What’s The “Big Deal” About Pre-1899 Guns?

I often have people ask me why I place an emphasis on pre-1899 firearms. Some go so far as to ask “What’s the big deal about the privacy of pre-1899 antiques when I can still buy modern guns from newspaper ads with no paper trail?” My reply is that it is a big deal. Think this through, folks. No FFL is required to buy or sell antique guns across state lines. They are in the same legal category as a muzzle-loading replica. This is the last bastion of gun ownership and transfer privacy. Although your state and local laws may vary, any firearm with a frame or receiver that was actually made before Jan. 1, 1899 is legally “antique” and not considered a “firearm” under Federal law. That puts it entirely outside of Federal jurisdiction. Note that this refers to the actual date of manufacture of the receiver/frame, not just model year or patent date marked. (For example, only low serial number Winchester Model 1894 lever actions are actually antique.) 

Unlike “Curio and Relic” category modern guns, sporterizing, re-barreling, or re-chambering an antique gun does not change its legal status. Thus, you can buy pre-1899 Mauser sporters that have been converted to modern cartridges like .308 Winchester without having to go through the “FFL to FFL” hassle. (I have a BATF letter confirming this, that I send upon request. Just send me a SASE with “ATF Letter” written inside the flap if you’d like a free copy.) If you currently live in a state that has unregulated private party sales of used guns, then that is great. But don’t expect that situation to last forever. Likewise, don’t expect that we will never see the day when there is universal firearms registration in this country. That could happen. If and when it does occur, what will you do then? If you don’t want to register your guns you will most likely end up greasing and burying them in watertight containers like they’ve done in Canada and down in Oz. Think further ahead: What will you then have available to use on a day to day basis for target practice, hunting, or self-defense? The answer: Pre-1899 guns. They have not been considered “firearms” since passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968.(The 1898 threshold was set with that legislation.) In the eyes of legislators, they are a insignificant “non-issue.” Because they are so uncommon and because there are fewer of them with each passing year, they will presumably be exempt if we ever have to face nationwide gun registration.

Pre-1899 production guns now bring a 30% to 200% premium over identical condition guns that were made after 1898.  For example, in 2002, I sold a 1898-dated M1896 Swedish Mauser rifle  that was dated 1898 on an AuctionArms.com on-line auction for $770!  Based on market trends, I expect the pre-1899 premium to increase considerably in the next few years. (Perhaps even tripling or quadrupling in value if modern (post-1898) guns become subject to registration or additional transfer controls.) Many SurvivalBlog readers are commenting that they previously had no interest in “antique” guns, but they now want at least one because they are concerned about additional gun laws. For the time being at least, pre-1899 are completely EXEMPT from all federal laws.  Again, this would presumably mean that they would be exempt if there is ever nationwide gun registration.

I am regularly asked what I would consider a “basic battery” of pre-1899 guns for a typical shooter that wants to diversify and “hedge his bets” by buying some pre-1899s for his family. Here is what I’d recommend buying :

  • Two big bore S&W top break double action revolvers (.44-40 or .44 Russian, but get both in the same caliber.)
  • One Winchester Model 1897 in 12 gauge
  • One pre-1899 .22 Long Rifle.  (Winchester Model 1890 pump or Winchester Low Wall single shot rifles are ideal.)
  • Two Model 1893, 94, 95, or 96 Mauser bolt action rifles. (6.5 x 55, 7×57, or 8×57, but get both in the same caliber.) Buy a sporter unless you are a purist about originality or the ability to “fix bayonets!”

If you have a big budget, you should also consider investing in few additional pre-1899 Colts and Winchesters that are chambered for commonly available factory made ammunition.

And what about someone who is on a very tight budget?  I’d recommend a Spanish or Chilean Model 1893 or 1895 Mauser (7 x57), or a Turkish Model 1893 Mauser (8 x57.)  Both can be had for under $250 in original condition, or often for under $150 if sporterized. Most Iver Johnson .38 S&W top break revolvers are also still a relative bargain at $100 to $250 each.
Due to their scarcity and desirability, the rate of increase in the value of shootable cartridge pre-1899 guns is likely to accelerate.  Here are some examples: In 1997, .44-40 S&W double action top break revolvers were selling for $400 to $800.  They now sell for $900 to $2,000.   In 1997, .38 S&W double action top break revolvers were selling for $50 to $150.  They now sell for $200 to $800. In 1997, .44-40 Merwin Hulbert revolvers were selling for $300 to $1000.  They now sell for $900 to $4,000. Meanwhile, many pre-1899 Colt revolvers have been bid up to unaffordable–almost astronomical–prices. 

After  Nov. 30, 1998 the permanent Brady Law rules went into effect. On that date all sales of post-1898 guns–both long guns and handguns–came under the federal control of “national instant background checks.” Subsequently there has been a much  bigger interest in guns that are Federally exempt and that can be bought via anonymous mail order or at gun shows with no “paper trail”!

For more details on pre-1899 guns, including an extensive list of serial number “breaks” (for determining which guns are pre-1899 and which are not) read my Pre-1899 Cartridge Guns FAQ

Quality pre-1899 guns are available from a number of reputable dealers including The Pre-1899 Specialist, Empire Arms, and The Arm Chair Gun Show (Jim Supica.)