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What's that Gun Worth?

Jim Supica breaks down how vintage firearms are evaluated and priced.

What's that Gun Worth?

(Photo by Michael Anschuetz)

On the collector And used-gun market, the value of a firearm primarily depends on the correct identification of the make, model, variation and accurate evaluation of the condition.

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What is it? Identifying a recently manufactured firearm is usually easy. The manufacturer and model name are generally marked on the gun, as required by law. On older and antique guns, figuring out the make and model can be complicated. Most major American makers include the manufacturer’s name, but sometimes there is no model designation. Some research is required to identify these guns. Online forums for the manufacturer’s products can be helpful, as are certain resource books.

What is the condition? Determining a gun’s condition is essential, and can easily halve or double the value. However, condition is a bit subjective. Experience is helpful.

There are two major systems of evaluating firearms condition, the NRA condition standards and the percentage-of-finish method. It can be helpful to apply both when evaluating a gun.

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The NRA Condition Standards, sometimes with slight variations or expansions of the definitions, are used by the “Standard Catalog of Firearms” and other firearms price guides. They are also often used by auction houses and dealers in creating catalog descriptions.

The NRA system considers many aspects of condition including finish, mechanical function, replaced parts, condition of wood, etc., to give a general score. Each definition covers a wide range of wear and tear. For example, the Antique Fine class includes guns with between 30 percent and 80 percent original finish remaining. In practice, an antique gun with 30 percent of blue remaining may be worth less than half of what an 80-percent specimen would bring. Also, some aspects of a gun’s condition may fall into one category, while another aspect might warrant a different condition grade.

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The percentage system can be more precise in this regard, which is helpful in narrowing the value estimates. However, by using only finish-­wear to summarize a gun’s condition, other factors that have a large impact on value can be overlooked. For example, a 95-percent gun that needs major mechanical repair is going to be worth less than one with the same finish remaining that is in perfect operating condition. It does not consider different types of finish. An antique blued revolver with 50-percent original finish remaining and the balance turned to a pleasing plum patina will generally bring more than a 50-percent nickel gun with its metal turned dark where the plating is absent, making it look like a blotchy mess. Also, how do you apply a percentage of finish evaluation to a stainless-­steel gun or a polymer frame? Another limitation is that the percentage or original finish standards cannot be applied to refinished guns or guns with no original finish remaining. A significant number of antique firearms have lost all of the original finish.

The bottom line is that both systems provide a good shorthand for summarizing a gun’s condition and value, but both must be applied with common sense.

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So, what’s it worth?

There are sources in print and online that can provide you with a good estimate. The two leading price guidebooks have already been mentioned, and both cover a variety of guns. “Blue Book of Gun Values,” now in its 44th annual edition, is the most widely used and provides excellent estimates of value based on the percentage-of-finish system. “Standard Catalog of Firearms,” currently in its 33rd edition, uses condition ratings based on the NRA definitions. It includes photo illustrations of many of the guns listed, which can be helpful in model identification. The “Official Gun Digest Book of Guns & Prices” includes information similar to that in “Standard Catalog,” but without the illustrations.




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There are also good online sources for firearms values. When searching for gun values online, be careful to differentiate between actual sale prices and asking prices. Auction results can be an excellent indicator of firearms values. You can try “Googling” your gun by searching for its make and model plus “auction.” Rock Island Auction is the largest firearms auction house, and it reports the prices realized for each of the sales. Morphy Auction is especially handy since you can search for a make and model in all previous auctions combined versus each separate sale.

Most online gun auction sites do not show actual sale prices, but you may find current bids and “Buy-It-­Now” prices. The former is often below market value and the latter may be above. One online site that does list reported sold prices is gunauction.com.

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“Standard Catalog” publisher Gun Digest and “Blue Book” have subscription online sources, too: gunvalues.gundigest.com and bluebookofgunvalues.com/pricing.

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