Becoming a Savvy Pre-1899 Antique Gun Buyer

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




8 Comments

  1. I’ve been buying and selling antique guns for about 40 years now. If you’re just starting you might as well be prepared to get burned a couple times. I happens and you’ll learn. You might find a mentor to guide you on your early purchases.
    Reloading for these old guns isn’t difficult. Some of the larger calibers will shoot better with real black powder, case capacity is the major issue. I load for 45-90, 45-70,45-60, 45 colt,45 schofield, 44 special, 44-40, 38-40, 38 special, 38 colt, 38 S&W, 32-40, 32-20. I also load some modern calibers, 30-06, .243, 6 creedmore, .223, .22 hornet, 45 auto, 380 auto, 9mm. Probably forgot a few. I could never afford to shoot as much as I do if I didn’t reload, and the most important aspect is the incredible accuracy you can get.

  2. Since the government could and probably will include registration on all guns my strategy is to buy modern rifles. And it seems with pending new laws, the bolt action rifles in 308 seem to be under the “assault weapon” styling that frightens liberals. Plus ammo is common and cheap at least today.

  3. I recently saw two old double barrel 12 gauge shotguns in one of those “antique” stores that generally have junk that are listed as not working and only for wall ornaments. Considered seriously buying them on the chance they could be repaired. Could probably get both for under $125. Any thoughts??

    1. If they have modern steel (“fluid steel”) barrels and you can document that the shotguns were produced pre-1899, then they are probably worth buying. BUT if they have Damascus steel barrels (you can see a twist pattern) then they are probably not safe to shoot with modern smokeless shells.

      1. You can shoot Damascus barrels, I have been for 40 years. But, you can’t just jam any old shell in them. You need to hand load for them, IMR’s 7625 is the powder you’ll want, very low pressure loads. In fact you can load lower pressure with it than real black powder. You can also load your own black powder shells too. I reload the old style paper shells for mine. New Brass shells are available as well. Biggest problem with old SXS’s is the lock up is loose, avoid those. repairs on old SXS’s can be very expensive.
        My oldest SXS is English and was made ca. 1864. Started out as a pin fire and was converted to centerfire. Great old gun. Killed lots of pheasants with that old gun as well as clays and a bunch of cowboy action shooting.

  4. Many shotguns built prior to WW2 have chambers that are short by modern standards,either for paper hull shells or just shorter than the current standards.
    Many 16 gauge guns have 2&9/16 chambers and 12 gauges often have 2&5/8 chambers.

    The chambers can be lengthened with the proper tools and gauges. The tools are readily available from gunsmith tool suppliers. A forcing cone reamer will suffice for paper hull chambers and will reduce recoil and improve patterns.

    In the past, Remington “promo” shells were a little shorter than standard, and would work better in paper hull chambers. I don’t know if this is still the case or not.

  5. Think any firearm in the Northeast states regardless of age must be registered.

    Even building something from a 80% once completed also has to be registered . Is definitely wise to be educated in your local laws.

  6. if this passes it will be time to follow our forefathers and the dictate of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution and shoot the tyrants well and often until they quit their sh*t!

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