“Firearm Curiosa” by Lewis Winant
Some of my books are sentimental favorites, volumes I cut my teeth on when I was a kid: Pistols: A Modern Encyclopedia by Henry Stebbins. A History of the Colt Revolver by Haven and Belden. The Gun and Its Development by Greener. But of all my gun books, the one that brings a smile to my face more quickly than any other is Firearms Curiosa by Lewis Winant. Though out of print, this book is an affordable classic, well worth the time it takes to track down a copy.
If you’ve ever read my columns, you’re aware that I’m fascinated by oddball firearms. Perhaps you are, too. If so, Winant’s Firearms Curiosa is a must-have.
Lewis Winant was one of those gentlemen collectors who flourished during what we might call the Golden Age of Gun Collecting. This period ran roughly from 1946 and 1960, when many firearms that had been “liberated” from European and Asian collections began filtering out into the American consumer market. As fellow Gun Digest Magazine columnist Phillip Peterson can tell you, hundreds of thousands of collectible firearms made the long trek across the Atlantic after World War II, and they weren’t all Lugers and P-38s. It was a time when men like Robert Abels, Herb Glass, Joseph Kindig, Jr., George R. Numrich, Jr., and James Serven really came into their own.
Gun collecting had existed as a hobby before World War II (the greatest of these organizations, the Ohio Gun Collectors Association, was founded in 1937), but it was the second world war that pumped new life into the hobby, both in the form of vintage guns as well as gun-conscious hobbyists, many of whom had just returned from service abroad.
As far as we know, Lewis Winant’s first book was Pepperbox Firearms, the first American book-length treatment of the subject. It was published in 1952 by Greenberg Publishing of New York City (not to be confused with today’s Greenberg Publishing Company, which specializes in literature about toy trains). I have read this book, though I don’t currently own a copy of it, and as I recall it contains everything you might care to know about pepperboxes, and likely a good deal more than you’d care to know.
Bonanza Books of New York published Firearms Curiosa in 1955, and it remains the best-known of Winant’s books. The book was simultaneously published in a limited first edition of 1,000 hand-numbered copies by Greenberg, and the blurb copy of the dust jacket of my copy (copy #902) gives little doubt that it’s the kind of book that appeals to me: “[This book deals with] pistols in knives and canes; pistols in flashlights, purses, ploughs, whips, bicycle handlebars, stirrups, keys, pipes, belts, sundials, and other contrivances. In addition, there are other types classified as oddities, such as squeezers, knuckledusters, alarm and trap.
There are combination weapons, turret, chain and harmonica pistols, guns using superposed loads and other variations from the norm. These remarkable firearms come from more than fifty collections. Some of the most interesting rarities have never before been illustrated in any publication, and their existence is unknown to most collectors.”
You’ve just got to love the illustration on the dust jacket of my copy of Firearms Curiosa. It shows an actual patent application archived in the Smithsonian Institution. The patent is titled “NEW AND INGENIOUS READY-ACTING DOG-TAIL AND GUN-BARREL ATTACHMENT FOR SPORTING PURPOSES,” and the picture shows a fowling piece that is attached to the back of a pointer and automatically fires when the dog goes on point. That’s my kind of gun! That’s my kind of book!
Winant’s choice of cover illustration for this edition is whimsical, but the book’s content isn’t. The contents, in order, are Combination Weapons; Miniature Firearms; Two-Barrel Revolvers; Two-Cylinder Revolvers; Squeezers and Knuckledusters; Alarm and Trap Guns; Knife Pistols and Cane Guns; Other Disguised Guns; Superposed Loads; Turret and Chain Guns; and Miscellaneous.
Winant writes in a casual, extremely readable style that’s neither stuffy nor overly professorial. More than 300 black and white photos augment the text, which deals not only with one-of-a-kind museum pieces but with mass-produced items such as the WWII-vintage Liberator single-shot .45 made by GM’s Guide Lamp division.
I eat this stuff up. I doubt that I’d ever have a use for an armored vest with 19 pistol barrels sticking out of it, a 24-shot revolver, or a pistol that’s actually a functional tobacco pipe (hmmmmm. . .) — but if I did, I’d know where to find out about it: in the 281 pages of this little book.
Firearms Curiosa has been reprinted numerous times, and a quick search of Amazon (www.amazon.com), AuctionArms (www.auctionarms.com), Gunbroker (www.gunbroker.com), or Ray Riling Arms Books (www.rayrilingarmsbooks.com) will certainly fetch you a copy in your price range. On Amazon, I found the 1996 Odysseus Editions reprint for as little as $10 a copy, while on the Ray Riling site I found, for $100, what has to be the rarest of the rare: an autographed, inscribed copy of the Arco first edition published in London in 1956. All editions of Firearms Curiosa that I have seen are hardcovers; I doubt that a paperback edition was ever printed.
In 1959, Lewis Winant hit the big time, as far as publishing is concerned, with his classic Early Percussion Firearms: A History of Early Percussion Firearms Ignition — from Forsyth to Winchester .44/40. (I hope Winant got paid separately for the title; it must have been a day’s work in itself.) This book was published by the high-profile firm of William Morrow and is now available in used-original and reprint form from some of the above-mentioned merchants from between $10 and $75.
The Antique and Collectible Firearms and Militaria Headquarters at www.oldguns.net has this to say about Firearms Curiosa: “This is a great book for the collector who is tired of looking at ads for greasy surplus rifles and beginning to wonder if there was something really interesting in the gun field to justify another trip to a museum, or gun show, or auction or website. Really cool stuff!” (If you’ve never visited oldguns.net, my advice is: do. It’s worth it.)
I might note that if you’re ever passing through northern Indiana, you might want to pay a visit to the LaPorte County Historical Society Museum (www.laportecountyhistory.org). This museum houses the William A. Jones Collection of Antique Weapons, which contains nearly 1,000 of just the sort of guns that Winant deals with in Firearms Curiosa. For $5 you can see volley guns, trap guns, squeezer pistols, pepperboxes, cane guns, and many other freaky firearms that’ll make you look twice and shake your head.
If you do a lot of bathroom reading, hunt down a copy of Firearms Curiosa. You might never come out.
Collecting Gun Digest: The Greatest Gun Annual
When I was a wee slip of a lad back in the days of Herman’s Hermits and Mr. Ed, two publications comprised the bulk of my literary diet: Boris Karloff’s Tales of Mystery and Gun Digest. The Karloff magazine (well, comic book, actually) is long out of print, but Gun Digest just keeps chugging along.
And I hope it always will.
Gun Digest was — and is — the 900-pound gorilla of firearms annuals. It didn’t matter if you were a handgunner, trap-shooter, historian, hunter, collector or even a rotten little kid from Indiana — Gun Digest always had something for you.
This breadth of content no doubt accounted for the annual’s amazing distribution and enduring popularity. In what other annual could you find articles by Elmer Keith, Jack O’Connor, Maj. George Nonte, Warren Page, Lucian Cary and dozens of other towering figures in shooting literature? No wonder Gun Digest had a world-wide following. In fact, it’d be surprising if it didn’t.
True story: In Fall 2005, my wife and I were in Guelph, Ontario, visiting my daughter at college. After our visit, we meandered back along the Queen’s Expressway. Outside some tiny little burg in the middle of a vast expanse of wheat fields, we passed a hand-painted sign saying, “Estate Sale.” I have a helluva hard time passing up a sign like that, so we turned off the expressway and sped up a little dirt road.
After a few miles, we pulled up to an outdoor sale held in the backyard of a seedy little farmhouse, complete with peeling paint and a washline strung between two rusty poles.
And what a sale it was. As I passed up tables containing such things as an original glass-topped burial case (shoulda bought that) and a King four-valve sousaphone (shoulda bought that), I came upon a medium-sized stack of Gun Digests. The stack contained an original first edition, a 1964 issue autographed by editor John Amber and a brand-new 2005 issue edited by my friend and co-worker Ken Ramage.
I bought them all, of course. I was higher than a kite on the trip home, and as I floated along, I got to thinking: What does it say about Gun Digest that some old Canadian farmer living in a shack in the middle of Nowhere, Ontario, held onto a first edition, an autographed edition and a brand-spankin’-new 2005 edition until the day he died?
It says plenty.
I suppose the firearms journal of record is American Rifleman magazine. It’s a great magazine, for sure. But in terms of annuals, Gun Digest is unique. It has consistently contained work by the biggest names in the business, and it’s invaluable as a year-by-year trend tracker.
Pull down almost any year, and you’ll be able to sit back with master writers, whose names run the gamut from A to Z; from John Amber to Don Zutz.
I have an enduring interest in guns of all types. Yet the days are rapidly ending when I feel comfortable shucking out a handful of hundreds for this revolver or that shotgun. Yet I have discovered a simple pleasure; one in which I can indulge at minimal cost: collecting Gun Digests. In fact, I must admit I’ve gotten more pure pleasure from collecting Gun Digest than from any gun I’ve ever bought.
Gun Digest was founded in 1944 by Milton P. Klein, owner of a major Chicagoland sporting-goods store. Guns were in short supply in those World War II years, and Klein reasoned that if people couldn’t buy new guns, perhaps they’d like to read about them.
So Klein engaged Charles R. Jacobs to whip up some publication he could sell.
Ramage, the current editor of Gun Digest, picks up the story from there:
“That first edition, 164 pages including covers, included not only catalog-type listings for rifles, pistols and shotguns, but a number of firearms and shooting sports articles by some of the well-known writers of the time: Jack O’Connor, C.S. Landis, Maj. Charles Askins, Maurice H. Decker, E.B. Mann, etc. That edition’s format, published under the direction of GD’s first editor, Charles R. Jacobs, laid the keel for the book’s basic direction through the following decades. The next three editions were very similar in makeup and presentation.
“After the fourth edition, a new editor was named, and the book was further refined. The fifth edition appeared in 1951 with a whopping 224 pages between four-color covers (showing an engraved and gold-inlaid S&W .357 Magnum revolver). At the editorial helm was John T. Amber.
A study of the contents lineup shows there are more articles, and the contents are organized into major topic sections. Joining the contributors were Elmer Keith, Roy Weatherby, Charles Askins, Ray Riling, E. M. Ferris and Maj. Gen. J.S. Hatcher.
Amber would edit Gun Digest for many more years, through the 33rd edition.
“A new byline appeared on the cover of Gun Digest’s 34th edition in 1980. Ken Warner became the third editor of the book and continued to build upon the solid foundation of the previous decades. The book had grown, and this 34th edition carried 464 pages plus covers –– double the size of the fifth edition (and nearly three times the page count of the first edition). Gracing the cover was Ruger’s new stainless steel .44 Magnum revolver, the Redhawk. The table of contents reveals not only new contributors, but a number of authors who are still with Gun Digest (or other books in the publisher’s family) in these early years of the 21st century: Larry Sterett, Tom Turpin and J.B. Wood.
“Change is a fundamental constant in our world, but in some ways, Gun Digest seems an unchanged constant. Still, 20 years later, a new editor’s byline appeared on the cover of Gun Digest 2001, 55th Edition — yours truly. Like the forgoing benchmark editions, the 2001 edition carried an even higher page count –– 544 pages. The cover gun was a half-size Farquharson rifle, engraved and gold-inlaid. The table of contents listed old friends Bob Bell, Larry Sterett, Hal Swiggett and Tom Turpin, as well as authors who had come into the book in more recent years.
“Something of a mission statement for Gun Digest has evolved over the years. Fundamentally, the book is about guns. When people, or activities (like hunting, competitive shooting,) are included, they appear in a secondary role to the firearm involved. Gun Digest is a blend of feature articles calculated to provide some interesting reading, and a wealth of current and relevant firearms reference material useful to virtually any firearms enthusiast. Now in its 61st edition, and totaling 568 pages, Gun Digest has seen tremendous changes in the shooting sports landscape and adjusted itself appropriately. The rather stringent editorial criteria remain the same, and the book now runs those works in full color on good coated paper.”
Collecting the Classic
I’m just the kind of guy Klein had in mind when he dreamed up the idea for Gun Digest 60-odd years ago. I can’t buy many new guns, but I sure like reading about them. I like reading about them so much, in fact, that I’ve assembled a collection of every edition of Gun Digest, from the first edition to the 62nd.
It’s been a rewarding hobby, if a never-ending one, and one that didn’t require a huge cash outlay.
In 1996, Skip Criner published a short piece in the 50th edition of Gun Digest titled, “Collecting Gun Digest.” Much of what he said 12 years ago remains true today. It took Criner four years and about $500 to complete his 50-volume collection, and I suppose that’s just about how much time and money I have in mine. At $500 for 62 issues, that’s less than $9 a pop.
It’s much simpler to collect Gun Digest today because of the internet. If you let your fingers do the walking over your keyboard, you can track down many editions for less than $10 apiece — with a few notable exceptions. I have seen the rare 1944 first edition priced as high as $300. The 1946 second edition seems even scarcer, perhaps because few people bother to keep a second edition of anything. And the 1963 reprint of the first edition makes a nice companion piece to the 1944 first edition.
But don’t forget to check used bookstores, antique malls, garage sales, flea markets, and any other place where you might find used sporting goods. Remember, my best one-day haul came from an estate sale in Ontario.
The best thing about collecting Gun Digest is that upgrading your collection is a never-ending challenge. My 1944 first edition is a bit worn, but I know that somewhere, maybe in an antique mall, there’s a first edition in mint condition. Someday, I hope to find it. I have several editions in almost mint condition (including a 1953 edition I found in an antique store in Allen, Mich., for $7), but I have perhaps 40 that could stand to be upgraded. That’s what keeps me looking.
If some day I have all 60-odd volumes in mint condition, I’ll turn to collecting autographed copies. So far, I have only four: three autographed by Ken Ramage and one by John T. Amber. I’ll keep looking for copies autographed by Ken Warner and Charlie Jacobs. The latter is gonna be a toughie.
After I have an autographed copy of every edition in mint condition, I’ll start collecting Gun Digest treasuries. These were anthologies of previously published Gun Digest articles and were printed mostly in the 1970s. And after I’ve got mint copies of all of those — I’ll start over again. Upgrade, upgrade, upgrade — that’s the mark of a true collector.
Keep Them Going
To my knowledge, Gun Digest was never printed on acid-free paper. That means that slowly and inevitably, they will crumble into powder. You can forestall that unhappy occurrence, however, for a few centuries by following some rules:
Keep your books out of direct sunlight or bright ultraviolet light. They’ll fade if you don’t, or they’ll fox (that is, turn brown around the edges). Those old-fashioned bookcases with the glass fronts are slow killers.
Store them in a cool, dry environment with low humidity. Books hate high humidity.
Don’t wedge them tightly together. Pulling them out and pushing them back in abrades and scuffs the covers.
Keep especially valuable editions sealed in mylar sleeves, such as those available from bcemylar.com. To visualize what you’re hunting for, first locate a copy of the 50th edition, published in 1996. It contains a 16-page color section by Gary M. Brown that illustrates the first 50 Gun Digest annual covers. After you’ve been collecting for a while, you’ll be able to identify some editions from 50 feet away. (For example, the 1970 edition is bright yellow and red, and has two Marlin lever-actions on the cover. I received the 1970 edition on my 10th birthday, and I think I could sketch the cover blindfolded.)
Spreading it Around
I am slowly but surely (very slowly and not very surely) working on a cross-referenced spreadsheet of all Gun Digests, from 1946 to date.
This spreadsheet will let you look up any Gun Digest article by subject or author name. When I get it done, if the undertaker doesn’t call me for a checkup first, I’ll make it available to Gun Digest the Magazine readers for a fee of $0.
After all, a collection doesn’t do you much good if you don’t spread it around, right? PREVIOUS PAGE
Dan Shideler was a senior editor for Gun Digest Books from 2004 until 2011, best known for his entertaining prose and knowledge and insight into firearms history, trends and pricing. He served as editor of two of the industry’s most respected annuals: Standard Catalog of Firearms and Gun Digest. Dan passed away in April 2011, leaving a void in the world of firearms literature that may never be filled.
Get all 71 years of the Gun Digest annual with Gun Digest 1944-2015 3-Disc Set – that’s over 3,000 gun articles in this historic collection! Not only will you find information on classic guns from classic gun writers, but the information included spans to current developments in the firearm industry, as well. While more recent editions may be easier to find, many of the older ones are out of print, very rare, and difficult to find, so with this exclusive collection you can get all of them in one convenient format without having to hunt them down.