Getting Started in Gun Collecting

Matched pair of presentation, engraved, ivory-grip MANHATTAN 36-caliber percussion, 5 shot-revolvers with 6 1/2-inch barrels. Each handsomely inscribed along their backstraps:  “to G. W. France Acting Assistant Surgeon, U.S.A. / from Attendants of U.S. Gen. Hospital No. 11.”  Illustrated here with a Civil War Army issue Hospital Steward’s (Corpsman) medicine case as worn on a waist belt.  Dr. France served as a surgeon at a Prisoner-of-War camp outside Nashville during the Civil War; following cessation of hostilities he continued duty 1865 to June, 1866 at Army posts in Oregon Territory.
Matched pair of presentation, engraved, ivory-grip MANHATTAN 36-caliber percussion, 5 shot-revolvers with 6 1/2-inch barrels. Each handsomely inscribed along their backstraps:  “to G. W. France Acting Assistant Surgeon, U.S.A. / from Attendants of U.S. Gen. Hospital No. 11.”  Illustrated here with a Civil War Army issue Hospital Steward’s (Corpsman) medicine case as worn on a waist belt.  Dr. France served as a surgeon at a Prisoner-of-War camp outside Nashville during the Civil War; following cessation of hostilities he continued duty 1865 to June, 1866 at Army posts in Oregon Territory.

Appetites for gun collecting are often whetted by mechanical ingenuity, artistic features or historic associations. The possibilities and potential in collecting antique American arms are virtually unlimited; but these must be matched to both one’s pocketbook and the amount of time one can devote to what can become a possessive mistress.

Probably the best approach to beginning a collection is to assemble a basic arms library and read those books thoroughly. But, alas, years of stressing this point and offering the same advice many times over has found it to be the least often accepted counsel.

Whether time is too precious or gun money tends to burn a large hole in one’s pocket, it seems the neophyte collector just cannot visualize that book hanging on two hooks on the wall! This note of sarcasm is well intended, if the collector- to-be can persevere and acquire a few recommended basic primers, he will find his money very well spent indeed.

Larger city libraries are bound to have a good shelf of gun books as do many of the larger book stores; a few dealers specialize in arms books and issue catalogs, or, a visit to a gun show will usually find dealers with a wide variety of titles on hand. The Bibliography, Chapter IV, should be found helpful as a guide to basic works. Thoroughly digesting such primers will provide a good cursory knowledge of what gun collecting is all about. Recommended as a basic starter is the recently published “331 Essential Tips and Tricks for the Gun Collector” by S.C. Mowbray (2006). Chapter IV.

Armed with the basics, the next order of progression should be some astute travel—to a museum featuring a well-rounded or specialized collection (quite a few of these will be found throughout the country), to a gun collector’s home, to a dealer specializing in antique arms, or to a nearby gun show; (none of these need be in any special order). New horizons will quickly be opened, especially at that visit to the first show where anywhere from a hundred to a thousand (or more!) tables may be seen displaying and offering for sale thousands of antique guns; a fascinating and unforgettable experience.

Probably on display will be more guns than can be seen in most individual museums, plus a variety of accessories, parts and literature. The shows also offer an excellent forum for meeting with a very wide crosssection of collectors and dealers. On the assumption the aspiring collector was able to attend that first gun show and not purchase anything (but some books), the next logical step should be to subscribe to a few of the regularly issued periodicals devoted to or featuring articles on collectors’ arms.

The importance of belonging to the National Rifle Association cannot be over-emphasized. Their highly respected and widely circulated publication The American Rifleman contains a great many informative articles for the gun collector, and the Association offers services to collectors who are members. Other periodicals devoted entirely to antique arms are of great value to the collector and should be subscribed to (see details in Bibliography). A host of other magazines covering modern weapons is readily available, and most of these carry some articles on antique and collectors’ firearms.

The importance of all these periodicals to the neophyte is not only their wealth of informative articles, but the profusion of advertisements of dealers and collectors nationwide who are offering their services or their lists or their items for sale. One of the best mediums of exchanges in the antique arms business is mail order. Advertisements and listings for all the regularly scheduled gun shows throughout the country will also be found in these publications.

Before money is laid down for that first gun, it would be wise to have selected a general area in which to confine one’s collecting activities. Likely a choice was made by reading and by studying museum and private collections; at least some general guidelines should have been established, and the search for specimens can be confined to within a given category. A key asset for the neophyte is a mentor whose opinion is valued (and who is not trying to sell one of his own guns!); an outside impartial opinion as to the wisdom of the first choice will do much to start the collector on the right foot when making that first selection at a gun show or at a dealer’s shop; it is also a great aid in building self-confidence.

If on his own, then good common sense and judgment of human nature should take precedence when assessing circumstances surrounding the purchase of that first piece. Checking the reputation of a dealer or collector source is a worthy step, and remember that a guarantee, either verbal or written, is only as good as the party giving it.

On Guarantees

Flayderman's Guide to Antique American Firearms
This article is an excerpt from Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms. Click here to learn more.

The matter of GUARANTEES is worth dwelling on for a moment. Regardless of what one might be told about a gun, and even if said data is committed to writing, there are so many vagaries involved that unless the party making the guarantee is reputable, it will be found worthless.

Proving an item is not what it is stated to be in a court of law is a highly involved process and a costly one as well. Courts and (most) lawyers know nothing about antique guns, so it is a matter of hiring witnesses (an expensive matter) and trying to educate judge and possibly jury as well!

Unless a gun is worth many thousands of dollars, there is little likelihood that the aggrieved owner will ever get satisfaction if the seller does not choose to honor a complaint. In only the most flagrant violations does a collector have a chance to get together a consensus from the seller’s peers and coerce him into making a disgruntled refund.

This discussion is not intended to lessen the importance of acquiring a detailed bill of sale, which in some cases may deter the seller from passing off a spurious piece. A general observation in some five decades of dealing has shown that those highly detailed, multi-part bills are rarely asked for or offered, nor are they necessarily what they appear to be if the seller had larceny in his heart from the beginning!

The entire subject has very broad legal and ethical implications not within the realm of discussion for this book, other than to bring them to the readers’ attention and strongly stress the extreme importance of knowing the party from whom the purchase was made. It is very much a matter of a man’s word being his bond. A source of satisfaction for the majority of those active in gun collecting is that such a statement stands not merely as a hackneyed cliche, but a standard of one’s ethical code. Undoubtedly the best rule-of-thumb on purchasing antique guns, and one that is heard repeatedly, is to limit one’s buying as much as possible to quality and condition.

Far better it is to have one good piece than a dozen “dogs.” This is one of the most difficult points to get across to new collectors, especially when they are itching to buy that first piece! From studying human nature and collecting habits, it may be broadly stated that the new collector most often commits all the sins that he has been pointedly warned to avoid and that he ultimately comes to the realization that those were not such bad warnings after all. Those seeming bargains just are not bargains and are so damned hard to pass by!

The mere fact that a gun bears a price tag and is being sold by a dealer or collector in his shop or at a show is not necessarily a measure of actual or accurate worth. That tag does not always indicate the actual price a seller is willing to accept. In some instances it may even be purposefully inflated, outlandishly so; a rather crafty device to tempt the prospective buyer to make an offer, after which the trap closes quickly on the unwary!

The buyer must be prepared to analyze not only the weapon, but the person selling it, including their knowledge in that particular area, their method of doing business, their standing and reputation as a collector or dealer.

On auction buying: The final rule-of-thumb on bargains is worth remembering when it comes to attending an auction. Under no circumstances ever bid on any gun (or any other item for that matter) unless it has been very closely examined at the exhibition preceding the auction by yourself (preferably) or someone representing the collector and whose opinion is valued.

This is a time-honored, unwritten rule equally applicable to neophyte as well as expert. The novice, with no idea of gun values, has no business bidding at an auction and is gently cautioned to possess his soul with patience and wait until he has some collecting experience under his belt before entering bidding competition. Common sense dictates that when one stands toe to toe and slugs it out price-wise—and that is what auctions are all about—he should at the very least know what he is doing.

NM Collector SoftwareThis gun collecting series brought to you by NM Collector Software.


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