I was at the Washington Arms Collectors show in Seattle a few years ago with a friend (I’ll call Bill) who was becoming interested in starting a collection. As we walked among the tables he kept asking me “Is this something I should buy?”. He was excited to get started and anxious to buy his first collectible firearm. When he dropped me off at my house I gave him a copy of Flayderman’s Guide to antique firearms and suggested he browse the book, read the introductions to the manufacturers and begin to get an idea of the prices for different guns as a start. A couple of weeks later we met for a beer to talk about what he had learned. Bill is an engineer and very detailed and he had absorbed a lot of the book. Now he was even more confused. “I didn’t know there were so many types of antique guns” he said, “and the values are all over the board”. Welcome to the world of antique guns! We talked late into the night and here are a few of the topics we discussed for building a collection.
1) Pick a area of collecting that interests you and focus on that. I’m going to throw myself under the bus on this one. I tend to be very eclectic in my collecting. I am interested in a broad variety of guns from many eras. For a while I might focus on WW2 M1 Garands, read every book I can find on them and learn all I can. Then I get a little bored and move on to M1 Carbines. Then to Winchester lever actions. And so on. And while I have thoroughly enjoyed my journey from the Revolutionary War through the Korean War, I can understand why many of the old timers tell you to focus your collecting. You become more of an expert in your field. You learn what to look for and what to avoid. Over time will amass an admirable collection of the better examples of your genre. You can join clubs and associations that focus on your area of interest. I think that this is a bit of a personality issue though and while I agree that focusing on one particular area has a lot of merit, collecting across several fields of interest can be fun !
2) Buy the best examples you can afford. This is the number one rule I have learned over my many years of collecting. When you begin you will be tempted to quickly acquire as many guns as possible. To do so, you may find yourself buying the cheaper examples of a particular model. It’s human nature and most collectors, if they are honest, went through this phase themselves. A good friend once told me, “Every time my hand shook when I wrote the check, it turned out to be a good investment. When I thought I had found a good deal, it often didn’t.” If you look at the price appreciation of antique firearms over the years, it is the high condition or rarer examples which have seen the greatest escalation in value. While appreciation of your collection is not the only goal by any means, these guns represent an investment and you will enjoy seeing your collection appreciate in value. More importantly, you can always find a buyer for the “good stuff”. Average or poor condition pieces are in lower demand and you will be lucky to recoup your initial purchase price if you need to sell or trade.
3) Avoid altered, modified or restored guns. You will often find guns with slight modifications such a an added recoil pad, a non-original sight, initials, etc selling at a bit of a discount. It’s not worth it. They don’t sell well and if you ever need to move them you will likely take a bath. Refinished, restored guns have significantly less value. Even the better restorations by artisans such as Doug Turnbull will not come close to the value of a comparable condition original. Learn how to detect modifications, refinishes and alterations and avoid them at all cost. The only exception to this, in my opinion, is on some of the rarer Confederate pieces or a historic gun such as a Sharps buffalo rifle. In these cases, due to the rarity of the piece, some slight restoration or period modifications can be overlooked.
4) Do your homework. Read as many books as you can on your particular area of interest. Attend shows with the intent of just observing and studying as many examples as possible. Visit museums, such as the Winchester Museum in Cody Wy or the collection at West Point. If in Europe, don’t miss the museum at Bastogne where original WW2 guns picked up on the battlefield are on display. You will begin to acquire an understanding of finishes, patina and the normal wear and tear these guns endured when carried in battle. I always laugh when I see some old beater Civil war gun and the description states that the condition reflects its use in the war. Soldiers took pretty good care of their arms. Sure, over a couple of years they saw their share of bumps and bruises, but significant wear to the wood, deep pitting of the metal, broken parts etc are probably the result of post-war use and neglect. If you study guns that were carried during a war and then escaped post-war use and abuse you will realize that they come out of conflicts relatively intact ! Knowledge is power, acquire all you can.
5) Understand and keep an eye on the antique firearm market. There are wide differences in the desirability, or collector interest in antique guns. Obviously, historic names such as Winchester and Colt attract a lot of collectors and the values reflect that. Other less known manufacturers and their guns are still attractive collecting areas but be aware that if you decide to sell or trade you will likely have a smaller circle of collectors interested in your pieces. If you decide to collect Stevens .22 rifles as an example, there will be less of a “market’ for that piece than say a Winchester 1892 rifle. Also learn how condition effects the value of certain firearms. For example, Colt Single Action Army revolvers from the 1870s and 1880s have a huge range of value anchored on condition. A “good” condition example is still in demand and might be worth $3000 while the exact same gun in 98% condition may bring $35,000. This is due to the low survival rate of Colt SAAs in general and broad collector interest. High condition specimens are extremely rare and the competition for these pieces results in very high values. If your collecting Civil War muskets, a good condition Springfield Model 1863 may bring $1500 while an excellent condition example sells for $3000. Many of the later war muskets were never issued or used little and finding a high condition example is not too difficult. Unlike the 1800s when guns were a staple tool and used hard, by the mid 1900s many were purchased and used for a hunt or two and remain in like new condition. As such, finding mint examples of Winchester Model 71s, 55s, and 64s is relatively easy and should be the only ones purchased for a collection. Specimens with wear and tear are still “shooters” at this point and have little value as a collectible. These are just some examples of how value can vary by rarity, condition and desirability. Educate yourself on how these variables effect your area of interest. Go to shows when you can, bookmark favorite websites offering firearms, and watch auction sales prices at the top firearms auctions such as Rock Island, James Julia and Amoskeag.
These are just a few of the things I have learned over a lifetime of collecting, attending shows and auctions, and watching trends in values and collector interest.