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February 7, 2019

A Beginner’s Guide to Antique Guns

By Danielle Hollembaek

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The hobby of collecting is a passion people start doing as children. Whether it is gathering an assortment of stamps, cards, or action figures, the collector cherishes and values those items. As people get older, they start to expand their collections into more valuable and sought after items. One of the most beautiful and historic collections a person can invest in is antique guns.

David F. Clark sub-inspected Colt Single Action Cavalry Model revolver with Gold Seal Kopec letter.

From finely engraved and golden inlaid masterpieces, to scarcely produced, the wide variety of collector firearm types attract a broad range of people. Aside from the joy of collecting, firearms are a good investment and may increase in value over the years. The world of antique guns can be a confusing one if a person does not know what to look for when purchasing, but with a few simple tips to guide you in your next collector gun purchase, you will be well on your way to building a valuable gun collection.

One of the finest antique muzzleloaders we've offered.

Exploring Different Types of Antique Guns

To truly decipher what firearms are antique guns, you must first know the different kinds of common firearms you will encounter. There are four major categories of guns that have been around for hundreds of years, so by knowing a little bit about each of them, you may be able to make more informed purchases for your antique guns.

Antique Pistols

The most common and collectible handgun is the pistol. Forms of pistols have been around since gunpowder was discovered in China during the 10th century, but the handgun as we know them today originated in Europe in the 16th century. There are quite a few impressive pistols like ones used in war or ones that belonged to historically relevant characters.

An outstanding example of a Volcanic Repeating Arms Company lever action Navy pistol, an incredible rare antique gun.

Model 1911 pistols have been produced by many different companies throughout the years and were used by militaries around the world. Another highly desirable pistol is the German Model 1893 Borchardt. The Borchardt brand is known because the Model 1893 was the first commercially available pistol that was self-loading. If you do your research, you will find that certain makes and model of antique pistols continually sell for high prices because of their unusual characteristics or impressive history. Antique pistols made by manufacturers such as Volcanic Arms, Deringer, and Lepage are a few to keep your eyes on when you are browsing through catalogs.

Antique Revolvers

Revolvers are also hand held guns and are a subset of the pistol family. But, they are in their category of firearm because they have a rotating cylinder block with multiple chambers that feed bullets through to the barrel. This firing mechanism is what makes a revolver a revolver, not a pistol. Revolvers come in two actions, single and double.

Lot 1100 is an incredible example of the most popular of all of Colt’s 19th-century revolvers: the Model 1849 Pocket. This particular revolver was presented by Samuel Colt to James E. Dodd and is cased with a suite of accessories and also includes the historic and incredibly scarce original letter from Colt to Dodd.

A single action revolver must have the hammer manually cocked back in order to rotate the cylinder, a double action rotates the cylinder with pull of the trigger. Elisha Collier invented the earliest version of the revolver in 1818 and they had a flintlock firing mechanism. The first American patent for a revolving gun was awarded to Samuel Colt in 1836. There are quite a few collectible varieties of revolvers like the Colt Walker, Smith & Wesson No. 3 Second Model American, and Colt Paterson.

Samuel Colt’s Paterson revolver was not a breakout success for the young gun inventor, but its design set the stage for future iterations.

Antique Rifles

Rifles have been in existence since the 15th century. Their name comes is in reference to the spiral cuts inside the barrel, known as “rifling”, that spin the bullet as it travels down the barrel giving it more precision and accuracy.  Before rifles were invented, smooth bore muskets were the most common long gun. There are hundreds of collectible rifles models in the world from spectacularly embellished varieties, to exceptionally historic.

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

We hold the claim to fame for the world record for the highest priced single rifle to be sold with our Winchester Model 1886 serial number 1. The rifle was presented to Captain Henry W. Lawton who was instrumental in the capture of Geronimo. The rifle sold for $1.2 million in December of 2016. A large number of collectible rifles are manufactured by Winchester, with small companies like New Haven Arms also producing a number of antique rifles throughout the years.

Peter Floeck’s factory gold inlaid rifle is the only known Winchester One of One Thousand manufactured in the unusually long 32 inch barrel length.

Antique Shotguns

Shotguns are unique from the three previously described antique guns because they do not shoot bullets, instead they shoot shells that are filled with pellets that scatter when fired. These long guns are said to have been invented in the 1600’s and were mainly used for hunting. Shotguns are still very popular hunting firearms, but the guns have had uses elsewhere. During the World War I, some regiments preferred shotguns, like the Winchester Model 1897 Trench shotgun, for trench war fare because the probability of hitting a target was increased from the scatter.

Lot 1095. Only an estimated 600 of these 10 gauge (.75 caliber) large frame shotguns were manufactured c. 1860-1863 in addition to around 500 of the 20 gauge (.60 caliber) small frame versions, both based on the upscaled Model 1855 Pocket design making this classic shotgun among the rarest Colt percussion firearms.

There are also many finely engraved shotguns that are considered antique guns. An exceptional rare shotgun is the Colt Paterson Model 1839. Since Colt is not known for its shotguns and the company made such a small quantity, the rarity, condition, and history behind this collector gun made it extremely desirable. Popular collector shotgun manufacturers include Holland & Holland, Winchester, and Parker Brothers.

How to Find the Best Quality Antique Guns

Now that you have an overview of what kinds of firearms on the market, let’s dive into how to find the best quality antique guns. Most collectible firearms hold some sort of historical significance or rare qualities. Certain manufacturers produced higher class, specialty guns that are more valuable today. The condition that the firearm has been preserved in is also a huge selling point to collectors. It is rare to have a 150 years old item that is in close to mint condition, but better condition usually translates to a better price. The brand of antique gun you are purchasing is also an important to know when it comes to value.

Antique Guns Make and Model

Just like a car, the make or model of the firearm you purchase is a determining factor on how much it is actually worth. A Winchester or Colt firearm is most likely going to be valued higher than similar style antique guns. This is mainly due to historic relevance and brand name appeal. Winchester and Colt made many firearms that are now considered antique guns and their names are famous in the collecting community.

Some gun enthusiasts prefer to have one or two makes or models of firearms, but you can build your firearm collection anyway you choose. You can specify what kinds of guns you like by era, war, or even country. Find a gun you think is interesting or unique and start out by collecting one or two of that variety. This will give you a focus to start your collection off and you can continue to buy more from there.

Antique Guns Condition

The next element to consider when purchasing antique guns is the condition of the firearm you want to purchase. All reputable firearm businesses will give a description of the condition, usually based on a percentage scale. This will be a good indicator of what to except when purchasing a firearm online. On all items in our catalog, we indicate the finish, wear-and-tear, and any other factors that could increase or decrease the value. In Premiere auction, the condition is scaled by a percentage rating and in Regional and Online Only auctions, the condition is described by a coding system.

Nickel plating was a flashy and more durable option for a frontier saddle gun. Nickel plating resists corrosion better than blued finish.

Not all valuable firearms will be in great condition, sometimes the story behind the gun is just as important as how it looks. That being said, the most expensive antique guns tend hold 95% or above of their original condition.

Antique Guns Rarity

Another major factor for the value of antique guns is rarity; that can be based on its artistry, length of production, or custom features. A rifle such as the Winchester “One of One Hundred” Model 1873, is documented to have only had 8 produced ever, with only 6 known in existence today. A rifle as rare and collectible as this is a highly sought after by serious collectors. With such a peak in interest, the price is bound to increase over time.

A Winchester Model 1873 trapper carbine (top) and a tack decorated Winchester carbine (bottom). Some Native Americans decorated their rifles with brass tacks embedded in the stock and forearm.

The rarity of the gun can’t be stressed enough when it comes to value. Whether the fascinating history behind a gun lends to its appeal or if it is scarcely produced – those are elements that make it rare. Notable military firearms are some of the best firearms to collect since they appeal to a broad audience of gun enthusiast and history buffs. People who are interested in military history tend to enjoy collecting rare era pieces and they are willing to pay a pretty penny for an antique they have been awaiting to add to their collection. Antique guns previously used by war heroes, or villains, also do well among military memorabilia collectors. The rarer your firearm is, the more potential the antique gun has to be a good investment.

How To Make Informed Antique Gun Purchases

Through research and experience, finding the best antique guns for your collection will not be a hard feat, but make sure you are buying your guns from the right place. Having a dependable company to buy your next firearm from is crucial to collecting antique guns. When it comes to firearms, there are more rules and regulations than other antiques. Be sure to choose a trusted company to purchase firearms from that knows the laws and be sure they have an honest pricing structure.

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.

Understanding Laws for Antique Guns

Guns laws are different depending on country, state, and locality. Doing a quick online search to find out what they are before you endeavor into purchasing a gun is a good way to get a basic understanding of the laws in your area. If you still have questions, you can always contact us and we can help answer them the best we can.

While the SAA ruled the frontier streets, the Winchester Model 1873 was the rifle that won the West.

Antique Guns - Compare Pricing

To make sure you are paying a reasonable price on your antique guns, do some research on previous auction sale prices for your desired firearm. On our website, we provide an estimated price based off the market, condition, and rarity of a gun. It is a good baseline for what the gun may sell for at auction. Do some of your own research and see not only what you can expect to pay for the firearm, but investigate how the prices have either increased or decreased in the last few years.

The average cash value a seller can make on a Winchester Model 1894 lever action rifle at Rock Island Auction Company versus three popular online gun sellers.

Always Read the Terms and Conditions

Every firearms auction company has some sort terms and conditions that explains buyer costs on lots. Be sure to look at the FAQ of the company you are purchasing from so you know exactly what to expect as your final sales price.

Factory gold inlaid and plated presentation Winchester Model 1894 carved and deluxe takedown lever action rifle signed by master engraver John Ulrich.

Are you now ready to make your first collector firearm purchase? We have a variety of antique guns up for auction year round at Rock Island Auction Company. Auctions are one of the best ways to get classic firearms, and RIAC specializes in antique guns. With the tips given in this article, you should be feeling more confident and ready to make your first collector gun purchase. Check out our catalog today, and start bidding on the perfect gun to add to your new collection.

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