By: Derek Landers
Some sound advice from Derek Landers on how to start out in this fascinating hobby
The collectors of antique guns in the UK are reasonably well served when it comes to making a purchase. Not least are the advertisements in this magazine from both dealers and individuals. Many of the dealers offer lists, sometimes illustrated, which will help in making a decision on a particular piece. Some even offer a three-day inspection period giving you the chance to have a look at an item first hand. Returning an unwanted item, in original condition, will ensure the return of your cheque or a debit on your credit card. A purchase from an individual, however, usually offers no form of guarantee or comeback should the piece be unsuitable – check first before you part with any money.
By far the most popular method of purchase is the ‘hands on’ approach of an arms fair. In the case of licensed firearms this is practically the ONLY legal way of purchasing by an FAC holder.
Again, check the pages of this magazine and you will find fairs advertised all over the country several Saturdays or Sundays of the year. Some of the dealers who advertise in Gun Mart also exhibit at the fairs. A small fair may have around 30 – 40 dealers present whereas a visitor to the Birmingham Arms Fair will be greeted by three rooms with items from a uniform button to cased pistols on sale. Seasoned collectors will mostly have learned to avoid the pitfalls associated with the hobby – sometimes by making mistakes – but beginners all too often fall prey to their own enthusiasm and lack of knowledge (trust me – I know what I’m saying!) A little work and planning before you shell out your hard- earned cash can save you time, money and heartache.
There are basically two types of collector in the antique arms field; those who collect for pleasure and those who do it for investment. That is not to say that investors do not enjoy their hobby, but their prime interest is to secure as high a return as possible on their outlay, whether it be long or short term. It does not follow that the collector for pleasure will not see his collection rise in value over the years. I cannot say that I have noticed any prices going down in the last decade.
Choose your weapons
Perhaps the first thing a beginner should do is to choose a category in which to specialise. A collection with a ‘theme’ is much more interesting than a mixed variety of weapons with nothing in common. Everyone will have an area that holds more interest than others, whether it is flintlock pistols, Colt revolvers, Civil War guns, English long guns, pinfire revolvers or whatever. The list is endless but whatever your speciality there is someone out there selling it.
Once you have made what you think is the final decision (personal experience tells me it may not be) your next step should be to learn a little about your subject. You can do this in three ways. Firstly, visit as many arms fairs and auctions as possible and handle as many examples of your chosen field as you can.
At arms fairs a little ‘arms fair etiquette’ is required: always ask before you pick up a piece and before you cock it. If you are not sure how a weapon operates ask the seller rather than make a potentially expensive mistake. When finished put the piece back on the table as you found it and say ‘Thank you’. Treat everything you handle as you would like your own collection to be handled and you will not go far wrong. Experience from both sides of an arms fair table tells me that observing these niceties ensures a better rapport between vendor and customer.
Those wishing to specialise will find a myriad of books on their chosen subject, albeit at a price usually more than the ‘coffee table’ type of book. You should read as much as you can on your subject. You will find booksellers present at many fairs and it will be a very rare topic on which you cannot find one or more books. Unless you are on a really tight budget do not be put off by what seems an exorbitant price for a book. If you are going to spend several hundred pounds on a weapon then thirty or forty pounds for a little knowledge is money well spent. Pretty soon you will find yourself with an arms library which will earn its keep and also give you a lot of pleasure.
Get a guru
Probably the most important advice I can give is that you should try to find an experienced collector/friend who is willing to share his many years of experience with you – a guru if you will. They may not share the same specific interest but general guidance on what to look for and how to evaluate items will help you to learn much quicker. Armed with your newly acquired knowledge you can now decide whether to collect primarily for pleasure or for profit.
As with all antique or collectable items condition is a prime, but not the only factor when deciding value. ‘Near mint’ specimens of any weapon will obviously bring more than an ‘average’ piece, and will also be much harder to find. You will no doubt hear collectors remark “If only it could talk”. If the mint example could talk it would probably tell you a tale about sitting in a drawer or case for over a hundred years, while the average piece will no doubt have a more colourful tale to tell. Whichever tale you would like to listen to will, to some extent, dictate how you collect.
Should you take the ‘mint’ route then, unless you are not short of cash, your collection will be small and grow slowly but will increase in value a little quicker. If, on the other hand, you decide to collect with your heart then you can put together a good representative selection in your chosen field considerably faster. This is not to say that you should always buy the cheapest example you can find. Poor quality pieces will be harder to sell later on when you wish to improve. Try to buy good, ‘honest’ items that fit your theme and do not break the bank.
As your collection grows you will begin to see gaps that need a particular piece to fit in, which you could not previously find or afford. It is here you may have to accept a less than desirable example or to pay a little more than you wanted to fill the gap.
A word of warning, when buying that mint or rare example. ‘What man can make, man can fake’. Because of the increased value of these pieces there are those individuals who will go to great lengths to ‘improve’ or ‘modify’ average guns. The most common method of doing this is probably refinishing. While this is acceptable to some collectors, others will refuse it at any price. A refinished gun will be worth considerably less than a true mint example of the same weapon and should, where the vendor knows, always be sold as a refinished piece.
Look for tell-tale signs; wear at the muzzle or pitting under the finish. Has the lettering or engraving been ‘freshened’? Another ruse, often seen applied to revolvers, is to have the barrel ‘stretched’. This is where say a 7½” barrel has been cut many years ago to 5½” or less. Since the pistol would now be worth more in its original configuration the barrel is put back to its former length with the appropriate length added at the muzzle. This can often be impossible to detect with the naked eye. Sometimes it is discovered that the rifling does not match but this can be disguised by lining the barrel. Look for spurious markings such as a ‘U.S.’ stamping on a Colt Peacemaker. Does this gun fall into the correct serial number range? (This is where your books are invaluable)
Is the gun just ‘too good to be true’? Check it out with your friendly experienced collector or a known expert in the field. Until you feel you have the knowledge to make an informed judgement, or can get sound advice, if in doubt don’t be tempted. One of the first pieces of advice given to me by my ‘guru’ was to purchase a small magnifying glass. Letters or numbers which seem perfectly acceptable to the naked eye can sometimes, under the glass, be seen to have been stamped with a different tool.
The same can be said when it comes to buying a cased pistol. Sometime in your visits to the fairs you will desire or be offered a cased example of the type of gun you collect. Now you not only have to evaluate the pistol but a box and perhaps accessories. Some pistols were cased at the factory but many more were put together later buy retailers, dealers and individuals. Typical accessories will include a mould, powder flask, cap tin and turnscrew. As many of these have been reproduced by the modern Italian gun makers care must be taken that they are not aged copies. Only experience will help you discern if the box is original or a modern copy. As these sets will often bring twice or more the value of a single pistol, it is vitally important that you know what to look for. Here again there are books that will identify what should be in a case with a particular pistol.
Give it a go
I hope I have not discouraged intending collectors from entering what is a fascinating and rewarding hobby. By far the greatest number of dealers are fair, honest and more than willing to offer help and advice. They want your money, yes, but it is not fair to say they will go to any lengths to get it. They also want you to come back and buy again and realise that news of a ‘bad deal’ spreads quickly among the collecting fraternity and could cost a lot of money in lost future sales. In some cases a dealer has such a variety of stock that he cannot be an expert on everything and it is not beyond possibility that he himself has been duped by an unscrupulous individual.
NRA Condition Standards for Antique Firearms
Many American dealers, and an increasing number internationally, will use the NRA grading system when describing the condition of a pistol. Once again this list should be used as a guide, especially where a percentage of finish is mentioned as one man’s idea of 80% is not necessarily shared by another.
Factory New All original parts; 100 per cent original finish; in perfect condition in every respect, inside and out.
Excellent All original parts; over 80 per cent original finish; sharp lettering, numerals and design on metal and wood; unmarred wood; fine bore.
Fine All original parts; over 30 per cent original finish; sharp lettering, numerals and design on metal and wood; minor marks in wood; good bore.
Very Good All original parts; none to 30 per cent original finish; original metal surfaces smooth with all edges sharp; clear lettering, numerals and design on metal; wood slightly scratched or bruised; bore disregarded for collectors firearms.
Good Some minor replacement parts; metal smoothly rusted or lightly pitted in places, cleaned or re-blued; principle lettering, numerals and design on metal legible; wood refinished, scratched, bruised or minor cracks repaired; in good working order.
Fair Some major parts replaced; minor replacement parts may be required; metal rusted, may be lightly pitted all over, vigorously cleaned or re-blued; rounded edges of metal and wood; principal lettering, numerals and design on metal partly obliterated; wood scratched, bruised, cracked or repaired where broken; in fair working order or can easily be repaired and placed in working order.
Poor Major and minor parts replaced; major replacement parts required and extensive restoration needed; metal deeply pitted; principal lettering, numerals and design obliterated; wood badly scratched, bruised, cracked or broken; mechanically inoperative; generally undesirable as a collectors firearm.
Descriptive Terms for Antique Guns
During your search for suitable items for your collection you will doubtless read many dealers’ catalogues, magazine advertisements and visit internet sites. You will come across a variety of descriptive terms regarding the condition of old guns, which will vary in accuracy according to how the seller views his or her item. The vast majority will be honest and true, but there will be a few that can best be described as ‘vague’. Learn to read between the lines, use the NRA guide printed above and match what you are told with the photographs if there are any.
Finally, if you wish to embark on the collecting of antique guns, learn to walk before you run and remember these few simple rules:
1. Try to choose a type of weapon that interests you for one reason or another. You will enjoy your collecting and research that much more.
2. Learn as much as you can from fairs, books and friends before you start to buy. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
3. Decide whether you are collecting for pleasure or profit – they are not always the same and will affect how and what you purchase.
4. Try to look at it this way: You are not the owner of the antiques in your collection. You are merely paying for the privilege of looking after them for the next generation of collectors.
5. Caveat Emptor! (Buyer Beware!)
All Prices Are Guides Due to the Changes in US & European Exchange Rates