Gun collecting is a great way to lose money. Believe, I know. Over the last 25 years, I’ve bought everything from Parkers to Purdeys. I made some bad deals and some good ones. Most importantly for you, I’ve learned what you need to know to buy and sell vintage shotguns without getting burned.
Last September, I shared my hard-earned knowledge at the Orvis Game Fair in Millbrook, NY. This Monday, Wednesday, and Friday we’ll cover Part 1 of my presentation. Next week, I’ll post part 2, starting Monday. Part 3 will appear the week after that.
How to buy without getting burned
Part 1: The Three Most Important Questions to Ask a Seller
Question 1. Is the gun all original or has it been redone?
WHAT DOES “ORIGINAL” MEAN?
When we talk a gun’s “finish”, we’re referring to stuff like the blueing on the barrels and triggerguard, the color-case hardening on the action, and the finish applied to the forend and stock. When these finishes are “original”, they’re the ones the gunmaker applied to the firearm when the gun was new. When a gun is “all original”, all its finishes are original.
When a gun is redone or refinished, one or more of its finishes have been reapplied. Re-blued or re-blacked barrels are the most common types of refinish you’ll come across. Refinished stocks and recut checkering are also common. Sometimes, people re-color a gun’s action, too (especially on American guns).
WHY DOES “ORIGINAL” MATTER?
Generally, the more original a gun is, the more valuable it is. While refinished guns can be excellent shooters, they’re never as valuable as comparable, all-original examples — regardless of what some sellers will tell you.
So when buying a gun, the first thing to ask is: “Is it all original or has it been redone? If the seller says “Yes, it’s all original”, then great, you know what you’re dealing with.
But if the seller says redone, you need to follow up with “What has been redone or refinished?”
A lot can go wrong when a gun is refinished. Barrels can be reblued the wrong way; Checkering can be ruined when it’s recut by unskilled hands; Actions can warp if they’re recolored the wrong way. So it’s important to figure out what has been refinished and then look into how well that work was performed.
Something else to consider: Why was the gun refinished in the first place? Some people reblue barrels and refinish stocks to freshen up how they look. But people also reblue barrels after a dent or bulge has been repaired or after the barrels have had significant rusting and pitting removed. And every time barrels are reblued, a little metal is sanded off and polished away. A little of the barrels’s overall health goes with it.
When a gun is all original, you don’t have to worry about any of this.
Wednesday I’ll discuss the 2nd most important question to ask when buying a vintage shotgun:
LOVE CAN BE HARD TO UNDERSTAND, ESPECIALLY WHEN IT’S for anything other than babies, puppies, and ice cream. Of all the things I love about upland hunting—my pointers flashing through the woods, the whirl of a flushing woodcock, the cidery smell of old apple trees—my lifelong affair with shotguns is the most difficult for me to comprehend.
I’m not from a family of hunters or shooters. My grandfather never killed a bird in his life. While my dad was a fisherman, he never owned a gun or fired a rifle. And I didn’t grow up on a farm with cornfields or stands of aspen outside my door. I grew up in Connecticut, down the street from a 7-Eleven and a strip mall anchored by a bar called the Amber Light Lounge & Cafe. But despite all this, bird hunting, and especially shotguns, have always been my thing.
When I was a kid, I pestered my father to take me to gun shops. I didn’t care about the rifles, and I didn’t stare at glass cases lined with revolvers and pistols. I wanted to see the shotguns. Most of the ones I came across were autoloaders and pumps: Remington 1100s, Winchester Model 12s. Sometimes there would be an O/U, usually a Browning Superposed. Those always commanded my attention. When I was thirteen, my family moved to northern New Hampshire. Now there were woods behind our house and, I would discover, grouse.
Our first bird season there my father borrowed two shotguns. The one for me was a 16-gauge Savage Fox Model B. I was fascinated with it. I had seen side-by-sides in a little newspaper I received called the Orvis News, but this was the first one I had held in my hands. With its two barrels aligned next to each other and double triggers, it looked awkward and outdated. But it also seemed more refined and purpose-built than any other shotgun I had come across. It suggested something . . . different? better? I wasn’t sure, but I was reluctant to give it back at the end of the season.
My father and I hunted grouse throughout my high school years, but he had little passion for it. I tugged us out the door early Saturday mornings and insisted we hunt every weekend. Fortunately, my father obliged. When I was fifteen, he indulged me again by taking me to buy my first shotgun: a 20-gauge Remington pump with a twenty-one-inch barrel and a straight stock. I hunted with it into my twenties.
I went to college near one of the largest gun shops in the country. The sales floor was crowded with racks of firearms, hundreds in all, and there were always dozens of shotguns for me to look at. I spent many Sunday afternoons there looking at the Rugers, Berettas, Parkers, and Foxes—shouldering one, then another, and another, flipping over the price tags, trying to find anything I could afford.
Collectors and hoarders have a lot in common; the first group is just more discriminating than the other. In my first ten years or so of chasing doubles, I was a hoarder. If a gun had two barrels, I wanted it. My first double was an A. H. Fox Sterlingworth. Then there was a Parker VHE. Both were 12s and both weighed around seven pounds. The bluing on the barrels had been worn to gray, and the checkering on both had been rubbed smooth. Neither fit me well. But I didn’t care. They were the classic American shotguns, they killed birds, and they were mine. I was proud to own them, and when I bought them, I swore I would never part with either one. Of course, when other doubles came along, my resolve faded, and I sold both.
Over the next decade I owned Ithaca NIDs, a run of 16-gauge L.C. Smith No. 2s, a SuperFox, and more Parkers, including a 12-gauge DHE pigeon gun with thirty-two-inch barrels. There were Francottes, W & C Scott Premiers, and Charles Daly Diamond grades. Boxlocks and sidelocks. A Purdey hammergun from the 1860s and a Merkel double rifle from the 1950s. Guns, guns, and more guns. Some I shot; most I didn’t. Regardless of whether or not I fired them, I studied every one and noted their mechanics, styling, and workmanship.
Along with guns, I also hoarded information: The Double Gun Journal and Shooting Sportsman, old catalogs from gunmakers like Boss & Co. and retailers like Abercrombie & Fitch, books by Michael McIntosh, Stephen Bodio, Donald Dallas, and Major Burrard. I loved learning the obscure language and knowledge of doubles as much as I enjoyed the history of the classic American and British makers. All this was the sun and water that grew my fondness for shotguns into a full obsession. Losing money is an excellent way to learn a lesson, and my hoarding period was an expensive education in buying and selling guns.
I learned how to spot reblued barrels, the right questions to ask a seller, and what dealers mean when they say a gun is “as new” (it’s totally redone). I learned how to measure up a set of barrels and the arcane language of shotgun proof marks. I also learned the value of original condition and, more importantly, how to spot it.
The most important thing my hoarding period taught me was what I thought was important. Like most people who get into guns, I started with an interest in what everyone else said was special: Parkers, Winchester Model 21s, Purdeys. After a while, I learned what was special to me: vintage British doubles (especially ones in their original cases), German O/Us made before World War II, and, above all, high-quality shotguns in original condition. When I concentrated on what I thought mattered, I became a collector. I learned to discriminate, and this taught me more about what moved me and who I am.
Why do we love the things we do? Perhaps it’s a search for wholeness or inspiration. Perhaps we’re looking to bring some type of beauty into our lives or connect with deep, profound currents running through all people for all time. Regardless, I know I can’t decide what I’ll love. My heart makes these decisions, and most make little sense to me. But if I want to feel satisfied and make my hours and days feel worthwhile, I need to follow its commands.
Every gun nut has THE shotgun they’re trying to find. For a friend of mine, it’s 2o gauge Lindner-made Charles Daly with damascus barrels. Another guy I know is searching everywhere for an all original, color-case hardened Belgian-made 20g sidelock with 28″+ tubes.
My holy-grail used to be a 16 gauge L.C. Smith No.2 with a straight grip and double triggers. I spent years trying to track one down. When you look at the gunmaker’s production numbers, it’s easy to see why.
According to the L.C. Smith Collector’s Association, the folks in Fulton made just seven-hundred and ninety-three 16-gauge No. 2s. I bet at least 90% of these had pistol grips, and that’s why one with this configuration are easy hard to find (I’ve owned at least 3).
But swap in a straight grip, ask for double triggers, and now you’ve got a tough gun to track down. L.C. Smith probably set up fewer than thirty 16g No. 2s like this, and I’ve spent a decade looking for one.
In the past few month — bang! — two of them have popped up on the market. When I found the first one, I shocked by the condition – 90%+ all original – and stunned by the price – $8,0000. This one has less of that condition, but the price is still steep. Of course, it may be the last one you every see:
16 gauge L.C. Smith 2E with an original straight grip and double triggers: Nice, original condition LC Smith 16 GA, grade 2E. 28″ barrels choked .021 modified right and .032 left. Both bores are .661. Barrels retain 75-80% original blue. Engraving is sharp and clear, original case color remains at 50% or so. Straight hand stock with splinter fore-end. Checkering is sharp and un-damaged. Butt stock has an extension added that is so good that is hard to see.(see photos). LOP is 14 7/8″ to a 1/2″ pad. DAC 1 5/8, DAH 2 3/4, Cast is neutral. Mechanically perfect, this one is ready for some action in the field or on the range. Price: $5,495.00
Martin Willis is one America’s leading experts on antiques. His website the Antique Auction Forum is a great place to learn all about the business of buying, selling , and collecting them. Last weekend I sat down with Martin and talked about one of my favorite subjects — collecting antique shotguns.
You can listen to our discussion here. Our discussion covered everything from my favorites to the dark side of collecting – fakes and phonies – and how to protect yourself from them. I hope you enjoy it.