June 20, 2013
By Joel R Kolander
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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.”
So basically any firearm 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 gun. Now that we know the legal definition of antique gun, we can delve into what makes them so attractive.
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.
This should come as a no-brainer, but an antique gun often carries an intriguing 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!
Documented Civil War Union sharpshooter's cased William Craig, Pittsburg percussion target rifle with Morgan James scope, false muzzle, accessories, powder horn and diaries of R.J. May of Company D of the 2nd Bucktail Regiment and the Sharpshooter Battalion
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 an antique gun after its useful life has passed are sometimes referred to as the gun’s “secondary history,” or “provenance” as collectors like to say.
This special order Winchester Deluxe 1886 takedown lever action rifle comes with a number of special features, but the accompanying factory letter lists the trigger incorrectly. The rifle realized $152,750, well above its high estimated value of $65,000.
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.
The Third Model Dragoon was the last in Colt’s line of massive “horse pistols.” This one in lot 1090 was manufactured under contract for the U.S. Army. Government contracts were crucial to the success of the Colt Patent Firearms Manufacturing Co. throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
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 antique guns! 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?
No waiting period. No background checks. No ATF paperwork. Heck, in Illinois you don’t even need a FOID card to purchase an antique gun. If you purchase an antique gun 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 an antique gun is viewed as a collectible and not as a usable weapon.
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 collectible 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?
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. 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!
Due to their history and extreme rarity, surviving Confederate revolvers are some of the most sought-after treasures in arms collecting today.
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