The Hunt for Old Guns: Who Collects Old Guns and Why?
In our “The Hunt for Old Guns” series, we look at 19th-century American firearms – the rare, the unusual, and the iconic. In this episode, we’ll talk about who collects old guns, what they collect, and why.
What Defines an Antique Firearm
Antique American firearms are defined under current federal law as those manufactured before January 1, 1899. A lot of collectors draw the line at that date and for good reason. The date draws a sharp line between antique and modern guns.
It establishes a benchmark for the era at the end of the 19th century, when warfare began changing dramatically. Guns made before that date don’t normally require a federal firearms license to purchase – which makes them easier to transfer, ship, and transport.
Who Is Collecting?
Collectors of old guns are not exactly a diverse lot. A few women are notable collectors and experts. But most collectors are men. And, because antique guns are usually more expensive than modern guns, collectors tend to be older and have more disposable income.
That said, many – if not most – entry-level collectors start young with less-expensive guns or associated materials like bullet molds, powder horns, and cartridges. Every collector has a “first gun,” and many start by buying one gun a year. Their collections expand and evolve as they get older. Almost all collectors are keenly interested in bringing young collectors into the brotherhood of collecting old American firearms and helping them build their collections.
What Gets Collected?
In contrast to our rather limited demographic profile, what we collect is extremely diverse. Some common areas of focus include
Guns used in particular U.S. states or regions are very popular
And guns with documented attribution to a specific individual.
Some collectors also specialize in related items, like historic photos with old guns in them, and many if not most collect cartridges and firearm accoutrements associated with the guns in their collections.
Why Collect Old Guns?
We collect old guns for several reasons. First and foremost is our interest in the history of the guns themselves and the role they played in American history. Some collectors are interested in the evolving 19th-century firearms technology. Some collect fine and engraved guns because they appreciate the art of the engraver.
While we all like to see the value of our guns grow over time, a few collect primarily for investment purposes. For every collector, the reasons they collect are highly personal. Interestingly, we often see that those reasons, and the focus of their collections, evolve over the years.
My own focus is on collecting 19th-century American carbines. This partly comes from a special interest in the evolution of the United States in the 1800s. But it mostly comes from my early fascination as a kid with the Goodson family carbine, an old Spencer that our family used to help settle the Texas frontier after the Civil War.
This gun is only worth a few hundred bucks because of its poor condition. It’s rusted, and it probably hasn’t been cleaned since my great grandfather last used it in west Texas in the 1870s. He famously said it would “knock a buffalo over and you off your horse with the same shot.” The gun also has a bent barrel – a family story from World War II that’s best left told another time over some single malt scotch. Which, by the way, is how it got bent in the first place.
Although it has almost no monetary value, the Goodson family carbine is by far the most important gun in my own collection.
Collecting old guns is a lot different from collecting modern firearms. That’s because of their age and the fact that there’s a big emphasis on the gun’s historical context with old firearms. Remember, even the newest of these guns are 125 years old now. Guns that old have been bought, sold, traded, used, changed, and modified for over a century, and sometimes for over two centuries.
The holy grail in an old gun is one in its original configuration with all original parts – unmodified, unchanged, and un-“messed with” (as we say) through sanding, varnishing, over-cleaning, or restoration. This kind of gun can be very difficult to locate. Also, there are many fakes and camouflaged modified guns out there. So special care is required in buying old guns, much more so than with modern ones.