Following World War II, collecting firearms became a popular trend, especially antique cartridge firearms. This field of collecting, and collecting American arms in particular, has become one of the fastest growing since the 1950s.
Overall, prices for antique guns have risen over time due to the lack of supply. Prices also vary depending on what is in popular demand. For instance, certain manufacturers, like Colt and Winchester Repeating Arms Company, are highly sought after, which causes their values to rise. As the amounts of interested collectors, values, and market research and publications grow, so too will this branch of collecting.
“It’s a growing industry and a hobby that is appealing to more and more shooters,” says Daniel Thorngren of Rock Island Auction Company. “Not only is interest in collector firearms on the rise, antique firearms as an industry is on the rise.”
Collector firearms are also increasingly being viewed as a form of tangible assets, adds Thorngren. “The U.S. economy is exiting a large recession period where anyone who had anything invested in the market lost money in one way or another. Collector firearms are alternative investments to the market, and unlike a stock, you can take it out and admire it.”
Types of Antique Guns
Both modern and antique arms are popular with collectors. Antique firearms are usually divided into two basic types:
- Muzzleloader: This kind of firearm has a projectile or propellant charge that is loaded from the muzzle (the open end of the barrel) of the gun. Collectors do not purchase muzzleloaders to fire them; instead, they are often more interested in their historic value or in putting them on display.
- Cartridge-Firing: Also referred to as a round or shell gun, cartridge-firing guns have ammunition packaging and cased primer made to fit within the firing chamber. These pieces are more commonly collected with the intent of shooting.
Generally speaking, firearms are divided into the following two very broad classes based on their size:
- Pistols: These are smaller firearms, which makers designed to be used in one hand, and the most common actions are the single shot and semi-automatic.
- Revolvers: Revolvers are repeating firearms that have a revolving cylinder with more than one chamber and one or more barrels for firing.
- Rifles: These are crafted to be shot from the shoulder, and have a barrel with grooves or “rifling” cut into the barrel walls.
- Shotguns: Shotguns are also called scatterguns and pepper guns due to the fact that shot pellets spread upon leaving the barrel.
- Steel: High carbon, heat-treated steel is the traditional material for firearms thanks to its durability, strength, and ability to be molded.
- Aluminum: Firearms framed in aluminum are thought to be less durable than steel because this metal is not as strong, but it is still a popular alternative for some designs.
- Polymer: Plastic use in firearm construction was restricted to non-structural items, including grips and recoil spring guides, until the 1970s, but since has been used more extensively because of the material’s lightweight quality, manufacturing economy, and resistance to damage.
Guns & Firearms Terminology
The action of a gun is how it is loaded and fired. Examples include:
- Single action: The firearm must be manually cocked before each shot. In other words, the trigger performs a single function.
- Double Action: The gun can be cocked and fired with one pull of the trigger, and most often refers to pistols and revolvers.
- Break-open: The gun’s barrel is set on a hinge, where a latch keeps the barrel closed against the receiver.
- Bolt: One of the simplest action types for a rifle, the bolt has an operating handle with which the gunman can operate the rifle’s mechanism.
- Pump: Also known as slide action, pump action firearms are repeating guns that require manual operation of opening and closing the action and feeding the ammunition from the magazine to the chamber.
- Lever: Guns with lever actions are operated by a lever located underneath the firearm, near the end of the receiver. The lever opens and closes the action.
- Semi-automatic: Semi-automatic guns fire, extract, and eject a round in the chamber and load a new round whenever the trigger is pulled.
The cartridge is the metal case that holds the primer, gunpowder, and bullet. The term “Magnum” denotes a very powerful cartridge.
This denotes the diameter of the bullet in inches, although bullets are commonly measured width by length in millimeters.
Building Your Collection
When looking to buy or collect an antique firearm, there are a number of factors that you need to consider in order to make sure your purchase is worthwhile. The top factors that influence the value of an antique gun are listed below.
This is often where the evaluation process of guns begins and is most important to individuals who collect based on specialization. Buyers gravitate toward the quality of a maker’s products, the role a make or model has played in history, or the “aura of romance” surrounding a particular manufacturer.
Examples of makes and models that are popular among collectors include post-Civil War Colt Single Action Armies, Winchester, Luger, Smith & Wesson, Merwin Hulbert, non-U.S. firearms like British maker Enfield, and Japanese maker Arisaka. The desirability of makes and models is very trend-reliant and is easily influenced by movies and the media.
First, it’s essential to note that different rating systems are used for antique firearms and modern firearms. In other words, a modern firearm with a nearly impeccable finish may be labeled as being in “very good” condition, whereas an antique firearm with 10 percent less of its finish intact may also be in “very good” condition.
That aside, condition is one of the most important factors when evaluating a gun’s value — a difference in condition can mean halving or doubling the value. There are two main evaluation systems most widely used:
- NRA Condition Standards: Modern guns are classified as new, excellent, very good, good, or fair. Antique guns are classified as excellent, fine, very good, good, fair, or poor.
- New: All original parts, 100 percent original finish and in perfect condition.
- Excellent: All original parts, over 80 percent of its original finish with sharp lettering, numerals, and design on metal and unmarred wood.
- Fine: All original parts, over 30 percent of the original finish in tact.
- Very Good: All original parts, 30 percent or less of the original finish in tact.
- Good: Some minor replacement parts are present. There may be rust or light pits and it’s in good working order.
- Fair: Some of the major parts are replaced and may need additional replacements on minor parts. Metal is rusted and there may be light pitting all over. It’s in fair working order or can be easily repaired to be in working order.
- Poor: Both major and minor parts are replaced and it still needs major replacement parts and extensive restoration. The metal is deeply pitted and it’s generally undesired as a collector’s item.
- Percentage System: This system rates the percent of original finish that remains on the gun with a range of 0 – 100 percent.
“Buy the highest condition item you can afford. Condition is such a large determiner of value, so doing so ensures the best possible return. A collection of five high condition guns is more impressive than a hundred of mediocre quality,” says Thorngren.
If you refinish, over-clean, or modify a collectible gun in any way, you will likely negatively impact its value. At the same time, some collectors put less emphasis on condition than on a piece being in its original state.
History or Provenance
If a gun or firearm has been owned by a specific person or used in a historical event, it will be very appealing to certain collectors. For example, Wyatt Earp, an icon of the American West, had a Colt .45-caliber revolver that sold for $225,000 at an Arizona auction in 2014. It fetched such a high price given that it’s likely the one he used in the most legendary gunfight in Wild West history, the O.K. Corral shootout.
To accompany this trend, there has been an increased emphasis on the importance of making and maintaining documentation to prove the authenticity of the gun as historically valuable.
Collectors’ opinions differ on the importance of rarity. There is a classic warning that indicates that just because a gun is rare, that doesn’t mean it’s valuable. But the value of a given type of gun also depends on personal preference, and there is a lot of interest in and competition around rare versions of firearms within both emerging and established specializations.
Some firearms are prized more as art pieces for their fine engravings. There is a strong market for pieces engraved by famous 19th- and early 20th-century craftsmen during the “Golden Age” of firearms engraving. The style used flowing scrollwork and is associated with Nimschke, or New York-style engraving.
Tips for New Collectors
When starting a gun collection, it can be helpful to focus on a specialization, since the field is so broad. This will also help you become an advanced collector more quickly.
At the same time, taking a more general approach and growing an eclectic collection can also be very rewarding. This approach can also lead to better investments.
“Buy the book before you buy the gun. Educate yourself on the subject matter so you’ll know what you’re buying, if you’re paying a reasonable price for it, and it’s being represented accurately,” says Thorngren. “‘Flayderman’s Guide’ is a popular and readily available publication that covers most collector firearms.”
To help you find a direction and to make sure you will get the most enjoyment out of the collecting experience, ask yourself:
- What do you want to do with your firearms? Perhaps you’re building a shooting battery. You will likely enjoy owning a variety of guns intended to be fired for different reasons, such as hunting.
- Are you interested in history? Many collectors have a passion for guns with historical significance. Some collect firearms along a timeline, while others are interested in a specific era or event.
- Do you enjoy learning how things work? Other collectors just love how guns tick and their evolution as machines.
- Are you looking to make a financial investment? While some experts advise against collecting for the financial benefits, there are top-quality firearms that can certainly appreciate in value over time. Collecting guns for this reason requires great caution and expertise.
For those who only want to purchase firearms for their own collection, there is a special license called the Collector’s Federal Firearms License, or “C&R” FFL. This permits collectors to purchase older, collectible guns without requiring them to buy from a licensed dealer. These guns must meet the following requirements:
- At least 50 years old
- Certified by a government museum curator as having museum interest
- Derived value from its novelty, rarity, or history
Buying Guns & Firearms from Auction Houses & Dealers
In order to make the most educated, rewarding decision, keep in mind the following when starting or continuing a gun collection:
- Set a budget. Know what you can afford and collect the best condition guns and firearms that budget can buy you.
- Understand the terms. Read and understand any terms of sale and guarantee of descriptions. This will ensure that you know how protected you are if your purchase ends up not aligning with what was explicitly described. Like in most markets, fakes exist, so it’s important to take the proper precautions.
- Compare prices. Do your homework and look into the market value of the firearms that interest you. Look at gun shops, read websites, and browse credible publications like Gun List.
- Be patient. Don’t rush into a purchase or convince yourself it’s the right choice. If it doesn’t feel right, just wait. You will find something that suits your needs and tastes.
- Know the laws: It’s essential that you are aware of your rights and the laws regarding buying and selling firearms, at auction or otherwise. The laws vary depending on country, and some countries make exceptions for antiques. Use online resources such as GunPolicy.org to learn more and collect intelligently.
- Buy what you like. In the end, it’s your collection. Try not to pay attention to others who are competitive or have different opinions. The most important thing is that you find your purchase personally rewarding.
With your new collection comes the responsibility of caring for it. Here are a number of conservation best practices for antique firearms.
Store your firearm collection in a room safely kept at a consistent 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Otherwise, the wood stocks may expand and cause permanent cracks. Also try to keep the room at around 50 percent humidity to avoid metal corrosion or cracking.
Depending on the type of collectible firearms you have, it’s best to avoid handling your guns with bare hands too much, as the oils in your skin can cause damage. You can buy cotton gloves for handling your objects so you can still enjoy your collection. In addition, you can invest in a quality microcrystalline wax to protect your guns from the elements.
You should dust regularly with a clean, dry cloth. Don’t use spray products and remember to use gloves. If you’ve just purchased an antique rifle or pistol that has residue of its box or holster, you can make a wood or metal cleaning solution.
- Wood: Mix water with a few drops of a mild detergent and wipe the wood surfaces with a dampened cloth. Rinse the cleaned surfaces in plain water.
- Metal: Use a soft scraper, such as a pre-1980 penny or fine grade of bronze wool, to remove corrosion products.