The Life of a Gun Collector, Part II
By Joel R. Kolander
As covered in the first segment of this series, there are different stages to collecting. Despite the fact that there are millions of different collectors and many more millions of guns, collectors of all different motivations find themselves with a collection not only of firearms, but of universal experiences. Beginning experiences are undoubtedly the most discussed in any venue for the simple fact that more people have requisitely entered or passed through the beginning stage than the other stages. What’s next? What happens when a collector starts to know their subject matter, actively begins buying and/or trading guns, and owns a healthy number of firearms? This installment will be about what one interviewed collector called, “constant, gradual improvement.”
Collecting vs. Accumulating
People will often argue the definition of a gun collector. One group will say that, “if you have more than 3 guns, you’re a collector.” Another faction will say that you have to buy guns specific to a particular genre. What defines specific? One collector tells the following story of his time at a museum’s gun collection, most of which was not on display, but kept in vaults and back rooms.
“We had an inside deal. My friend took me there. The curator turned to my friend and said, “What do you collect?” My friend, who had been at this for years said, “I collect U.S. military guns from 1820 to the current.” The curator looked at him and said, “You’re not a collector. You’re an accumulator.” So he turned to me and said, “What do you collect?” I said, “I collect Sharps.” He said, “OK. Come over here.” He took me across the hall and he said, “I want to show you this gun.” And the gun was about 10 to 12 feet away and I said, “Yeah, that’s on of John Brown’s guns.” He looked at me and said, “How do you know that?” Suddenly I rose up about 11 layers in that curator’s list because I knew what that gun was when I was 10 feet away.”
As that small anecdote conveys, some people have a very broad definition of collecting, while others keep it very specific and narrow. Regardless of focus, every collector enters into a stage of accumulation. It’s as universal as a beginner wondering if they’re getting a good deal. One starts to recognize good guns at good prices and purchasing them. Maybe guns are accumulated as the following collector describes them.
“You come to a show like this and somebody can’t afford to buy this piece, so he’ll put together a little bit of cash and 2-3 other guns. Well, you like this gun and that gun, but you don’t like that one, but you take the whole thing in trade. You’ll just get rid of it later.”
You might get them from neighbors, friends, or other folks you meet as you delve deeper and deeper into the hobby. Whatever the circumstances, firearms seem to make their way toward the collector and the collector accepts almost all comers into the flock. It all results in an increase to the volume of firearms owned. However a hodge-podge of guns does not make one a collector. That person may love guns, love to use them, love to purchase and take care of them. A lot of tools doesn’t make one a tool collector. It just means that person likes tools and has a lot of them. There is no problem with this type of firearms enthusiast. It is what some will refer to as an accumulator and all collectors are at one point accumulators.
If this stage of collecting looked like a line graph, that graph would look like the cross-section of a hill or a gentle bell curve; there is a period where the volume increases, where it tapers off, and where it decreases. Accumulation turns more toward a true collection when the volume of a collection is turned toward a specific area of interest and/or toward a higher quality. When a collector sets their sights (no pun intended) on a preferred genre or quality level, there will be guns in their collection that no longer fit. These “out of place” guns then become a vehicle to acquire more desirable pieces by either selling them for money or using them in trade to acquire items that further the collection. In other words, you’re going to sell a lot of guns to make some money in order to buy few, higher quality guns.
“A lot of people in the hobby build volume for volume’s sake. Then you get to a point where you say, I’ve got an awful lot of money sitting here. I’m gonna sell some stuff and refine. Everybody does it, I believe. Refine, refine, refine. You end up with a smaller percentage of guns than you’ve had before in your collection, but they’re nicer. They’re finer.”
– Chuck B.
A collector is entering a special time! While there may not be a conscious moment of decision to collect a certain genre or manufacturer or timeframe, the collector’s preferences begin to emerge and those preferences will absolutely shine as their collection grows smaller and better. There may be less guns involved, but the focus of those guns should be narrowing and their quality should be increasing. This is the “constant, gradual improvement” universal to established collectors. A newly honed area of interest could be as narrow as only collecting Colt Baby Patersons or as broad as the collection in the story. A collector might give up some of their old shooters to get that one piece toward their collection. One might also sell off a few lesser quality guns to obtain one of higher quality. Maybe even the same gun! The point remains that many collectors in this stage begin to move from a period of accumulation and increasing volume to one that shapes a collection and decreases in volume.
Changing Ships Midstream
Sometimes collectors who have started a nice little collection for themselves find their eyes wandering to another genre or collection. This happens quite frequently. Tastes change and mature. Some collectors can only find excitement in the chase and have been known to sell entire collections just so they can start off fresh in a new area.
This is the beauty of collecting. Enjoyment and the appreciation of what you are collecting are essential parts of the hobby. Why collect something no longer enjoyable or interesting? Plenty of collectors change genre midstream and move on toward pastures with more bluing. Changing might be tough to swallow at first after all the effort, searching, bargaining, and hunting that took place to acquire those pieces. It might feel like a lot of work down the drain. Don’t worry, soon those feelings of loss will be replaced by excitement and anticipation as new pieces are chased down to form the new collection.
“I wanted the best Winchesters I could afford. Eventually I realized that I couldn’t afford the kind that I wanted and I didn’t want the ones I could afford and so I switched to Smith & Wessons.”
“I visited a man… and I liked his collection better than mine.”
Methods of Purchase
The options for purchasing firearms have never been easier for collectors and investors. The tried and true methods still exist: local gun stores, gun shows, clubs, friends/neighbors, retail stores, pawn shops, estate sales, and the like are still very popular methods for finding guns. However, the advent of the internet as well as the rise of firearms based auction houses in the early 80s have provided a boon to collectors who want to find the guns they want in one place.
Never has searching for a gun been easier than simply typing what you want into a computer and seeing nearly instant results from any number of potential sellers. However, the internet’s biggest benefit is also its downfall – it is a search tool for the masses. Any number of common or even semi-common firearms are readily available for the right price. Search a common place, find a common gun. But what about that “special” gun? What about a gun so rare and sought after that an example might only come up for sale a handful of times in a collector’s life? For such guns this difficult to obtain, one can often hope to be in the right network of collectors or one can turn to a firearms based auction house.
Where the internet offers immediate availability and an infinite amount of firearms for sale at any given time, auction houses take the cake with respect to specialty, rare, or incredibly high-priced collector firearms. Good auction houses also provide security and accountability. A lot of collectors simply aren’t willing to drop thousands of dollars on a firearm from somebody they’ve never seen nor met. Auction houses provide that peace of mind, along with a chance to inspect the goods prior to purchase, and often much better photos and research than other online sources.
Advice from Experienced Collectors
“Second rule is, buy all the accessories and the little stuff. Young collectors, new collectors don’t do that. The guns are always available. It’s the rest of the stuff that’s very difficult… Buy the little accessories when they’re available, if they’re reasonably priced. There will always be guns. I don’t care what kind of gun it is, it won’t be long before you see the gun. If you don’t have enough money, go around and buy the accessories even if you have to grit your teeth because you have to pass on a gun. Spend the money on the accessories.”
“You gotta decide what you like. Like women, all at once there’s one and you decide that’s the one. Just like guns. It’s gotta appeal to you. Maybe it’s the history. Maybe it’s the style. Maybe it’s the design. You study up on it and go, “These are really cool!” What winds your clock? If you’re not enjoying it and it’s not of interest to you, then you’re an investor.”
“I was just working for wages. I was a poor workin’ slob! I’d been doing that all my life. So I took all this old junk that I had, got tables at the next gun show, started selling that off, and making money. ‘My God! Look at the money I’m making!’ I put all that into the best item I could find at that show.”
“Never buy a gun for X amount of dollars without knowing that you can sell it somewhere down the road. because somewhere down the road, you’ll tire of it. Somewhere down the road you’ll get a better one.”
“Nobody ever mentions measuring the value of things. It’s rather excepted. One simply makes their collection bigger and better. Or smaller and better. Smaller and better is more my liking. I once traded 61 for 1. (Really?! Was it worth it?) No! it was a foolish move, but I’m still happier with what I’ve got.”
“You never complete a collection.”
“In my case, it’s the mystery of what I call the “guns that talk to me.” If they don’t talk to me, then I’m not interested in them. I’m waaaaaay past buying great guns just because the price is right. I’m not saying I don’t do that, but that’s not what does it for me. What does it is the chase. Finding them. Beating the bushes. Where do they come from? I bought guns in the last year that I’ve been after for 30 years, easy.”
“As in many facets of life, quality is more important than quantity. A collection of five high condition guns is more impressive than a hundred of mediocre quality”