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From the History Books

Garry James’ Rules for Buying Collectible Guns

by Garry James   |  September 27th, 2012 16

Garry-James_Colt-BisleyPerhaps a better title for this piece would be “Thoughts on Buying Collectible Guns.” Personally, I hate most rules and go out of my way to skirt or break them whenever the fancy takes me. Buying any kind of collectible, be it firearms, comic books or bottle caps is subject to so many variables that it is often difficult to establish a bunch of hard and fast rules that apply to all cases. In any event, here are some of the things I take into account when laying out my hard earned shekels for that pearl of rare price.

What to Buy?
I can’t tell you how many times people ask me, “What should I collect?” My answer is (given politely, though—I’m a big believer in good manners), “If you have to ask, perhaps its better go into bird watching or macramé.” Actually, it’s pretty simple. Collect what you like—whether it is high-grade Purdeys, surplus rifles or Saturday night specials. In my own case, I like 18th and 19th century military arms from Britain, the U.S. and France, in that order. Now this doesn’t mean that from time-to-time I won’t go astray and buy WWII Japanese rifle or Colt Woodsman—I like those, too—it’s just that I try and stick to the main theme as much as possible for both economic and storage reasons.

Which Are the Most Valuable?
Guns have generally proven to be good investments, but not always. My second most asked question is, “What should I buy that will increase in value?” If I knew that for sure, I’d buy them all myself! Gun prices, like everything else, are subject to economic conditions, fads and the general vagaries of the market. A new gun, unless it’s purchased really right, generally will take a while to reach its full potential, collector-wise. There are some pieces like Colts, Lugers and Winchester that just seem to go from strength to strength, but they can be pricey starting out, so it’s imperative to follow my next admonition.

Learn everything you can about the guns and field you are planning on going into. Check tariffs on the internet, auction sales and gun show offerings. Buy books and read them. I have a rule of thumb that for every gun I buy, I normally get at least one book about it. Study as many bona fide examples of guns in your area of interest as possible. Talk to collectors and join clubs. There is simply no substitute for knowledge and experience. I’ve known serious collectors that have been in the hobby for decades that still get taken—so caveat emptor!

What’s Desirable?
What constitutes a desirable piece? Just because something is rare doesn’t always mean it’s a high-ticket item. There are lots of one-offs that have low value simply because nobody cares about them, and other types of guns that were made in the hundreds of thousands that bring phenomenal prices. Desirability trumps rarity any day. Condition is also of top priority. It’s always better to pay a premium for a gun in good shape. It will hold its value better and be easier to trade or sell in the long run.

Of course we all run into those garage-sale or grieving-widow deals, but it is generally a good idea to know who you are purchasing an item from. That way, if there are any problems down the line it is possible to get clarification or redress.

Always do things legally. Make sure that whatever you are purchasing is done so according to state and federal laws and that proper paperwork, fees and waiting periods are adhered to, whether you agree to them philosophically or not. If there is ever a question, err on the side of caution. I don’t care how good a deal may seem; it’s not worth going to jail.

These are my basics, and they have stood me in good stead over the years. Hope they give you a leg-up on your collecting. Good shopping!

  • old vet

    Very good advice, one thing I've found out, often the hard way is to also know what to hold on to. The old clunker sitting in your safe may "turn golden" all at once. Not too long ago dealers had British Enfeilds (sp?) stacked like cordwood for next to nothing. Try to find them now.

    • Garry James

      True. I used to be able to buy them for under $5 each. Ah well, tempus fugit.

    • psidrop1

      Can anyone say SKS – the first one I bought was a Chicom Norinco that came out of a crate covered in Cosmoline and cost $60. Whodah thunk it be worth $300 bucks today?!

      • old vet

        Been through the SKS adventure myself, have a feeling something similar may happen with some of the other Russian guns out there. Although there seems to be "butt loads" of Moisin Nagants out there. someday they will dry out.

        • tmitchellw

          The Mosen's are one of the most plentiful rifles on the planet, yet the price is really beginning to go up on them. Maybe the Mosen is a smart collector's choice.

          Mosen's have a very interesting story. Collector's love to talk about the history of the subject they are collecting.

      • tmitchellw

        I bet that the SKS's go the way of the AK-47's. I owned one, and wish I had kept it. I see that rifle becoming a $6 or $7 hundred dollar gun.

  • charles kerruish

    I have a Sears Ranger 20 ga, pump I have had it for 40 yrs and it was used when i got it. the serial no. 34xxx. i cannot find info on this gun . the bluing is now on the gray ish side but the stock and fore piece is perfect. the gun can put a slug in a 12 in target at 75 yds. no problem. anyone know anything about this gun. thanks Chuck K. Buffalo NY

  • Tanstaafl2

    1. Don't just do things legally, also do them ethically. I have a hard time not getting violent with guys who brag about paying a grieving widow of a WWII veteran $100 for a great condition Luger with snail drum magazine because she has no idea what it's worth (and I probably WILL get violent with a guy who actively lies to her about its value to get it for that price)

    2. Document everything about your collection and every gun in it (pictures, serial #'s, condition, caliber, price paid, where you got it, etc.) so YOUR widow doesn't get scammed by the turds mentioned in #1. Documentation is also likely your salvation in the event of theft, fire, or other loss. Save receipts, invoices, certificates or capture papers whenever possible.

    3. Know how much (if any) coverage your homeowner's insurance offers your collection – it could be quite small, making an additional insurance rider for your collection advisable.

    4. Be knowledgeable about what the gun is worth, and only buy it if you can get a good deal. You may not make a lot of profit, but this will help assure that you won't take a big loss if you ever sell it.

    5. Buy a decent quality fire-insulated gun safe or safes for your collection. You can spend an absolute fortune on a safe, but you can get a surprisingly large amount of decent safe for as little as $600 (for a 20-25 rifle safe) to just under $2000 (for a monstrously huge 60-80 gun safe). Bolt your safe to the floor (there are pre-drilled holes for this under the floor panel) so thieves can't simply haul the whole thing out of your house to open at their leisure. Also put dessecant or an electric dehumidifier rod inside to fight rust from humidity.

    6. Alterations or "restorations" (even if well done) often/usually reduce the value of a collectible firearm. Be aware of this if you're considering buying one that's had it done, or doing it to one you own. Poorly chosen work may also make a collectible firearm unsafe to shoot.

    7. With many old weapons being brought home by service members returning from duty in Afghanistan or the Middle East, beware of "Khyber copies". Local tribal gunsmiths have made copies of just about every type of firearm ever to be used in the region, and these are often what's being brought home by unsuspecting soldiers. While some of these tribal gunsmiths turn out beautiful work, they do it under primitive manufacturing conditions with no real quality control. Read up on how to spot likely fakes before you buy something from this region.

    • old vet

      Absolutely on target. About point 1, I've seen this happen so many times at the shows I work, (recruiting for our club) some "dealers" just have a skill at finding someone to victimize. They attack like wolves when someone brings in Dad's old gun not knowing it's value. Actually I'm not sure there won't be some value in those Khyber guns, not for use but their history.

  • John Lutz

    This is the Rarist Variant of the Lee-Enfield Rifles, it has not been fired since 01/1946, mfg. date 12/1945, the receiver system was re-inforced to eliminjate the so-called wandering Zero. This Rifle belong to me Dad who earned it in a Poker Game with a Tommy. My Dad said the wandering zero was baloney-his words. Rifle, is all original, with bayonet, scarab abd original magazine ( SMILE ), Micheal King of Kings Armory has stated-certified that this is a No.5 (No.6) MK1 Jungle Carbine, it shoots 303. I have extra mag's, stripper clips, and 5 Bandaleros of 174 and 204 British Brass Ammo with no corrison, approx. 300+ rounds. Anyone interested it is for sale the whole lot for the Right Price., Thank You, John Lutz, Pic's available.

  • David Bailey

    I collect a pretty broad spectrum under a simple heading, "Strange and Unusual". Not necessarily the most popular weapons. As a matter of fact, I try not to get into these guns for more than $200 each. I've picked up some gems just because they are lesser known. Great investments, probably not, but I enjoy my collection as much as anyone collecting high end Purdeys. Mostly turn of the century (19th to 20th) auto pistols and revolvers, a few single and double barrel pistols, and mechanically diverse models. I've accumulated a rather large collection over the years without breaking the bank. Now I find these are becoming more and more popular. Maybe they were a good investment after all. Irregardless, they have given me great pleasure, both in the pursuing and in the possessing.

  • Roger

    I recently obught a like new Enfield Mk III that includes a .22 boly and insert tube/barrel. I cannot get the insert to shoot on point of aim with accuracy.
    1. Any advice on adjusting one of these inserts. I've got $450 in the gun insert ,bayonet, dust cover .
    2. what is it worth?

  • Pete

    My rule on value honesty is consider the seller first. Any hint that a seller wants to be educated about value, and I will oblige. I will always advise the "grieving widow" what I believe to be the true value of a gun– and what I as a dealer am willing to pay. But I feel under no obligation to re-educate someone who comes to me and asks a price for a gun if they seem to have any inkling of what they have. I recently purchased a Luger from a fellow who found it in a house he had emptied (for a fee) after the owners had removed everything they wanted. His price was low because he had nothing in it. But he knew exactly what he had and what I could easily sell it for.

  • old vet

    Anyone else out there seeing what has happened lately to ALL the sks's out there as far as prices? Just shows how collecting and buying-selling goes. Last show I got a really good deal on a nice single action because they just weren't "moving. Love this hobby.

  • Kevin Paul Moritz

    Just thought I’d say hi, if Garry sees this. I still think back to my time at PPC (copy editor, at various times, for Guns & Ammo, HANDGUNS, RifleShooter, and HUNTING, 7/89-1/98) and miss it. Hope you’re doing well. (I keep in occasional touch with Phil also, having found him somewhere on the Internet.) Though a staunch gun supporter, I was of course never a gun expert (rather, closer to the opposite); but in spite of it, you and Phil were largely responsible for the fact that I enjoyed my time there.

    • Kevin Paul Moritz

      (Sorry if my comment’s off-topic. I wasn’t going to make a habit of it but did want to say hi.)

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