September 23, 2010
The most famous name in American gun making is also a great pick for starting a gun collection.
There is an old adage that if you have one rifle you are a shooter, but if you have more than one rifle, you are a collector. It is a fairly safe bet that most readers of this magazine have more than one rifle. And for both collectors and shooters, one of the most popular rifles--if not the most popular--is Winchester.
There are three reasons for this. First, Winchester is an American icon, associated with the most romantic and dramatic episodes in our country's history, from the winning of the West to the winning of wars. Second, there is a vast variety of Winchester rifles to tempt both shooters and collectors, ranging from lever actions, bolt actions, single-shots, semiautomatics and pumps. And finally, ever since the January 16, 2006, announcement that the company would be closing its New Haven factory, the interest in Winchester rifles--new and old--has heightened.
This has resulted in more gun enthusiasts looking at Winchester rifles as collectibles, which adds to the pressure of someone just getting into--or even considering--collecting Winchesters. The question is, where do you start?
First, in spite of what you may be hearing, not all Winchesters are collectible, especially the newer models. A good example is the Model 1300 Speed Pump, one the three U.S.-made guns discontinued with the factory's closing. Nobody cares about the Model 1300.
CLICK HERE TO DATE YOUR MODEL 70 OR 94
All the clamoring has been for the other two discontinued models, the Model 94 lever action and the Model 70 bolt action (the latter was recently resurrected--see the May/June issue). Even before the discontinuance of these Winchester flagships, they were the most popularly collected firearms. They had history, romance and countless articles written about them--the backbone of any collectible Winchester. Thus their legacy was assured.
There is another facet unique to Winchester collecting. While most guns are categorized as "pre-war" or "post-war" (meaning they were made either before or after World War II), Winchester collectors also speak of "pre-64" and "post-64."
They are referring to guns made before or after 1964, when one of the worst cost-cutting decisions in firearms history resulted in a dramatic drop in quality for Winchesters made after 1964. The company subsequently realized the error of its ways and ever since the 1980s has gradually restored the image it once had, but the stigma remains as far as collectors are concerned. Post-64 Winchesters, no matter what the model, do not command the price of pre-64 guns.
Commemoratives are another Winchester category to be wary of. In most cases, too many were produced. Keep in mind that value is based upon desirability, not rarity. That explains why the Model 94, the most popular deer rifle in America, leads as a top-rated Winchester, even though 2.5 million were made prior to 1964--and an estimated 6 million carbines have been produced since then.
Model 94 prices range from hundreds to thousands of dollars, yet many pre-64 saddle ring carbines (one of the more desirable configurations) are potentially obtainable by almost anyone wanting a classic Winchester.
Likewise, the Model 70 was the rifle that the late, legendary gun writer Jack O'Connor dubbed the "Rifleman's Rifle," which subsequently added to its desirability. Introduced in 1936, this classic hunting rifle has become eminently collectible--especially in larger calibers such as the .375 H&H and .458 Winchester Magnum. But even though every Model 70 was snatched from inventory within 24 hours of that fateful January 2006 announcement, these guns have value only as shooters; it is the pre-64 versions that collectors want.
There are no safe bets when collecting Winchesters, but most interest focuses on the earliest--and, consequently, the most desirable--lever actions, which range from the Henry rifle of 1860 (Oliver Winchester's first foray into the firearms world) to the integral box magazine design of the Model 1895, which owes much of its fame to Theodore Roosevelt's proclamation of it as his "big medicine" in Africa.
Sandwiched in between are Winchesters that defined the lever action as a distinctive American style, including the Model 1866 (the first rifle with the Winchester name); the ultra-collectible Winchester 1873, "The Gun That Won The West," according to Winchester's advertising; its big brother, the Centennial Model 1876, the John Browning-designed Model 1886 that enabled Winchester to chamber big game cartridges such as the .45-70 and .50-100 Express; and the smaller, slick-handling Model 1892 chambered for .44-40, .38-40 and .32-20.
With any lever action, special barrel lengths such as the 14-, 15- and 16-inch Baby Carbines (dubbed "Trappers" by collectors; Winchester never used that term) are highly desirable, as is any gun that deviated from the standard catalog model.
Winchester was famous for offering a multitude of options, such as fancy wood, special sights and engraving, all of which, if original to the gun, add to its value. Thus, you will have to pay for uniqueness. So even though you will pay a premium for a gun in better-than-average condition, chances are those guns will escalate in value faster than plain-Jane versions.
But for those just getting started on a limited budget, you may want to think about shifting your sights away from the "hot" versions, such as the Models 94 and 70, to a Winchester that isn't at the top of the collectors list just yet.
For example, the Model 90 pump .22, which was made from 1890 until 1932, has always been a popular rifle and is now replicated by other firms. But nothing commands desirability like an original. Although produced in .22 Short, Long and Long Rifle (the cartridges were not interchangeable in the Model 90), the .22 Long Rifle chambering is the most desirable. Pre-1901 models have more value and had case hardened frames, which command a premium. Other rarities include factory engraving and stainless steel barrels.
Another sleeper, in my opinion, is the Model 54, forerunner to the Model 70. There is a growing interest in early 20th century bolt actions, and these guns, while not inexpensive, do not yet command the price of a Model 70 in similar condition. But that may change as the supplies of pre-64 Model 70s dry up.
"Any pre-war Winchester rifle in superior original condition is very collectible these days," says Steve Fjestad, author and publisher of the Blue Book of Gun Values. "The higher the grade and original condition of the gun, combined with some rare features or special orders, determines the overall collectibility and value."
Another bit of advice I can share is to buy the best you can afford. It is temping to purchase a lesser gun for less money, but it's like putting your collection in neutral.
Years ago I purchased an all-gray Model 90 "beater" that had the unique ability to demonstrate its takedown feature with every fifth shot. I was happy to sell that hunk of junk for what I paid for it.
On the other hand, back in the 1980s, I bought a near-mint Model 71 (Winchester's revamped Model 86, produced from 1935 to 1957) and have since hunted with it all over the West. Yet today that gun is worth three times what I paid for it.
"Remember, junk will always be junk," says Fjestad, "and the only way this category can be worth more money is for the value of the parts to go up, since shooting value on many older guns needs to be competitive with today's newer crop of inexpensive tack drivers. Always buy as much original condition as you can afford.
"Also, the likelihood of value appreciation is much greater on one really good gun than on five to 10 mediocre guns. Average guns really don't offer a collector much in terms of price appreciation, and they really shouldn't be considered as investments.
That means any Winchester you purchase should be all original (i.e., no replaced parts or refinished metal). In addition, the stamping should be sharp and distinct. If there is a provenance (history to the gun that the seller is factoring into the price), insist on documentation.
I recently paid a premium over the face value of a Winchester 94 carbine that had been used by the Texas Rangers because the gun came with a letter from the Texas Department of Public Safety listing the carbine, its serial number and the names of the three rangers who used it. The Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center (bbhc.com) has fairly complete Winchester records, and, for a fee, can document many rifles.
Finally, I can't overemphasize the importance of books. Good sources include The Winchester Book by George Madis, Winchester--An American Legend by R.L. Wilson and catalog reprints from firms such as Cornell Publications (cornellpubs. com). You might also consider joining the Winchester Arms Collector Association (winchestercollector. org).
The current feeding frenzy caused by the factory's closing may subside in time, but the ongoing interest in vintage Winchesters will continue. After all, there are only so many "made in America" Winchesters out there, and the number of collectors keeps increasing. So there may never be a better time to start collecting Winchesters.