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Friday, March 18, 2016

Guns of the 1893 Columbian Exposition

In 1889, a structure was constructed from a lattice-work of iron and placed in Paris squarely at the entrance of the 1889 World's Fair. At 1,063 feet tall, it was likely not lost on many Americans that the newly built Eiffel Tower now eclipsed the Washington Monument as the tallest man-made structure in the world. Such is the scenario that prominent architect Daniel Burnham found himself in during 1890. He was given the responsibility of transforming an entire square mile of marsh into a showcase of beauty, ingenuity, architecture, prosperity, and invention. Burnham was overseeing construction and exhibit selection, and with the spectacle and success of the Paris Universal Exposition looming behind him, failure was a very real possibility.

The Columbian Exposition was a World's Fair that was off to a bad start. Intended to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's landing, the event had to be postponed a year in order to make the proper accommodations. However, those efforts would prove to be worth the wait. Burnham had assembled a "who's who" of architects, designers, landscapers, and planners and gave one commandment to precede all others, "Make no little plans." The full quote reads,

"Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty."

Taken to heart, this prime directive gave rise to a White City filled with neoclassical architecture, high brow art, frivolous entertainment, national pavilions, and a list of inventions so long, it reads like a tome of American contributions. It includes items such as: the Ferris Wheel (arguably the fair's premier attraction), the zipper, Cracker Jacks, Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, Aunt Jemima's pancake mix, Juicy Fruit gum, cream of wheat, shredded wheat, the telautograph (an early, analog fax machine), AC power, the movie theater, the dishwasher, phosphorescent lamps, Hershey's chocolate, spray painting, Gold Medal baking flour, elongated souvenir coins, moving walkways, the debut of harry Houdini (a then unknown Ehrich Weiss) and much more.

The exhibits chosen for this monumental event had to be the very best. The decree of "no small plans," had apparently extended far beyond the planners, and worked its way to the inventors and exhibitors themselves. Even firearms manufacturers held themselves to the task to bring forth their most elegant, finely decorated firearms. The results are spectacular: remarkable engraving executed by the most esteemed Master engravers, lush and expertly applied gold inlays, and outsourced embellishments from the likes of Tiffany & Co. Some of the most outstanding work being done on firearms in the world at that time was present in that single square mile in Chicago, Illinois.

In Rock Island Auction Company's 2016 April Premiere Firearms Auction, we are extremely fortunate to have no less than four guns with direct ties to this prestigious and historic event. Here is a brief look at each one.

Lot 3053: Rare, Historic, and Deluxe Tiffany & Co. Smith & Wesson .32 Double Action 4th Model Revolver Exhibited by the Factory at the 1893 "World's Columbian Exposition" in Chicago with Factory Letter.
Estimate: $85,000 - $110,000

It's no secret that famed New York jeweler and silversmith Tiffany & Co. was known to make wonderful embellishments for firearms. Some were done for Colt, but the largest grouping known are those decorated for Smith & Wesson in the 1890s. Unlike those done for Colt, the Tiffany work on Smith & Wesson firearms were all individually completed by commission or special order by wealthy clients.

These remarkable handguns were commissioned by D. B. Wesson specifically as show pieces for the Columbian Exposition, but their glory days extended far beyond. Many were also exhibited at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris as well as the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. This revolver is accompanied by its factory letter which details its shipment with four other Tiffany decorated revolvers. It is unknown how many Columbian Exposition guns survive today, but only nine Tiffany-commissioned Smith & Wesson revolvers were created specifically for the Columbian Exposition (others were made as special orders). Four of which are currently housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, plus two more located at the Springfield Museums in Springfield, MA, making this revolver one of only three that are potentially available to private collectors if they aren't already behind museum glass or if they still exist at all.

An exquisitely crafted gun, it is a masterpiece of silver and steel. It was shipped to Tiffany & Co. with a nickel finish and hard rubber grips, but what resulted is truly stunning. The geometric  acid etching on the barrel extends to the cylinder and top strap, but even these angular designs are not without nods to the floral vines that wrap themselves around the grip and come to a spine on the front and back straps. The grip's vine embellishment is elegant and simple, ending with in a crown-like finial. It is given its shape by what is made to look like a small cord binding the grip, so that cold, solid sterling silver grip appears as if it might have the same texture as a soft curtain, bound up to better let in the sun.

Lot 3055: Exhibition Quality, Gold Inlaid W.W. Greener Royal Grade G60 Double Barrel Shotgun with 1893 Chicago World's Fair Exposition Markings. Estimate: $4,000 - $6,000

Greener was once king of the world when it came to hunting shotguns and rifles. During the time of the Columbian Exposition his 37,000-square foot facility located at St. Mary's Row in Birmingham was dubbed by W.W. Greener, a fantastic self-promoter, as the "largest and most complete sporting gun factory in the world," which turned out 1,000 hand-built shotguns and rifles annually. Unlike many competitors, Greener had sales agents and retail locations around the world in cities such as new York, London, Paris, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Montreal, and Buenos Aires. He had legitimate geniuses in his employ, working to invent and popularize features that are still used in modern sporting guns to this day. The following year, nine of the top 11 shooters in the 1894 U.S. grand Nationals were using Greeners.

With his marketing prowess and international savvy, Greener was not going to miss the chance to showcase his finest wares to a nation of shooters who were simultaneously experiencing an era of economic prosperity. To that end, he spared no expense at his booth showing off a high number of firearms in a variety of styles: shotguns, rifles, double barrel, hammerless, automatic ejectors, external hammers, a "locking lug" which better secured the break action arms, safeties, large bore safari guns, small bore guns for small game, double and quad barrel smooth bore pistols, and so on. Greener also took it upon himself to help educate the throngs on the technical aspects of the firearms displayed, by showing bits of the steel and iron used to make the arms, dissected actions, cross-sectioned barrels to illustrate the chokes and rifling, locks for hammer guns, wooden models of the guns, and models from other manufacturers for comparison. The Committee on Awards for the event is quoted as saying, "Altogether, it was a very complete exhibit."

The shotgun in this auction is no exception to the high quality arms that were on display for the exposition. The wood is well-figured and finely checkered, the forearm piece being tipped with a inset made from horn. The buttstock continues forward up the checkered pistol grip where it meets an intricately engraved tang, trigger guard, and box lock action, all of which, in addition to the tiny floral scroll engraving is dotted with wild game panel scenes. Just over the serial number on the tang is an engraved pheasant rooster on the wing, and the trigger guard features two hunting dogs on a point, The safety switch on the left shows another ring-necked pheasant beneath it, with the word "Safe" in gold inlay, and the box lock on the same side has a hunting dog running after two sprung game birds. The opposite side lock has a more disciplined dog still holding his point on two quail that have burst from cover. Atop the opening lever is gold inlaid crown and full coverage of the same engraving. The underside of the action has two engraved rabbits, as hidden as they would be during a hunt. The engraving extends up the scalloped lock and on to the side-by-side barrels, the rib between which is engraved with an egret and a maker's mark before continuing into its matte finish. The inscription reads, "W. W. Greener. Haymarket London & St. Mary's Square, Birmingham, England. Winner at the London Gun Trials, 1875, 1877, 1878, & 1879." The muzzles are punctuated with a single brass bead between them.

It is of note that this Greener shotgun is also a Greener's best grade "G-Guns," officially known as a Royal Grade G60, and shows many of the same features such as the chiseled fences, gold crown and "Safe" marking, the fine floral "bank note" engraving, and so on. Vic Venters in his book Gun Craft" gives the quote, "Outside of a small group on connoisseurs, virtually no one realizes these guns exist or the level of craftsmanship they embody. For all intent, they are lost to history." Barely more than 20 craftsmen were trusted to manufacture these best-grade G-Guns from 1880 to 1916. Venters further quotes, "They were Greener's elite, a workforce hand-picked for its skills and experience. For 45 years the same surnames appear in the archives under each of the 14 major stages in building a G-Gun... Unfortunately, we know very little about these men - not even their first names - other than that they were among the best craftsmen of their day and that they spent their entire working lives in the employ of Greener's. We do know that they were extraordinarily well paid for their era. It was quite normal for them to earn 100 shillings per week in the 1880s, when the average Birmingham trade worker was only taking home about 20."

Some extra research into this shotgun could yield big results for one lucky collector.

 Lot 3052: Extremely Rare L.D. Nimschke Engraved and Columbian Exposition Rifle Prize Inscribed Winchester Model 1892 Lever Action Rifle with Factory and Madis Letters. Estimate: $25,000 - $45,000

If this Winchester's ties to the Columbian Exposition weren't enough to endear it collectors, its assortment of special order features and embellishments would seal the deal. It has an octagon barrel, half magazine, Lyman front sights, and a fancy checkered walnut stock. The combination of the full octagon barrel and the half magazine is a rare one indeed.

Then there are features that are above and beyond even a special order Winchester. Mentioned first and foremost in the accompanying Madis letter are the "very special silver inlays."  Adjacent to the receiver at the top of the grip, these silver pieces, accented with a large fleur de lis are also engraved and would have been added at the same time as the rest of the gun's engraving. Madis writes, "Collectors have named these inlays 'Tiffany inlays,' after the New York jeweler who did most of this work." Despite this flattering title, the engraving on the receiver, barrel, forend tip, and buttplate were instead masterfully executed by L. D. Nimschke, " of America's foremost engravers of his period." Lush scroll work covers every surface of the receiver sans two areas that have been reserved to panel scenes of a hunting dog in pursuit of its quarry and a majestic stag. This work goes far above and beyond typical Winchester engraving. Both it and the checkering are considered "extensive" and alone earns this rifle a prized status among collectors.

Perhaps even more distinguishing than engraving and special order features, if it could be so, are two features especially unique to this rifle. One is an inlaid, still-functioning compass that has been inset into the right side of the stock and given a handsome, engraved, brass frame to better hold in the recessed compass. It is similar to one seen on the Winchester Factory Presentation Model 1873 given to Edward Stabler, inventor of the Stabler cut-off system. The second is an inscription on the left barrel flat that reads, "Made for Helen A. Foster. Prize Rifle Columbian Exposition."

It may initially seem unusual to see such a rifle inscribed to a woman, but at the Columbian Exposition women were particularly active in the event. So much so that the Women's Building was said to be slightly less popular than the prominent and extremely well-received Ferris Wheel. Born as Helen Foster, Helen Foster Barnett was the wife of Dr. James P Barnett of Brooklyn, New York, but she is far from being known by virtue of her husband. Dr. Barnett passed in 1886 leaving her with their children and a considerable fortune. She turned into a well-known and generous philanthropist, mostly via her appreciation and support of art. It is unknown (even by Madis) how Mrs. Foster is associated with the rifle. Was the rifle made as a prize for her to present? Was it made as a prize for her personally thanks to her love of the aesthetic or perhaps some charitable act or donation on her part? Madis says it best, "Research continues on the inscription, Mrs. Foster, and the history of the rifle."

Lot 3054: Rare and Excellent Factory Documented 1893 Chicago World's Fair Exposition Engraved Gold and Nickel Smith & Wesson 38 Safety Hammerless Third Model Double Action Revolver with Pearl Grips and Factory LetterEstimate: $7,500 - $9,500

This little gem of a Smith & Wesson revolver appeared side-by-side with the opulent Tiffany-embellished handguns that were on display for those six months in 1893. The rich dot and scrollwork engraving should be familiar to Smith & Wesson collectors and is unquestionably done in the hand of one of the Young engraving dynasty: Gustave, Oscar, or Eugene. It is noted in the factory letter that this revolver was "offered by Smith & Wesson for sale at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, but did not sell and was sold after the close of the World's Fair." With its provenance and embellishments, this revolver should have no such troubles at Rock Island Auction. It wouldn't take long for it to find a home even after the exposition; the letter further indicates that it was shipped within months on January 15, 1894 to Hartley & Graham Co, in New York City. It still matches all of its factory original specifications: 4-inch barrel, factory engraving, nickel and gold finish, and pearl grips.

The dot and scroll engraving finds nearly every corner of the revolver, starting on the butt and backstrap, it resumes on the sides of the frame and hinge, the top strap, the cylinder, and down the barrel. The pearl grips are bright and iridescent, while the trigger guard retains traces of the original finish. Once regarded as one of the finest guns that Smith & Wesson had to offer, this revolver would resume a place of honor in any collection in which it resides.

All in all the event was a huge success for Daniel Burnham and the city of Chicago. The bustling metropolis was now associated with all the luxury, innovation, beauty, spectacle, and entertainment that the Columbian Exposition had packed into its six short months. Historian David Nasaw writes of the world fairs and their purpose that reached far beyond mere entertainment,

"The world's fairs were paeans to progress, concrete demonstrations of how order and organization, high culture and art, science and technology, commerce and industry, all brought together under the wise administration of business and government, would lead inevitably to a brighter, more prosperous future."

In an age of economic prosperity, expansion, innovation, industrial might, and melding nationalities, the Columbian Exposition was perhaps the best physical manifestation of a nation bursting at the seams to grow in every direction at once. The firearms present at this show are also a perfect representation of the era from which they come, a physical time capsule that can be held in the hand, contemplated, and returned gently to a collection until the next time it is called upon to tell its tale of a time in American when nothing was impossible.

The Hall of Fine Arts at the 1893 Columbian Exposition

-Written by Joel R. Kolander


Venters, Vic. Gun Craft: Fine Guns & Gunmakers in the 21st Century. Camden, ME.: Shooting Sportsman, 2010. Print.

World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Ill., 1893: Report of the Committee on Awards of the World's Columbian Commission. Vol. 2. Washington: G.P.O., 1901. Print.


  1. And of course the Columbian Exposition is today best known for its serial murderer-

    1. Your reference probably is accurate only within the cohort of serial killer aficionados. Far more memorable is the continuing legacy of Jackson Park (built from the debris of the Exposition) and the old Beau Arts building (which was converted into the world-class Rosenwald Museum of Science and Industry).

  2. After my parents passed, I found a wonderful bound book of photos in their house - Columbian Gallery, A Portfolio of Photographs of the World's Fair 1893, Marvels of the Midway Plaisance. This was a true world's fair.