One of the most frequent questions we receive is someone asking what their gun is, or what it’s worth. Although I really enjoy trying to help folks with antique gun questions, business has to take first priority, and I regrettably find that I often don’t have the time to do research on email questions of this type.
How to Ask What It’s Worth
You need to provide enough information to identify and estimate the value of the gun you’re asking about. Be sure your gun is unloaded first.
Here is a basic list of what to include:
- Type: Long gun or hand gun? Is it a muzzleloader or does it take shells? If it’s a handgun, is it a revolver (with a rotating cylinder holding the rounds) or an autopistol (with a removable magazine)? If a long gun, is it a shotgun or rifle?
- Action: What type of action does it have – single shot, break-open, double barrel, bolt action, pump action, lever action, revolver, semi-auto, other? Double or single action? Exposed hammer or hammerless? If revolver, solid frame, tip-up, top-break, or swingout cylinder?
- Caliber: sometimes this is marked. Otherwise, give an approximate measurement of bore diameter.
- Measurements: barrel length, overall length.
- Markings: if you know the make and model, say so. Either way, list all markings on the gun.
- Condition: After you know what it is, the biggest factor in value is the condition of the gun. Differences in condition can easily halve or double the value of a gun. This is a somewhat technical evaluation, and if you’re not familiar with guns, you probably won’t be able to do it, and should ask help. There are two systems commonly used.
The NRA Condition Standards rate modern guns as New, Excellent, Very Good, Good or Fair, and antique guns as Excellent, Fine, Very Good, Good, Fair, and Poor. Each condition rating has a specific definition (you can find these defined in the Blue Book of Gun Values).
The Percentage Systems rates the percent of original finish remaining on the gun, 100% to 0%.
Refinishing a collectible gun, modifying it, customizing it or over-cleaning it nearly always lowers the value. Never take it upon yourself to clean up an old gun unless you know what you’re doing.
I’ve seen folks buff a $2,000 gun into a $200 junker!
Most value questions can be answered by the major price guides, which include:
- The Blue Book of Gun Values by Fjestad, uses the percentage system, which is good for modern guns and there are no pictures.
- The Standard Catalog of Firearms by Schwing, uses the “Excellent” through “Fair” rating system, has lots of photos and is good all around guide. Be warned that their “condition definitions” for antique guns are radically different from the widely accepted NRA antique condition definitions.
- Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Arms is absolutely the best for antique American arms.
- R.L. Wilson’s Official Guide can be helpful for oddball guns not listed in the others.
- The Standard Catalog of Smith & Wesson by Jim Supica (that’s me) & Richard Nahas is, with no false modesty, the best price guide for S&W’s.
Remember that these list retail prices; expect a dealer to offer you 40% to 70% of these if they are buying for resale.
Most of these are $30 each, and available at major bookstores, most libraries or at Amazon.com
Some Specific Gun Values
There are some types of older guns that tend not to bring much money (as guns go). While there are always exceptions, here are some of the types that tend to bring less than folks often hope:
- Most single barrel break-open shotguns (except for fine trap guns) bring $25-$75.
- Most top-break or solid frame .32 & .38 DA revolvers by firms like H&R, Iver Johnson, US Revolver, Secret Service Special, Hopkins & Allen, Forehand etc. bring $40 to $125. A truly “as new” gun in the original box can bring more. Top-breaks by S&W can bring more, and large frame .44 & .45 caliber S&W top-breaks can be very valuable. Foreign copies of S&W’s do not bring nearly as much as original S&W’s.
- Many (but not all) double barrel shotguns with Damascus barrels have relatively low values. Damascus barrels have a “twist” or “laminated” pattern in the steel, and are generally unsafe to shoot with modern ammunition. They are primarily “wall hangers” or “decorators”. About 95% of these retail in the $100 to $300 range. This range includes most well-worn, plain grade double-barrel muzzle-loading shotguns, as well as those which break open to take shotshells.
Those double Damascus shotguns bringing more have one or more of the following factors. A double-barrel Damascus shotgun with all three of these factors can be worth many thousands.
- They are made by a famous maker (such as Purdey, LC Smith, Parker, Greener, W&C Scott, etc.).
- They are a high grade of gun. Nearly all the best makers offered several “grades” of guns. The better grades included fine engraving, select fancy wood, special features, etc.
- They are in excellent original condition (never refinished or over cleaned, barrels never cut, no rubber recoil pad installed).
Most mass-produced reproduction blackpowder (muzzle-loader) guns do not bring a great deal. It’s not uncommon to mistake a modern reproduction of an antique pattern gun for an original. If a gun is marked “For Black Powder Only”, it is a reproduction. Usually if it’s marked “Made in (name of country)” it’s a reproduction.
Many Italian made reproduction cap and ball firearms retail used in the $40 to $150 range. Some of the better reproductions, such as those by Colt, Ruger, or Thompson Center, might tend to retail more in the $100 to $350 range. Some rare hand made reproduction Kentucky rifles by famous individual gunsmiths can bring much more, but can be slow to sell.
Recently imported military surplus rifles.
Again, there are numerous exceptions, but many “import marked” bolt action type non-U.S. military rifles in well-used condition (especially with “mismatched” serial numbers) retail in the $50 to $200 range. Ones that seem to be especially cheap right now include most English, Turkish, Chinese, and Spanish bolt actions (some of these are caliber conversions which are unsafe to fire.)
Trade Name Guns
These are guns which were made by various manufacturers for large distributors or mail order or hardware stores. The manufacturers would put any name the wholesaler wanted on these. This started back in the 1800’s (see Damascus doubles above) and continued through the 1960’s for Sears & Wards.
Folks are sometimes disappointed when they find a gun with an odd name on it and assume that it must be rare and, if rare, must be valuable. Not so.
Trade name guns have little collector interest, and are valued primarily as shooters. Many of these were made by good manufacturers and make fine shooters – they just don’t usually have collector value. Most trade name .22 rifles will retail between $40 to $100. Trade name pump shotguns will retail in the $60 to $150 range. See above for trade name single barrel & double barrel shotguns.
Most guns increase in value over the years (after an initial depreciation when the first few years). One group of guns that have not performed as well as others are commemorative guns.
To get top value, a commemorative must be absolutely unfired with the original box & all papers. Even so, they can be very tough to sell, and some are worth less now than when purchased years ago. Especially weak performers have been commemoratives created by firms such as Franklin Mint, American Historical Society, etc.
Most better price guides list retail values for commemoratives which were offered by the actual manufacturer (most notably, Colt & Winchester.) They can be slow to sell if you’re trying to get “book value” or close to it.
It is very hard to get your money back out of custom guns. Often, customization reduces collector interest and most shooters will not pay full cost of someone else’s personal mods.
This is especially true of sporterized military rifles. Usually, a military rifle will be worth more in it’s original configuration than if someone has extensively modified it for sporting use.
Some Guns to Watch For
There are some types of guns which are worth watching for, as they nearly always have good collector value. A listing here would be woefully incomplete, although some of the many major collecting fields include:
- Colt percussion revolvers
- Colt Single Action Armys
- Pre-1964 Winchesters, Lugers and other early auto pistols in nice original condition,
- Large frame S&W top-breaks
- U.S. military arms
- Original percussion and flintlock rifles
- Fine double shotguns
There are generally collectors for specific rare guns by any of the better quality manufacturers. Among those, often WWII or earlier guns bring a premium, and pre-1898 “antique” guns may bring an even larger premium.