Getting Started in Gun Collecting

Swivel-breech, double-barrel (over/under) percussion Kentucky rifle by Peter Smith of Pennsylvania; c. 1840.  Exceptional use of eagle and dove motifs, along with extensive silver and brass inlays and mountings. (As illustrated in Steel Canvas; The Art of American Arms, with permission of the author)
Swivel-breech, double-barrel (over/under) percussion Kentucky rifle by Peter Smith of Pennsylvania; c. 1840. Exceptional use of eagle and dove motifs, along with extensive silver and brass inlays and mountings.
(As illustrated in Steel Canvas; The Art of American Arms, with permission of the author)

In the early 1970s the greatest, often record-setting price increases were noted. Momentum remained high through the entire 70s and right on into the early 80s. True, there was a leveling off and a readjustment in the deep recession in the early 80s but prices (except in a few isolated instances) never slid backwards at any time and demand never slackened; overpriced mediocre merchandise merely stagnated much as it always had.

Both demand and prices had increased almost on the same scale as the runaway inflationary trend common throughout most of the world in the late 70s. When inflation eased so too did the general price rise. The demand factor continued to reign supreme.

Reviewing the “Introductions” of the preceding eight editions of this Guide offers a credible means to get a handle on what has taken place in this hobby in the past 30 years; a practical and reasonably accurate barometer. The general trend certainly affects ever-increasing values and also recognizes the added emphasis focused upon detail and manufacturing minutiae which continue to dominate many areas of specialty collecting.

Those same preceding years have seen greater significance, justly deserved, accorded to antique arms directly associated with specific eras and events in American history and the individuals that may have personally owned and carried them.

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An interesting and influencing factor in changing the American antique arms market had been the entrance into the picture of the European buyer. Until the late 1960s, the European antique arms market, especially as it existed for the sale of American arms, played no role of any consequence. In fact, up to the 1960s Americans had been able to purchase large quantities of antique arms in Europe (both American made pieces as well as European arms) for import and sale throughout the United States.

In the late 1960s this trend was completely reversed. Rising European affluence and a great influx of new collectors there caused rather meteoric rises in prices for arms in Europe, making it practically impossible for an American to purchase over there and import. European buyers (dealers and collectors) came to American shores to gather up great quantities of their own arms as well as American manufactured pieces to export for sale in their own countries.

This situation was quite volatile and very much subject to the economy of the several countries involved as well as their currency restrictions (often subject to
unpredictable fluctuations).

The European factor caused considerable change in the American market beginning in the early 1970s and was especially noticeable in affecting prices of American made guns of the Civil War and Indian War eras, mainly pieces in poor and mediocre condition. Quite a few Europeans have a great fascination with those periods of American history, and a heavy demand was created for weapons of those eras, partly influenced by a proliferation of television and movie Westerns.

However, the European collector is generally not as discriminating a buyer condition-wise as is his American counterpart. Hence, the demand was much greater for lower quality pieces, and prices for those arms shot up disproportionately. Demand and sale of American arms oscillates in direct ratio to the fluctuations of the economies (and money restrictions imposed) of individual European countries.

In the early 1980s the European buyer, once here in prodigious numbers, had, like the passenger pigeon and the buffalo … or even the dodo bird … become an almost extinct species!

Although he no longer directly affected the American market, he left behind a very wide following of lovers forsaken who, like the mariner’s wife, look forlornly to sea waiting for the ship to return! Those same “lovers scorned” continued their lonely vigil with many sitting on piles of mediocrity they had accumulated for the foreign market; one which had merely been a temporary aberration on the collecting scene!

The hysteria those dealers created in their frenzy to accumulate hoards of ordinary merchandise for Europe, left a trail of carnage behind them in the many unknowing collectors and small-time dealers who thought their mediocre guns were suddenly turning into gold all over America … never realizing that it was only the temporary, short-lived European market that kindled, and ultimately doused the demand!

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw a slow return of European and a few Scandinavian buyers to the American market searching for antique American arms as well as those of their respective countries. By the mid 90s even that sporadic trend slackened. Their impact has been much more modest than it was with the earlier wave.

Restrictive gun laws in a few countries have caused some to limit the scope of their purchases here. While generally adding to the collectors’ market, they have not generated the volatility attendant to their earlier entry.

Another interesting observation and reality of the antique arms business in America, and one for which no explanation is offered, is the changing pattern of the professional full-time antique arms dealer. In the 1940s and 1950s there were quite a few full-time dealers issuing catalogs on a regularly scheduled basis.

The number of such dealers today has dwindled to the point that less than a handful regularly issue sales catalogs. Very possibly this number may dwindle to nil, since there are but the slightest signs of dealers coming into the field who intend to regularly catalog their merchandise.

Likewise, there is an apparent decreasing number of full-time dealers who have retail establishments open to the public at regular hours and to which the collector may freely visit. The trend, with increasing frequency these past years, has shown a great influx of new and full-time dealers in the field, but their manner of conducting
business is completely at contrast to the time-honored approach standard in almost every other collecting field. As a matter of fact, the modus operandi is peculiar to this antique arms business and offers an interesting insight into it.

The general antique arms dealer of today—and most likely those of the future—normally conducts business along four parallel lines: he travels to the better known and larger gun shows throughout the country; he advertises some of his best pieces in one or two of the better known and widely circulated antique arms publications; he has a small gun room or showroom associated with his home and will allow visits by appointment only; and, with ever-increasing frequency maintains a Web site on the Internet.

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

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