August 13, 2023
Collecting firearms helps preserve the past, teaches appreciation of the skill and craftsmanship of our forebears and is a tangible way of preserving wealth. Pristine guns—those of exceptional rarity and condition—should be carefully preserved and admired as is. Done well, they appreciate the fastest in value.
Rifles with some finish wear—what I call the “Shoot once a year on Sunday” type—have too much original finish for everyday use but just enough wear that a box or so of ammo won’t depreciate value. They’ll appreciate, too, but not as fast.
Rifles with lesser amounts of finish can be enjoyed more often. These guns don’t appreciate as fast, but with care they won’t lose value like a new gun will, which might lose half its value out the door. Putting a classic back into everyday use is usually unwise, but taking one on a special hunt can prove memorable.
Some people collect vertically—seeking a particular model and putting together an array of calibers and variations. People like me collect eras and have a horizontal collection of arms from, say, the Old West, Prohibition or the world wars.
Information is the key. The Blue Book of Gun Values, now in its 43rd edition, is a decent guide to values and provides plenty of specifics on models, calibers, serial numbers, years of production and rarities. The Blue Book’s directory of collector organizations is valuable. Many of these organizations offer newsletters and access to descriptions that help pinpoint whether a rifle’s features are all correct.
Books about Winchesters abound, and many are model-specific. That makes them easier—if more expensive—to collect. You may have to beat the brush for information about rifles of lesser interest, but they’re usually less expensive, too.
Today, we have more ways to source collectibles, including storefront dealers, gunshows and the internet. If the gun is one you intend to shoot at all, ask if the gun was examined by a gunsmith and test-fired. If the answer is no, find out if there is any warranty. “As-is” isn’t always a red flag, but it’s certainly a yellow one. If “as-is” is accompanied by vague answers to your questions, the flag goes to red for me.
Gunshows come with their own set of cautions. For starters, dealers may be displaying rifles they’re not familiar with. Plus, these shows are often poorly lit, and your ability to examine the gun thoroughly is limited. Hopefully, you’ve educated yourself on the model you’re seeking and know in advance whether that recoil pad was factory installed or done later. I take along a Streamlight pen light to judge factors like metal finish and bore condition.
Start by giving the gun an overall look. Does the finish seem equally worn? Replaced parts may have more or less finish than the rest. For example, early Winchester lever actions show wear to the receiver’s blue faster than to the barrel’s blue.
Factory markings should be legible. If they appear faint, blurred or uneven, the gun may have been refinished and thus much less valuable. Does the wood show evidence of cracks, repairs, shrinking or refinish?
Parts should fit well. Wood lower than the metal or gaps between the wood and metal may be evidence of refinish, replacement or hidden damage. Examine screw heads for damage.
Overall appearance can tell you a lot. Stock and metal with deep dings or heavy scratches indicate hard or indifferent use—as opposed to a rifle owned by someone who wanted it to give years of good service. Both may be priced similarly, yet the well-cared-for rifle probably doesn’t have hidden issues that the hard-used one may.
Top-ticket collectibles should be approached carefully. Winchester Model 70s are extensively collected, and vintage, pristine models in rare calibers should be examined carefully because refinishing to period “factory new” can be accomplished by skillful men. They can even age one a little so it isn’t perfect. Similarly, hang tags and factory boxes can be reproduced. These items can affect value dramatically, and you need to be sure they are authentic.
Less pristine versions are approachable. The pictured 1947-vintage Model 70 in the very common .30-06 had a collapsed and fossilized Pachmayr pad, and the rear receiver bridge had been drilled and tapped for a scope mount. The pad and the drilling and tapping really decreased the value.
I chose to add a reproduction Winchester red rubber pad rather than another Pachmayr with white-line spacer. I installed a Lyman receiver sight and had the devaluing scope mount holes plugged. I did this for looks, but it’s something to watch out for when buying a rifle that wasn’t originally drilled and tapped: Those holes can be filled and engraved over so you might not notice them. A magnifying glass can help.
This Model 70 is right on the edge of “leave alone” now since its value is low due to the modified stock and the scope holes. The original sights are also missing, and it has the “backwards” safety that swings “on” to the left. There is a lot of drop in the stock since it was designed for iron sights, so recoil is stouter.
I lean toward “leave alone” because the barrel still has plenty of life. As is, this Model 70 is a window to the post-World War II era when the country was just returning to normal. I plan a retro hunt with it someday.
Sometimes you can get into interesting guns very reasonably, such as early Remington slide actions designed by the prolific John D. Pedersen. As one of our great arms designers, collecting his designs makes a good theme. A Model 14-A in .25 Rem. came with a stock showing some scrapes and a snapped-off front sight, but it was otherwise pristine.
Long-discontinued ammo is another reason why it’s in great shape, and it’s something to keep in mind when deciding on what to collect. In this case, Graf & Sons sells brass and ammo for the .25 Rem. That may not always be the case, and it’s something to know before you buy, depending on what you want the rifle for.
While not even close to a top-tier collectible, it has most of its beautiful post-World War I Remington finish and a perfect bore. A little Old English Scratch Cover did wonders for the scrapes, and I located a front sight for it. It’s a gun I can shoot once in a while for fun.
These are just two examples of the variety of rifles you might aspire to collect, and their values illustrate how different classes of guns can vary. The Winchester Model 70, in well-used condition, varies in value from $1,000 to $2,500—and prices go up from there. The Remington hovers in the $650 to $950 range in exemplary original condition.