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5 Things You Might Not Know About Antique Firearms

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06-20-13
By Joel Kolander

On any given news day, one sure hears an awful lot about modern guns.  The term “assault weapons” gets thrown around like a Sunday football and “concealable weapons” also get their fair share of press as states rush to vote on new gun laws.  You know what type of guns are gladly being ignored from this glaring spotlight?  Antiques.

It was after prohibition and the United States had had its fill with mafia gangsters and their violence.  The National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA) attempted to target the weapons that were popular with organized crime by regulating their favorite weapons: machine guns, short barreled rifles, short barreled shotguns, silencers, destructive devices (think grenades, missiles, mines, poison gas, etc), and the wonderfully vague genre of “any other weapon.”  The NFA required lots of registration, imposed stiffer fines, charged taxes, and greatly restricted the availability of the weapons listed in it.  It also exempted muzzle loaders from the Act (they would later be included in legislation if they could be modified to a non-muzzle loading weapon).  The exemption of muzzle loaders was the first instance of a protection being offered to an older weapon.

The Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA) built on the NFA by placing import restrictions, requiring FFLs, and constructing that fun list of questions when filling out ATF Form 4473 (Are you a felon?  Are you a fugitive? Etc).  The GCA was the first piece of legislation to define an antique firearm.  It along with the Arms Export Control Act (according to Title 18, Section 921(a)(16) of the U.S. Code):
(A) any firearm (including any firearm with a matchlock, flintlock, percussion cap, or similar type of ignition system) manufactured in or before 1898; and
(B) any replica of any firearm described in subparagraph (A) if such replica –
(i) is not designed or redesigned for using rimfire or conventional centerfire fixed ammunition, or
(ii) uses rimfire or conventional centerfire fixed ammunition which is no longer manufactured in the United States and which is not readily available in the ordinary channels of commercial trade.

(Note: The full, current ATF definition can be found here and can be found illustrated here).

So basically any gun made in or before 1898, replicas thereof, anything that uses “a primitive ignition system”, or that uses ammunition that is no longer commercially available is considered an antique.  Now that we know what an antique is, we can delve into what makes them so attractive.

1.  They were birthed in a law that attempted to stop organized crime.
If you read the above paragraphs, you know that antiques were defined so that they wouldn’t get lumped in with all the “gangster guns” that the government was trying to stifle.  Even as far back as 1934 people were concerned about what would happen to their favorite old muzzle loading guns and were ready to include them in Federal legislation. That’s a pretty neat bit of history.

A Savage navy Model Percussion Revolver., Lot #3169. A fantastic collectable, but not so useful for gangsters.

A Savage navy Model Percussion Revolver., Lot #3169. A fantastic collectable, but not so useful for gangsters.

2.  Antiques have history.
This should come as a no-brainer, but antique guns have history.  Maybe a particular antique was used in a certain military conflict.  Maybe it had an innovative design.  Maybe that innovation changed the course of events surrounding it.  Maybe the model, or a specific firearm, may have been used someone historically significant.  The best part is, that’s only half the history of the gun!

Many gun collectors say that nobody really owns their guns, but instead people are only stewards of them for a short time.  After that they’ll be passed down, given as gifts, sold, or consigned.  The people that have collected a gun after its useful life has passed are sometimes referred to as the gun’s “secondary history,” or “provenance” as collectors like to say.   Maybe the Colt Single Action Army you have your eye on was part of the most famous Colt collection of all time.  Maybe that shotgun was long held by a collector widely known to collect only the best.  Maybe there are documents that trace the gun’s provenance after it left the factory.  Maybe it was your grandpa’s.  These historical details are all fascinating to the vast majority of gun collectors and antiques routinely provide them.

If your gun has a document, like this Colt Single Action Army Lot #1021 has, from a noted expert on the subject authenticating your gun that adds provenance, collectability, and value.

If your gun has a document, like this Colt Single Action Army
Lot #1021 has, from a noted expert on
the subject authenticating your gun that adds
provenance, collectability, and value.

If that same expert states that your weapon "could possibly indicate a Custer connection," in his three page authentication letter, you've really got something.

If that same expert states that your weapon
“could possibly indicate a Custer connection,” in
his three page authentication letter,
you’ve really got something.

3.  Antiques can be shipped directly to your house.
That’s right!  Any gun you buy that needs to be shipped for you to acquire it typically must be shipped to an FFL (Federal Firearms Licensed dealer).  Not for antiques!  Thanks to the rules of the GCA, antiques are exempt from that requirement.  If you buy an antique, you can have it shipped directly to your doorstep.  How’s that for convenient?

Collector's Lot of Two C.S. Pettengill Double Action Revolvers, Lot #3181

Collector’s Lot of Two C.S. Pettengill Double Action Revolvers, Lot #3181

4. After purchase, you can walk out the door with it.
No waiting period.  No background checks.  No ATF paperwork.  Heck, in Illinois you don’t even need a FOID card to purchase an antique.  If you purchase an antique firearm at, say, a Rock Island Auction Company auction, you can walk out with it the very same day.  You can pay cash and leave because they are viewed as collectables and not as usable weapons.

Sanchez Marked "EL RALLO" Spanish Percussion Miquelet Rifle with Elaborate Gold, Silver, Engraved and Carved Decoration, Lot #1176. It also features a three dimensional monkey as the hammer. It requires no paperwork.

Sanchez Marked “EL RALLO” Spanish Percussion Miquelet Rifle with Elaborate Gold, Silver, Engraved and Carved Decoration, Lot #1176. It also features a three dimensional monkey as the hammer. It requires no paperwork.

5.  The story behind choosing the 1898 year is a pretty good one.
The year was 1968 and gun legislation was being passed in response to a number of high profile assassinations.  The House had passed its version of the GCA and the Senate had passed theirs.  To reconcile the differences between the two bills a committee came together and one of the members of that committee was a Senator Russell B. Long (D – LA).  In the course of reconciling the two bills the NFA’s definition of an antique was determined to not be broad enough and the question arose, “What does define an antique?”  Well, Senator Long happened to be acquainted with Red Jackson, the renowned Dallas, TX gun dealer, known worldwide to be an expert in the realm of collectable firearms.  Long asked Jackson the same question that had come up in committee and after some thought, Jackson came up with the year 1898.  Allegedly he had done so based on the success of Mauser’s M98 bolt action rifle.  While not the first bolt action rifle ever, its action quickly became the most common bolt action system in the world thereby making its design one of the most successful ever.  Some folks just think that a bunch of Washington bureaucrats came up with 1898 based on the fact that it was 70 years prior and provided a nice, easy, round number with which to work.  Since when is government work that simple?

Winchester Model 1873 Lever Action Rifle with Factory Letter, Lot #1039. This gun's primary history is well known as "the gun that won the West," but it also comes with a factory letter documenting the beginning of its secondary history.

Winchester Model 1873 Lever Action Rifle with Factory Letter, Lot #1039. This gun’s primary history is well known as “the gun that won the West,” but it also comes with a factory letter documenting the beginning of its secondary history.

As you can see, there’s a lot more to antiques than most people realize.  They have two separate histories, each of which is fascinating in its own right, while enjoying numerous privileges and protections under current Federal law.  We have over 1,500 firearms in our June 2013 Regional Auction that can be classified as antiques!  Take a look in our online catalog and find the ones that’ll have a place in your collection.  After all, there’s no paperwork!

 

 

SOURCES:

http://www.atf.gov/firearms/nfa/index.html

http://www.atf.gov/firearms/guides/importation-verification/index.html