You don't have to be a historic re-enactor or a grizzled outdoorsman to have an appreciation for historic firearms. In fact, antique gun collectors come in all shapes and sizes. What might be surprising, but reassuring, to you is the fact that many collectors aren't trained firearm specialists nor do they hunt recreationally/for sport, but rather they enjoy collecting these weapons because it brings them joy. So, if you haven't felt comfortable collecting antique guns, now's your chance to dive headfirst into the fascinating world of gun collecting.
Types of Collectible Guns
There're many different types of collectible guns, and antique gun collectors enjoy hunting down some of the following types.
When it comes to collecting antique guns, western firearms tend to be the ones that come to people's minds first. From America's obsession with the archetypical cowboy, it's no surprise that these rifles and pistols which were taken out to the frontier would captivate firearm collectors today. The most desirable of these weapons tend to have been created between the 1870s to the 1910s, with manufacturers like Winchester and Colt being the most prominent.
Military firearms have always been quite desirable to gun collectors, particularly if the weapons have been proven to be used during a major conflict and/or belonged to/were used by a famous figure. These collectible firearms aren't limited to a specific time period or region, though the European and American service firearms from major conflicts like the American Civil War, World War I & II, and the Vietnam War will usually sell for the highest prices.
Modern Collectible Guns
While these guns aren't technically antiques, they must be considered when you're talking about the firearms trade. These weapons tend to come in limited numbers, either because of specialty designs, features, or partnerships. These firearms can sell for wildly fluctuating sums because their resale prices are all dependent on what type of collectors are browsing the inventories at that current moment.
Although they don't hold the same cultural reverence as historic rifles do, antique handguns are beautiful sights to behold and collectors will pay a pretty penny to have them in their hands. In fact, the most expensive antique gun ever sold at auction was sold in 2021 for $6.03 million. The gun in question was a single action army Colt revolver owned by Pat Garret and was used to kill the infamous outlaw, Billy the Kid. Of course, this sale shows just how so many of these categories (western firearms, military firearms, and handguns) can overlap on another to pack a powerful financial punch.
Muzzleloaders can refer to any number of black powder weapons that are loaded from the front of the barrel, but in collectible parlance they're often used to refer to rifles and small arms that were front loaded. This gun technology predates any other developments, and was practically completed by pouring gun powder down the barrel and shoving a projectile after it into the weapon, lighting a fuse and letting the explosive reaction launch the projectile. However, even after self-contained projectiles were invented, muzzleloading rifles and pistols were still being produced. Yet, the older the antique muzzleloader, the greater the potential payout.
Popular Antique Gun Brands to Collect
Not only do collectors collect by type of firearm, they also collect by brand. Some of the more collectible brands of antique guns are:
Colt Pistols are one of the premiere firearms to have in your antique collection. Samuel Colt's pistols are legendary among firearm collectors, and while there were hundreds of different types of Colt pistols released during the 19th century, the most rare of those were created during Colt's lifetime (1830s-1860s). Yet, the Colt Single Action Army revolver, better known as the 'peacemaker' and antique collector's most beloved weapon, wasn't released until 1872. This iconic long-barreled revolver was used by both outlaws and lawmen across the United States, and can fetch thousands of dollars at auction. In fact, first generation Colt SAAs in varying states can sell for anywhere between $5,000-$50,000 depending on their provenance and condition. Take, for instance, this 1877 calvary Colt SAA that's listed for $30,000 at auction.
Another significant American firearm manufacturer is the Winchester Repeating Rifle Company, which was first launched in the immediate post-war period. This company is best known for its series of repeating rifles. The most popular of which is, of course, is the 'rifle that won the west' aka the Winchester 1873 lever-action rifle. You can find multiple generations of this rifle, and many other lever-action Winchester rifles, at auction. As it were, first generation rifles are always going to be worth more than their later counterparts. However, antique Winchesters rifles, lever action rifles, and shotguns, are considered by many in the collectors community to be the most valuable antique guns of the 19th century. Winchester firearms are known for their extreme longevity, lasting far longer than several of their competitors' weapons can, as well as the extensive number of ways customers could customize their Winchester rifles over the years.
According to Rock Island Auctions--a renowned auction company that specializes in historic weaponry--these two factors majorly contribute to the brand's high market values. However, Winchester's reputation for their product's insane appraisal values (like this Winchester 1886 rifle that sold for a whopping $1.25 million), there're still a good number of affordable Winchester's on the market priced in the lower thousands, such as this Winchester 1873 which sold for $3,450. So, when it comes to hunting down an antique Winchester, you've got a huge price range (lower thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars) to work with.
Of the many people President Andrew Lincoln might have had a bone to pick with during his lifetime, Henry Deringer might have been at the top since it was his Deringer pocket pistol that John Wilkes Booth used to kill Lincoln in 1865. Notable Philadelphia gunsmith, Henry Deringer, first released his eponymous pocket pistol in the 1820s, and it was particularly popular among the ne'er-do-wells of the period. Thanks to its compact size, both criminals and women found Deringer pistols to be a great form of protection during their daily escapades. In the wake of Lincoln's assassination and the public's growing fascination with the infamous pistol, several other firearm companies began producing their own versions, and paved the way for Deringer to lose control of the market. Due to their compact size and single-shot to quadruple-shot design, these pistols don't sell for substantial amounts at auction (usually only between about $500 - $2,000 on average).
The Browning Arms Company is another of these post-war firearms companies to make a name for themselves on the American market. Unfortunately for first-time firearm collectors, collecting antique Brownings can be a bit difficult. As their website even admits, "understanding Browning product history can be confusing." This is because the Browning brothers who created the company were prolific designers themselves, and filed multiple patents for new firearm technology throughout the 19th century. Yet, these patents were often sold to other manufacturers, like Winchester, and were used to create firearms under a competitor's name. Thus, it's important to be really careful when buying and selling antique Brownings, and it's best to contact someone specialized in Browning weapons, such as people belonging to the Browning Collectors Association, for more information.
Despite the creative minds behind the brand advancing 19th century firearms technology with their designs, the brand doesn't hold the same reputation amongst collectors as their contemporaries do. Thus, antique Brownings tend to sell for noticeably less than say Winchesters or Colts. It's pretty difficult finding an antique Browning for sale on the current market, but those that you can find from the 19th and early 20th centuries tend to be competitor brand's guns built using Browning designs, and are listed in the low to mid thousands. For example, this 1887 Winchester lever action rifle designed by Browning is listed for $2,175.
Smith & Wesson
Smith & Wesson is a force to be reckoned with in the firearms community, and the partnership turned manufacturing mogul first got its start in 1852. Helmed by Horace Smith and D.B. Wesson, the company initially released a series of firearms whose self-contained projectile capabilities made percussive weapons a thing of the past. While these Smith & Wesson revolvers don't carry the same awe with them as Colt revolvers do, they're still highly collectible in the firearms market. Perhaps the most valuable of these are the model 3s, which can sell for a a few thousand dollars, such as with this 1907 long-strap model 3 that's listed for a little over $12,500 at auction.
The Do's and Don't's of Buying and Selling Antique Guns
Unlike some more niche collectors markets, the antique firearms trade is a serious business that frequently involves high payoffs and rich history. Yet, thanks to the several centuries of gun-making and millions of guns that've been produced, it truly takes a trained eye to be able to fully assess a piece's worth. In that regard, it's absolutely essential that you get an antique gun you're thinking about selling appraised by a specialist. They'll be able to tell you exactly what kind of condition your weapon is in, as well as maybe give you some more information about its past.
Additionally, when you're planning on buying any antique weapons, your first prerogative should be to see the weapon in person. Barring that ability, you should get as much information as you can about a few specific factors to have a better understanding of whether or not their projected worth matches the product itself. Some of the important things you should look out for include:
- Assess how much finish is left - An antique firearm's finish isn't necessarily something that a novice is going to be able to assess, but certain guns may come with obvious dark-tinted finishes whose deterioration will be obvious to the naked eye. The more finish left on an antique gun, the higher it's worth.
- Check if it has been restored - You should always check to see if there's any restoration history on the weapon, as restoration won't always have a significant impact, but the introduction of modern replacement pieces to the weapon will.
- See if it's still operational - Another significant factor that not everyone thinks about is whether or not the weapon can be used. Collectors vary in preference, but it's important to know when you're buying or selling a gun if it's fully operational.
- Make sure it's an antique - Interestingly, there's a hard distinction between what's considered an antique firearm and what's considered vintage. Currently, the United States' National Firearms Act designates antique firearms as those that were created in or before 1898, so if you're labeling a gun for sale or looking for an antique firearm to buy, then you need to make sure it dates before 1898.
Associations and Websites for Antique Gun Collectors
A great way to meet other collectors is to get involved with an antique gun club, association, or become a member of an online community. Not only are there numerous antique guns to collect but a plethora of historic firearms memorabilia as well for you to immerse yourself in. Here are some of the places you can go to share in your love of antique firearms:
- Antique and Collectible Firearms and Militaria Headquarters is a huge site for collectors. It lists everything from shows all over the country to information about markings, current values and manufacturing dates. There's an area to buy and sell, and an affiliated site called Arms Collectors that includes a forum where a new collector can get information, and experienced collectors can socialize.
- The Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association supports competitions and shows that highlight the techniques that the men of the West used -- being able to accurately shoot from a moving horse, and the guns used are single action revolvers, like those used in the old West.
- The National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association is dedicated to preserving the history and use of muzzle loaders. They sponsor competitions, hunting, gun making and safety, historical re-enactments, camping and other programs.
- The Colt Collectors Association is for collectors of antique Colt firearms. It currently boasts over 2,400 members from all over the world. Members keep up with what's happening in the world of Colt with a magazine which comes out on a quarterly basis.
- The Smith and Wesson Collectors Association was founded in 1964, and is the oldest specialized collectors association in the United States. The association states that its main purpose is in preserving Smith and Wesson history.
- The Winchester Collector's Website is full of information about the history, value, and types of Winchester guns.
Where to Begin Collecting
Antique firearms are so popular that there're numerous websites specializing in selling them. Even antique reproductions of guns are highly collectible and sought after. As with any antique or vintage collectible, do the research before settling on a price. Visit local shops that specialize in antique guns and talk to their owner(s) to see what inventory they usually have and if they can hold anything for you in the future. Also, check out gun shows and talk to the experienced collectors about their experiences. Get as much information as you can and build friendships with the other collectors so that you have a few mentors on your antique collecting journey.
Here are a few suggestions from experienced antique gun collectors:
- Choose one type of gun to collect at first and then branch out into what ever interests you.
- Gather a large collection of reference materials so that you can learn more about your antique guns.
- Seek the advice of an experienced collector before attempting to clean an antique weapon.
- Collect what you love.
- Antique guns and firearms tend to keep their value over a long period of time. If you must sell, consult a current price guide and a couple of collectors before setting a price.
The Action Never Ends With Antique Firearms
When you think of antique gun collectors, you might envision grizzled, bearded, camo-wearing men. However, the historic firearms collectors community is vastly diverse, meaning that you don't have to worry about dipping your toe into the collecting side of the historic firearms community. In fact, you get to define what collecting means to you, whether it means scouring the auction sites for that holy grail gun or picking up every beaten up pistol you can get your hands on.