After posting my recent warning about potential passage and enactment of H.R. 8 / S.42 and an interview about this on the Reluctant Preppers podcast, I’ve had several readers and consulting clients contact me. They’ve been asking these questions: “How do I actually find pre-1899 cartridge guns in good condition?”, “Where can I find antique guns at reasonable prices?”, and “How do I know what I’m looking at”? Here is my summary on how to get savvy:
1.) Do your research. Visit a local gunsmith and have him show you how to spot a gun that has been reblued. (Blurred patent date markings on barrels are a sure sign of buffing and rebluing. And recently-reblued guns literally have the distinctive smell of bluing salts.) Have him describe how to spot and test for revolvers that have been “shot loose.” Also research your state law before you buy anything. A few states treat antique guns just like modern ones. Research the pre-1899 gun makers. Develop a list of makers and cartridge chamberings that makes sense for your locale.
2.) As a prepper, you should probably shun most oddball-chambered guns, unless you are already an experienced handloader and have a ready supply of brass. Some sure picks include: .30-30 Winchester (“.30 W.C.F.”), .25-35 Winchester, .30-40 Krag, .303 British, .45-70, 6.5 Swedish Mauser, 7×57 Mauser, .38 S&W, .44-40, and .45 Colt (commonly but incorrectly called .45 Long Colt).
3.) Check gun show schedules in your state, and be willing to make those drives. Even though it is legal under Federal law to buy antique guns across state lines, some gun show sellers and most folks running estate sales don’t understand the law, and will get spooked. So I suggest that you stick to buying your pre-1899s in your state, if you meet face to face.
4.) When visiting gun shops, gun shows, pawn shops, and estate sales, be sure to bring references. A hard copy of my Pre-1899 Cartridge Guns FAQ is a good start. One fairly exhaustive reference is the book Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms and Their Values. It is wise to buy your own copy.
5.) Bring plenty of cash, but don’t flash it. Wear casual clothes. Leave your Rolex at home. You want to look like an Everyday Working Joe. Don’t let the seller size up your wallet and raise his asking prices.
6.) Carry a bore light. Very carefully inspect guns before buying them. Bore condition is crucial to having a practical and shootable antique. Don’t hesitate to point out the defects you see to the seller, such as cracks in stocks, worn bluing, signs of alteration or refinishing, pitted bores, et cetera. Everything that you mention as a flaw or detractor is “ammunition” for your price negotiation that will immediately follow.
7.) If in doubt, don’t. If you think a gun you are examining might have been made after December 31, 1898, then pass. Many sellers will say “I’m pretty sure its an antique.” But if your references don’t confirm that, then pass. If If you suspect a gun isn’t mechanically safe to shoot, then pass. If you suspect that a gun has been reblued and is therefore overpriced, then pass. One proviso: Decide in advance if you are buying “purist” antiques as an investment, or just “shooter” antiques. If you are more concerned about legal status than long term investing gain, then you might consider buying guns that have been re-blued or altered (with modern sling swivels, recoil pads, or even full “sporterizing” of a military rifle) that essentially ruins their collector value.
8.) If buying an antique gun via Internet or mail order, then be sure that the seller will promise you a 3-day inspection period, with the right to return a gun that is a disappointment. A “full refund” (less shipping costs) is the norm.
9.) Be willing to pay for quality. A gun that is just the model that you are looking for and that is in exceptional condition with no signs of alteration is worth paying top dollar. But relax: It is also probably a gun that will be worth much more, in another 10 years.
10.) If the condition or provenance of a gun, or even a seller’s appearance of shadiness gives you pause, then walk away.
11.) Consistently watch online. Regularly check GunBroker.com, GunsAmerica.com and GunAuction.com. There, watch for auctions cartridge guns that are being sold as “No FFL antique” (Federally exempt) guns. One hint: Develop a list of keywords to search, and also a list of possible misspellings of keywords. For example, say you are looking for a “Mosin-Nagant”, commonly just called a Mosin. (In Cyrillic: мосин. It is spoken “Mo-Seen.”) In addition to “Mosin” also search for the commonly misspelling: “Moisin.”
12.) If you goal is buying shooters, then be willing to buy a “diamond in the rough”, as long as its bore is still good. However, consider the cost of gunsmithing to bring the gun up to the condition that you desire.
13.) Phone a friend. If you lack expertise on a particular type a gun, then consult an expert and gain some knowledge. If what is at issue is a gun that is worth more than $1,000, then be willing to pay for consulting.
14.) Develop a long term mindset. This is a marketplace for guns that are already more than 120 years old. Consider: What will it be worth in 20 years? 50 years? In the year 2120? Will this be a gun that my grandchildren or great-grandchildren someday be thrilled to own? Again, buy quality.
Time For Action
Remember, the clock is ticking. If H.R. 8 is signed into law, all modern (post-1898) guns will require a background check. Therefore the prices of the very few still circulating pre-1899 exempt cartridge guns will surely escalate. Buy yours before that jump in prices.
I hope that you find this advice helpful. – JWR