Henrys turned into Winchesters and subsequent Winchesters became more refined, that drop and the adjacent angular transition into the straight grip grew more streamlined and less defined.

Making this flat side even more desirable is the fact that it is all original. These guns were "working guns" that saw lots of hard use.  To find one at all, let alone in this condition is an impressive feat and a fantastic addition to any collection.

Attractive Panel Scene Engraved Winchester Model 1866 Carbine

Gorgeous wood and some well executed panel scenes make this a 1866 a 150-year old piece of eye candy.  The gun was manufactured in 1871 and the custom engraving was performed in the mid-20th century.  Even though the gun is not in its original form, its tastefully and professionally performed embellishments should earn this gun 5-figures at auction.  The entire left side of the receiver has been transformed into a single, bordered panel scene of a horse-borne hunter culling a buffalo from a herd fleeing across the plains with towering pines, majestic mountains, and a swirling sky providing the backdrop. The right side of the receiver breaks down into several framed scenes or subjects, which is a far more common style to see on even the finest of engraved firearms.  The scene to the rear of the loading gate is a frontiersman firing at a bear that is nearly upon him, which is bordered by Ulrich-style scroll work.  A small oval forward of the loading gate features the framed head of a bison. The receiver and buttplate are also gold plated. While some post-factory work has taken place on the gun, the barrel, magazine, barrel bands, hammer, lever, and trigger all still bear the original blue and casehardened finish, making for a very attractive gun with tangible links to its original configuration.

Very Fine Winchester Model 1866 Saddle Ring Carbine with Factory Letter

Another interesting SRC! Not only is it rated as "very fine" condition, but it likely has retained that condition despite being to South America and back. The underside of the stock behind the tang is stamped with a banner cartouches that contain the script letters "AOS" (shown above). Experts believe that this cartouche was a marking applied to some of the nearly 12,000 Model 1866 carbines in the 135,000-148,000 serial number range that were sold to a location in South America (possibly Argentina) in 1877. This marking is described and illustrated on page 65 of "THE WINCHESTER BOOK" by George Madis. It's always good to see a Winchester 66 back home Stateside!  Encyclopedic collectors of this model will find this an intriguing and most desirable piece.

Henry Rifles of Note

With he upcoming surge in Winchester 1866 lever actions on the horizon, some of that popularity is likely to spill over into the Henry rifles and other guns produced by new Haven Arms that gave rise to these celebrated lever guns. Fortunately, RIAC will also feature several outstanding Volcanics and Henry rifles, two of the latter come to us from the renowned Mac McCroskie Collection.  Here are a few of them in brief.

Lot 1038: Exceptional New Haven Arms Henry Second Model Lever Action Rifle from the Legendary Mac McCroskie Collection

Lot 25: Scarce Deluxe, First Model Factory Engraved New Haven Arms Co. Henry Lever Action Rifle

Lot 3008: Fine Civil War Martially Inspected New Haven Arms Company Henry Lever Action Rifle From the Legendary Mac McCroskie Collection
Lot 15: The Only Known Matching Pair of Consecutively Serial Numbered Volcanic Lever 
Action Carbines with 16 1/2 Inch barrel

Much of the information presented in this article will be old hat for seasoned Winchester collectors, but for those more familiar with other genres, hopefully this shines a light into the variety, features, history, and embellishments that collectors of these guns seek out.  Also, make no mistake, Winchester 1866 rifles are anything but commonplace. Don't let the abundance of them in this auction fool you into thinking anything else.  Take the opportunity to pick the ones you want for your own collection, before the rush on these quintessential lever guns is on.

-Written by Joel R. Kolander

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The First Truly American Firearm: The Kentucky Rifle

Exceptional, Unusual, and Documented Abias B. Smith Pennsylvania Long Rifle with Rare Belted Rifling

In the Pennsylvania countryside in the early 18th century, a uniquely American firearm was born that helped thirteen separate colonies defeat the greatest empire on Earth, form one nation, and span a continent. It is fitting that this new weapon was a conglomerate of ideas and built initially by German immigrants in the north and famously used by Anglo woodsmen in the south who became symbols of American ingenuity, self-sufficiency, and determination. In the years following the Revolutionary War until the wide spread adoption of the percussion system, the long rifle reached its pinnacle in small shops in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. Many are outstanding testaments to their skill and true pieces of Americana. It is in this period that they earned their famous nickname from the men who famously used them: the long hunters who explored the Virginia backcountry known as Kentucky. Though they are more properly known as American long rifles, prior to the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson’s astounding victory over a superior force of British soldiers at New Orleans in 1815 solidified their nickname in our national memory. The song “The Hunters of Kentucky” about the battle contained the famous lines: “But Jackson he was wide awake, and wasn’t scared at trifles, For well he knew what aim we take with our Kentucky rifles.”

Those of you who attended or followed the last RIAC Premiere Auction undoubtedly noticed the wide array of beautiful early American rifles. Many of these rifles came from the extensive Piedmont Collection. Our December Premiere contains another installment from this collection as well as rifles from other collectors. Many of these rifles were built by some of the most talented American artisans of the early republic. Their names are immediately recognizable by those who collect these pieces of art: John Armstrong, Jacob Dickert, Simon Lauck, John Moll, John Noll, John Rupp, George Schreyer, Frederick and Jacob Sell, Peter White, and many more. Each of these pieces is truly a masterpiece and several contain incredibly rare attributes.

 The Kentucky’s roots came from two other firearms in the early 18th century: the shorter, larger caliber German Jaeger rifles brought from the Old World to the New by German immigrants and the long smoothbore fowling pieces and trade guns manufactured primarily in England and Western Europe and imported in large numbers for the fur trade. Why exactly these two forms were married has continually been debated. What is clear is that fowling pieces and muskets were not well suited for taking game at considerable distances, and their larger bores meant they used a greater amount of lead and powder, which were more destructive to pelts and meat. This also meant that a hunter, be they Native or Euro-American, had to carry more weight in ammunition and had to get closer to their targets. The Kentucky not only improved on those issues, but its long, rifled barrel also offered other advantages: the extended barrel combined with blade and notch sights provided a long sighting plane which allowed hunters to more fully utilize their rifle’s potential accuracy and also had the added benefit of providing more time for the slow burning black powder to combust and thus maximized power even while firing smaller, lighter balls. An experienced rifleman could hit a man or deer sized target reliably at 200 yards or more.

By the time unrest was growing in the colonies in the latter part of the 18th century, gunsmiths were producing a firearm that was found nowhere else in the world. Once the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, the American woodsman and his long rifle rose to the challenge. Many fought in local militias, but the Continental Congress also approved ten rifle units during the war including Daniel Morgan’s famous riflemen. They harassed British soldiers and targeted officers from outside effective musket range to remove key leaders from the battlefield and damage enemy morale. Morgan’s men later defeated the infamous Banastre Tarleton at the Battle of the Cowpens. In 1780, the “over the mountain men bested a Loyalist militia armed with smoothbore muskets by picking them off at range at the Battle of Kings Mountain and turned the tide of the southern campaign against Lord Cornwallis. George Rogers Clark led a group of Kentucky militia and seized the isolated settlements in Illinois justifying the American’s claim to the vast swath of territory between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River. At this stage, long rifles were still fairly plain and typically had wooden patch boxes, but his younger brother William carried a Golden Age rifle during his famous exploration of the Louisiana Purchase with Meriwether Lewis and the Corps of Discovery. Thus, while the majority of American soldiers during the Revolution were armed with smoothbore long arms, small groups of riflemen used their advanced weapons and prowess to make considerable contributions to the cause.

Silver Inlaid Golden Age Flintlock Long Rifle by Former Revolutionary War Rifleman Simon Lauck

Among the wide array of beautiful long rifles in our upcoming auction is a fine, silver inlaid rifle built by Simon Lauck. He and his brother Peter both fought with Morgan’s Provisional Rifle Corps and were gunsmiths in Winchester, Virginia after the war. It is a classic example of a rifle built during the Kentucky rifle’s Golden Age. Rifles from this era are favored by collectors due to the unique nature of each rifle and the variety of regional variations. Aside from a few makers who preferred to focus on perfecting the nuances of their designs like John Armstrong, most used many variations of styles taught to them while apprenticed to a master. They in turn passed on their own variations on to the next generation of apprentices. This led to what we now think of as the “schools” based roughly in Lehigh Valley, Lancaster, York, Lebanon, Chambersburg, and may other locales based on shared attributes and lineages.

Gunmakers were influenced by one another especially in specific areas but also adapted art forms from Europe. The carving and patch boxes, for instance, follow European trends in terms of rococo and baroque scrolls. Note the incredible variety in patch box designs on these rifles and all the little details in carving, inlays, and little components. While there were tremendous variations, also note the consistencies such as the fixed blade and notch sights and the beautiful, full length, curly maple stocks.

One area of variation among individual rifles is the variety of inlays. Many included patriotic motifs such as eagles and some contain important, but largely long forgotten, revolutionary era symbols. Such is the case with the rare rattlesnake designs on the Jacob Dickert and George Schreyer rifles. Like the long rifle itself, the use of the rattlesnake as a symbol of the American ethos well pre-dates the idea of a separate American nation. In fact, one of the first known uses of the symbol was in Benjamin Franklin’s famous “Join or Die” cartoon from 1754 calling upon the colonies to unite, with the support of Great Britain, to defeat the French in the Seven Years War (French and Indian War), a conflict started in part by a young British officer by the name of George Washington. Franklin’s cartoon came to represent the need for unity among the colonies in the American Revolution as well.

Rattlesnake engraving appearing on the patchbox of a scarce Jacob Dickert Lancaster flintlock long rifle
Another rattlesnake on the patchbox.  This time on a documented Golden Age flintlock by George Schreyer.
The other side of the stock features handsome raised carving.
Formerly of the Joe Kindig, Jr. Collection.

Rattlesnakes are only found in the Americas and were numerous in many parts of the colonies. Though they do not attack unprovoked, rattlesnakes defend themselves with deadly force when they need to defend themselves. This was the image the Founding Fathers wanted to present to the world in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. Americans were not breaking from England needlessly; they were defending themselves against attacks on their lives and freedoms. Rattlesnakes also had another attribute that 18th century Americans knew well. As “American Guesser” wrote in 1775:
'Tis curious and amazing to observe how distinct and independent of each other the rattles of this animal are, and yet how firmly they are united together, so as never to be separated but by breaking them to pieces. One of those rattles singly, is incapable of producing sound, but the ringing of thirteen together, is sufficient to alarm the boldest man living.”

Though this symbol was very important in the colonial era and for the young American republic, very few rifles have been found that incorporate the design, especially as boldly as these two examples by Dickert and Schreyer. The snake patch box designs of course relate to the Gadsden Flag and First Navy Jack used during the war, and Dickert’s is also similar to the design utilized on early Virginia Manufactory rifles.

Desirable Silver Inlaid Flintlock Kentucky Long Rifle Signed by Golden Age Master Craftsman Frederick Sell
of the Littletown School with Raised Carved Stock
                The Frederick Sell rifle is another good example of the paradox of both unity in overall design through the use of consistent motifs and basic configurations and yet the individuality of the combination of carving and engraving on each rifle. Sell was considered by influential Kentucky rifle scholar Joe Kindig, Jr. as “one of the great masters of Kentucky rifle making” and was part of one of the most influential gunsmithing families during the Golden Age. His greatness comes from the fact that he developed his tremendous skill set while working underneath at least three earlier accomplished masters: George Eister, John Lechner, and Adam Ernst. His presumed father, Jacob Sell, was among the most talented makers of the prior generation, and Frederick’s brother who was also named Jacob (often referred to as Jacob the Younger) was also a gifted maker in his own right.  Sell adopted the best aspects of the designs of each of the men under whom he worked. Thus, he created his own style and his own variations while keeping his designs tied to the past and reflected the American ideal of balancing community with individualism.

Jacob Sell the Elder Signed Early Golden Age Flintlock Long Rifle with Silver Inlaid Stock

Peter White is also a great example of someone that was part of a family line of gunmakers that pre-dates the United States and continued well after our independence was secured by victory in the War of 1812. He is the son of either Nicholas or John White who were both gunsmiths during the fight for independence, and at least one of his sons continued to build rifles after his death in 1834. One of the interesting aspects of White’s rifle is that the lock appears to have been built by him. Most gunmakers used locks imported from Europe or produced by dedicated lockmakers in the cities. This rifle is also noticeably slender relative to others of the style and era.

By the time of White’s death, the long rifle and the flintlock system had peaked and were beginning to be replaced by shorter, larger bore rifles. The percussion system and the spread of industry also helped shift firearms production away from individually built masterpieces. The Hawken brothers’ “Plains” or “Mountain” rifle style relatively quickly became the preferred design as the frontier pushed ever further past the Mississippi. Nonetheless, the long rifle persisted, and its legacy continued to influence American firearms for generations. In fact, long rifles have been in essentially continuous production by American gunmakers from the early 18th century into the present day. One look at the Contemporary Long Rifle Association is all it takes to attest the fact that the art of building the first truly American firearm by hand is still alive and will be for generations to come.

Desirable Peter White Golden Age Flintlock Long Rifle with Raised Carved Wood

This discussion has hardly scratched the surface of all of the beautiful rifles in our upcoming auction. For more information see,,, or the many detailed books including Joe Kindig, Jr.’s classic Thoughts on The Kentucky Rifle in It’s Golden Age and Merrill Lindsay’s The Kentucky Rifle both of which contain pictures and discussions of several of the rifles in the upcoming auction. Do not miss your opportunity to see these rifles first hand and please join us for our Premiere Firearms Auction December 4th, 5th, and 6th.

-Written by Seth Isaacson

Friday, October 16, 2015

John Brown's Raid at Harpers Ferry

November 7, 1837 was a turning point for John Brown.  It was on that date that abolitionist publisher Elijah Parish Lovejoy was shot and killed by a pro-slavery mob in Alton, Illinois during their attack on his warehouse.  It was the fourth printing press of Lovejoy's to see such an attack.  He and his supporters were ready to protect their right to free speech with guns, but in the ensuing firefight Lovejoy was struck down and instantly became a martyr for his cause.  The primary goal was to destroy his printing press and abolitionist materials, but the murder of the author had to be icing on the cake for his attackers.  It was at his funeral service in Hudson, that fellow abolitionist John Brown stood up, raised his right hand, and is quoted as saying, "Here before God, in the presence of these witnesses, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery."

Brown in 1846
To be truthful, it was not an epiphany for Brown, who had long held abolitionist beliefs. At 12 years old he viewed the savage beating of a slave boy, which affected him deeply.  By 1835, then 35 years of age, Brown was already a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad in Ohio.  He was far from "all talk," and was already taking high risk actions to clip the clenched talons of slavery.  However, even after his very public proclamation it would be years before Brown would be able to act. Numerous failed business ventures forced him to focus on matters more practical, like feeding his massive family, which would eventually total 20 children (7 from his first marriage (widowed) and 13 from his second).  No matter what the profession - cattle, tannery, horse & sheep breeding, land speculation, or surveying - Brown couldn't get a profession to take hold.  Granted, it didn't help that the Panic of 1837 was still playing out in the American economy, but creditors seldom take excuses.  Facing suits from creditors, Brown lost almost everything when his goods and sheep were auctioned in an attempt to cover his debts.  It was in the aftermath of this event that he made his announcement at Lovejoy's funeral, but things weren't going to improve for the floundering abolitionist.

If the statement of Brown seems like the near explosive outburst of a desperate man, it is.  Imagine the stress of providing for a single child, let alone many of them.  Combine that with the anxiety and embarrassment of serial entrepreneurial failures and the anguish of two of his children dying in the previous five years, and you can begin to understand the incredible psychological strain that Brown surely endured.  Not long thereafter, on September 28, 1842, Brown declared bankruptcy and in 1843 four of his children succumbed to dysentery.  While an average person would be too racked with grief to function properly, John Brown sallied forth.  Life was not going to wait and self-pity was not going to fill the bellies of his remaining family. Using his reputation from his previous sheep breeding days, he moved his family to Ohio to start a business centered on selling high quality wool and sheep.  Shortly thereafter, the fledgling business moved to Springfield, Mass. where Brown met many like-minded abolitionists, further cementing his views, and keeping his 1837 promise fresh in his mind.

It was in Springfield that he once spoke at length with Frederick Douglass, which generated several quotes from the noted orator.

"From this night spent with John Brown in Springfield, Mass. 1847 while I continued to write and speak against slavery, I became all the same less hopeful for its peaceful abolition. My utterances became more and more tinged by the color of this man’s strong impressions."

"Brown denounced slavery in language fierce and bitter, and thought that slaveholders had forfeited their right to live,.. He thought that he had no better use for his life than to lay it down in the cause of the slave."

“Though a white gentleman, he is in sympathy with the black man and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery.” 

After yet another move to North Elba, NY in 1849, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 drew Brown back to Springfield to coordinate with the kindred abolitionist spirits he had met there.  It was then that an anti-slavery militia known as the League of Gileadites was formed by Brown and friends.  The group primarily served to keep Springfield as a safe haven for African-Americans, flying in the face of the new federal law.  Documented sightings of armed African-Americans at train stations exist, stating that such men were stationed there to "greet" any slave catchers intent on plying their trade in Springfield.  It was the first real action that Brown had tasted since his days in the Underground Railroad, and it must have felt fantastic.  With so much of his life seemingly out of his control, here was an area where his actions were making a visible difference.

Knowing that, it makes perfect sense that Brown did not want to leave.  Even with his strong anti-slavery convictions and the provisions of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which created the territories and utilized popular sovereignty to determine whether they would be "slave" or "free" states, he remained rooted to Springfield.  When five of his adult sons left for Kansas to help vote it a "free state," he stayed behind stating he wanted to "lay my bones to rest."  They seem the words of a man weary of wrestling with failure.  With or without Brown, the situation in Kansas quickly became bloody.  Violent clashes between the opposing forces of slavery took place and, as they escalated, became appropriately known as "Bloody Kansas."  Only a desperate letter from his first son, John Jr, could rouse the abolitionist.  It correctly stated that the pro-slavery forces vastly outnumbered their opponents.  Many of the recently relocated pro-slavery "Border Ruffians" had taken control of local polling places and ensured that any vote on the issue would be heavily swayed toward their cause.  Their numbers also ensured that the anti-slavery side had little chance of mounting resistance, but that didn't mean they weren't going to try.  In John Jr.'s letter to his father he requested arms stating, "We need them more than we do bread." Perhaps reinvigorated at the thought of making a profound difference, John Brown gathered his weapons and set out for Kansas.  He arrived in October when both sides were forced indoors by the cold and snow.  The battle would have to wait.

In Spring of 1856, life sprung anew and so did tempers.  On May 22, 1856, U.S. Representative Preston Brooks (D - SC) severely beat Senator Charles Sumner (R - MA) with a cane.  It was Brooks's response to a speech given two days prior by Sumner decrying the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The assault was so horrific that the cane shattered, blood soaked the chamber floor, and Sumner was nearly killed. This extremely polarizing event was equally reviled and celebrated by the respective sides.  It, along with other acts of violence by the "Border Ruffians," pushed John Brown to act in what would be later known as the Pottawatomie Massacre.

A Northern depiction of the Brooks assaulting Sumner.  It would be three years before he could return to the Senate.

Recently, a sheriff-led posse of roughly 800 had been on a tear under the guise of restoring "law & order."  In Lawrence, KS, they had wrecked two abolitionist printing presses and their offices, ruined the Free State Hotel, and sacked the home of one Charles Robinson - the local militia commander and head of the Free State government in the area who would eventually become the first governor of Kansas.  They had used a cannon in their destructive practice and burnt anything that remained standing.   Local pro-slavery governments largely dismissed or justified the attacks and the pro-slavery presses of the time heralded the acts.  The beating of Sumner and the unanswered violence in Lawrence sparked a fire in John Brown.  He, some of his sons, and a pro-slavery militia company began to march toward the conflict.

Image of the Free State Hotel after the sacking of Lawrence

On the night of May 24, 1856, under the light of a waning moon, John Brown and a party specially selected by him began to visit the houses of those who had been arrested for the "sacking of Lawrence," and subsequently released.  One by one the team assembled by Brown knocked on doors in the middle of the night, ordered men to surrender to them as prisoners, and would walk them some distance away from their homes before hacking them to death with broad swords.  Some houses had guests who would be interrogated first and some were even allowed to leave.  Only those violent, pro-slavery, militia-involved individuals were stabbed and cleaved to death on the very soil they sought to shape.  The attacks were brutal. Heads were split asunder, arms were severed, and bodies mutilated.  People wishing to justify the gruesome acts often cited threats against Brown and his family, though perhaps grief had played a role in the evening as well.  Brown's revered father had died over a fortnight prior.

The event began an exponential growth of violence in the "Bloody Kansas" period and put Brown's name on the map.  His role in the massacre forced him and his small fighting force into the woods to serve as guerrilla fighters, and serve they would - most notably at the Battle of Black Jack and the fighting at Osawatomie, earning him the nickname "Osawatomie Brown" and a stageplay of the same title (which debuted posthumously by two weeks). Brown was now a household name and a hero to many abolitionists.  He would spend roughly two years traveling the countryside, all the while seeking contributions of guns, money, or troops from sympathetic Northerners.   In June of 1859, he would rent a farm five miles north of the federal armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, under the name of Isaac Smith and grew a wild-looking beard and head of hair to disguise himself.  From there he prepared to execute what he envisioned to be a back-breaking blow to slavery and the slave states.

Most sources oversimplfy when summarizing John Brown's plan.  It is often summarized as "inciting an armed resurrection to overthrow slavery" or that he believed the only way to defeat the institution of slavery was by a baptism of blood.  While neither of those things is entirely wrong, though Brown would say otherwise, they are a long way from painting a full and accurate picture.  Brown's plan would meet violence, so it required violence, but his aims were much broader: the economic collapse of the South.  Undoubtedly inspired by his time with the underground railroad, Brown wanted to use small units of men armed for their task to free slaves and then escort them Northward through the Appalachians via a series a encampments.  Since the Underground Railroad saw such great success, surely providing fugitive slaves with armed and trained escorts, in Brown's mind, would remove a large part of the danger that escaping slaves faced, eliminate their hesitation, and increase the number of those willing to flee.  Brown reasoned that without adequate number of slaves to run the plantations, those owners would not be able to earn their customary amounts, leading to bankruptcies (something Brown knew first-hand) and devaluation of property.  Without an economic incentive to support it, Brown thought that slavery would be forced into oblivion.  Take note that in no part of that plan is there an armed insurrection, or some sort of 19th century Helter Skelter, or a Sherman-esque march of destruction that frees and arms slaves along the way.  The only firearms needed for the plan were to protect the escaping slaves and those escorting them from their owners, but guns were none-the-less needed and the Arsenal at Harpers Ferry held 100,000 rifles and muskets plus ammunition.

Brown in 1859
In the months preceding the raid, Brown had been busy gathering more than just financial support from wealthy Northerners and Canadians, he had also been reaching out to sympathetic leaders in preparation for the watershed moment that he envisioned.  He had reached out to Harriet Tubman, whom he nicknamed "General Tubman," to utilize her knowledge of resources and her network of supporters.  She would eventually gather former slaves in Ontario who were willing to fight for him.  He contacted William Lloyd Garrison with little result, but also got in touch with his one-time supporter Frederick Douglass.   The two met secretly at a quarry in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania in August, but the result was not what Brown wanted.  Brown is quoted as saying, "When I strike, the bees will begin to swarm, and I want you to help hive them."  But Douglass believed no good could come from raiding the arsenal, warning him that, "You are walking into a perfect steel trap," and that "an attack on the federal government... would array the whole country against us."  With or without Douglass's support, Brown needed guns.  The raid was inevitable.

In September he received 950 pikes from supporters and would eventually receive 200 Sharps rifles, nicknamed "Beecher's Bibles"  for the deliberately misleading markings on the outside of their shipping containers (Beecher being one of the most prominent abolitionist families in the U.S. at that time).

The Raid

There were 18,000 slaves in the six counties surrounding Harpers Ferry.  Once Brown and his raiding party struck the arsenal, he knew that some of those slaves would leave their masters, and the result would be his cause having both the arms and manpower it so desperately needed. It was around 8:00 p.m. on Sunday, October 16, 1859, the midst of the critical harvest season, that Brown uttered, "Men, get on your arms,  We shall proceed to the Ferry."

The plan was as follows: after storming the arsenal and securing the arms, he would hold the arsenal for a time.  While occupying it, he would send out members of his party to the nearby plantations and farms to recruits slaves to his cause.  Brown anticipated up to 500 slaves absconding to the arsenal on the first evening alone.  Once the numbers were adequate he would move out of the arsenal, moving South and dispersing these armed escort groups along the way.  Each group would free slaves, obtain supplies, take hostages (to exchange for slaves), and steal horses as needed, all the while using the cover and terrain of the Appalachians to travel as covertly as possible.  He would blaze a trail of freedom, freeing slaves and ruining the Southern economy in a single campaign. The number of participants would only increase as he went, so each success would be critical to gathering momentum.

Unfortunately, on the night of the raid, Brown did not have the support he envisioned. His entire group consisted of 22 men, including himself: 16 white men, 3 free blacks, one freed slave, and a fugitive slave.  He left four men behind, and the 18 raiders began the five mile march to the arsenal.  With them was also a one-horse cart carrying tools, supplies, torches, and a number of the pikes.

They arrived first at the Baltimore & Ohio bridge that spanned the Potomac and took the opportunity to sever the telegraph wires to the arsenal, as well as easily capture an old night watchman.  Leaving two men as guard on the bridge, the remainder walked the 60 yards to the gates of the Harpers Ferry Arsenal.  All in all, the men encountered little resistance considering 100,000 arms were at stake.  After crossing the bridge, another watchman was on the inside of the locked arsenal gate, but was grabbed through it and held.  He would not give up a key, nor open the gate, so they held him until the gates could be broken with a sledgehammer and crowbar they brought.  Once inside, two-man teams captured buildings, bridges, and another elderly, unarmed guard humorously referred to in a first-hand account as "superannuated."

With the guards and employees secured the next step was to obtain local hostages.  Six armed men were sent to a nearby residence to capture Colonel Lewis W.Washington, the great-grandnephew of George Washington, and any other persons of opportunity (there were three slaves).  It was known that Col. Washington also had a historic presentation dress sword given to George Washington by Frederick the Great as well as a set of pistols presented to Washington from the Marquis de La Fayette - the raiders took them as well.  The kidnapping and ransoming of Col. Washington, for a single slave, would draw great attention to their cause.  On the way back to the arsenal they stopped at another house, kidnapped the owner and all his slaves as well.  Shortly thereafter, men were also sent to fetch the arms that were housed at the farm Brown had rented.  Everything was going perfectly for John Brown, but it was not to last.  It all started with a train.

A B&O passenger train was approaching the station near the arsenal, but was stopped short of the station by one of Brown's sons, Watson.  A free African-American named Shepherd Haywood was the regular railroad porter, highly respected in the community, and was likely going to investigate why the train had stopped.  Other stories portray him as going to warn the passengers who were still ignorant as to why they were stopped.  Regardless the reason, Haywood was shot at around 1:30 in the morning by two of Brown's men.  Most sources note this as particularly ironic since he was a free black man.  He did not die immediately.  The gun shots were the first fired of the ordeal, but most neighbors to the arsenal, hearing no other shots, went back to bed.  The exception was a Dr. John Starry who heard Haywood's cries of pain and, being a doctor, went to go investigate.  He was found by Brown's men and taken to Haywood who was writhing in agony inside the watchman's office.  After doing what he could, Dr. Starry began to watch the actions of the raiders and incorrectly determined that the raid was a simple robbery.  The raiders then made their fatal mistakes: they released the doctor to go to his home after he had pronounced the wound fatal and sent the train on its way.

Only Dr. Starry didn't go home.  He retrieved his horse and rode to the chief clerk of the armory and told him of the events there.  Then he rode to the nearby town of Bolivar and roused some of the townspeople there, proceeded to the militia in local Charles Town, and continued to spread the word until it was daylight.  Starry is sometimes nicknamed, "The Paul Revere of Harpers Ferry."  His actions of course, sent the townspeople scurrying to defend their local lifeline.  Some had been asleep at the timeof the warning though, and were going about their daily business.  This allowed Brown's sentries (historically called "pickets" or lookouts) to take 30-40 townspeople prisoner.  An Irish grocer was not so lucky.  Going about his business, he was deemed by one of the pickets to be walking too closely to the arsenal and was shot and killed without warning.

By seven o'clock that morning most people were by now aware of the situation at the arsenal, be it from Starry's warning or seeing folks taken prisoner, and were beginning to gather arms.  The town of 3,000 had little in the way of firepower that wasn't in the arsenal.  Only several old Revolutionary War flintlocks, some squirrel guns, and fowling pieces were all that could be mustered.  Even ammunition was scarce, forcing the townspeople to melt down pewter housewares to make the necessary bullets, but within two hours the delay was over, sufficient arms having been raised, and a party was formed to take one of the bridges leading to the arsenal.  Brown's pickets were firing at citizens that dared showed themselves in order to make their force appear much larger than it was and to delay any intervention on the part of the townspeople, who were taking their own opportunities to return fire.

While that trouble had been stirred up by the good doctor, with townspeople and raiders alike suffering casualties even in those early hours, the previously released train threatened to stir up even more.  Later that morning, it had made its way to Baltimore and news quickly spread to Washington D. C.  By 3:30 p.m.  President Buchanan had ordered a detachment of Marines to the arsenal.  They were the only troops nearby able to respond and the only commander in the vicinity was a lieutenant colonel of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry on leave from Texas.  He was dispatched to the arsenal in such haste that he left wearing his civilian attire.  That man was Robert E. Lee.

The Fight

Before Lee arrived the following day with his Marines, the townspeople and local militias had already surrounded the arsenal, cutting off Brown's escapes across both the Potomac or the Shenandoah rivers.  They were also driving the invaders further into the arsenal.  The name of raider who had shot the Irish grocer was Dangerfield Newby, a former slave fighting to free his wife.  He had shot one other prominent and beloved local, a friend of Colonel Washington responding to his friend's plight, and was quickly engaged by the townsfolk.  Newby was soon killed by one of the armorers of the arsenal who fired at him from the second story window of a nearby house.  The result is best described in a first-hand account.

"I saw his body while it was yet warm as it lay on the pavement in front of the arsenal yard, and I never saw, on any battle-field, a more hideous musket-wound than his. For his throat was cut literally from ear to ear, which was afterward accounted for by the fact that the armorer, having no bullets, had charged his musket with a six-inch iron spike."

Newby's body was mutilated by the townspeople.  Meanwhile on one of the bridges, the locals had also taken two of the pickets stationed there and killed another.  His body was thrown into the river where, despite their distinct lack of ammunition, his body was fired on again and again.  Of the party of 18, eight were dead, five were isolated, and two had escaped.  Seeing the dire situation, Brown retreated with his remaining forces and prisoners, including Col. Washington, into the engine house of the arsenal and a standoff had begun.  Brown began to make embrasures ("loop holes") in the walls of the engine house in order to fire on his assailants, but still attempted to negotiate.  One time proposing that he and his nine prisoners be permitted to leave and when he had traveled up river a half or three-quarters of a mile, he would release the prisoners. Unfortunately, negotiations between volleys of fire are rarely bear fruit.  Raiders that exited waving a white flag, including one of Brown's own sons, were quickly shot down. An unfortunately curious mayor received a mortal wound for his troubles.  Anger flared among the townspeople!  They killed raiders they had previously taken prisoners, performed target practice on raider corpses, and began to shout about lynchings.

"Attack on the Insurgents At The Bridge By the Railroad Men"
From the Historic Photo Collection, Harpers Ferry NHP

As if this wasn't bad enough for Brown, Lee had arrived with his 87 Marines in the midst of "a lively skirmish" between the townspeople and the raiders.  What's worse, he was accompanied by a young army lieutenant, who had been in D.C. on personal business, but heard of Lee's assignment, volunteered to accompany Lee as an aide-de-camp: J.E.B. Stuart.  Lee intended to end the business at the arsenal very quickly, but hostages inside meant that the Marines would be using only bayonets and to do so they would have to enter the engine house.  After a brief and tense parley between Stuart and Brown where no terms could be reached, Lee gave a quick signal for a dozen previously concealed Marines armed with sledge hammers to begin work on the doors.  The marines,

"sprang forward from behind the angle of the wall that had concealed them, and for perhaps two minutes or more the blows of the sledge-hammers on the door of the engine-house sounded with startling distinctness, and were reechoed from the rocky sides of the lofty mountains that rose in all their rugged majesty around us."

The hammers were ineffective and no shots rang out from the raiders, but within minutes 25 - 30 of the Marines had procured a nearby ladder and were running at the engine house doors, using it as a make-shift battering ram.  The first attempt made no mark,  the second attempt drew gunfire from inside the house wounding two Marines, and the third, blow partially caved one of the doors, permitting a man to get on top and finally collapse it.  A short hand-to-hand battle followed and soon thereafter the Marines exited with their prisoners.

Illustration of the Marines storming what came to be known as "John Brown's Fort"

With that, John Brown's raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry was over.  Some say his raid failed, but others point out that his raid sparked the great Civil War that ultimately ended slavery in the United States.  In that way, not only was his raid not a failure, he himself had also achieved the success that had for so long proved elusive.   It's difficult to know who to believe about Brown's intentions.  If you believe the Southerners at the time, you'll find him to be perhaps the first domestic terrorist of the United States: a treasonous insurrectionist bent on stealing property and spilling Southern blood.  If you believe the abolitionists at the time, you'll see a fiery, heroic humanitarian, dedicated to the equal treatment and freedom of all men regardless the cost.  If you read quotes of the time, from Brown himself, you'll often find both.

"I have only a short time to live, only one death to die, and I will die fighting for this cause.  There will be no peace in this land until slavery is done for."
-Brown, while fighting in the Kansas territory, 1856

"I don't think the people of the slave states will ever consider the subject of slavery in its true light till some other argument is resorted to other than moral persuasion."
- Brown, October 1859 (likely to his captors)

"I pity the poor in bondage that have none to help them; that is why I am here; not to gratify any personal animosity, revenge or vindictive spirit. It is my sympathy with the oppressed and the wronged that are as good as you and as precious in the sight of God...  I want you to understand that I respect the rights of the poorest and weakest of colored people, oppressed by the slave system, just as much as I do those of the most wealthy and powerful. That is the idea that has moved me, and that alone. We expected no reward except the satisfaction of endeavor¬ing to do for those in distress and greatly oppressed as we would be done by. The cry of distress of the oppressed is my reason, and the only thing that prompted me to come here. . ."
-Quotes given to citizens, two congressmen and a reporter from the New York Herald, after being captured

"I John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think vainly, flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done."
-Note given by John Brown to a guard en route to the gallows

"His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine—it was as the burning sun to my taper light—mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the boundless shores of eternity. I could live for the slave, but he could die for him."
-Frederick Douglass

The Gun

The rifle to be sold by Rock Island Island Auction Company in the 2015 December Premiere Firearms Auction is a Sharps Model 1853 carbine captured from John Brown.  Sharps expert Frank Sellers specifically lists this serial number (16639) in his book, Sharps Firearms, as part of a shipment of arms that was delivered to the farm where Brown prepared for his assault on Harpers Ferry.  Federal authorities, only able to retrieve slightly more than half (102) of the Sharps carbines belonging to Brown (200) and historically have only given a serial number range for the weapons involved.  However, factory records from Sharps specifically identify individual serial numbers of half the guns shipped there, and the serial number of this Sharps carbine is among those listed.

John Brown: ruthless guerrilla or passionate humanitarian? Murderer or savior? Unimaginable success or laughable failure?  Terrorist or red-blooded American? Questions like these are what keep the man a polarizing topic to this day. However, careful examination of historical documents reveals shades of both, and that makes for a truly interesting historical figure.  Brown doesn't fit nicely into our boxes of "hero" or "villain."  This "Meteor of the war," as Herman Melville called him, was eventually hung by the neck for treason, murder, and inciting slave rebellion in front of a security guard of roughly 1,500 men led by a cadet of the Virginia Military Institute, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson.  Songs for Brown were composed, and poems and essays of his death would be written by some of the day's most skilled authors and orators: Thoreau, Melville, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Stephen Vincent BenĂ©t.  Perhaps the most notable is that spoken by Douglass at Harper's Ferry on May 30, 1881.

"But the question is, Did John Brown fail? He certainly did fail to get out of Harpers Ferry before being beaten down by United States soldiers; he did fail to save his own life, and to lead a liberating army into the mountains of Virginia. But he did not go to Harpers Ferry to save his life. The true question is, Did John Brown draw his sword against slavery and thereby lose his life in vain? And to this I answer ten thousand times, No! No man fails, or can fail, who so grandly gives himself and all he has to a righteous cause."

"Tragic Prelude" by John Steuart Curry that hangs in the Kansas state capitol building.

-Written by Joel R. Kolander