It’s a sunny spring morning as a minister steps out from his humble chapel nestled in a small grass landing outlined by forest. He takes a deep breath and feels the sweet, warm air fill his lungs as he determines what needs to be done for the day. Around him, the familiar sights of the Connecticut country side greet his gaze as a smile begins to crack on the old man’s face. While he would miss the stone walls, winding forests, and towering charter oak trees of his home, a new adventure was awaiting the minister and his flock as they set their eyes West in search of opportunity.
The journey would not be easy. Luckily for the minister, a Winchester Model 1866 rifle made just for him had arrived that day to accompany him on the pilgrimage.
Happy Easter, firearms friends! Today, we are looking at one of the most interesting items featured in the exciting May 14-16 Premier Firearms Auction at Rock Island Auction Company. Along with swaths of other historic and beautiful firearms, the auction also features a Winchester lever action rifle unlike any other seen here before. This gold plated Winchester 1866 was engraved by legendary artist Conrad F. Ulrich not once, but twice.
An interesting departure for the standard signature of the artist found on his previous works, this rifle exceeds the boundaries of what one would expect and challenges the notion of possibility. Anything is possible with enough searching.
Who Was Conrad F. Ulrich?
Before diving too deep into the intrigue behind this mysterious firearm, understanding exactly who Conrad F. Ulrich was and why he remains so important in the world of firearms collecting is essential. With an understanding of his style, motifs, and notable features found throughout his work, an understanding of why this particular firearm is especially important can become clear.
Conrad Frederick Ulrich was the second son of Conrad and Anna Ulrich who, along with his brother John, would become some of the most famous engravers to ever touch a gun. Learning from the legendary Colt engraver, Gustave Young, as well as from his older brother, Conrad quickly became one of the most prominent engravers at the time. It was his skill and artistry, along with his notable ego and eccentric personality that made him such a success in an industry that was facing a sharp decline during the late 19th century. While he was one of the most influential engravers of his time, interestingly enough he was never an official employee of Winchester despite producing some of their finest works.
With facial hair styled after Buffalo Bill, Conrad F. Ulrich was instantly recognizable and his perceived ego would leave long lasting impressions on all those he encountered. Known to frequently request portraits and photographs of himself redone, Conrad was never content and rarely satisfied—always pushing to accomplish more not by the pressures of his peers, but because of his own intense ambitions. An example of this determination was when he designed a rotary engine because of his sole desire to obtain a U.S. patent with his own name on it. Adding to his already impressive occupational repertoire, Conrad F. Ulrich was a man willing to move mountains for his aspirations.
Inventor, businessman, and artist, Conrad F. Ulrich and his brothers were considered masters of their craft due to the remarkable skills in engraving and stock work produced by the family. However, by the time of their deaths, very little was mentioned of their accomplishments with next to no mention of their works listed in their obituaries. Today, the brothers are seen as pioneers in the realm of firearm embellishments with their reputations seldom compared to others. Not only because of their raw talent and skill, but because of personality, sprit, and attitude each brought with them. While not fully appreciated at the time of their deaths, various authors, historians, and enthusiasts have tried to correct the injustice in the following decades through biographies, books, and other resources published to continue the Ulrich’s legacy for future generations.
The Minister’s Winchester Model 1866 Lever Action Rifle
Manufactured in 1872, this extraordinary rifle, nicknamed “The Minister’s ’66,” was beautifully engraved by Colt and Marlin Master Engraver Conrad F. Ulrich. As mentioned earlier, Ulrich executed some of Winchester’s finest engravings despite never actually being an official employee of the company. His style has become an icon of the late 19thcentury rifle designs with this exquisite piece of art being particularly of interest because of the peculiar double signature of Conrad F. Ulrich himself. Why would Ulrich sign this gun twice? The reasoning is unclear, however, it could have simply been because the artist was especially proud of his finished work. Considering the vivacious personality of Conrad, this theory could be entirely possible.
While Conrad F. Ulrich’s double signature is extraordinarily intriguing, there is much more to this gun than what initially meet the eye. The themes engraved on this rifle stray from some of the traditional imagery engraved by Ulrich (such as his well-known animal scenes and acanthus scroll designs). This not only suggesting that the firearm is—at the least—a very unique custom order, but also that its intended owner was likely someone involved with the clergy. While it is unknown who it was engraved for, various other aspects, details, and clues on this beautiful rifle have illuminated some possible answers to this riddle.
Symbols, Imagery, and Allusions
As the name indicates, this rifle carries serious religious imagery and motifs. A quick glance at the surface of the rifle, adorned with various engravings, immediately distinguishes itself as an item of significant importance, perhaps for personal and religious reasons. While the engravings might appear random on initial observation, an analyses of their placement, subject, and features proves that the aesthetical design of the firearm was very much intentional.
The left side of the receiver features a large panel showing a flying dove with an olive branch clasped in its beak. The dove, a universal sign of peace, is also a deeply rooted symbol in the Christian Church as is regularly compared to the Holy Spirit throughout the Bible. Appearing frequently in scripture, the dove has appeared in the story of Noah’s Ark, the Baptism of Jesus, and was a subject frequently written in detail about by St. Augustine of Hippo. While many cultures around the world have adopted the dove as a symbol of hope, perhaps because of its white color and its relation to the ideas of purity, the depiction of the dove grasping the olive branch in its beak almost certainly clarifies Christianity to be at the center of the rifle’s visual motif.
Also appearing on the left side is a depiction of an amaryllis bouquet, a symbol with origins in ancient Greek literature. While these images are all certainly beautiful, what exactly do they all mean? The Greek story of Amaryllis trying to win the affection of the shepherd Alteo is a story of love and determination. Amaryllis, a beautiful woman, falls in love with a Shepard named Alteo who is depicted as having immense strength, flawless beauty, and a passion for flowers. However, despite her affection, Alteo proclaims that his heart would only belong to a woman able to present to him a flower he had yet to ever see. Desperately enamored and incredibly intent on winning his love, Amaryllis travels to seek guidance from the Oracle of Delphi who informs her that only a sacrifice of her own blood with a golden arrow could gain her the affection of Alteo. Enthusiastically, Amaryllis stabbed her heart for thirty days in succession outside the home of her desire. On the last day of her torture, a bright red flower blossomed from the spilt blood underneath her. This beautiful flower was then presented to Alteo to win his heart, despite its painful cost. The amaryllis flower was named after this story because of the flower’s crimson hue and has defined the flower as an perpetual symbol of love, ethereal beauty, and determination.
Focusing attention to the right side, a large rose branch and butterflies in flight are depicted along with other images of the insect undergoing metamorphosis and the various stages of its development. Long has this insect been a symbol of hope, beauty, and change due to its dramatic transformation from caterpillar to majestic butterfly. This scene is believed to represent the cycle of life as well as the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Rose thorns representing the crown of thorns worn by Jesus during his crucifixion confirms this suspected allusion. The smaller scene on the right seems to resemble what has been described as a lily plant that likely represents purity and light, continuing themes explored earlier with the dove imagery. Looking at the top of the receiver, two distinct church steeples featuring prayer windows and what seems to appear two interlocking wedding bands can be found along with a pair of objects resembling chalices.
These symbols alone are enough to hint at this rifle being ordered personally by or for a religious figure, but there is more evidence to support that on the forearm. The right side of the forearm features an interesting series of crosses and notches along the upper edge that differ in size and design. From the receiver of the Winchester rifle to its muzzle, the series features an array of different sized crosses that have all been hand-etched. Obviously made by a different person than Ulrich because of their crude designs and different sizing, these markings seem to indicate the number of kills at the hands of one of its owner… or perhaps the continuation of multiple ones.
The final nail in the coffin is included documentation that indicates that the rifle was ordered for a prominent Connecticut minister in 1872, although his identity is unknown. A rifle that asks more questions than it ultimately answers, the story of its manufacturing and the artist responsible for its beauty are undoubtedly interesting on their own. Nevertheless, perhaps the true story of this Winchester might be a secret lost to the unforgiving tides of time.
Real Art. Real History. Real Iron.
Estimated at $65,000-$95,000, this beautiful rifle is only the tip of the iceberg when compared to the total amount of firearms, collectibles, and militaria that will be present during the May 14-16 Premier Firearms Auction. Besides some of the other historic items for sale, including pistols owned and used by ALEXANDER HAMILTON, this auction has thousands of other high-powered and beautiful weapons that can be yours during the event. Place your bids today!
Rock Island Auction Company wishes a very happy and safe Easter to all the loyal and supportive customers who continue to defend the Second Amendment. Our May 14-16 Premier Auction digital catalog is now available on our website. Browse the thousands of items for sale during this event and let us know what you’re most excited to see sell. Place your bids now and make your plans because we cannot wait to see everyone!
Barbero, Emily (2011) “Amaryllis,” Verbum: Vol. 9 : Iss. 1 , Article 12. Available at: https://fisherpub.sjfc.edu/verbum/vol9/iss1/12
Houze, Herbert G. Colt Factory Engravers of the Nineteenth Century: Understanding Their Careers and Identifying Their Work. Woonsocket, RI: Mowbray Publishers, 2012.
Rockislandauction.com. Accessed March 30, 2021. https://www.rockislandauction.com/detail/82/1016/conrad-ulrich-engraved-winchester-model-1866-lever-action-rifle.
Wilson, R. L. The Book of Winchester Engraving. Place of Publication Not Identified: Wallace Beinfield Pub., 1975.