Refinish it or Leave it Alone?

Posted by Bruce Canfield

Every collector will eventually be faced with a decision as what to do with a weapon he encounters that is not in the condition he desires. When does it make sense to refinish the wood or metal or both? The answer depends on several factors, the most important is the personal preference of the owner.

Before we talk about when refinishing may be an option, we should discuss when refinishing would unquestionably be an unwise course of action. I can think of several scenarios when refinishing would not be recommended under any circumstances. First, a weapon with historical importance should be left in its present state of preservation, regardless of how it may look. For example, suppose someone bought George Armstrong Custer’s personal .50-70 rifle (it did sell a number of years ago). Since the approximately 130 year old gun saw field use, it shows the nicks and dings of such usage as well as some wear to the finish. However, the rifle remains essentially in the same condition as carried by Custer. Does anyone think the rifle should be refinished? I think any rational person would agree that the weapon should be left alone. What about other less historic weapons? A good example would be the M1941 Johnson rifle that is confirmed to have been “carried home” by a former member of the USMC’s First Parachute Regiment. The rifle was used in combat in the Solomons and the gentleman surreptitiously carried the rifle home after being ordered to bury all of the unit’s Johnson rifles on a beach on Bougainville. He took the rifle down and slipped it into a jump bag and sent it home. He kept the rifle undisturbed for the past 55 years and only parted with it a few years ago. The rifle remained exactly as he carried in on Vella Lavella and Bougainville. Fortunately, the rifle is in amazingly good condition considering it is a combat veteran. Even if it wasn’t in such good shape, however, I do not think a reasonable case could be made for subjecting it to any sort of refinishing. The rifle survived for over a half century without anybody messing with it and it would be a disservice to posterity to monkey with it now. The rifle is historic as one of the few known Johnson rifles with a Marine Corps provenance and combat duty to its credit. I don’t think any sort of refinishing, regardless of the condition, would be warranted for a weapon of this type.

We can all probably agree that weapons with demonstrable historical backgrounds should not be subjected to refinishing. How about “run of the mill” weapons that have no historical connection? This is where the subject can get really tricky. I think the main determining factor is the condition of the weapon. In other words, is the condition so bad that refinishing makes sense from an aesthetic and economic standpoint? This is really something everyone will have to decide for himself. I know of some people who have refinished guns that were in very nice condition because they exhibited a bit of wear on the high places of the metal from being put in a holster or a scabbard. To me, this is very unfortunate as the guns were truly nice condition and refinishing was not only unnecessary but extremely damaging to the value. However, the owners were apparently pleased so it can be argued that it’s nobody’s business. This may be true but it is also true that future generations have been deprived of the opportunity to own an original weapon because of such ill-advised refinishing.

On the other end of the spectrum, I have seen collectors with guns that are brown with rust and/or have no original finish remaining with stocks that are one step above firewood. The owners are reluctant to do anything to these guns because they don’t want to alter their originality. I understand this sentiment but guns of this sort are in such bad condition that they have marginal value anyway. It is my opinion that careful and appropriate refinishing might enhance the appearance and, perhaps, the value of such weapons.

The difficult decisions lie between these two extremes. We are essentially back to the original question….. How bad does a gun have to be before refinishing begins to make sense? I wish there were some perfect guidelines that we could all agree on but, unfortunately, there’s not. It becomes simply a matter of degree and opinion.

I think the decision whether or not to refinish a gun is similar to the decision whether or not to get married! That is, if you have any doubts, DON’T DO IT!! A gun can always be refinished later but once it’s done, it can’t be undone. Refinishing is a permanent alteration that can have a drastic impact on the desirability and value of a weapon. The impact can sometimes be positive but, more often, the impact is negative. As stated, there are several factors to consider regarding whether or not a gun should be refinished including any historical association and the overall condition of the piece.

Once the decision to refinish has been made, be sure that the person you select knows what he is doing. Almost any “shade tree gunsmith” can reblue a gun but precious few can even come close to duplicating the original factory rust bluing found on many older weapons. Likewise, a lot of people today advertise parkerizing services but only a fraction can get close to the greenish-gray parkerizing of WWII vintage weapons. The wrong tint and texture of refinished metal is worse than an original blotchy finish or even no finish at all. The same is true for wood. Any idiot can sand the imperfections out of a stock but the result is usually a disappointment at best and a tragedy at worst. There are a few craftsmen who can make a rough piece of wood look surprisingly good while maintaining the original contours and markings. A properly refinished stock is not as good as a nice original but can often be an improvement over a dented and dinged original. While on this subject do not, under any circumstances, allow someone to “refresh” or re-stamp an inspection stamp on a stock. This practice is getting to be very prevalent and is never a good idea. No inspection stamp is infinitely preferable to a fake inspection stamp.

In summation, unless a weapon is in such bad condition that properly refinished metal or wood will not detract from the value, it should be left alone. However, if a weapon falls into this category, a professional and properly done refinish might be worthwhile. Just be sure that the person doing the work knows his stuff and doesn’t overdo it. A bright new finish on an otherwise well-worn weapon can be as off-putting as splotchy brown metal or badly banged up wood.

Before any decision to refinish a weapon is made, be sure you’ve considered every angle. The final question to ask yourself is whether the rifle will be more desirable and more valuable if you leave it alone or if you have the metal and/or wood properly refinished. Many decent original weapons have been ruined by thoughtless or inept refinishing. As mentioned previously, if you have even the slightest doubt, leave it alone. Remember, a gun in marginal condition may have 5% or 10% original finish but a refinished gun has 0% original finish.

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