Letter Re: Pre-1899 Antique Gun Clarifications

Hi James,
I was just looking at your FAQ article about antique firearms.

Apparently, there has been some controversy over the dates of manufacture of some Winchester firearms. The discovery of so called Polishing Room Records have dates of “manufacture” which apparently disagree with the previously established “Madis” dates of manufacture.

I was just wondering what your take is on this subject.

Also, I’ve been trying to find out if there is any logical reason for selecting December 31, 1898 as the Antique firearms cutoff date. Did someone just arbitrarily pick this date? I know that there were cartridge ammunition and smokeless powder before that date.

Thanks, – Jim P.

JWR Replies: The Polishing Room Records are of interest to collectors, but have no legal bearing. The ATF has repeatedly held that the date that a receiver is made legally constitutes “manufacture.”   So once a serial number goes on a receiver or frame then that is it’s date of manufacture, in the eyes of the law. (Although in recent years, they’ve clarified that for modern guns as to say when a serial number stamped on a receiver that is more than 80% complete.) So, for example, even though S&W was still assembling large frame .44 top break revolvers up to around 1913, they are all considered antique, because they stopped making frames for them before 1899.

The December 31, 1898 cutoff date was essentially arbitrary.  I suppose that some nameless legislator (or more likely some pimply-faced congressional staffer) might have been thinking about the Spanish-American War, for a frame of reference, since that was the last war where we fielded black powder Trapdoor Springfield cartridge rifles. (Although Krag rifles and Spanish Mausers were both high velocity smokeless powder guns.) But you are right: The 1898 date has little to do with the state of the art in fireams technology. Colt switched to steel frames for their famed Single Action Army(SAA) revolvers in 1893, and smokeless powder Mausers had been made in quantity since 1891.  For that matter, there had been shoulder-fired full-auto battle rifles around since 1887.

The bottom line: American legislators should keep their sticky fingers off of all guns, regardless of their vintage.  The Second Amendment codified a sacrosanct right that predates the Constitution itself.