|This .461 Gibbs is identical to the rifle Selous carried. That it return to his Bechuanaland (now Botswana) and killed a cape buffalo makes it far more important in my eyes.|
Gun Collecting Basics
A wise and fun way into the exciting world of gun collecting.
by Ross Seyfried
The line between having a gun or two and becoming a collector is a fine and blurry one . . . and that is the magic of it all. You do not need a large bank account or carved-in-stone criteria to be a collector. We could use Webster to find a definition of a “collection”, but because I am writing this, I will make one up to suit. To me, a “collection” of guns and/or related items is simply when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There is more good news, that “greater” need not be in my eyes or in the eyes of formal collectors or organizations; but in your eyes only. If, over time, you choose wisely there is a very high probability that your collection will please someone else also; and it may be a very good financial investment. With that in mind let’s look at the mental process that can lead you down the road to safe and happy collecting.
There should be two overriding criteria when you begin to invest. First, buy what you like. That is, do not try to keep up with the “Joneses.” Just because someone has a fine collection of all Damascus Nambus, or gold inlaid Iver Johnsons it does not mean that these would be right for you.
|I only own one Winchester lever action. Why I chose this otherwise non-descript Model ’73 is easy for some of us to understand.|
If you like American handguns, German shotguns, Swedish rifles, or some of each, by all means go for it. To me, guns are a passion, a pure love affair and that is their greatest value. For you to have that same reward, you have to make up the rules. The second and very, very important thing that I try to instill in every one I coach in the world of arms collection is be patient! Desire becomes a great thing when combined with passion. It is incredibly easy to buy a gun just to satisfy that desire, to overlook many of the common sense cautions you know to be true. Some pieces you want will come easily and quickly, some may take years or decades to find. And that in itself is part of the wonder of collecting.
I think most of we humans are hunters at heart and at times the pursuit, the chase, the hunt, may be as valuable as the “catch”. Just when you are sure that you will never find that one special piece, it will turn up and that in itself will make it more wonderful in your eyes. The syndrome called buyer’s remorse is a very real and bad thing. It is not easy to avoid, but patience will make you almost immune. If you have to talk yourself into a purchase, then it is probably better to wait. “No” can be a very good and active word. Having the money in hand when something that you really want becomes available is a very good feeling; instead of having a gun you really do not like and wishing you had the money. The flip side to patience is being ready to pounce decisively when real treasure, at good value appears. I remember well the day at a big show when several potential buyers were circling and handling a very, very special gun. I looked at it, quietly took out my check book and handed the seller his asking price. The others blinked and said, “We were going to buy that.” I replied, “When you see something like this, do not procrastinate, write the check.”
To help your thought processes as you begin to look for a direction to take, it is a good idea to ponder what you want the pieces in your collection to do. First, do you want to be able to shoot them? To me that is a must. Virtually every piece I have ever bought has been selected with the thought of, “what was it designed to do . . . how can I make it go bang?” To that end with few exceptions I have fired every one I have owned and the majority, by far, have hunted and taken birds or game animals.
I have always been fascinated by ballistic systems and what the old guns did in the past. My .577 has been in an argument with a cape buffalo, my flint gun brought a goose out of the sky. The Holland & Holland Paradox caught a pig and a quail and my Smith & Wesson single shot .22 stopped a gold-fish raiding snake. In fact, I have evolved as a hunter to a level where I have only a limited desire to kill things. It is most often the guns themselves (and the need to please a very eager Labrador) that gives me the excuse to hunt. Bringing the old arms back to life serves a very important purpose
While I have always been shooting and hunting oriented, others may want to preserve history, for the sake of history itself. We see many fine collections, great and small in this category. Within this range we often see military collections or collections from specific periods in history. They may be related to specific people as in those who have preserved many of Jack O’Connor’s arms, those of military officers or perhaps the highest evolution, the collecting of guns owned by our greatest hero, Theodore Roosevelt. Many fine collections are comprised of one maker: Colts, Smith & Wessons, Winchesters, Merwin Hulbert or even more refined in scope to Model 12s or Smith & Wesson Registered Magnums. The most important point in all of this is there are no rules. I can tell you that the finest collection I know in the world can be described as absolutely eclectic. That is, there is no central theme except excellence. Each and every piece is new or nearly new, including the 200-year old Joseph Manton flintlock with every refinement. Within there are grand collections of Model 12 Winchesters, Smith & Wessons, English Doubles and Italy’s finest. There are .410s and 4-bores, .22s and 600s.
|Eclectic! My revolver collection has no direction except what pleases me. Top to bottom: A pre-war S&W .32-20 Target, my grandfather’s 1917 Army Colt and the grand prize a Webley-Pryse .577.|
As we circle back to the beginning and the question of what do you want them to do we see, in my opinion two sub-categories. Those you can shoot and those you cannot. To me, and this is purely personal, the least interesting guns of all are “new in the box.” I have owned a couple and sold them, because to me a Colt I cannot cock, or a Winchester model 70 that I can never point at an elk is about as interesting as a rare stamp. There is nothing wrong with new-in-the-box guns; they are just not for shooters. Of course there is the value consideration; you are likely to pay as much for the box as the gun it protects. Just below the new guns are those in very high original condition. I have them, shoot them and even hunt with them, but in places and ways that do no harm. While on that subject we should touch the notion that firing any gun will damage it. A few months ago I tried to buy an English muzzle loading shotgun on behalf of a friend. It was a nice gun, with moderate mileage and about 20 percent of its original finish. Said another way it probably had been fired thousands of times. The owner refused to sell it to us because it was destined to hunt Chuckar partridges . . . on the grounds that firing it would ruin it. Good grief man, they were made to shoot! Care and consideration are certainly necessary when you actually fire fine guns, but that does not mean they cannot be enjoyed and employed to the fullest. Beyond the high-condition pieces are those with some good honest miles . . . and these are often among my favorites. First I wish they could talk, wish they could tell me where they have been. Second, they fear not the mountain or a rain storm; they have seen it all before. In careful hands they will take far less damage on a hunt that being banged about at a gun show!
A final consideration, when you collect, is financial investment. A good gun, purchased wisely at good value is very, very apt to make you money over time. Investing well takes knowledge and caution. You can create the caution, but knowledge takes time and experience and it is a “buyer beware” world out there. While I certainly do not want to cast a bad light on gun sellers, it is very, very easy to buy bad things, or pay way too much. The good news is that the world of gun collecting is full of wonderful people, many, even most of which are glad to share the knowledge and to protect a neophyte. There are a few things that will bite the unwary: over-priced, fakes, refinished guns being sold as original condition and just plain junk A fine gun that has been molested by someone posing as a gunsmith is a real tragedy and something to normally be avoided at all cost. In every category you are likely to pay more than the gun is worth, and almost always when you want to sell your mistakes it will prove extremely difficult to get rid of them.
As you begin to buy for either pleasure or investment (and in my opinion they should go together) my best advice is to always buy the best of whatever kind you want, that you can afford. This needs to be tempered on the top end, again the new in the box concept. If that is what you want, then by all means pursue them. If on the other hand you want to have fun, you can buy two nice, 90-percent plus Model 70s for the same or less money than the boxed one. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are the badly refinished or beat up ones. If you want a user-beater, then assuming the bores are okay, these are fine. But they are not apt to appreciate and may not make you smile a year later.
It may also be worth thinking about what I call the “rarity” trap. That is relatively poor condition and even poor quality guns that cost a lot because they are “rare.” American collectibles are certainly driven by the rarity concept. If you find a gun with production numbers less than 10,000 it probably is going to be expensive; find one with less than 1000 ever made and it is likely to be frightening. That again is okay, if that is what you want. Personally I do not attach a lot of value to “rarity.” I often see relatively rusty, quite uninteresting pieces commanding huge sums, just because they were rare. I think and buy with another kind of criteria, based on two questions. First, how much did the gun cost the day the made it? Many of the British or Continental arms I collect cost several hundred dollars in the 1800s. In general high original cost equates to high quality and tremendous workmanship. The second question is, “how much of that is left?” That is, what is its condition today? It is not unreasonable to purchase an arm that cost several hundred dollars then for only several thousand now. This thinking is in contrast to the Colt or Winchester that cost $25 a century ago and that often commands tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars today . . . just because it is rare. Please do not misunderstand, I do not decry the great Colt or Winchesters, I just do not want to play on their field and want you to know there are values beyond “rarity” to a collector.
If there is a deep dark secret to buying arms in a way that will allow they to appreciate quickly; it is to get ahead of a trend. I did this, unwittingly, long ago. I had very little money, but liked fine guns; so I bought what I liked and what I could afford. These were Damascus barreled English double shotguns. Most of them were 10 gauges. At the time no one wanted a gun with Damascus barrels and even less coveted a 10 bore. I was a duck, goose and pheasant hunter, so they suited me. My first big purchase was actually a trade; a Smith & Wesson .22 Jet “bought” two extremely fine 10 gauge doubles. One, as I would learn later, a Scott Premier Gun cost more in 1881 than the Jet did in 1979!!! Others of best English make actually cost me about the same as Remington pumps and autos. That “opportunity” is well past now and if I could predict the next trend, rest assured I would keep it to myself. However, there are lots of niches out there and you may be able to find them, because you are frugal or wise, or both. Or like me, you may just be the blind squirrel that finds the acorn. It is all part of the fun and intrigue of becoming a collector.
A final kind of value is what I call “people” value. I have a few pieces that are “attached” to friends and have wonderful stories to go with them. It took almost a decade to secure the Purdey pinfire shotgun after it became “mine.” There was a tremendous and exquisitely fun tug of war between the owner and buyer. It will remain always a grand prize in my eyes. Another was the last gun sold by one of our famous and wonderful dealers. It was seriously overpriced and as a joke between us he sold it to me at full price . . . “with 25 years to pay and no interest”. He passed away that night and I treasure the wonderful Westley Richards rifle beyond any price.
Beyond the guns themselves, some of the related items can be a lot of fun. Old loading tools fascinate me. There was a time when a gun or rifle came with a complete loading outfit, designed to be used out in the field, be it the wilds of America, or the dark and distant lands of Africa and India. These tools often resemble jewelry in their quality and workmanship . . .. and they can still make cartridges for your gun. Sights are also wonderful and have become more and more collectible. A humble Lyman or Marbles vintage sight usually commands more money today than the entire rifle cost new! They too are beautiful and wonderfully made. Original ammunition and boxes are a lot of fun as are cartridge boards. Holsters and gun cases form an entirely different and related field. If you want to know what a great working-holster might be, just look at one from the 1800s. No, not the look adopted by Hollywood “gunslinger”, but the real ones. There was a time when many men and women wore a gun all day, every day. Just like their saddles, these folks new a thing or two about function and practicality! Books and old catalogs are great fun to own and read. The books, tools and other accessories are priceless tools in the learning process that will allow you to evolve from a babe in the woods to a knowing and wise collector . . . who, by the way, will then be equipped to help others.
As we wind down for the moment I realize this may have created more questions than answers. The devil is in the details so they say, and this is very true in the realm of gun collecting. In the future we can get out our magnifying glass and look at some of the details surrounding condition, or even specific categories of arms that may interest you. For the moment enjoy and remember above all else, this is supposed to be fun!
Ross Seyfried is a lifetime collector and shooter of vintage British and Continental arms from .22 all the way up to 4 gauge smoothbore. He has been hunting, shooting and reloading for 50 years, has been a licensed Professional Hunter in Zambia and Tanzania and is currently a licensed guide and outfitter in Oregon. He is currently a consultant to and field correspondent for the NRA, and was World IPSC Champion in 1981.