Please use the print button in the share bar at the top of the page.
September 14, 2023

Starting a Collection: Affordable Antique Firearms

By Kurt Allemeier

Share this post:

Anyone thinking about dipping their toe into the world of firearms collecting should visit one of Rock Island Auction Company’s Sporting & Collector auctions where they can experience the genres and eras from flintlocks to modern guns, long guns, and handguns.

Held three times a year, Sporting & Collector auctions offer thousands of firearms and the opportunity to handle these amazing and historic guns, talk to fellow collectors, and chat with the knowledgeable staff of Rock Island Auction Company. As a matter of fact, the next S&C auction is Oct. 4-6 with a preview day on Oct. 3, so consider this an invitation.

Gun collecting is so vast, with so many types, it is hard to decide where to start. Here are a few suggestions for starting a collection with affordable antique firearms. To be clear, the legal definition of an antique firearm is basically that it was manufactured in or before 1898.

Colt Single Action Army

Why not start with what is one of the biggest draws in firearms collecting, the Colt Single Action Army? There are so many places to start with the Colt SAA: guns with special features, condition, barrel lengths, cartridge chamberings, engraving, grips, where it was shipped, who owned it, military versus commercial, and who inspected it, among others. We’ll start with the last one, inspectors.

Among the military inspectors, like David F. Clark and Henry Nettleton, who put their cartouche on the guns once they were approved, the initials that are most valuable belong to Orville Wood Ainsworth. Ainsworth inspected SAA revolvers from October 1873 to November 1874, at the start of the gun’s run. Among the guns inspected are those shipped in Lot 5 that went to George Armstrong Custer’s doomed 7th Cavalry.

To learn more about a Single Action Army, a factory letter can be requested with its shipping date and location, configuration, as well as any special features noted.

Manufactured in 1874, this Colt Single Action Army has O.W. Ainsworth’s desirable “A” inspector mark. Though Ainsworth is known to have inspected about 14,000 SAAs for the Army, this gun is one of less than 2,000 known SAAs in collections bearing Ainsworth’s cartouche.

Smith & Wesson New Model No. 3

Smith & Wesson’s Model 3 single action revolver was the first metallic cartridge firing revolver used by the U.S. military. The top break loading No. 3 had a number of versions in the Russian Model and Schofield before the New Model came out when the earlier versions were discontinued in 1877.

A huge contract to supply 41,000 No. 3 revolver to Czarist Russia slowed distribution to the general public, allowing Colt, which had a U.S. Army contract, to sell its Colt Single Action Army commercially and claim the market, especially on the western frontier.

The New Model, the last variation on the No. 3, came out five years after the Single Action Army and was carried by heroes and villains alike, from Jesse James and Billy the Kid to Theodore Roosevelt and “Fast and Fancy” shooter Ed McGivern.  The gun saw use in the Indian Wars as well as the Spanish-American War.

In 1880, the South Australian Police Department wanted to update its arsenal. Police officials at the Australian Exhibition in Melbourne saw the New Model No. 3 on display and placed an order for 250 nickel plated revolvers with shoulder stocks to issue to mounted officers.

This Smith & Wesson New Model No. 3 was among a group of 60 revolvers sent to McClean Brothers & Rigg of Sydney, Australia as the agent of the Australian government. An included factory letter also notes the shipping date, nickel plating, and shoulder stock. In 1953, the South Australian Police revolvers were sold as surplus to a California company. The lot comes with a case and a detachable shoulder stock.

E. Remington & Sons Model 1875 Single Action Army

The last single action revolver discussed here is the Remington Model 1875 also known as the “Improved Army” or “Frontier Army” that came out two years after the Colt SAA. Since it was late to the party, Remington had to find other sales outlets after the U.S. government purchased only 650 for the Indian police.

Between 25,000 and 30,000 of these revolvers were produced from 1875 to 1889. Remington sold 1,000 to the government of Mexico and contracted with Egypt for 10,000 revolvers. Since Egypt had previously stiffed Remington very few of the Model 1875 were shipped.

Though not as popular as the Colt Single Action Army, the Remington Model 1875 had its following. Its distinguishing feature is the metal we web that runs from the front of the cylinder to two-thirds up the barrel. This revolver has a two digit serial number and is in good condition.

Colt Paterson Model 1839 Percussion Revolving Carbine

RIAC has had the honor of selling Colt Paterson revolvers for hundreds of thousands of dollars, so when a more modest opportunity arises, collectors sit up and take notice. The Colt Paterson is part of the succession of firearms that put Samuel Colt on the right foot toward success with the Colt Walker, Dragoon, Model 1849, Model 1851, and Model 1860 marching on to the Colt Single Action Army

Colt’s Model 1839 long guns made at the Paterson, N.J., plant were rifles, carbines, and shotguns. Modifications to the Model 1839 long guns included removing a shield that covered the nipple and cylinder because it was determined to cause chain fires. Only about 950 were made before the Paterson plant closed in 1842.

This Colt Paterson Model 1839 smoothbore carbine is chambered in 32 gauge and serves as an opportunity to get a Colt Paterson at well less than six figures.

New Haven Arms “Volcanic” Carbine

Like the Colt Paterson carbine that is part of the evolutionary progression of Colt revolvers, this Volcanic carbine is among the guns in the line that leads to the successful Winchester rifles in the latter 19th century.

The progression of the lever action rifle includes a who’s who of gun makers, including Horace Smith, Daniel Wesson, Benjamin Tyler Henry, and Oliver Winchester, not to mention the lesser but still important Walter Hunt and Lewis Jennings.

The original Smith & Wesson Company was dissolved and in its place was the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company that was disbanded only to become the New Haven Arms Co. that manufactured the Henry Rifle. The Henry Rifle led directly to the Winchester Model 1866 and then to “the gun that won the West,” the Winchester Model 1873.

Less than 1,000 Volcanic carbines were produced between 1857-1860 by New Haven Arms Co., and this gun has a desirable 25-inch barrel and is factory engraved. It is a terrific opportunity for an early example in the progression of lever action rifles.

Colt Model 1877 Lightning Double Action Revolver

Colt was riding on the success of the Single Action Army but the company was resistant to double action revolvers that were popular in Europe. The company finally gave in with the Model 1877, initially chambered in .38 caliber. A large Colt distributor, Benjamin Kittredge, who had already dubbed the Single Action Army the Peacemaker, nicknamed the Model 1877 as the Lightning, the model in .41 caliber as the Thunderer, and the .32 caliber as the Rainmaker.

RIAC has been privileged to offer some extremely high conditioned Colt Lightning revolvers recently, but they can be found for far more modest prices and serve as the start of the progression of double action revolvers from Colt.

This .38 caliber Colt Model 1877 Lightning was shipped to E.C. Meacham Arms Company in St. Louis on July 14, 1886 with a 3 1/2-inch barrel and blued finish.

Merwin Hulbert & Co. Large Frame double action revolver

Double action revolvers were popular in Europe in the mid-19th century and English double action revolvers like Tranter, Adams, and Kerr started making their way to the United States. American gun manufacturers soon jumped on board.

Merwin Hulbert was one of those companies, known for their quality and nickel plating. They faced plenty of competition in the double action revolver business from the likes of Colt, Remington, Smith & Wesson, and others. While the gun didn’t find many takers in the Wild West, it was popular with the New York City Police Department and other New England police agencies.

The company always seemed to be on the brink of financial ruin. There was a bad deal with the Imperial Russian Army, numerous patent infringement lawsuits, a devastating warehouse fire, and a connection to Hopkins & Allen, considered a lesser-quality brand, that hurt the company’s reputation. The company dissolved in 1896 while Hopkins & Allen carried on until being purchased by Marlin Firearms in 1915.

This Merwin Hulbert & Co. large frame double action revolver provides a nice opportunity to jump into collecting double action revolvers. Chambered in .44 WCF, it was manufactured in the 1880s.

French St. Etienne Model 1777 Cavalry Flintlock Pistol

The flintlock followed the matchlock and wheel lock systems in the progression of firing systems. Initially developed in 16th century France as the snaphance, they had a flint that served as a striker, hitting a frizzen and sparking gunpowder in a priming pan, which in turn ignited a primary charge that fired the ammunition.

Flintlocks served as dueling pistols and can be found in cased pairs often manufactured in England by the likes of Wogdon, Griffin & Tow, and H.W. Mortimer. Percussion firearms made flintlocks obsolete as weapons technology crept toward guns using metallic cartridges. Surviving flintlocks from the American Revolution are rare and often came from overseas.

This French St. Etienne Model 1777 Cavalry flintlock pistol is from the Revolutionary War era and bears the marking “79” on the upper left breech and also a “1779” stamped on the wrist.

Colt First Model Derringer

In 1870, Colt bought National Arms, the company that held Daniel Moore’s single shot pistol patents, and used them to produce the Colt 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Model Derringers. These pistols led to Colt’s development of its New Line series of pocket pistols.

Small guns are often where collectors get their start. George S. Lewis Jr. was a legendary collector who started with derringers. Early on, he wrote that the reasons he started with derringers was because they were overlooked by advanced collectors and could be found at reasonable prices.

This Colt First Model Derringer is among 27 lots of derringer pistols in Rock Island Auction’s Oct. 4-6 Sporting & Collector Auction. The all iron gun is engraved on the frame and lower barrel and has checkering on the grip.

Winchester Model 1894 Lever Action Rifle

Almost but not quite too late to be an antique firearm, the Winchester Model 1894 would be one of the most popular American guns ever made, with 7.5 million produced. John Moses Browning designed the gun’s locking mechanism, receiving the patent in August 1894. Winchester had the gun, the first developed for smokeless powder cartridges, on the market by November of that year.

Special order features like pistol grips or shotgun style buttplate, engraving, and manufacturing changes like the location of screws provide for numerous collecting options.

This Winchester Model 94 is a takedown rifle chambered in .38-55. It was manufactured in the second year of production and is British proofed on the right side of the barrel and receiver.

Affordable Antique Firearms

Rock Island Auction has had the privilege of selling firearms that have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars, into the millions, but those often find their way to advanced and elite collectors. Everyone has to start their collection somewhere and RIAC caters to collectors at every level. A Sporting & Collector auction is a great place to start, where nascent collectors can focus their interest and find antique firearms at attractive price points. The Oct. 4-6 Sporting & Collector Auction provides collectors at all stages of their avocation the opportunity to check out and examine affordable antique firearms at the Oct. 3 Preview Day and experience the excitement of live bidding at the three-day sale.

Recent Posts


AvatarMichael ValentineSeptember 16, 2023

Colt1903, 1908, Savage 1917 and Remington 41’s are also still available at good prices and have enough variations to make collection attractive.

Please login to post a comment.