Knowledge is power. Knowledge is wealth. The Dutch became rich world travelers because, early in the Age of Exploration, they found out how to get to and acquire the goods the wealthy would pay money for. Today, we take for granted that everything we need (or want) to know can be found on the internet. Before the web, we had books. Some of us still do.
Though it started by Jim Cook as "Barry Fain's Private Blue Book of Gun Values" in 1981, Steve Fjestad took it over in late 1982 for the book's third edition. I was working at gun shops in those days, and in order to make a living we had to know what firearms sold for and then buy them for less. We gained this knowledge by cruising gun shows, visiting other gun shops, memorizing vast amounts of information and paying for auction results. We'd even photocopy and trade (or sell) those results because knowledge was valuable.
Details mattered. I have a pre-World War II Winchester Model 70 that I paid a post-war price for back in the 1980s. I recognized that the safety pivoted the "wrong" way. A short time later, I got a smokin' deal on a .30-'06, and the seller was happy to have unloaded just another one of his deer rifles.
And then the Blue Book of Gun Values had to democratize it all. When the first volumes hit the market, all of us who worked in gun shops tried to keep this knowledge under wraps. There exists a list of all the guns out there and the current market price? We can't let the customers know!
Market dynamics being what they were, and Fjestad being the relentless promoter that he was, we stood no chance in keeping the knowledge to ourselves. (Which was a good thing.)
Even with good memories and extensive gun show cruising, none of us could remember or know everything. Even when we got together and tried to bring each other up to date, we had no chance of covering all the subjects. There were some areas we specialized in or were more familiar with, and others we had no interest in.
Fjestad built a network of contributors, scoured the information sources and compiled lists. Then he built on that. I recently asked him if his approach is any different today.
"We don't use auctions as the be-all and end-all," Fjestad said. "They'll tell you the high prices, but not the fair-market value."
From the standpoint of someone who used to buy and sell firearms for a living, that sounds about right. The amount paid for a specialty Luger from a small production run, in pristine condition that was previously owned by a celebrity, and what it sold for at auction doesn't tell us how much a more common World War II bring-back sells for, or what a fair price to pay for it would be.
Why did he do it? "Strictly by accident, and it's too long a story to tell," said Fjestad. "No one goes to college to become a gun book values writer and publisher after they graduate." (His acquisition of the reference guide actually sounded like it could be an interesting story.)
There's still a lot of work that goes into determining the "as-new" price and the depreciation as wear, care or the environment takes its toll. And Fjestad has adjusted his methods as time and technology advanced.
What condition is a firearm in? Since the 11th edition (1990), the Blue Book walks us through that determination, too. Don't be surprised if the family heirloom you've always thought of as being in perfect condition comes up short. Gun collectors and buyers are a pretty cold-blooded bunch and some represent the cheapest people on Earth. Overlooked details are what they'll focus on. The Blue Book gives us this information by way of a grading section containing color photos on glossy paper, each with a description explaining why the sample is, say, a 40-percent exemplar. We can't take it personally; we all have firearms that we value more than the Blue Book price lists. That's why they remain heirlooms.
Of course, marketing for Fjestad was pretty simple, if arduous. As gun dealers, we only had to take one look at the current book, and then we bought one — right then and there. As customers found out about it, they had to have one, too. When there was a new edition, we'd upgrade. Still, it took awhile to build momentum in sales.
"The First Edition, published in 1981, wasn't an immediate success," Fjestad recalled.
The Blue Book has always been more than a dry listing of models and their values scaled to condition. We also find such details as when a particular model was introduced, and if it's no longer made, when it went out of production, what calibers it was available in, rarity, etc. Each manufacturer listing starts with a paragraph and a thumbnail sketch of the maker, so you have a sense of who they were, where they were based and what they made.
Today, the title lineup is more than just the latest version of the Blue Book of Gun Values. There are now specialized volumes for particular market segments. There is the Tactical Firearms Values, Ammunition Encyclopedia, Book of Colt Firearms, three titles on engraving and engravers, and eight different pocket guides,
each focused on a particular manufacturer. There is an Airguns book (in its 11th edition, no less), Modern Black Powder Arms and more Colt titles.
Digital readers have options too, and Fjestad's team uses the information they now obtain and include from collectors and retailers. Blue Book titles are available in paper form, on CD or as an online subscription.
Printing was a strange business when the first edition was published 35 years ago. Do you want to publish a book? No problem. The printer made 10,000 copies because that was the minimum cost-effective run. I'm sure a 5,000-book run could have been printed, but it would have cost the same. Half of that initial run went into the dumpster when it was time to update information for the second edition. Fjestad told me that an original is now worth $125 on the used-book market. I believe it.
I had one of the first editions, bought when it was new. And I was cheap, too. By the time I replaced it with the fourth edition — I could skip one or two and not suffer — my original was dog-eared, with notes written inside and coffee stains on various pages. I'm certain no one would be willing to pay $125 for that old copy, even if I still had it.
There's an old adage that "three moves are as good as a fire." I've moved so many times and had to cull the excess in my life each time that I'm happy with the brand-new Thirty-Seventh edition that now sits on my shelf. It is always within arm's reach. As I scan the shelves, I realize it is accompanied by three other Blue Book titles.
I asked Fjestad a time-travel question: What firearm would have been the best investment were it possible to tell our younger selves what to purchase?
"You should have bought a [Colt] Python or a Boa," Fjestad said. "Better yet, [I should have] bought a nickel Python, with a short barrel, and left it untouched in the box — unfired. They appreciated at twice the rate gold has."
For more information, visit: www.bluebookofgunvalues.com.