by Jim Supica

Copyright, Jim Supica - used by permission.  Opinions are those of the author and not necessarily those of NRA or the National Firearms Museum. Originally published in Blue Book of Gun Values.

The "faking" of firearms is not a new phenomenon. Back in the 1800's the practice of peddling shoddy merchandise marked so as to fool the unwary into thinking he was purchasing a quality gun was not unusual. Witness the many 19th century single shot percussion pocket pistols marked "Derringer" or "Deringe" or some other variation of the famous Henry Deringer name, or the European copies of S&W Model 3 Topbreak revolvers that even went so far as to duplicate the S&W barrel address markings.

Faking of collectable firearms with the specific intention to defraud collectors probably first became a significant problem in the early post WWII years, beginning most notably in the Colt field. As the dollar premium paid for high condition specimens and rare variations increased, the monetary incentive to make and deal in faked merchandise has increased, and spread into many fields.

In this article, we'll look at what constitutes "faking", the extent of the problem, what steps a collector can take to prevent being swindled, and the impact on gun collecting and the market in collectible firearms. We've sought the opinions of collectors, dealers, auctioneers, attorneys, restorers, curators, and law enforcement to try to get a handle on this "dark side" of gun collecting.

Restoration or fake?

The question of what constitutes a faked firearm is not as simple as it might seem. Refinishing and repairing guns to restore their appearance and improve their function has always been an accepted part of gun ownership, as has modifying guns to suit the tastes and needs of their owners. With the increase in the appreciation of firearms as "collectibles," beyond their utilitarian nature, the practice of restoring guns has become widespread. It's hard to argue that someone who wants to return a family heirloom or prized possession to its original luster should not do so. After all, it's their gun to enjoy as they choose.

However, you have to throw into the mix the unquestionable fact that there is a sector of the collector fraternity that will pay a premium for original "mint" or "100%" or "New In Box" specimens. And that premium can be substantial. In some models a discriminating collector may be willing to pay double or better the market value of a 98% gun to get a perfect, pristine example - "the way it left the factory." These guys are not just paying for 100 percent of any nice-looking finish. They are buying, or at least trying to buy, original, factory finish.

Obviously, the question arises of what will happen to a restored piece after it leaves the original owner's possession. After all, none of us can "take it with us" when we go to that big gun show in the sky, much as we might like to. Plus, tastes and circumstances change - today's treasured heirloom may be tomorrow's trading fodder or college fund.

Beyond legitimate restoration efforts, it's easy to see the incentive to fraud when the cost of buying a fairly clean example and restoring it to "as new" is far less than the amount a "condition collector" will pay for an original mint gun.

The majority opinion seems to be that so long as the restoration or alteration is disclosed at the time of sale, it is an acceptable practice. It's easy to project, though, that the disclosure may well not accompany the piece the third or fourth time it changes hands. Also there seems to be, perhaps unfortunately, a Clinton military-policy ethic among certain gun swappers - "Don't ask, don't tell" - i.e., if the buyer doesn't specifically ask wehther the gun is refinished or restored or contains replaced parts, there is no obligation to mention it. Equally common, and equally regrettable, are the well-worn evasions "Looks old to me," or "That's the way I got it."

Now THAT'S fraud …

More blatant, and universally condemned, is the practice of modifying a gun to make it something it is not. There are a number of forms this can take, some common ones being:

It can still be argued that if you disclose the nature of the alteration, it's not really faking. However, the excuse of "I couldn't find (or afford) an original, so I had this one made up, just for my personal collection," begins to wear a bit thin when dealing with these types of alterations.

But the big boys do it …

Maybe I tread on thin ice here, but there is a recurrent theme which perhaps should be aired. It has been said that there are practices which when done by an individual constitute fraud, but if engaged in by a major manufacturer, distributor, or importer are Smart Marketing.

The battle over reproduction arms has been generally fought and settled decades ago. What some once considered blasphemy is now generally seen as a desirable means of meeting the demand for shootable historic pattern guns, with the dual benefits of preserving original weapons from the rigors of shooting wear, and encouraging the enjoyment of historical arms for individuals who would otherwise be priced out of the market. And I agree, and enjoy shooting the repops. That said, I must somewhat wistfully note that one of the reasons I gravitated to collecting early S&W's was that there were no reproductions around to muddy the waters. A new collector was not so concerned about the Velveteen Rabbit question - "What is real?" With Schofield reproductions on the market and other models supposedly in the works, that is no longer the case.

However, there are some other trends that raise interesting questions, and some eyebrows. Some military collectors are distressed by the marketing of put-together weapons originating not in an army but in a marketing department. "Tanker" Garands and "Jungle type" Enfields have been specifically mentioned. The quest for ever more authentic reproductions, along with wide marketing of authentic modern made reproduction parts, has, some argue, made fakery an even easier proposition. Restoration businesses and firms offering professionally restored firearms are "goin' jessies" right now - successful, widely advertised, professional firms offering highly sought after services and products. Finally, while I'm not sure WHAT it means, I've noticed that one maker of quality reproduction cowboy arms is working on a sort of Bizarro World anti-restoration - modern new-out-of-the-box repros that come from the factory pre-aged, looking beaten & gray, as if they'd ridden in an open holster for 50 years already. Sorta makes sense in a world of stone-washed jeans and pre-distressed leather coats. Harrumph.

Hot spots

Which guns are most subject to fakery? The easy answer is, any gun whose value in its altered state is substantially more than the same gun in its unaltered state plus the cost of alteration. Perhaps the areas that were first subject to the most fakery were Colts, Winchesters, and Lugers, simply because that's where the dollars were. As collecting interests spread to other fields, so did the scam artists. Today, it seems that if a gun is valued as a collectible beyond its value as a shooter, there's a possibility of fraud.

One authority offered the theory that guns in the $2,000 to $10,000 value range were those most likely to be faked. The idea was that this was enough to tempt the greedy to go to some extra effort, but that when you get into five figures, the likelihood of eventual expert evaluation and discovery increases dramatically, along with the possibility of being hunted down by an enraged collector who can afford the legal talent to adequately pursue proper redress.

That said there are certain types of guns in various collecting fields that seem to have the reputation of being susceptible to fraud attempts. This is by no means a comprehensive list - it's merely some of the examples that have come up in conversation researching this article.

Percussion Colts - One of the most common frauds perpetrated on novice collectors is the passing of reworked, artificially aged & restamped reproductions as originals. In addition, some specific models of particular concern include Walkers and so-called "Wells Fargo" (a misnomer) type Model 1849's.

Colt Single Action Armies - Colt authority John Kopec estimates that 90% of the Cavalry and Artillery martial models he inspects have been altered in some way. Some have been made from civilian models. Another particularly destructive trend has been the "reconversion" of short barreled artillery models, many of which have significant history in their own right, to 7½" cavalry models. As with the percussion guns, 2nd and 3rd generation Colts and the better grade reproductions such as the Hartford model have been altered to give the appearance of first generation guns. Short barreled ejectorless "Sheriff's Models" have been made from the standard model SAA's.

Winchesters - The old joke is "You've got a rare Henry - yours isn't engraved." Some knowledgeable experts believe that the vast majority of engraved Henrys and 1866s have been engraved in the last 40 years. Other collectors report standard Model 97 and Model 12 shotguns converted to "trench guns."

Another area of concern is with pre-94 Model 70's in rare calibers. It is reported that some are being made from old factory made barrels, and some with barrels made from scratch. As with Colts, the availability of authentic reproductions of the lever action models raises the possibility of reworked and artificially aged replicas being passed as originals, especially with novice enthusiasts.

Lugers - Some collectors insist that Lugers are the collectible guns most subject to fakery. As in other areas, this can be especially true for models where a relatively simple variation in markings or addition of a stamping can significantly affect value. The National Auto Pistol Collectors Association has been productively active in discussing authenticity and exposing fakes, making membership especially worthwhile for those interested in Lugers or other auto-pistols. With the special emphasis on condition in this field, unattributed restoration seems to be a recurring concern. In addition the creation of "matching" serial number guns from mismatched guns and piles of variously numbered or renumbered parts sometimes seems to be a significant cottage industry.

Smith & Wesson - Rare "Mexican Model" .38 SA 3rd Model variations have been made up from the more common related Model of 1891 - a process made easier by the fact that some conversion kits were originally offered by the factory, and still surface from time to time. Recently, forged certificates for Registered Magnums have been exposed. Faked Wells Fargo markings on cut barrel Schofields are not uncommon.

Remington - For years, the classic warning has been to watch out for 1890 Single Actions made by cutting the web of the more common 1875 Model. In an interesting reversal, in recent years it has come to light that many of the "suspect" Model 1890's may have actually been totally legitimate examples of the even more rare Model of 1888. Sorta makes you wonder how many 1888's have been ruined by "restoring" them to 1875 configuration.

Military - Generally speaking, whenever a martial variation of a civilian model will bring a significant premium, you will find some commercial versions that have been fraudulently reworked into the military pattern. In addition, some recent areas of abuse include faked Enfield No. 5 Jungle Carbines (one collector reports an 80% fake rate); early 1911 pistols made to match by stamping numbers on later manufactured parts; Winchester M-1 carbines; Korean re-import M-1 carbines reworked and passed as original WWII guns; and German small arms with WWII waffenampt markings added. Spurious sniper rifles made from more common issue arms also are not uncommon. Interestingly, many military collectors argue that adding a military scope to an issue rifle is a legitimate practice so long as no machining is required to mount the scope.

Double shotguns - reportedly a fairly rampant abuse by the more skilled fakers is "upgrading," taking a field grade or modestly embellished piece and adding engraving, fancier wood, and other special features to pass it as a much more valuable higher grade gun. Yo, Bubba, I gotcher Dianer Grade ratcheer!

Early firearms - Remember that prior to the industrial revolution, firearms were often individual handmade pieces rather than mass produced items. Then consider that the same tools, processes, and skills still exist today, and the potential for abuse becomes apparent. Reconversion of guns which had once been converted from flint to caplock back to "original" flintlock conversion has long been practiced by some, and, like other restoration processes, may be considered acceptable when disclosed. The reconversion process has varying impacts on value - less harmful on a Kentucky rifle which may be evaluated on its aesthetic qualities as a piece of individual artisanship, than on a military piece valued for it's historical authenticity. Of course, Mid-Eastern firearms with early ignition systems have been continuously produced for the tourist trade for centuries. It can be hard for any but an expert to tell if a matchlock or miquelet is 300, 100, or 10 years old.

Engraved guns - Several noted authorities cited this as a special area of concern, particularly where period attributed engraving is found on an antique gun and doubly especially where the engraving is attributed to a particular famous artist. My personal impression is that the most skillful modern engravers can duplicate the style and quality of any of the great master engravers of the 19th century. Given the high prices original period engraved pieces command, this can be an especially risky field.

Historically attributed guns - Remember, paper is generally easier to forge than steel. Beware of faked documents. It can be a very good idea to confirm factory letters - forgeries are known to exist. Pay attention to what the documents actually say (see also "Pieces of History" chapter in the 16th & 17th editions of the Blue Book of Gun Values). Another approach has been the restamping of serial numbers on guns to match those of known historical guns.

Casings, holsters and accessories - Wood casings & matching accessories can substantially enhance values, especially with percussion era hand guns, and many authentic guns are found in reproduction casings. When you consider that an authentic capper for a Patterson Colt may break into the five figure value range, the profit motive in fabricating relatively simple accessories is apparent. The boom in Old West holsters seems to have abated just a bit, but the premium that the major "name" makers brought reportedly resulted in phony stamped markings. Finally, there are reports of fake 19th century cardboard pistol boxes being recently manufactured - perhaps not surprising in a market where some rare boxes can bring $1,000 or more.

What can a collector do?

You could give up gun collecting and watch more TV. Well, ok, me neither.

With that out of the way, there are a number of tactics to minimize the chance of getting hung with the Old Maid. None are foolproof. Most have some merit.

The synergy of fraud

To figure out how fraud may affect gun collecting, lets first consider several trends that may be interacting to create a combined impact.

It's a puzzler. It would seem that if undetectable fakes ARE being made, no one would know about it because they would be fooling the experts. On the other hand, just because one expert may not be able to identify a fake, doesn't mean that another might not catch it. One interesting comment, heard more than once, was "the faker always slips up." Again, the counterpoint: "Yes, but like the rest of us, they learn from their mistakes, and improve their future efforts."

Impact on collecting

Here's my guess as to how this all adds up for the future of gun collecting. Of course, you gotta realize this prognostication is from a guy who was sure Colt & Winchester values had topped out a decade ago, and just knew that George Bush would have a second term.

You know what? That might mean that gun collecting becomes less the province of an elite few chasing on the finest known examples for prestige, ego and investment purposes, and returns to the realm of being a fun, fascinating, and interesting hobby shared by many who love guns and history. And, in my book, that ain't a bad thing.

For more information

Acknowledgments - Special thanks to the following individuals & organizations for sharing their opinions and expertise - David Lin, Special Agent ATF; Doug Turnbull; Norman Flayderman; Greg Martin; John Kopec; Walter J. Kuleck, PhD, Fulton Armory Webmaster; Darrell E. Mulroy, Plus P Technology Inc, Mnpls MN; Larry Byrd; Gary J. Hirdler; Scott Hattrup; John Kepler; Dave McLain; Steve Moeller, Gary Skeet; the NRA National Firearms Museum; the members of Missouri Valley Arms Collectors Assoc.; US Treasury Department Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms; and participants in the "rec.guns" newsgroup and the American Online "Gun Talk" boards.

From The Blue Book of Gun Values


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