Winchester lever-action rifles first captured Greg Garlick’s imagination out of sheer practicality.
“I’m left-handed, and when I was growing up in the 1950s, there just weren’t many options in terms of left-handed rifles,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “A lever gun was my only real option.”
That’s because unlike bolt-action hunting rifles, which are typically designed for right-handed shooters, a lever action can be efficiently operated with either hand, he said.
But what was born out of necessity soon became an abiding passion.
Garlick over the years collected, traded and sold more and more lever guns: Marlin, Henry, Winchester and the like. Winchesters remained his favorite. And particularly, the Winchester Model 1876, which was one of the company’s flagship rifles until about the 1930s.
He had several model 1876 Winchesters on display and for sale Saturday at the New Frontier Gun Show and Western Collectibles Show in Cheyenne, ranging in price from about $3,000 for those in more heavily used condition to at least $30,000 for one in near-mint condition.
He was one of many vendors who filled the Event Center at Archer with alluring pieces of history during the three-day show.
‘An Unbelievable Amount Of Western American History’
Many gun shows feature primarily modern firearms and accessories, capturing the attention — and cash — of hunters and tactical shooters.
The New Frontier show is open to all, but it primarily draws serious collectors and aficionados of vintage and antique firearms and gear, show organizer Scott Tarbell told Cowboy State Daily.
“There’s an unbelievable amount of Western American history in this building. Usually, you’d have to go to museum to see anything even close to this,” he said.
After the success of the Cheyenne show, Tarbell anticipates more events in Wyoming. He started off years ago organizing gun shows in Cody, but later moved most of his events to Colorado.
However, the severity of Colorado’s restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic soured him on that state, he said. So, Tarbell’s happy to be back in the Cowboy State.
Bob Nelson of Cheyenne knows all about Western history. He runs the Nelson Museum of the West in Cheyenne.
He had numerous rarities at the show. An authentic 19th century Indian scout’s buckskin jacket was garnering the most attention. Some who stopped to admire it wondered if it was had been worn by a Sioux. Nelson said he wasn’t certain about its origins, but it’s design and decorative flair suggest it was Cree.
At age 81, he mused over how he’s seen gun shows evolve over the decades.
“Gun shows really got their start in the 1950s and ’60s,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “They were usually more like this show. It was an opportunity for people to get together and admire the collectibles and vintage firearms they had found. Over the years, gun shows sort of morphed into military surplus events.”
He added that many of the firearms and items that turn up nowadays at shows like New Frontier are coming from “baby boomers.”
“There are a lot who are downsizing,” he said. “They’re hitting the stage in life where they want to get out of a 4,000-square-foot house and into a condo, and they’re finding many of these rare items in the process.”
Journeys Back In Time
Collector Elmer Diederich of Big Timber, Montana, said that estate sales, auctions and word-of-mouth networking are good ways of finding precious items.
One of the premier offerings at his table was a German muzzleloading black powder 12-gauge shotgun.
While admiring the gun’s intricate gold inlay, Diederich wondered about its origins and what well-heeled German might have hunted fowl with it. Unfortunately, the previous owner didn’t know much about its history, he said.
On the other hand, William Gilbert of New Mexico and Texas knew detailed history of one of his showpieces — a 1904 Colt Army revolver chambered in .38-40. Texas sheriff Thomas Ruffin Roane had carried it in the early 20th Century.
Roane had it engraved with wise words: “Never draw me without cause, or sheathe me in dishonor.”
The pistol is valued at $24,000, Gilbert said.
He added that the rich history tied to such firearms and other items draws in vendors and buyers alike.
“It’s the romance of the American frontier and what it represents,” he said. “It’s all about liberty and freedom and wanting to be left alone. That’s how those people lived.”
Some Room For Modern Things
Todd Bushholtz, owner of the Right Arms in Greeley, Colorado, was one of the few vendors offering modern firearms at the show.
This was his first venture into Wyoming. He said he was pleased with the response he got and Wyoming’s gun-friendly attitude, so he plans to keep coming to gun shows here.
One of his customers, Dean Brantly, stopped to admire a Daniel Defense AR-10 rifle, chambered in 7.62 x 51 mm NATO, bearing a $2,599.99 price tag.
He was in Wyoming on business from his home and Georgia, and said he likes the Daniel Defense Co. because it’s based in his home state.
“This is my dream gun” he said as he lifted the AR-10 from the display rack to get a closer look.
But given the price, “If I bought this gun right now and came back home with it, my wife would probably shoot me with it” he said, jokingly adding that his dream gun purchase would have to wait for another day.
Traveling With The Shows
The gun show circuit is a great way to see the country and sell custom items, Virginia resident Kimberly Davis told Cowboy State Daily.
She and her daughter, Emily, were traveling with their friend Elizabeth Rudolph. They had a variety of items for sale, including purses and handbags with “concealed carry” compartments for pistols, customed backpacks and first-aid kits, as well as homemade dog treats and beef jerky.
“We’re traveling together and hitting the gun show circuit,” Kimberly Davis said. “After this show, we’re headed to one in Denver.”
Rudolf said she’s trying to build her Ms. Molle brand of packs and bags along the way. She bases her products off of military gear, but creates them in a variety of colors “with more flare” to appeal to a wider range of customers, particularly women.
A Good Investment
At his table full of Winchesters, Garlick admired a particularly robust rifle and wondered what it would have been like to stake his survival on it back during the opening of the American frontier.
“This is a big hunk of steel. That’s what I would want to have with me if I was leaving St. Louis and headed west,” he said.
Though he came of age hunting with a lever-action Winchester, Garlick said he doesn’t typically fire his vintage rifles. They’re mostly for collection and display only.
They were chambered for black powder cartridges, in calibers such as .45-60, and couldn’t handle the firing chambers generated by modern smokeless powder cartridges, he said.
For him, researching, collecting, selling and discussing vintage Winchesters is primarily about the love of history and well-made American firearms. But it’s also provided him security in retirement, because the guns hold their value so well.
“It’s a joy and it’s a collection,” he said. “But if you do it right it’s a investment, and it’s a fine investment that transcends the stock market.”