How to be a Gun Collector
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. Originally published in Standard Catalog of Firearms.
Few of us start out to be gun collectors.
We usually start with "a" gun. For those fortunate enough to have grown up in a rural area or in a shooting or hunting family, it was often a .22 rifle or sometimes a shotgun which was a treasured childhood possession and perhaps the first totem of adult privileges and responsibilities. For some it may be a defensive handgun, purchased when well into adulthood as a tool to protect self and loved ones. Some will have been introduced to a shooting sport, and select a first gun to meet the needs of their chosen competition. Others will have a family heirloom passed down to them. And some will want a gun like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood had in the movies, or want a gun "just because," which is plenty reason enough.
After that, for most it's sort of like the old "betcha can't eat just one" potato chip commercial. If one was good, two are better. You need a backup gun, or a practice gun or a hunting piece or a spare or a different caliber. One thing leads to another and the next thing you know, you're shopping for a gun safe.
There are still a few boorish gun collecting snobs out there who will sniff that a general grouping of guns acquired simply because the owner enjoys them is an "accumulation" rather than a "collection." Such a view is regrettable and short-sighted. I'd say that if you own one more gun than you actually need, you're a collector. Welcome!
Types of gun collecting
There are different approaches to gun collecting. Some are building a shooting battery. These folks enjoy owning guns that fill different shooting niches for perceived or anticipated uses. Of course they need a .458 bolt action because someday they might actually hunt Africa or Alaska. Some day.
Others will become interested in the evolution of guns, and want examples of different ignition styles such as flintlock, percussion, pinfire, etc.; or types of mechanical actions. Certainly many folks have a fascination with firearms association with history and may want to collect either a timeline of guns through the decades or focus on the arms of a particular historical era.
These history buff collectors will often be interested in a type of usage, perhaps military weapons, classic sporting arms, or competition guns.
Specialization - Many collectors choose to collect a particular type or make or model of guns. For a long time, standard advice to beginning collectors was to specialize. This is still not necessarily bad advice. The entire world of firearms is a broad and varied one, and some may flounder a bit if they plunge into it without a specific focus. The specialized collector who concentrates his efforts will be able to develop a level of expertise that will allow him to make smart purchases with an understanding of the market value of the items in his specialty, and will become adept at finding bargains in the form of scarce variations within his field that others may overlook. In addition, much of the research in arms collecting is done by specialized collectors who add another building block to our collective knowledge by their efforts.
However, it's important to recognize that more generalized gun collecting is also a delightful and worthwhile pursuit. An eclectic collection, spanning many types and eras of guns, will usually be more interesting to a much broader audience than a tightly focused grouping which, to all but a few fellow specialists, looks like 50 different examples of the exact same thing. It also seems that a general collection is easier to eventually sell at a better price than a specialized grouping that has appeal only to a limited part of the potential gun-buying market. An extensive highly specialized collection has the potential to flood the market and depress prices within that field if it is liquidated at one time.
Make & model, condition, rarity, history or art?
These are the five factors that tend to appeal to collectors, and which determine the value of collectible guns. Tastes differ as to which is most important.
Make and model - This tends to be the starting point for evaluating collectible guns for most collectors, and will be a basic threshold requirement for those with specialized collections.
Factors here include the quality of a particular manufacturer's products, the historical usage of the guns in question, and the brand's aura of romance. As an example of that last, and most intangible, factor consider that Colt Single Action Army revolvers were for several decades the most prevalent focus for collectors interested in full size revolvers from the post-Civil War to turn of the century era, and there is no question that Colts were widely used during that time. Less widely recognized is the fact that S&W produced significantly more large frame revolvers than Colt between 1870 and 1900, and that the S&W top-break pattern was more sophisticated and more widely copied than the Colt solid frame during that era, probably making the Smith pattern revolvers the predominant handguns of that time. There are also some who contend that the unusual (by today's standards) twist-open Merwin Hulbert revolvers manufactured in the Hopkins & Allen plant were the best-made large revolvers of the era, and they certainly enjoyed good popularity during the period of use. It is the Colt Single Action Army, however, that has captured America's collective subconscious as the quintessential Old West revolver, no doubt aided by decades of Hollywood and television usage, and which became the favorite of many old sixgun collectors.
In recent years there is a refreshing trend in gun collecting to look at a broader range of guns than the traditional blue chip Colts, Winchesters, and Lugers. The cowboy gun collectors have embraced the Smith and Wessons and Merwin Hulberts, and Colt collectors are looking more frequently at cartridge conversions as significant early cartridge revolvers in addition to Single Action Armies, or turning to the early double action Colts or the same vintage as the Peacemakers. P-38's and other auto-pistols have acquired status once reserved for Lugers and 1911's. Military rifle collectors who once may have ignored anything other than U.S. rifles or Mausers are now pursing British Enfields, Japanese Arisakas, Russian Mosin Nagants, SKS's and many others.
Condition - Obviously condition plays a major role in the value of a collectible firearm. The classic advice to new collectors in this regard has always been to hold out for the best condition guns, and pay the extra premium they demand. This condition emphasis seems to have developed in the 1970s and 1980s. In the early post WWII years of gun collecting there was more interest in rare variations and history, and fewer collectors to whom a few percentage point difference in remaining original finish was much of a concern.
Although the highest condition guns continue to bring the record prices, it seems to me that the pendulum is beginning to swing back the other way, a trend which meets with my hearty approval. The appeal of "mint" guns has been largely lost on me, and seems to be more appropriate to coin or stamp collecting than a field in which the possible historic usage of the artifact holds so much interest and significance. There is a definite segment of the collector market that is not overly concerned with perfect condition, so long as the gun is original and has not been messed with in a more recent (and, in my opinion, usually misguided) attempt to enhance its desirability.
This raises the topic of restoration and refinish, and it seems as if collector opinion is changing here, too.
With prices for high condition original finish guns running away from the budgets of many collectors, period of use refinished guns and older factory refinished guns are finding more enthusiastic buyers than they did a few years ago.
The availability of excellent quality restoration services is another factor which I anticipate may impact collector preferences in the future. The top restoration artists are reworking guns to "as new" condition with such skill that it has become increasingly difficult for even knowledgeable collectors to distinguish mint original finish guns from the best restorations.
When such restoration is disclosed to a prospective buyer, as it ethically should be, the prices the gun will bring are significantly below a similar gun with original finish, and may be less than the original cost of the pre-restoration gun plus the cost of the rework. This creates a mighty incentive for deception by a motivated seller, either by active misrepresentation (a.k.a. "fraud") or passively by simple failure to mention the modification (a.k.a. "being a weenie weasel").
For some time, I have expected the availability of such expert restoration to shake the market for mint collector guns by introducing an element of uncertainty as to the originality of the condition. It doesn't seem to have much impacted the market yet, but I still suspect that it will.
Before leaving this topic, I should touch on the emergence in recent years of a flourishing "make-em-match" cottage industry of cannibalizing U.S. military arms of the 20th century to rebuild guns resembling the configuration in which they were originally produced. This practice seems to have gained some acceptability among military collectors. I tend to look at it a bit askance, as it so closely resembles the era when Colt SAA Artillery Models were being butchered to try to remake them into original Cavalry Model configuration revolvers, with a lot of history destroyed in the process. I'm a strong proponent of leaving a gun as you find it, and appreciating it for its own history rather than trying to create a facsimile of something it will never legitimately be again.
Rarity, history & art - If make/model & condition considerations are perhaps waning or broadening a bit, there seems to be some renewal in the interest in guns for factors such as rarity, history & art.
In terms of rarity, the well-worn saying that "Just because a gun is rare, doesn't mean it's valuable," remains true to a certain extent. There may only be five known examples of a particular gun, but if only three people care about it, the market is saturated.
However, there does seem to be more interest in cornering the rare variations within established collecting fields. There is a bit of a resurgence of the collecting philosophy of completing a punchlist of models and variations within a specialization, and this lead to vigorous competition for the rarest examples in these fields. In emerging collecting fields, when new research is published revealing the rarity of certain variations there can develop a brisk interest in those guns.
Individual guns with a known history of ownership by a specific individual or usage in a specific historical envent have always captured the fascination of collectors, as well as historians and the general public. This seems to reflect a basic human interest, and shows no sign of abatement. A positive trend here seems to be an increase in general understanding of the type of documentation which must accompany an historically attributed firearm to give it the credibility to justify a premium price, and the importance of creating and preserving such documentation.
Fine engraved guns are collected more for their artistic value than for their worth as firearms. Here the market for classic works by the great engravers of the 19th and early 20th Century remains strong, as well as for factory engraved pieces from more recent years. Interest in recent non-factory engraving seems to have diminished, as has, thankfully, the trend of adding modern engraving to older firearms.
Factory custom engraving should not be confused with mass produced factory made commemorative firearms which flooded the market in the 1960's and 70's. A couple of major manufacturers worked this genre to death, and prices on commem's have been stagnant for many years now, although the market for these shows some signs of renewal. Factory commemoratives which were truly produced on a limited scale (with quantities in the dozens or low hundreds rather than thousands) can bring premium prices as scarce variations from collectors specializing in the specific model used as the platform for the commem.
Weakest resale values are found in the non-factory commemoratives sold primarily through full page magazine ads still today. While these can be very attractive guns, and are enjoyed by owners for whom the event or individual commemorated has special meaning, they usually sell on the secondary market for a fraction of their original purchase price.
While discussing engraving, it's worth commenting on the market in custom firearms. Generally, highly customized or modified guns will not have their values enhanced by the amount spent on the custom work, and may actually have their resale values lessened by any alterations. There is a specialized collecting niche for the work of some of the famous gunsmiths of the late 19th to mid 20th Century, such as Neidner & Pope. Also, in specialized competition fields common modifications may have value if the gun is resold to a fellow competitor. Otherwise, customization costs should be recognized as expenditures to enhance one's personal enjoyment of or effectiveness with a favorite firearm rather than as an investment in its value.
Where the guns are
The most popular methods of buying and selling collectable firearms are in a state of constant flux, and have been affected by factors such as the emergence of the internet and changes in restrictions on airline travel.
The internet - Ebay's prohibition against the sale of firearms created an opportunity for services specializing in gun sale listings over the internet. Among several competitive internet auction style websites, GunBroker.com and AuctionArms.com emerged as the leaders in this field where potential buyers bid for listed guns with a closing time & date deadline. GunsAmerica.com appears to be the dominant player in providing online classified ad type listings online.
Many collectors report good success using these services to buy & sell firearms, and also are making finds on Ebay for related accessory items such as boxes, grips, etc. Reports of mail fraud by some shady sellers in general online auctions gives some potential buyers cause to pause, although it seems to me that such complaints arising from the specialty online gun sites are relatively few.
Precautions that buyers report as being most helpful include:
- Direct communication with the seller as to exact condition concerns with any item being offered.
- Careful review of the feedback feature of most sites to check the sellers history in past transactions.
- Understand the seller's return policy, including inspection period, whether there has to be a specific reason for a return, and who pays shipping each way in the event of a return.
- Be sure buyer & seller both understand the specific legal requirements of shipping firearms between states.
Live catalogued auctions - Continuing a trend that emerged twenty years ago, many of the largest collections and finest individual specimens seem to be sold through national level specialty firearms auction services. The standard approach is to conduct a live auction with an illustrated catalog offering full descriptions of each gun being sold, usually with an estimate of the anticipated price. The auctions are advertised nationally in gun collector publications, and many will post their catalogs on the internet. Bidders can attend the auction to bid live in person or can send in sealed bids via mail or fax, or may be able to bid on the phone during the live sale. Most of the leading auction houses have live online bidding as well.
Best results for buyers will usually be obtained by attending these sales live, assuming the bidder has the knowledge and discipline to do three things:
- He must physically inspect the guns he wants to bid on during the pre-auction preview period and have the product knowledge to be able to assess the condition and originality of the pieces.
- He must have the gumption to jump in & start bidding when a lot he is interested in is selling at a favorable price.
- He must have the self-discipline to set a limit to the amount he is willing to bid for any piece, and to stop bidding when his limit is passed.
Absentee bidding can also be quite effective, but the bidder needs to realize he is relying on the auctioneer's knowledge and integrity when he goes this route. The absentee bidder is dependent on the accuracy of the auctioneer's catalog description, since he generally will not have inspected the gun before bidding. He is also relying on the auction to treat his bid in an ethical manner by not disclosing it to other bidders, and by placing his bid only in fair competition with other bidders.
While most auctioneers will guard the integrity of the absentee bidding process by only raising an absentee bid if another bidder is actually bidding against it, an unfortunate minority have been known to run an absentee bid right up to the maximum even without any competition. The absentee bidder's best protection is to check an auctioneer's reputation for accuracy in descriptions and fairness in bidding with other collectors.
Examples of specialty firearms auction services with established track records who produce illustrated print catalogs and website with full listings include James D. Julia in Maine, Little John's in California, Rock Island Auction in Illinois, Heritage Auctions in Texas, Amoskeag Auction in Maine, and Kull's Old Town Station in Kansas.
For more advice on auctions, see Gun Auction Buying Tips.
Gun Shows - Guns shows remain a delightful and cherished American tradition, and one of the best methods for buying & selling collector firearms. For those who aren't familiar with these events, a show promoter will rent a large hall for a weekend, and then rent tables to dealers and collectors who offer their guns & related items for sale.
There are two general types of gun shows, collector shows and commercial shows. Both are great fun, with some of the biggest and best being a combination of the two types, but if you're looking for something specific it's best to understand the difference.
Commercial shows are generally conducted by a promoter primarily as a business, and usually tend to feature more modern guns and allow a larger assortment of merchandise only peripherally related to guns & shooting such as t-shirts and beef jerky, along with some just plain flea market type material.
Collector shows are more rare, and are likely to have far more antique and collectable guns. A collector show will generally be defined several, but not always all, of the following criteria:
- Sponsored by a true collector club rather than a commercial promoter.
- Feature display competition where collectors put on educational exhibits from their collections.
- Attract vendors and displayers from throughout the country.
- Enforce restrictions on the type of merchandise that can be offered, often eliminating flea market type items.
Some of the top national-level shows include the NRA's Annual National Gun Show (hosted by various shows at different locations), the April & October Wanenmacher Tulsa Arms Show show (largest gun show in the country), the spring Colorado Gun Collector Association show in Denver (possibly the top display competition show), the Beinfield Las Vegas shows (especially the Winter show), the Ohio Gun Collectors spring display show, the MACA Baltimore show, National Gun Day shows in Louisville, and the MVACA Kansas City shows (especially the July show).
Gun show attendees should be familiar with basics of gun show etiquette:
- Do not touch unless you ask first.
- If allowed to handle a gun, do not work the action or disassemble the gun without permission.
- Dickering is expected, but do so in a way that is not insulting to the other party or his merchandise.
- Do not interrupt a deal. If someone is holding a gun while discussing price, it is considered poor form to make an offer on the gun until he has put it back on the table, indicating the end of negotiations.
- Practice basic gun safety. Don't allow the muzzle of a gun you're handling to point at other folks. Keep your guns tied inoperable (a requirement at the better shows). Never bring a loaded gun into a show, included legal concealed carry guns, and do not test chamber a round in a show. Negligent discharges are very rare at shows, but when one does occur it often involves a concealed carry gun that was brought in loaded and then is brought out to show, trade, try on grips, test fit a holster, etc.
- Don't break the law in your transactions, or ask another to do so. Gun shows are already under attack by the antis. Don't become the poster boy for the Brady bunch.
- Don't be a jerk. I.e., don't hawk the door (hanging out at the entrance trying to pick off bargains when they first walk in). Don't conduct personal negotiations while blocking access to another person's table. Don't set food, drinks, or your butt on someone else's table. Don't badmouth another's merchandise. Don't allow unsupervised children to run amok (although most kids enjoy shows, and are very welcome if they also follow these basic rules).
Specialty dealers - Dealers specializing in antique & collector firearms continue to be a good source of finds, offering a couple advantages. Good dealers will know their merchandise and can guide new collectors. Specialty dealers are also the ones likely to come up with the finds when rare or exceptional guns first surface.
These dealers work in a number of ways. Most set up at gun shows, especially the collector oriented shows. Recently, many have developed websites which list their wares. It's not unusual for specialty dealers to develop an ongoing working relationship with preferred customers, where they will look for guns in their travels to meet the specific desires or want lists of customers who have proven to be reliable buyers for quality merchandise. Many of the established reputable specialty dealers advertise in collector firearms magazines, notably Man at Arms.
As with bankers or lawyers or doctors, it's a good idea to ask around about the reputation of the collectable gun dealers you're thinking of patronizing. While the vast majority of dealers are reputable, and some of the finest people you'd want to know, a few of the former biggest names in this field have been the subject of both civil litigation and criminal prosecution in the past couple years arising from their business practices, regrettably diminishing confidence in the profession as a whole.
As a general rule, it is still probably more of a sure thing to deal with an established dealer rather than an unknown individual for interstate mail order deals. The established dealer has a long-term reputation to protect, is more likely to be familiar with correct firearms condition grading, as well as legal & shipping requirements, and more likely to be accommodating of returns in anticipation of future repeat business.
Mail order - The number of specialty mail order catalog dealers seems to have dwindled in recent years, paralleling the emergence of the internet as a method of marketing guns much more quickly and at lower cost than a print catalog.
Retail gun shops - Gun stores obviously can be good sources of collector firearms. Some stores will focus more in this field than others, with Mike Clark's Collectors Firearms in Texas being the best example of a gun shop which carries fantastic collectible pieces that I've ever visited. Retail giants Bass Pro and Cabelas also have special departments which feature interesting high-end collectible guns.
Specialty firearms classified ad publications - These continue to represent a major venue for buying & selling collector firearms. The two major publications here are Gun Digest(formerly Gun List) and Shotgun News. Many of the suggestions listed under internet transactions above also apply to this type of mail & phone purchase.
Fellow collectors - Serious gun enthusiasts will often find that other collectors are the best source for both buying and selling the guns they are interested in. Although there may not be a wide selection here, the prices will generally be the most favorable to both parties, especially if a swap is involved, since many collectors will trade with fellow enthusiasts on a dollar-for-dollar value transaction basis, as each is more interested in enhancing his collection than making a mark-up on a transaction. This is also the best way to learn more about both the firearms you're interested in and the fine art of gun acquisition and disposal. Serious collectors will eventually join any local collecting clubs in their home region, as well as the brand or type specialty clubs for the guns they're most interested in. Their only regret will generally be that they didn't join sooner.
Some collectors continue to search pawn shops, estate sales and flea markets seeking undiscovered gems. Some do hit paydirt, but my observation it is much more likely that these particular venues will tend to harbor overpriced beaters than hidden gems. For years, I've said that the best way to get double retail value for a beat up single shot shotgun with an off-brand trade name or broken owlshead revolver is to slip it into a farm auction where a bunch of guys will hang around all day waiting for it come up on the block, certain that it must be an rare and valuable gun that some poor hick farmer has overlooked. Their opinions are only reinforced by the other doofuses who jump in to bid against them when the clunker finally comes under the gavel. "If that guy is willing to pay $125 for it, heck, it must be worth at least $150…" The final price is generally determined by the second-dumbest bidder (the one who drops out on the last bid before the hammer falls.)
Then again, who knows? Finding a great gun is a bit like finding oil. The one thing you can say for sure is that they are wherever you find them.
From The Blue Book of Gun Values
- Serialization/ Date of Manufacture
- Store Brand Crossover List
- Proof Marks
- Gun Collector Organizations
Articles by Jim Supica
- A Brief History of Firearms
- What's my gun worth?
- Evaluating Firearms Condition
- Hard to identify or value firearms
- Pieces of History: A system for evaluating historically attributed firearms
- Collectors Federal Firearms License
- How to ship guns and ammo
- Gun Auction Buying Tips