Thoughts on Guns and Collecting

Posted by Bruce Canfield

Those of us who are really into arms collecting and/or have an abiding interest in firearms sometime forget that many (probably most) people have little or no knowledge about guns. I am reminded of this almost daily in the form of inquires I get via my website or questions from readers sent to me by the American Rifleman or the Man at Arms magazine staffs. Some of the questions are really insightful and show that the inquirer has more than a passing knowledge about firearms. Others are so inane so as to be almost comical. However, whenever I start to inwardly chuckle about a reader’s lack of knowledge on the subject, I quickly remind myself that there are many, many subjects about which I am equally, if not more, clueless. If I should ever find myself pondering a question, for example, about Mitochondrial DNA Gene Sequencing (yea, like we all talk about that subject over a beer) and pose a query to some knowledgeable research geneticist, he will quickly come to the conclusion that I know nothing about the subject. Hopefully, however, he will answer my inquiry in a manner that I can vaguely understand without making me feel like an idiot. I always try to keep this in mind when I get a question that is really…how I can say this…dumb. I could fill up several pages of cyber paper with examples but many questions are along the lines of: “I have a gun that belonged to my grandfather. It is very old and has a long barrel with some writing on it. Can you give me the history of the gun and its current value?” OK, I’m exaggerating, but not by much. I honestly do get questions almost that ridiculous much more often than you can imagine.

If a question is posed in a polite manner, I will make every effort to answer but, in such cases as cited above, I will respond that much more information, preferably along with some good photos, are required to even begin to answer the question. However, there are some inquiries that are rude and thoughtless in nature. When these are received, I will usually hit the delete button if sent by e-mail or drop it in the “round file” if sent via snail-mail. Such things include brusque demands such as “Give me the serial number range of Standard Products M1 carbines” without so much as a “please” or “thank you.” Others are simply absurd in the scope and nature of the request such as “I want the history of the use of the metallic cartridge by the U.S. military and a detailed list of all the weapons of this type used by our armed forces along with manufacturers, quantities produced and serial number ranges for all the guns. I need this as soon as possible.” No problem. I’ll drop everything I’m doing and tell my lovely wife not to bother me for a couple of weeks while I research the random request. Sometimes the question may be reasonable and phased in a not-impolite manner and sent via the U.S. Postal Service but a stamped, self-addressed envelope is not included. Admittedly, 45 cents (or whatever the postal rates are this week) isn’t a big deal, but it displays a lack of common courtesy to request someone to take the time and trouble to answer a question and then have to pay for sending it back to the inquirer.

Often, an inquiry is made as to the value of a weapon. Years ago I adopted a policy of not giving values for firearms for several reasons. First, without a physical examination, it is extremely difficult (actually it is impossible) to properly evaluate a gun. While clear and detailed digital photos can be very helpful, there are often details that are not depicted or nuances that photographs do not capture that can have a big impact on the value. I learned long ago that even giving value ranges is problematic. For example, if I should say that such-and-such gun, if in original condition, is probably worth in the $1,000 to $1,500 range, most people will only hear the last figure and will overlook the “original condition” qualifier. Such an example happened to me years ago which, in large measure, is responsible for my unwillingness to assign values to guns. A guy asked me via a letter how much a Remington M1903A3 rifle was worth without giving any details or photos. While I forget the exact figures I gave back then, I told him if the rifle was in original condition and in NRA fine or better condition, it should be worth between $500 and $600 (or whatever). Armed with this information the guy took the rifle to a gun show to sell it and told the potential buyer he wanted $600 for it. The potential buyer looked at the gun and quickly determined it had been butchered in an ill-advised “sporterizing” effort and was in terrible condition to boot and was worth maybe $100 as a “shooter.” The erstwhile seller then told him he was full of beans because Bruce Canfield, the guy that writes books and is a Field Editor for American Rifleman magazine told him personally that it was worth $600. I don’t know what the potential buyer told him back, but he probably thought I was an idiot and the NRA should request my immediate dismissal from the staff due to my utter incompetence. Such incidents dissuaded me from any further attempts at giving values. I simply won’t do it. An exception is when a friend will drop by my office with a gun they have bought, or are thinking about buying, and want to know if it’s worth the price. Of course, I have no problem doing that, but that’s an entirely different matter from pulling some value out of thin air on a weapon I have never seen and to which the recipient of the information will almost certainly not pay any attention to the various qualifiers given.

A common error that many people who are not gun-savvy make is to equate age with value. Some believe that just because a gun may be 100 (or more) years old, it is automatically worth a lot of money because it is an “antique.” Actually, while some old guns are indeed valuable, many more aren’t worth their weight as scrap metal. An old double-barrel shotgun produced by a non-descript maker in the 1890s that is brown with rust and has a stock that could be used as a fence post has virtually no value. An exception would be if it could be definitively (i.e., with proof) tied to a famous or infamous person, but that is almost never the case. If the ratty old shotgun belonged to the current owner’s great-grandfather, it would have some indeterminable sentimental value as a family keepsake but the value on the secondary market would be nil. Many people are surprised when they learn that the old gun that had been sitting in Uncle Bill’s closet for years is not very valuable after all. In fact, some of the newer weapons have much greater value than older weapons. A good example is an unaltered “gas trap” M1 Garand rifle. Even though is over 70 years old (not even close to being an antique in the commonly-accepted definition), it is much, much more valuable than, for example, a standard .45-70 “Trapdoor Springfield” rifle that might be twice as old. Age, at times, may be a component in determining the value of a gun but the main factor is good old “Economics 101”…supply and demand. If a lot of people want something that is in short supply, prices are high. However, even if something is in short supply, but few people want it, the prices are low. If something is both available in quantity and has limited demand (such as rusty old double-barrel shotguns), prices are going to be extremely low, even if it is 150 years old.

I didn’t intend for this posting to be so verbose but this is an interesting topic for me. Those of us who appreciate the significance of firearms in our nation’s history and who want to help the image of guns and gun collectors, should be patient with those novices who know little or nothing about guns and we should try to “coach them up” whenever possible. Who knows, once they learn something about guns, they may try to sell you a rusty old double-barrel shotgun. If they do, don’t ask me to give you an estimated value!

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