Evaluating Firearms Condition

By Jim Supica

Copyright, Jim Supica - used by permission.  Opinions are those of the author and not necessarily those of NRA or the National Firearms Museum.

An accurate description of a gun's condition is essential in evaluating a firearm and estimating the value of any gun.  Differences in condition can easily halve or double the value of a collectible gun.  The terms used in evaluating firearms condition have specific meaning.  The most widely used set of standards for grading firearms condition is that defined by the NRA many years ago.

Here are the standard gun condition rating terms, as defined by the National Rifle Association.  It is vital to note that there are separate rating systems used for Antique vs. Modern Firearms.


NRA MODERN GUN CONDITION STANDARDS:

NRA ANTIQUE FIREARM CONDITIONS STANDARDS:


Other rating systems:


An expanded look at the NRA rating system:

In the Standard Catalog of Smith & Wesson, which I wrote with Richard Nahas, we expanded the NRA definitions. Given the subject matter of the book, this discussion focuses primarily on cartridge handguns, but many of the concepts apply to other fields as well. Here's our extended version:

Applying the above standards - These condition ratings represent an attempt to describe the general overall condition of a gun in a single word. Variation from a single aspect of any condition definition does not exclude a gun from that classification. For example, a gun that was in otherwise "Excellent" condition except for a broken grip would not be reduced to "Fair" condition for that reason alone. However, a responsible description of any gun will mention any variation from the standard of definition for the condition rating, and any variances will most likely affect the monetary value.

 

Notes

Most recent production guns are found in good or better condition, since it seems to take decades of heavy use &/or substantial abuse to reduce a quality modern firearm to fair or poor condition.

Collectors of some early to mid 20th Century firearms, have commented that, for high condition guns, a more precise estimate of original finish remaining is essential. The difference between a 98% and a 99.5% gun can make a significant difference in value, especially in rare variations.

Comparison to NRA Standards

The above condition definitions were approached with some trepidation. To some, they may appear unnecessarily complex and something of a Frankenstein monster of stitched-together concepts.

My intent is not to change or replace the NRA definitions, but to refine them. I also hoped to incorporate a more specific application of the popular "percent of original finish" rating method into the familiar NRA style terminology, and address some factors that are important to value, but which are ignored by other systems.

Above all, I attempted to capture the underlying sense of these condition terms as they are most often used "in the field" by collectors and dealers when evaluating firearms.

To fully understand the intent of the above condition definitions, it is helpful to consider the well accepted NRA condition definitions. NRA has established two different sets of condition standards for antique and modern firearms.

As you can see at the top of this page, these NRA definitions are rather concise and elegant, and designed to apply to a wide range of firearms in a wide range of conditions.

What I have tried to do is to focus them on S&Ws, particularly addressing the following concerns:

Disparity Between Antique and Modern Definitions:

The widely differing NRA standards for antique and modern guns make a great deal of sense when you consider that they must cover both a 17th century flintlock and a 21st century production polymer framed semi-auto. However, they can cause a problem in S&Ws when the products span both sides of the modern/antique line.

While the NRA guidelines do not define "antique" and "modern," under Federal law the cutoff date between modern and antique firearms is 1898 - those made in or before that year are antique, with more recent production being modern. Hence, if you take two top-break revolvers, both in 80% original finish condition, but one made in 1898 and the other in 1899, the antique gun would be rated excellent while the modern gun would be closer to good.

You will notice that I tend to apply antique condition terminology (i.e., "Fine" condition listed, but no "NIB") to tip-up and top-break revolvers, even though some top-breaks were produced as late as 1940. Likewise we've applied modern condition terminology (i.e., "NIB" condition listed, but no "Fine") to hand ejectors even though some were produced as early as 1896. This was done primarily to avoid artificial breaks in condition ratings based on an arbitrary cutoff date.

Regardless of whether the values include "Fine" (as with NRA Antique) or "NIB" (as with NRA Modern), the condition required to reach a certain level depends to a certain extent on the actual vintage of the gun and application of our sliding scale.

It seems to us that collectors and dealers evaluating an older gun tend, perhaps unconsciously, to apply their own internal mental version of this sliding scale concept, expecting more original finish on more recently produced guns to attain the same condition description.

Disparity Between Guns Produced Decades Apart:

In real life, the more recently the gun was produced, the better the condition it is likely to be found in. It would create an unrealistic picture of the marketplace to insist that an 1858 First First would have to have the same objective amount of condition to be considered Antique Excellent as an 1898 .32 HE 1st Model. The same rationale would apply to an 1899 New Departure compared to a Sigma under the modern ratings.

Disparity of Original Finish Remaining within a Definition:

This is probably most apparent in the NRA Antique Fine definition, which includes guns with 30% to 80% original finish. In practice, an antique gun with 80% original finish may bring a price double or more that of one with 30% original finish.

In our experience, collectors and dealers tend to make unconscious mental adjustments in their rating and pricing to adapt to these disparities. To reflect this we have tried to build a sliding scale of condition relative to era into my definitions, without going outside of the accepted ranges of the NRA definitions. We have also attempted to account for the fact that, all other things being equal, a collector will want to see a slightly greater percentage of original finish remaining on a nickel gun that he will on a blued gun to assign similar values to each.

The Real World of Modified and Refinished Guns:
There is little allowance in the NRA definitions for otherwise high condition guns that have been refinished or modified during their period of use. Our experience is that these guns find ready buyers at higher prices than their strict NRA condition rating would warrant, so we have tried to include these in the scope of the book's definitions. Particularly, factory refinished guns and Western era modified guns are of special interest to S&W collectors, as discussed earlier.

Your comments on this approach are welcome! -- Jim Supica

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