Tiffany & Co. decorated this Winchester Model 1886 takedown rifle with cast and chased silver mounts in the Art Nouveau style for display at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900. A collaborative masterwork by the country’s preeminent silver firm and leading rifle maker which combines a machine-made product of state-of-the-art design with hand-made decoration that bucked contemporary conventions of American firearms embellishment, the gun is emblematic of America’s artistic ambition and industrial accomplishment around the turn of the century. It also would have been understood by some contemporary audiences as a symbol of the Western frontier’s closing, as many then viewed the Winchester rifle as a critical tool in the United States' territorial expansion.
The rifle is a transformative gift to The Met from the Robert M. Lee Foundation in honor of the Museum’s 150th anniversary that enhances the Museum’s ability to represent Tiffany’s distinct contributions to the decoration of American firearms and to tell stories about this era of American history.
It is one of only two silver-mounted Tiffany-decorated Winchesters known to survive. The other rifle entered in the Museum’s collection in 2013—a Model 1894 also featured in the 1900 Exposition (acc. no. 2013.901). Both guns are among the last firearms Tiffany decorated for exhibition, and they thus mark the twilight of the firm’s long tradition of embellishing weapons for presentation, display, and the private market. They also rank among Tiffany’s most intriguing works from around the turn of the century, for while the firm’s collaborative partnership during the 1880s–90s with another gun manufacturer, Smith & Wesson, is well-known and documented by several dozen examples, eight of which are preserved in the Museum’s collection (Acc. Nos. 2003.546.1; 2003.546.2; 2007.477; 2010.482; 2013.902, 2013.903a, b; 2013.904a–c; 2019.444a–c), Tiffany’s work with the Winchester Arms Company was comparatively limited and remains largely unstudied.
Tiffany played a leading role in the design and sale of decorated weapons in the United States since the 1840s. During and after the Mexican War (1846–48) and in the wake of the Civil War (1861–65), the firm was the foremost American supplier of presentation swords. Beginning in the early 1860s, it initiated partnerships with the American firearms manufacturers Colt, Derringer, and Smith & Wesson, becoming a major pistol retailer.
Archival evidence suggests that Tiffany decorated handguns in the 1860s and 1870s, but no Tiffany-marked firearm from this period is known and many may have been sold unmarked, with their factory finishes. The firm further expanded its firearms offerings in the 1880s, collaborating with Smith & Wesson and other makers to sell pistols customized with elaborately decorated grips made of silver and other precious materials. Made for wealthy customers and display at international exhibitions, the finest examples rank among Tiffany’s most accomplished works of the 1880s–90s and reflect key styles established by the firm’s lead designer, Edward C. Moore (1827–1891), including the Saracenic and Japaneseque. The eight Tiffany pistols in The Met’s collection together express the great range of materials, techniques, and artistic inspirations employed by Tiffany’s designers under Moore and soon after his death. They also capture the prestige of American firearms in the late nineteenth century, which were lauded domestically and overseas for their fine engineering and exceptional quality and recognized as exemplars of America’s industrial might.
Smith & Wesson remained Tiffany’s most important partner in the firearms industry through the 1890s, though on occasion the firm decorated guns by other manufacturers, including Winchester. Tiffany did not offer embellished Winchester rifles for sale in its Blue Book catalogues, however, and appears to have decorated only a small number of rifles exclusively for exhibition. In addition to the two Winchester rifles embellished for the 1900 Paris Exposition, Tiffany displayed two Art Nouveau silver-mounted Winchesters (now presumed to be lost) at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, for example, the design drawings for which are preserved in the Tiffany Archives.
These drawings have long been mistakenly identified as the designs for the Museum’s 1900 Paris Exposition guns (acc. nos. 2013.901; 2018.856.3). Recent analysis of Tiffany’s archival records confirms the drawings’ dating to ca. 1893, however. The similarity of the Chicago and Paris exhibition rifles reflects Tiffany’s practice of refreshing older successful designs for reuse.
Like the two Chicago exhibition rifles, the designs of the two Paris exhibition rifles demonstrate Tiffany’s flexibility within the Art Nouveau mode. The Model 1894 (acc. no. 2013.901) is elaborately decorated, with large, richly embossed silver mounts that encase the receiver and cover much of the stock, which is made of colorful, dynamically grained Makassar ebony. The Model 1886 (acc. no. 2018.856.3), by comparison, is understated, with less silver decoration (cast and chased instead of embossed) and a stock made of dark, comparatively monochromatic rosewood.
Tiffany’s mounted silver decorations depart from the well-established American tradition of embellishing guns by engraving and inlaying directly into their steel surfaces (see for example acc. nos. 2018.856.1; 2018.856.2a–o). The firm’s novel approach enabled designers to radically transform the shape and materials of a gun by essentially building a miniature sculpture around it. The firearm remained perfectly functional, although the ornamentation did not improve its ergonomics. The tension between Tiffany’s handmade decorative mounts and Winchester’s finely engineered machine-made components no doubt appealed to the firm’s wealthy customers.
This rifle’s factory records state that it shipped from the Winchester warehouse on Nov. 1, 1899 with a checkered walnut stock with a pistol grip, shotgun butt, and a rubber buttplate. Its rosewood stock is thus a replacement created in conjunction with the silver mounts for the Exposition. It is not clear whether Tiffany fashioned the replacement stock or if it was made by Winchester. With its crescent butt, smooth grip, and scalloped edges on the forestock, the rosewood stock lends the gun a clean, streamlined profile.
The silver decorations of the Museum’s Tiffany-decorated Model 1894 rifle conceal its serial number, preventing its identification in Winchester’s records.
The fine wood stocks of both rifles put the guns in conversation with other Tiffany objects from the period in which wood is a key component of the design, such as the Viking Punch Bowl, displayed at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 (acc. no. 69.4a, b), which is mounted on a large ebony base.
The Model 1886 and Model 1894 were two of Winchester’s most popular rifles at the turn of the century, and the display of examples embellished by America’s most prestigious silver company afforded Winchester an opportunity to emphasize their products' refinement. The significance of the 1886 in Winchester’s product line, specifically, deserves note as it represents a milestone in Winchester history, being the first rifle designed for the company by John Moses Browning (1855–1926). Browning’s designs led to the development of nine Winchester rifle models in total over the course of fifteen years, including the company’s most popular rifle, the Model 1894. Browning’s Model 1886 introduced significant improvements to the company’s previous lever action rifle, the Model 1876. These included a stronger locking system with two vertical lug nuts interfacing with the bolt and receiver, an improved elevator system, new safety mechanisms, and better insulation from dust and debris.