One phrase that pops up in conversations on collectible firearms of all stripes are import marks, or the lack thereof. To clear the air on that, pull up a seat and let's talk about them.
To be clear, import marks are different from proof house marks, manufacturer’s banners, and country of origin stamps. Take this circa-1974 Walther PPK/s for instance, which was made in West Germany from French (Manurhin) components.
Required initially by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives since 1968 as part of the implementation of the Gun Control Act signed into law that year by President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat, licensed firearm importers for years often placed such marks in subtle locations, such as on the underside of the barrel, or even on parts such as grip panels which could be replaced.
Most such import marks from 1968 through the early 2000s were applied with rolling-- such as with the Interarms mark above-- electrochemical etching, or via an electric pencil. Prior to that, just country of origin markings were needed, a regulation enforced by the U.S. Customs service since the Tariff Act of 1890.
However, in 2002, Republican President George W. Bush's ATF pulled the whammy card on importers "requiring a minimum height of 11/16 inch and a minimum depth of .003 inch for serial numbers and a minimum depth of .003 inch for all other required markings."
Following that, you see much more prominent import marks, typically done with multiple pin (dot matrix) impingement or laser etching. Some can be downright ugly.
For reference, two of the largest import houses these days are St. Albans/Georgia, Vermont-based Century Arms International, whose marks typically read "C.A.I. ST. ALB. VT." or "C.A.I. Georgia VT." and P.W. Arms of Redmond, Washington ("PW ARMS REDMOND WA").
Does an import mark affect how the gun will shoot? Not at all.
Does it make the gun as valuable as the same model of the same vintage in a similar condition without such a mark? Likely not. However, gun collectors flat out love history and embrace it, leaving beauty in the eye of the beholder.
American guns with Import Marks?
Oftentimes you will come across a nice old S&W or Colt handgun, or Winchester or Remington rifle made in the good old U.S. of A, yet they still have an import mark. The reason for this is that the gun was likely sent overseas on a military/police contract or a commercial sale-- U.S. companies exported more than 300,000 firearms last year alone-- and then later brought back "home" as a reimport. The same can be said for military returns to the CMP, explaining Springfield Armory-produced M1903s and M1 Garands floating around with Danish, Greek, Turkish, or German markings.
If guns could talk, right?
As we touched on above, pre-1968 firearms just needed a country of origin marks to be brought into the States by an importer. With that being said, if you see a vintage gun obviously made overseas, say like a Mauser or Enfield, without any visible import mark-- be sure to look very closely as such marks are sometimes hard to spot on pre-2002 specimens-- odds are it either came into the country before LBJ's ink on the GCA or was not brought in by a licensed importer.
This sometimes points to "duffle bag" guns brought back by American servicemen returning from overseas with war trophies or firearms bought locally through base Rod & Gun clubs. More often than not, however, such guns were just imported pre-GCA in a boatload of other wares after one of the world wars but prior to the 1968 marking requirement.
While stories of a gun "taken from a Nazzy general" are entertaining, such anecdotes can really just be confirmed by bring-back paperwork or a provenance. If the gun has a big honking C.A.I. mark on it, then you know right off the bat that the story is really just is a tall tale. Regardless, guns with no such marks usually bring bigger dollars from collectors, regardless of the story behind the steel.
Remember, buy the gun, not the story-- unless of course there is paperwork to back up the story. But then again, that is the subject for another article.