It’s easy to get the impression that most gun owners are angry, middle-aged men who thrive on the doomsday rhetoric of some gun manufacturers.
In fact, many Americans own firearms for reasons that have little or nothing to do with self-defense. Far from focusing on home invasions or the tyranny of the federal government, they’re collectors. They seek out fine examples of the gunsmith’s art, weapons that are significant historical artifacts, or firearms from a single manufacturer. Loving Winchester carbines, Kentucky rifles or Colt revolvers, they see guns as art, not coldly functional killing machines.
“The average American gun collector does not accumulate weaponry for so lofty a purpose as to protect his constitutional form of government,” gun rights scholar Roland Docal wrote 20 years ago. “His focus is on the beauty, craftsmanship, rarity and profit potential that accompany the possession of firearms. While the collector usually sides with pro-gun forces, he does so to ensure the continued legality of his activity and to protect the value of his investment.”
Collecting guns is an extraordinarily popular activity in the United States, with reason. For one thing, there are lots of guns to collect. Unlike more perishable artifacts, guns neither rot nor decay and are seldom thrown away. Guns are central to the history of the country — to hold a Kentucky rifle or a Colt revolver is to participate in that history. And guns can be breathtakingly beautiful, as exquisitely crafted as Revere silver or Tiffany glass.
Collectors well understand that when art, history, and function meld in a single beautiful object, you’d better be ready to open your checkbook.
In the movie “Wall Street,” Gordon Gekko brandishes his 1907 .45-caliber Luger, calling it “the rarest gun in the world.” Only a few were produced, one of which sold at auction in 2010 for $430,000. Is that a lot? Not compared to the Colt Single-Action Army revolver, Serial No. 1, which sold for $862,500.
Are guns a good investment? That depends upon what you buy. Prices of semiautomatic rifles such as AR-15s spike periodically because of fears the government might outlaw sales, but decline as supplies catch up with demand. Yet, according to industry sources, fine shotguns by makers such as Holland & Holland and Parker have increased by several percent annually for decades.
Other collectible firearms, such as 19th century Colts and Winchesters, have also soared in value, even though hundreds of thousands were manufactured.
“We set the auction record in 2011,” said Clifford Chappell, an arms and armor specialist at Heritage Auctions. “An 1836 Colt Paterson percussion revolver in as new condition, with gold inlays, amazingly preserved. It sold for $980,000.”
Asked to estimate the size of the market for antique and collectible firearms, Chappell demurred.
“It may be two or three times bigger than anyone has ever estimated,” he said. “It doesn’t show any signs of slowing. This market is far deeper and broader than most people realize. There’s very strong interest across the board, especially for premium firearms. (Increased values) have led heirs who have lent things to museums to withdraw and bring them to market.”
Advice for beginning collectors?
“Buy the best you can afford, and then add a little,” he said. “I hear the same two things over and over – I wish I had bought earlier, and I’m sorry I sold.”
Many firearms dealers specialize in antique arms, while others sell them as an adjunct to their principal business. Longtime dealer Paul Paradis, whose Colorado Avenue store has thrived for more than 30 years, always has an abundant stock of collectible firearms.
During a recent visit, an 1880 Winchester carbine caught the eye. Descended in a pioneer Colorado Springs family, the rifle appeared to be in pristine original shape. It would make a handsome addition to any collection, but trigger an equally handsome deduction from the collector’s bank account: $6,000.
During the last century, scores of local collectors have donated firearms to the Pioneers Museum. Much of its superb collection is safely stored in a double-doored steel vault, while a small fraction is on public view.
Donning a pair of white gloves, museum director Matt Mayberry showed off a few treasures.
“The first artifact the museum ever received was a firearm,” Mayberry said. “That was a hundred years ago, and we’ve gotten a lot of them since.”
Does the museum compete with collectors in the market?
“No, no,” Mayberry said with a smile. “We don’t have the budget for that — but donors have been very generous. For example, (noted Springs businessman) John Patrick Michael Murphy gave us a collection of Winchester carbines that we’re very happy to have.”
An 1850 Kentucky rifle from the first half of the 19th century combines form, function history and artistry. The single-shot, .36-caliber black powder percussion hunting rifle was made by Daniel B. Troutman of Bedford County, Pa. Graceful brass inlays, an ornate brass patchbox and a beautifully figured curly maple stock testify to its maker’s skill. Troutman’s initials are engraved on the barrel.
The rifle belonged to Colorado Springs artist Larry Heller’s father.
A superb longrifle owned by the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts created by North Carolina gunsmith John Eagle around 1820 features elaborate carving, engraving and silver inlays.
“Longrifles, which are also known as Kentucky rifles, truly are uniquely American,” says William Ivey, who has spent a lifetime studying North Carolina longrifles, “and are known for their aesthetic qualities. Their sheer beauty and art work places them among the greatest of the early American decorative arts.”
They were also extraordinarily effective weapons. A famous story from the Revolutionary War tells of a British officer at the 1778 siege of Boonesborough who peered from behind a tree and was killed by a single shot from a longrifle. The marksman was Daniel Boone, firing from a distance of 250 yards.
The museum’s 1860 Colt Texas revolver may be less graceful than Troutman’s rifle, but it’s a far more deadly weapon. The museum’s example has ivory grips and is engraved with Texas Navy and Mexican battle scenes.
Such engraving was a longstanding tradition by Samuel Colt, who had patented his revolving cylinder handgun in 1836, the year of the Texas revolution. Texas was the first and best market for the revolvers, and the grateful manufacturer reciprocated by engraving scenes of the 1843 battle of Campeche on many weapons.
We don’t know what kind of sidearm Loren C. Dana, the first marshall of the city of Colorado Springs, might have carried in 1873, but we know what he concealed on his person. The museum’s Ketland .41-caliber pocket single barrel flintlock pocket pistol is boldly carved with Dana’s name and the year on the wooden stock. It was ancient at the time, manufactured in the late 1700s. Such pistols were carried by both men and women for close defense, kept loaded and ready to fire. Dana’s Ketland is tiny, but probably lethal at close range.
Did Dana ever use it? He served the city as marshall and sheriff for more than a quarter of a century, and he might have been involved in any number of scuffles.
“These weapons all have histories,” said Mayberry, “but there’s no way of knowing.”
Dana was doubtless familiar with the 1902 County Courthouse that now houses the Pioneers Museum. Perhaps he gave the institution his ancient pocket pistol — museum records don’t say.
Near the vault’s door, a warning notice on one vintage rifle seemed strange.
“May be loaded!” the note said. “Do not handle!”
“With some of the older rifles, there’s really no absolutely safe way to determine whether they are or not,” Mayberry explained. “So museum curators have to follow a very careful protocol. You can’t just point it at the wall and fire.”
Good advice for any collector!