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Percussion plains rifle by Samuel Hawken, est. $40,000-$60,000

Superlative Native American-used frontier firearms offered at Cowan’s, June 8

 Selection of frontier firearms from the collection of Larry Ness

Selection of frontier firearms from the collection of Larry Ness

CINCINNATI – On June 8, Cowan’s Auctions will offer one of the largest and most complete collections of Native American-related and -used firearms in its Frontier Firearms from the Lifetime Collection of Larry Ness auction. Ness spent five decades assembling this carefully curated collection that meticulously tracks the development of firearms from the earliest days of western expansion by American settlers to the dawn of the 20th century. This auction provides an opportunity for collectors of historic arms to acquire truly unique and historically significant items that are not often brought to market. Absentee and Internet live bidding will be available through LiveAuctioneers.

From the earliest days of European settlements in North America, firearms were a key commodity when trading with Native Americans. By the 18th century, gunsmiths both in England and later in its American colonies were producing firearms strictly to be traded to Native American tribes. Unlike the European colonists who rarely strayed far from their settlements, many Native American tribes frequently traversed large swaths of territory and therefore needed smaller, more lightweight firearms that could easily be sheathed on horseback but still had enough stopping power to contend with bears or other treacherous animals. These specially-made firearms became colloquially known as “trade guns.”

As the lucrative fur trade took off in North America, fur companies began selling firearms manufactured specifically for Native American, European and American trappers alike. Like the earlier trade guns, these firearms, which would become known as “northwest trade guns,” were designed to be lightweight, able to stand up to harsh weather conditions, serviceable, and, perhaps most importantly, cheap.

The Ness collection features a number of trade rifles, including several northwest trade rifles by the two largest manufacturers: the Hudson’s Bay Company and the American Fur Company.

Percussion plains rifle by Samuel Hawken, est. $40,000-$60,000
Percussion plains rifle by Samuel Hawken, est. $40,000-$60,000

Perhaps no place was better known for the manufacturing of frontier arms than St. Louis. The city boasted numerous well-known smiths, but perhaps none were more popular than brothers Jacob and Samuel Hawken and their crosstown rival Horace E. Dimick. Unlike the lighter, typically smoothbore trade gun, the St. Louis plains rifles were much more robust and typically incorporated a heavy octagonal rifled barrel, often measuring more than one inch across the flats, which was intended for accurate long-distance shooting.

The Ness collection features 10 rifles from these acclaimed makers including an extraordinary pair of percussion plains rifles by Samuel Hawken (lots 161 and 162, each estimated at $40,000-$60,000); a Hawken-marked Spencer Carbine with alterations to a heavy-barreled plains rifle (lot 193, estimated at $10,000-$20,000), and an essentially untouched example of a Dimick plains rifle (lot 166, estimated at $8,000-$10,000).

Winchester 1st Model 1876 rifle #3536, believed to have been taken from Sitting Bull’s cabin on the day he died, est. $40,000-$60,000
Winchester 1st Model 1876 rifle #3536, which is believed to have been taken from Sitting Bull’s cabin on the day he was killed, est. $40,000-$60,000

Another highlight of the auction is a Winchester 1st Model 1876 rifle with extensive documentation suggesting that it was taken from Sitting Bull’s cabin on the day of his death. The rifle was supposedly recovered from Sitting Bull’s cabin on the day that he was killed during a botched arrest attempt by US Indian Police. The rifle, along with other weapons recovered that day, were turned in to Standing Rock Reservation Indian Agent Major James McLaughlin. The Winchester rifle carries an estimate of $40,000-$60,000.

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