Iconic Arms of America: Our Country’s Top 25 Best Guns of All Time By Joe Engesser

Red, white, and polished blue steel. The 4th of July is a celebration of freedom, and America’s freedom was forged through courage and gunpowder. We’re looking back at the top 25 American guns of all time, and the competition is fierce. Most of the featured firearms are offered in Rock Island Auction Company’s upcoming August Premier Auction, along with a few examples from past events.

Iconic-Arms-of-America-at-RIACIconic American arms from every era will be featured in Rock Island Auction Company’s August Premier.

The Kentucky Rifle

One of the first truly iconic arms of America was pioneered by German and Swiss gunsmiths who immigrated to the Colonies in the 18th century. Popularly known as the Kentucky Rifle or Pennsylvania Rifle, the American Long Rifle allowed accurate shooting up to 200 yards or more, a decisive advantage to backwoodsmen while hunting in the western wilderness or sniping Red Coats during the Revolutionary War and War of 1812.

A-John-Armstrong-Maryland-Golden-Age-Flintlock-American-Long-Rifle-one-of-the-most-iconic-arms-of-AmericaA John Armstrong Maryland Golden Age flintlock American Long Rifle, an extraordinary example of one of America’s best guns of all time. Available this August.

Colt Model 1851 Navy

A personal favorite of Samuel Colt, the Model 1851 Navy was one of the most prevalent sidearms on both sides of the American Civil War, even serving as the basis for numerous Confederate produced brass-frame revolver styles like the Griswold & Gunnison Revolver and the Leech & Rigdon revolvers. The sturdy sixgun’s impressive production numbers, widespread use on the American frontier, and status as the favored revolver for Western legends like Wild Bill HickokBuffalo Bill Cody, and countless early gunslingers elevate the 1851 Navy to one of best American guns of all time.

Cased-Early-Factory-Engraved-Colt-Model-1851-Navy-Percussion-Revolver-one-of-the-truly-iconic-arms-of-AmericaAn exemplary cased, early factory engraved Colt Model 1851 Navy revolver with extremely scarce gold plated grip straps. The Navy set the standard for countless black powder revolvers, earning a clear spot on any list of iconic arms of America. Available this August.

The Sharps Rifle and Carbine

The various models of Sharps rifles and carbines earned a reputation as iconic arms of America in the Civil War, the Old West, and in popular culture thanks to films like ‘Quigley Down Under’ and ‘True Grit.’  Produced from the Antebellum Era through the late-19th century and noted for their exceptional accuracy and reliability, the Sharps filled a key role during the Civil War when the Union purchased approximately 80,000 Sharps carbines and almost 10,000 rifles. Specially ordered Sharps rifles were famously fielded by the 1st and 2nd U.S. Sharpshooter Regiments (the Berdan’s Sharpshooters) to great effect.

Historic-Sharps-Model-1853--Slant-Breech-Percussion-Carbine-Documented-as-Shipped-to-Abolitionist-General-Samuel-C.-Pomeroy-in-Kansas-during-Bleeding-KansasA historic Sharps Model Model 1853 “John Brown Sharps/Beecher’s Bible” slant breech percussion carbine documented as shipped to abolitionist General Samuel C. Pomeroy in Kansas during the Bleeding Kansas period. For its role in revolutionizing sniping tactics, the Sharps rifle platform wins a nod as one of America’s best guns of all time. Available this August.

The Springfield Model 1861 Rifle-Musket

The Springfield Model 1861 rifle-musket became one of the most prolific Northern rifles issued during the Civil War, taking the field in quantity from 1862 onward, from Shiloh to Appomattox. With over 1 million being produced during the conflict by Springfield Armory and two dozen other firearm producers, the dependable .58 caliber rifle improved precision over infantry traditional musket. This percussion powerhouse finds a worthy spot on our list of America’s best guns of all time thanks to its role in winning the Civil War, protecting workers on the Transcontinental Railroad, and serving as the material platform for a line of Springfield breechloading rifles that would culminate with the 1873 Trapdoor.

springfield-Model1864-rifle-musket-an-iconic-arm-of-the-American-Civil-WarAn outstanding Civil War U.S. Springfield Model 1863 Type II/1864 percussion rifle-musket, the final iteration of one of the most iconic arms of America. Available this August.

Remington Rolling Block

Developed from the Remington “Split Breech” carbine, a Civil War gun designed to fire the same cartridges as the Spencer repeater, the Remington Rolling Block family became not just one of the most iconic arms of America but a popular longarm around the world. As the most widely used single shot military breechloader of the 19th century, the Remington Rolling Block’s service record is expansive. The gun was produced in a variety of calibers, both rimfire and centerfire, and its action was sturdy enough to easily accommodate the increased pressure of new smokeless powders hitting the market in the late 1890s.

Remington-Rolling-Block-Rifle-an-Iconic-Arm-of-AmericaAn impressive example of one of the best frontier guns of all time, this Remington No. 1 Rolling Block long-range target rifle sold for $8,050 in RIAC’s May 2021 Premier Auction.

The Colt Single Action Army

The Colt Single Action Army revolver is a no-brainer inclusion for any best guns of all time list. Possibly the most famous firearm ever made, “Judge Colt and His Jury of Six” was first adopted by the U.S. Army in July 1873 and went on to serve as the choice sidearm for countless lawmen, cowboys, homesteaders, and desperados who came to define the American frontier. For 150 years, the Colt SAA has prominently appeared in dime novels, radio shows, film, and television, and today continues to represent the enduring spirit of the American West.

Highly-Desirable-Ainsworth-Inspected-Lot-Five-U.S.-Cavalry-Colt-Single-Action-Army-Revolver-with-Kopec-Gold-Seal-LetterAn Ainsworth inspected Lot Five U.S. Cavalry Colt Single Action Army revolver with a Kopec Gold Seal letter, a stunning early example of one of the most iconic arms of America. Available this August.

The Winchester 1873

A well-armed frontiersman carried a Colt on his hip and a Winchester over his shoulder. As the successor to the Henry rifle and the 1866 Yellowboy, the Model 1873 put the name Winchester on the map and went on to conquer the open range. Dubbed “the Gun that Won the West”, the Winchester ’73 became a symbol of freedom and self-determination on the American frontier. From movie sets to modern-day cowboy action shooting competitions, these iconic arms of America have stood the test of time.

Winchester-1873-the-iconic-gun-that-won-the-WestAn exceptional example of one of the best guns of all time, a special order deluxe Winchester Model 1873 rifle. Available this August.

Winchester Model 94

The Winchester Model 1894 hit the scene too late to see the height of the American Wild West, but the rifle certainly kept Winchester’s frontier legacy alive. The Winchester 94’s balance and slim profile made it a favorite walking gun for hunters, ranchers, and law enforcement who appreciated the power and reliability of Winchester’s .30-30 WCF smokeless cartridge. The classic lever gun’s accuracy, simplicity, and rugged resilience earned it a place in millions of gun racks across America. In terms of tried-and-tested hunting arms, the Winchester Model 94 is hands down one of the best guns of all time.

Outstanding-Pre-64-Winchester-Model-94-Lever-Action-Carbine-with-Original-BoxA pre-64 Winchester Model 94 carbine with its original box, an outstanding example of one of the most iconic arms of America. Available this August.

Smith & Wesson Military and Police and Model 10

What qualities should a model have to be considered one of the best guns of all time? Production numbers? Versatility? Fame? The Smith & Wesson .38 Military & Police series checks all those boxes and more, remaining in continuous production for over a century and becoming the overwhelming favorite sidearm of countless police forces and militaries around the world. Later renamed the Model 10, this iconic revolver became the most produced wheel gun platform of the 20th century and a mainstay of nearly every police department around the country well into the 1980s. Now that’s an American success story.

Smith-and-Wesson-PoliceAs iconic arms of America go, it doesn’t get much better than a classic Smith & Wesson. This factory engraved .38 Military & Police Model of 1905 Fourth Change revolver sold for $4,025 in December of 2020.

Marlin Model 39A

The first lever action chambered in .22 LR, this classic Marlin went through a number of name changes over the last 132 years. Releasing as the Marlin Model 1891, the gun was redubbed “Bicycle Rifle” in 1897, then again renamed to Model 39 in 1922 before finally embracing its most famous iteration in 1939 in the Marlin 1939A.  As the longest continuously produced rifle in the world and the lever action Annie Oakley made famous, the Marlin Model 39A and its predecessors are undeniably iconic arms of America.

Marlin-Model-39-AA scarce Marlin 90th anniversary Model Golden 39A rifle sold for $4,313 in December of 2021. As .22 rifles go, one of the best guns of all time.

Winchester Model 1897 Shotgun

One of the best guns of all time in terms of military shotguns, the Winchester Model 1897 shotgun was popularized as a sporting arm before finding a role during the Philippine-American War. In WW1, the Model 1897 was officially adopted as the U.S. “Model of 1917 Trench Shotgun” and modified with a bayonet lug, a heat shield, and a shorter barrel for maneuverability in the trenches of Western Europe. The shotgun and its slam fire heroics proved effective enough to earn a diplomatic protest from the Germans, who claimed that America’s use of trench guns caused “unnecessary suffering.”

Winchester-1897-Trench-GunThe Winchester Model 1897 slide action trench shotgun earned a larger-than-life reputation in WW1 and has become one of the most iconic arms of America. Available this August.

1903 Springfield Rifle

Not all iconic arms of America were born in the Land of Stars and Stripes. Based on the German Mauser bolt action, America took the design and made it their own with the Springfield Model 1903 rifle. Initially chambered in .30-03, the rifle suffered from poor trajectory and excessive barrel wear. However, by chambering a lighter, spitzer bullet and a cooler burning propellant, a legend was born in the .30-06 cartridge, and battlefield and deer stand would soon feel the wrath of the mighty Springfield Model 1903.

Springfield-1903-rifle-with-Pedersen-DeviceOne of the best guns of all time by sheer production numbers, the U.S. Springfield Model 1903 rifle is still widely fielded by shooters and hunters today. This rare example is equipped with the innovative 1918 Mark I Pedersen Device.

The Colt 1911

As the longest-serving military sidearm in American history, the legendary Colt 1911 pistol is going to find itself in any best guns of all time discussion. The brainchild of John Moses Browning, this .45-caliber magazine-fed semi-automatic pistol set a new design standard that helped the United States become back to back World War champs and continues to be carried by numerous American officers to this day. The M1911 design has been widely emulated, with few major changes made to the pistol’s internals over the decades, a testament to the gun’s exemplary performance record.

Scarce-1937-Production-Colt-U.S.-Navy-Contract-Model-1911-1911A1-transition-PistolA scarce 1937 production Colt U.S. Navy contract Model 1911/1911A1 transitional semi-pistol. The 1911 pistol is easily one of the most recognizable and iconic arms of America. Available this August.

Browning Auto-5

John Browning was said to consider the Auto-5 his greatest achievement, a bold statement from the prolific gun inventor and more than enough to earn the famous “Humpback” a solid ranking among the most iconic arms of America. Browning’s 1903 recoil-operated design was a versatile workhorse for all types of fowling and target shooting. This sturdy scattergun continues to be fielded by the modern sportsman today and holds the title of second-best autoloading shotty of all time.

Engraved-and-Gold-Inlaid-Belgium-Browning-Gold-Classic-Auto-5-Semi-Automatic-Shotgun-with-Original-BoxAs the first successful semi-automatic shotgun, the Auto-5 should be considered one of the best guns of all time. The fantastic example below is a double signed, engraved and gold inlaid Belgium Browning Gold Classic Auto-5 with its original box. Available this August.

The Thompson Submachine Gun

In terms of cultural impact and a notable service record in WW2, Hollywood’s favorite gangster weapon merits consideration as one of the best guns of all time. Designed by John Thompson, the fully automatic Tommy Gun was completed too late to fill its intended role as a WW1 trench sweeper. The inventor subsequently marketed the weapon to everyone from law enforcement to ranchers, but the deadly submachinegun found an unexpected niche with organized crime. On the eve of WW2, the Thompson submachine gun was adopted by the U.S. military and employed by the British as well, with over 1.5 million of the new military-issued M1928A1 and M1A1 produced. This earned the weapon international recognition through German and Japanese propaganda posters that portrayed the U.S. and her allies as Tommy-toting gangsters.

The-Thompson-Anti-Bandit-GunFrom mafia to military to Hollywood, the Thompson became one of the most iconic arms of America. This fantastic example is a police documented Colt Thompson Model 1921 that includes a case and extra magazines. Available this August.

The M2 Machine Gun

A good portion of John Browning’s inventions have become iconic arms of American history, including the famous M2 Heavy Machine Gun. Affectionately dubbed “Ma Deuce” and “The Mother of All Machine Guns” by the troops who continue to rely on its .50 caliber firepower, this air-cooled, belt-fed behemoth has stood the test of time like few other firearms. As a U.S. military mainstay since the 1930s, the M2 has touched the battlefield in every major American conflict from WW2 onward.

Ramo-M2HBOne of the best guns of all time, this M2 machine gun lived up to its iconic reputation and sold for a stunning $94,000 in RIAC’s May Premier.

Ithaca 37

Hailed by many hunters as one of the best guns of all time, the Ithaca 37 shotgun is a legendary platform inspired by the ideas of John Moses Browning and John Douglas Pedersen. This pump action icon quickly found a market after its 1937 release and never looked back, becoming the longest continuously-produced shotgun in American history and earning a reputation as a versatile autoloader that was well suited for fieldpolice, and military duty alike.

Ithaca-Model-37One of the most iconic arms of America in terms of longevity and adaptability, this USSF marked Ithaca Model 37 Special Forces trench-style shotgun highlights the platforms role as a military weapon. Available this August.

The M1 Garand

In the list of iconic arms of America during WW2, the M1 Garand might be number one. Fielded by millions of American GIs, General George Patton once hailed the rifle as, “the greatest battle implement ever devised.” The .30-caliber M1 Garand served as the standard U.S. infantry rifle from 1936 to 1959 and it continued to see use as late as the Vietnam War. From Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers to the Call of Duty video game series, few weapons can symbolize America’s valor in WW2 better than John Garand’s iconic rifle.

M1-Garand-RifleAn exceptional WW2 U.S. Winchester “WIN-13” M1 Garand. For its role as WW2s most successful semi-automatic infantry rifle, the M1 Garand can be hailed one of the best guns of all time. Available this August.

The M1 Carbine

Another red-blooded American gun that complimented the M1 Garand’s high-volume fire, the M1 Carbine offered an effective firearm sized somewhere between a rifle and a pistol that was ideal for units like paratroopers, drivers, weapon crews, intelligence officers, and communications personnel who required a lighter burden. One of the best guns of all time thanks to its spectacular service history, the M1 carbine helped lead the United States to victory in Europe and the Pacific theater then went on to become widely owned and fielded after the war thanks to an abundance of WW2 surplus.

M1-Carbine-one-of-the-most-iconic-arms-of-America-during-WW2A worthy addition to our list of top 25 iconic arms of America, a WW2 U.S. Inland M1 carbine. Available this August.

Winchester Model 70

If you’re widely known as the superlative bolt action rifle, chances are you’re going to make America’s best guns of all time list. Enter the Winchester Model 70. Widely dubbed “the rifleman’s rifle,” the Model 70 has gone through numerous changes and iterations over its nearly nine decades of production and is chambered to take everything from white-tailed deer to African dangerous game. The gun served the United States Marines as their precision rifle during the Vietnam War, famously fielded by Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock, who used the mighty Model 70 during most of his 93 confirmed kills. Today, the Winchester Model 70 continues to find favor with shooters and collectors, the latter preferring the desirable “Pre-64” production model.

Winchester-Model-70-rifle-an-American-iconOne of the most iconic arms of America, the Winchester Model 70 is instantly recognizable to nearly every sporting gun enthusiast. This rare documented U.S. property marked Winchester Model 70 “Van Orden Sniper” rifle includes an 8x Unertl U.S.M.C. sniper scope and case and a CMP Certificate of Authenticity. Available this August.

Smith & Wesson Model 29

Elmer Keith and Clint Eastwood helped elevate the .44 Magnum Smith & Wesson Model 29 into one of the iconic arms of America. Elmer Keith had long been advocating for a more powerful version of the .44 Special cartridge. In 1955, Remington Arms introduced the .44 Remington Magnum cartridge, while Smith & Wesson delivered a revolver to chamber the beast. The S&W Model 29 found niche success with handgun hunters, law enforcement, and revolver lovers before launching into the stratosphere thanks to 1971’s ‘Dirty Harry.’ While this powerhouse pistol has been since surpassed by monsters like the .500 S&W Magnum, for a time Dirty Harry’s revolver truly was the most powerful handgun in the world.

Smith---Wesson-Performance-Center-Model-29-5-Revolver-Presented-to-Hank-Williams-JrA Smith & Wesson Performance Center Model 29-5 revolver from the Hank Williams Jr. Collection sold for $10,350 at RIAC in September 2021. For it’s power, aesthetic, and cultural appeal, the Model 29 family earns a nod as one of America’s best guns of all time.

Remington Model 870

With over 12 million in circulation and counting, the Remington Model 870 should be considered a candidate for any top 25 best guns of all time list. A shotgun known for its rugged reliability, the Model 870 has lent itself perfectly to every need over the last seven decades. Game wardens, duck hunters, police officers, and Vietnam Navy Seals have all shouldered the Model 870, and the gun is featured in nearly every modern film and TV show involving law enforcement, zombies, or action of any sort. One would be pressed not to find an example of this robust shotty in every town across the United States, and it continues to sell as the recently introduced Remington 870 Fieldmaster.

This example of a Remington Wingmaster 870 realized an astounding $38,188 in RIAC’s December 2021 Premier Auction, an impressive example of one of the most iconic arms of America.

The M60 Machine Gun

First issued in 1959, the M60 machine gun was an attempt to combine the firepower of the M1919 Browning with the relative mobility of the BAR. What resulted was one of the most iconic arms of America, a 23-pound belt-fed beast that could eat a ton of  7.62mm ammo and chew through anything down range. The M60 often found itself in the mud and muck during combat, and its relatively slow cyclic rate made this heavy hitter sound akin to a grunting boar. The Pig humped, sailed, and soared through Vietnam, Operation Just Cause, and the Persian Gulf War and continues to see service in specialized roles today.

M60-Machine-gunInspired by the German FG42 and MG42, the M60 became one of America’s best guns of all time. Available this August.

Marlin Model 60

For years, Marlin billed the Model 60 as the most popular 22 in the world.” Whether that’s enough to also call this prolific semi-auto one of the best guns of all time is up for debate, but it certainly ranks as an American essential. Introduced in 1960, Marlin’s semi-auto .22 LR tack driver remained in production for six decades and was carried by generations of Americans who fell in love with its resiliency and ease of use. For target shootingplinking, and small game hunting, the Marlin Model 60 is a true American classic.

Caleb Savant from Brownells shows off the Marlin Model 60, one of the most iconic arms of America.

The M16

Adapted from the famous ArmaLite AR-15 platform, the M16 offered an all-in-one battle rifle that could excel at both distance combat and close-quarter fighting. Though the refinement of the M16 was not without its hurdles, the rifle’s updates and successors soon stepped up to the challenges of modern warfare and became the longest-serving infantry long arm in U.S. military history, a contemporary defender of Lady Liberty, and one of the indisputably iconic arms of America.

Excellent-Commercial-Colt-M16A1-Selective-Fire-Rifle-9-Million-Serial-RangeWho doesn’t need a Colt M16A1 selective fire rifle in the 9 million serial range? Available this August.

Iconic Arms of America

While our top 25 list includes some undeniable American icons, there are countless gun models that could be considered legends in their field. For their historic influencemarket success, or cultural impact, a few honorable mentions include the Colt Walker, the Hawken rifle, the Derringer, the Gatling Gun, the Winchester Model 1895, the Colt Detective Special, and the Winchester Model 21 shotgun, and examples of all these gun collecting cornerstones can be found at Rock Island Auction Company.

Attractive-and-Rare-Tillotson-Sheffield-Patriotic-Gold-Hunters-Knife-Etched-Bowie-Knife-Inscribed-to-John-Teague-with-Pearl-Grips-and-SheathPerhaps the most influential non-firearm weapon in American history, the Bowie Knife carries a fascinating story in its own right. This rare Tillotson Sheffield patriotic “Gold Hunters Knife” Bowie knife is available this available this August.

Best Guns of All Time

Subscribe to the Rock Island Auction newsletter for weekly gun blogs and gun videos featuring some of the best guns of all time. From influential German military pistols like the Luger and C96 to modern favorites like the Beretta and Glock, we cover history’s greatest guns.

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