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By Rock Island Auction Company

The sun is rising, warming the cool morning air and providing a halo for the surrounding hotels and business buildings. Already collectors are awake. Showered, combed, adorned in jeans, some wear cowboy hats and nearly all of them wear glasses – attesting to the slowly climbing age of this group. Some carefully select their continental breakfast, others munch it quietly while reading their morning paper, but most talk excitedly to friends and strangers about the event that will come alive in a short time: the gun show. Coffee is almost not needed. The air is abuzz with conversation while buttons from previous conventions flash like their animated eyes as stories are told and passions are shared. Soon a conference center or hall or casino or fairgrounds will fill with firearms enthusiasts, dealers, collectors, and window shoppers, packing the empty spaces between the tables filled with guns . . .

Depending on the show and the people, these show goers could attend for any number of reasons. Some appreciate the place firearms hold in history, especially for our own young nation. Others may admire the inventor’s spirit and engineering creativity that exists in early firearms. A great number of people attend shows with a more practical purpose in mind such as hunting or protection, while another faction no doubt attends because all their “gun buddies” will be there too. Also attending will be people who simply enjoy shooting and who respect the power and responsibility that firearms bring. Some are just trying to make a buck.

Regardless of motivation, different levels of involvement and expertise exist in gun collecting just as they do in any hobby. These different levels often have unique concerns pertinent to the hobby they hold so dear. Each set of concerns may seem simplified to those not in that specific stage, but make no mistake, there are real questions and decisions that collectors the world over have had to analyze and make for themselves. The result is an assortment of universal experiences that gun collectors can find themselves sharing, debating, considering, evaluating, and interpreting among themselves. It makes for great talk at gatherings. Conversations can be spirited and laughter-filled or a heated recounting of wrongs committed against the narrator. Sometimes the school of hard knocks can prove a merciless professor.

 

The good news is, nobody has to endure such a unforgiving education. Literally thousands of other collectors have stood exactly where you are now whether you’re buying your first gun or deciding what to do with your life long collection. Rock Island Auction Company has interviewed a few of those collectors to find out what pearls of wisdom they could offer to those who have yet to garner such knowledge. Some of the answers are exactly what you would expect and others are surprising, but they are all candid responses based on years of experience within the hobby.

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Not all beginners are fortunate enough to have a guide.

Beginners

While there are many common experiences that beginners share, there is no one common “beginning” gun collector. Nearly all the gentlemen interviewed for this article, and a majority of others, started at a young age via a gift from a father or grandfather, but one could just as easily start upon attaining the legal age to purchase firearms. Others have started after settling into a good paying career that finally afforded them the income to enter into gun collecting and a few start even later on in life as a new found hobby perhaps spurred by a gun collecting friend or the surplus of free time found in retirement. It’s never too late to start collecting and all collectors get introduced to it by friends, relatives, and in many cases a favorite character, actor, movie, or TV show such as The Lone Ranger, John Wayne, Saving Private Ryan, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Rifleman, Rawhide, The Dirty Dozen, Sergeant York, Lee Marvin, Butch Cassidy, Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, Annie Oakley, George Custer, High Noon, The Magnificent Seven, Rio Bravo, Clint Eastwood, and countless others.

With this newly ignited passion one might begin reading about the newly experienced guns and learning about other weapons of that period or genre. For many, a purchase is inevitable and a natural, unguided curiosity is replaced by direct, specific questions such as:

“Do I need to do anything before I start?”

Yes. For starters, look into your state laws regarding gun ownership. Each state is different and will have varying laws on whether or not you need a license to own one, how to legally transport them, guns that are illegal to own, etc. Obviously, you want to be in compliance with the law at all times because a gun crime on your rap sheet can spoil the fun pretty quickly and make it difficult if not impossible to own additional guns further down the road.

Another MUST for any beginner is to be familiar with the rules of gun safety and how to operate features of commonly encountered guns. If you’re not familiar with those things yet, that’s completely all right. Everyone is a beginner once, even if you encounter someone who firmly believes they exited the womb fully knowledgeable on these topics. Find someone you feel confident (and safe!) teaching you the rules and basic firearm handling and operation. Safety with guns comes before absolutely anything. Besides, what good is it to collect firearms if you always feel awkward or unsure when handling them. Get educated. Be safe. Everything else is secondary.

“Are there other costs to owning a gun?”

Yes. Right off the bat there’s the purchase price. However, if it’s your first gun, you’ll also need the following:

  • As mentioned earlier, some states require you to have a license to own a firearm. Fees for these licenses vary by state.
  • A way to secure the weapon (as cheaply as a $10 gun cable to a $10,000 safe)
  • A case to cover/transport the gun ($20 Doskocil case to very expensive metal cases. Cased transportation not required in all states.)
  • Ammunition. Though arguably, everyone has to buy this (price varies on caliber, quality, and availability)
  • Cleaning supplies (min. $35)
  • Targets ($2 paper targets up to $100 steel “trees” or just use soda cans, 2 liter pop bottles, tin cans, playing cards, bowling pins, or many other popular items)
  • Range time. If your only option for using your gun is at a range or trap club, you will be charged for your time spent there. However, there are many free options for shooting like a friend who lives in the country and some areas that provide a free rural public “range” that is not staffed.

“What should I look for?”

Depends. Why are you collecting? Are you collecting because you really, really like a particular gun or are you collecting because you kind of like guns and think you could make some money doing it? If you’re collecting as a genuine interest, you’ve got it made; simply collect what you like. Depending on your priorities, you should go where you find things that are fascinating, beautiful, or historical. Or all three! There’s no wrong answer. Except for poor condition guns. Never collect those unless you’re also into gunsmithing and restoration, but that’s a whole different article. If you’re like most of us and have no intention of playing gunsmith, then you should read copious amounts of books on your subject of interest. Not only will you have some ideas of what to look for, you’ll also be better educated when it comes to the variants of that weapon as well as what is authentic.

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“The first thing every beginning collector should do is buy Flayderman’s Guide, that is, if you’re dealing with American guns… For the money, it’s the cheapest information you will ever get. It’s all inclusive and you use it as a general, first item reference. You don’t necessarily believe the price nor everything you read. If you’re a new guy, you’re going to start accumulating guns. You’re not a collector. You don’t just decide you’re going to collect Lincolns or Chevys. You start buying cars, so you have to know about cars…. My comment is that you should never buy a new kind of gun without owning the book first. Period. It’s better to buy a $25 book than a $5,000 mistake.” – Dave C.

“They sat me down and they said, ‘Sonny, if you’re gonna collect, we wanna impress on you to buy the very best of any item that you can find and can afford.'” – Anonymous

On the other hand, if you’re collecting as an investment AND you’re a beginner, your road is much more difficult (and not necessarily recommended). You’re primarily going to be looking for undervalued guns or guns with a history of strong gains. First off, having little to no previous knowledge on gun values, a true beginner is in a poor place to determine bargains without some research. This is not impossible, but it is time consuming. Second, a beginning gun investor, in addition to having difficulties determining value, may also have issues determining factors that can greatly affect the value of a gun such as authenticity, refinishing, replaced parts, incorrect parts, altered parts, out and out fakes, and more, any of which could affect the gun’s value by thousands of dollars!  Third, unlike the beginner collecting for fun, the investing collector must be more concerned about the gun’s value, which is determined by numerous factors. An investor can’t just find any bargain, it must be one that can be resold at a higher value. Ideally, investment collectors use the Warren Buffet strategy of “Buy and Hold” and wait for their guns to increase in value.  However, the best guns to do this with are often guns with already proven (i.e. higher) value.  This also makes investment grade guns more difficult to attain for the beginning collector.

The exception to being both a beginner and an investor is finding bargain guns that you can immediately turn around for profit, however, such actions border on being a gun dealer and not a gun collector. Done too often, this is illegal if you’re not running a licensed and registered business. The collector’s emphasis is generally on just that: collecting. It requires a focused accumulation and to hold it over time. If you’re constantly flipping guns, you don’t have a collection. You have an inventory (and a need for an FFL among other things).

What should you look for? Seek lots of informative books on your topic and guns in as high a condition as you can afford. If you’re looking for guns you’re going to use, then honestly assess what you’ll use them for and research a gun that will best suit your purpose in your price range.

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“How do I know I’m getting a good deal?”

Unfortunately, there is no quick and easy answer for this since guns of even the same model can vary greatly. If you’re a beginner and want to focus first on usable guns, such resources as the Blue Book can provide a quick reference for anything you’d buy in a store and more. You can also check prices against online retailers. For American antiques and other collectable firearms, you may wish to consult Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms. There is no quick and easy answer to know if you’re getting a good deal on a collector firearm. The only teachers are research and experience. If you were buying a laptop, would you only go to one store?  Would you buy the first car you saw? Same logic applies with guns.  Do your research and shop around.  Until someone earns your business with a history of being helpful, honest, or at least providing solid values, you owe your business to no one.  Shop around.  Do the research.  Be smart.  If something is too good to be true, it probably is.

“Should I clean it?”

Touchy subject. Generally you should not clean collector guns, but circumstances do bear consideration. For example, should you clean the weathered M1911 you bought and shoot every weekend? Absolutely. That is an active gun and it needs to be maintained. It is in what many call its “usable” or “useful life.” Clean it. Take care of it. Prolong its life. On the other hand, should you clean the early production Winchester Model 1873 you got from Grandpa that shows a brown patina? Absolutely not. While the gun may still be usable at this point, it is worth more as a historical piece than as a shooter. It has entered the second part of its life called its “collectable life.” It should not be cleaned nor shot at this point as the loss in value could be significant and firing some weapons in their collectable life could be dangerous. Besides, if the desire to use a collectable gun becomes unbearable, there are many current reproductions of older models available. You can still purchase brand new reproduction black powder rifles, percussion revolvers, lever actions, and even pepperbox pistols!

Some people like to shoot old guns. That’s OK. They are not concerned with the gun’s collectable value, only its value as a tool. These folks will most likely shoot the old guns and take great enjoyment in the authenticity of doing so. This group should clean and maintain these guns as they would any other gun still in its useful life.  In fact, special steps may be needed to clean them when using older black powder style propellants.

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Some folks believe in restoring old guns to their “factory issued” condition so that they can live longer and be appreciated by future collectors. That’s OK, too. Their motivation is that of preservation, even if at the expense of originality and value. This step is sometimes a necessity to prevent an old gun from falling into ruin and/or losing nearly all its value. Restored guns can still command high selling prices, but it will never achieve the same price a similar condition all original firearm. If you have a gun that you’re considering restoring, consult a professional. Not only should they be able to tell you how it will effect the value, but they (ideally) know what they’re doing. Leave any restoration and appraisal work to the professionals.

Most collectors believe that you should never clean a gun in its collectable life. Not only is this a preference, but guns are almost always worth more in their original condition. To remove the marks of age or patina from a collectable firearm will almost always result in a loss of value and a detriment to its ability to be sold. If you’re not sure what to do, consult a professional and they should be able to honestly guide you.

“Will shooting it hurt the value?”

For most beginning collectors the value is a simple, “no.” Given that most beginners are young, most beginners’ guns will be relatively inexpensive. Since they are inexpensive, one or more of the following is likely to apply: 1. the gun has already seen good use so firing it will not be an issue, 2. it will be in a condition that will not be irreparably harmed by firing it or, 3. the gun will be inexpensive enough that a percentage of value removed for firing will only result in a small decrease monetarily. None of this applies if you’ve inherited priceless heirlooms. Until you know otherwise from a trusted, competent source, do not shoot those potentially valuable guns.

There is also the issue of whether a collectible or antique gun is even safe to shoot in the first place.  Shooting suspect firearms that have not been checked by a professional gunsmith can be dangerous and even fatal.  Never assume that because a gun looks OK that it is OK.  Antique firearms, particularly those designed to use black powder and not modern propellants, can have a number of significant problems which can go undetected.  As mentioned earlier:  Be safe.  Everything else is secondary.

Advice to Beginning Collectors from Experts

“Be patient. There’s guns I’ve wanted for over a decade. Say it three times, be patient, be patient, be patient. Wait for the gun you know is correct. In real estate it’s ‘location, location, location.’ With guns it’s, ‘Condition, condition, condition. You’ve got to have the right reference books and study, study, study. Know your subject matter because you can very easily, I won’t say anybody here would misrepresent a gun, but very easily somebody can tell you what they believe to be correct, but it’s not correct. Be patient. Know your subject matter. Don’t fall in love with a gun. I have. I’ve paid way too much for a gun because I’ve fell in love with it.” – S.B.C.

“Buy the best you can afford. The best has always been the best investment. The things to avoid are things in the middle of the road. There’s always a buyer for the low end and there’s always a buyer for the top end. The guy who buys the in-between, would like better but he can’t afford it… they’re harder to sell. The middle of the road has been something to be avoided and that’s what most of the guns are: middle of the road.” -Tom L.

“You never clean an old gun. The worst thing you can do. The worst thing. I do little seminars and things about this… You’re up in the attic. You find this old gun tucked up in the rafters. The first thing everyone wants to do is they want to varnish the grips and get out the Brasso and polish it. (through clenched teeth) Don’t. Touch. The gun. Leave the dust on it. Don’t touch the gun.” – Chuck B.

12 Responses to The Life of a Gun Collector, Part 1

  1. Some day, when I have a stable career and cash flow, I will definitely be going to these auctions. Until then, thanks for the great read!

  2. I can’t fathom having a gun and not shooting it. My grandfather’s got a 100 year old Winchester 30-30 that still goes bang, and by god, if I get it, I will continue to fire it on occasion.

    • I can’t fathom having a gun and not shooting it.

      I own dozens of guns that I’ve never shot. While I enjoy collecting military guns and their accessories a great deal, I’ve just never been into actually shooting them that much.

      • I know the feeling. I generally tried to take out a new toy within a week after getting it, but sadly these days, I either don’t have the time or the ammo…or both. I do have a friend though that has 75+ old military rifles and i think he’s fired maybe about five of em. And the collections keep growing. So many guns, not enough time…or money.

  3. Alternative advice from a fellow S&W “enthusiast”: “I’m not a Smith & Wesson collector, I’m a Smith & Wesson accumulator.” Buy it because you like it, not because you think it may be worth a fortune to your heirs. If they want to own an expensive gun that hasn’t been shot, let them buy their own.

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