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Dust Bowl Redux?

Dust Bowl Redux?

The Great Depression, as legend would have it, was the last truly great buying opportunity for fine guns. According to various rueful accounts, Purdeys in fitted cases were changing hands for $100. Jack O'Connor wrote wistfully about one such opportunity to enhance his gun collection but passed it by because he had a wife, two children, and as a young professor at a struggling college, a dwindling income.

In fact, O'Connor said he was a net seller of guns in those days, not a buyer, and finally found himself down to just one or two rifles. There is a lesson there: A buyer's market is no benefit if everyone is a seller, or is trying to be.

No one can tell exactly where the current economic situation is going to lead. As I write this, the news is dire, daily, with predictions of widespread economic ruin. By the time this appears on print, the news might be better, worse, or more of the same.

Ironically, in October and November, as Barack Obama cruised to his election victory, fear of hostile gun legislation from the incoming administration caused the gun market to boom while every other market, from stocks to commodities, was tanking.

Just this morning, I received a press release from Ruger announcing its board had approved a share buy-back. Buy-backs are usually a sign of either boom times or a belief that the stock is seriously undervalued given future prospects. In this case, it could be both.

Undoubtedly, over the next six to 18 months, an awful lot of guns are going to come onto the market, and it will be interesting to see what kind of prices are asked and, more important, what prices are paid.

Within the last couple of months, I have seen several Schultz & Larsen rifles come up for sale. As you can tell from my feature story elsewhere in this issue, these rifles are a pet interest of mine, so I pay attention. For the better part of 20 years, S&L rifles sold for about $1,000. Suddenly, they are going for $1,400, $1,500 and, in one case, $1,850. In the last instance, the rifle appeared on a website and was gone within a week.

Custom rifles, some by famous names like Biesen, Goens and Jaeger have also appeared, and while the asking prices are substantial, they are not inflated.

Stock-market lore would have it that the market has bottomed when everyone--every last investor, big and small--throws in the towel and walks away, leaving the trading floor littered with unwanted stock certificates. Baron Rothschild famously said, "The time to buy is when there is blood in the streets." Of course, that was in the 19th century when people didn't mind mentioning blood. More recent market gurus have said much the same thing, but in less colorful language.

I expect the same is true in the gun market. Right now, sales are brisk, particularly for anything that looks like a so-called "assault rifle" and might be targeted by the new administration.

And, of course, handgun sales are always heavy in these situations. It would be interesting to know what sales look like for standardbolt-action hunting rifles and similar guns that are not seen as likely victims of new restrictions.

It is hard to imagine the average guy, struggling to pay a mortgage and facing possible lay-off, going out and paying a grand for an elk rifle. For that matter, it is hard to imagine him paying the price to go elk hunting.

When economists talk about discretionary income, they refer to things like recreational vehicles and vacations in Mexico. One would think firearms would come under this heading, but guns and related equipment are treated differently because it has been found, over the years, that the passion for shooting and hunting is so strong, it is one of the last things that a man will cut from his budget. The ATV will go long before the Model 70.

For this reason, listings on gun-sale websites, and the prices asked, will be one of the best indications of exactly how deeply any recession is biting into the average American household. When you see a man listing his dad's Browning or grandfather's Parker, you'll know things have hit rock bottom.

Bargains to look for, provided you have any cash left?

Pre-64 Model 70 prices were definitely in bubble territory two years ago, in the hiatus between New Haven shutting down and South Carolina starting production of new ones, and with the global credit party still swinging.

In a gunshop in Colorado, I saw one very used .30-06, with a stock like firewood, and an asking price of $1,895. I don't know if they got it then. I'm sure they wouldn't get it today.

The equally iconic Winchester Model 1886 sells for two or three times what a Model 70 brings, even in dreadful condition. While prices for near-perfect specimens will probably stay high (or still unaffordable--not the same thing), the tag for good shooting guns will probably come down considerably, since they are not owned by rich collectors, and the likely market is guys who just love rifles.

But everything is relative. Those Purdeys that were for sale for $100? In 1932, $100 would buy you a decent car. It was a couple of months' income for a family, and would pay rent, heat and buy food. Even then, not many people had it for discretionary income.Waiting to buy until there is blood in the streets is fine, as long as the blood is not yours.

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