Gun Collecting and Grading

These ivory-gripped examples are still striking, after more than a century since they were first manufactured. From top: six-shot 32-caliber Sprague and Marston with barrels bored from a single piece of steel; six-shot folding trigger 30-caliber pinfire with Belgian proofmarks; six-shot 32-caliber percussion pepperbox with ring trigger, maker unknown.
These ivory-gripped examples are still striking, after more than a century since they were first manufactured. From top: six-shot 32-caliber Sprague and Marston with barrels bored from a single piece of steel; six-shot folding trigger 30-caliber pinfire with Belgian proofmarks; six-shot 32-caliber percussion pepperbox with ring trigger, maker unknown.

Firearms have been admired and coveted, not only for their usefulness, but also for their grace and beauty. Since the beginning of the 19th century, firearms makers have adorned their guns with engraving, fine woods, or special order features that set their products apart from the rest. There is no feasible way to give the collector every possible variation of the firearms presented in this book. However, in a general way, certain special factors will significantly influence the price of a firearm.

Perhaps the most recognizable special feature collectors agree affects the price of a firearm is engraving. The artistry, beauty, and intricate nature of engraving draw all collectors toward it. But, firearms engraving is a field unto itself requiring years of experience to determine proper chronological methods and the ability to identify the engraver in question. Factory engraving generally brings more of a premium than after-market engraving.

To be able to determine factory work is a difficult task, full of pitfalls. In some cases, factories like Colt and Winchester may have records to verify original factory engraving work. Whereas other manufacturers such as Parker, Remington, or Savage may not have these records. Whenever a firearm purchase is to be made with respect to an engraved gun, it is in the collector’s best interest to secure an expert opinion and/or a factory letter prior to the purchase. Engraved firearms are expensive. A mistake could cost the collector thousands of dollars; proceed with caution.

The William A. Jones Collection contains not only pepperboxes but a wide variety of rare and interesting firearms. Clockwise from upper left: 20-shot double-barreled pinfire 32-caliber revolver marked “I.H. London”; very rare steel-framed Volcanic lever-action repeating pistol; 41-caliber brass-framed Colt Cloverleaf; martially-marked Colt Model 1873 Single-Action Army;  Minnesota Fire Arms Company seven-shot 32-caliber “Protector” palm pistol; unmarked Belgian percussion “harmonica” pistol; rare 36/44-caliber LeMat pinfire revolver; almost-as-rare 44-caliber Remington Model 1890 with ivory grips. Center: 44-caliber Merwin, Hulbert Pocket Army with skullpopper gripcap.

The 18th century was also a time when pistols and rifles were purchased by or given to historically important individuals. Firearms have also been an important part of significant historical events such as the Battle of the Little Bighorn or the Battle of Bull Run or some other meaningful event in our nation’s history. Many of these firearms are in museums where the public can enjoy, see and appreciate them. Others are in private collections that seldom, if ever, are offered for sale. If the collector should ever encounter one of these historically important firearms, it cannot be stressed strongly enough to secure an expert determination as to authenticity. Museum curators are perhaps the best source of information for these types of firearms. As with engraved guns, historical firearms are usually expensive, and without documentation their value is questionable.

Special features and variations are also a desirable part of firearms collecting. As with engraving, special order guns can bring a considerable premium. The Colt factory has excellent records regarding its firearms and will provide the collector with a letter of authenticity. Winchester records are not as comprehensive, but rifles made prior to 1908 may have documentation. Other firearm manufacturers either do not have records or do not provide the collector with documentation. This leaves the collector in a difficult position. Special order sights, stocks, barrel lengths, calibers, and so forth must be judged on their own merits. As with other factors, an expert should be consulted prior to purchase. Sometimes this can be difficult.

Experienced collectors, researchers, and museums will generally provide the kind of information a collector needs before purchasing a special order or unique firearm. Perhaps the best advice is for the collector to take his time.

Do not be in a hurry, and do not allow yourself to be rushed into making a decision. Learn as much as possible about the firearms you are interested in collecting or shooting. Try to keep current with prices through Gun List and this publication. Go to gun shows, not just to buy or sell, but to observe and learn. It is also helpful to join a firearms club or association. These groups have older, experienced collectors who are glad to help the beginner or veteran. 

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