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:
- Aging and modifying a modern reproduction or replica firearm to pass it as an original.
- Altering a common model to make it appear to be a rare model.
- Adding modern engraving to an older gun, and passing it as original period engraving.
- Creating false historical documentation or attribution of historical usage.
- Altering a firearm to a more valuable configuration - for example, rare barrel length, uncommon finish, special grips or fancy stock, rare caliber.
- "Upgrading" a low grade gun to resemble a higher grade by the same maker.
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.
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.
- Self educate. There is universal agreement that this is the single best approach. Study the reference books. Join collector clubs, attend meetings, talk to other collectors. Use every opportunity to study the type of gun that interests you, taking notes and making side by side comparisons between various examples. Learn to identify correct markings, quality of finish, and even the grit of sandpaper and the direction of the polish lines used by the factory for the original final polish. Yes, the expert restorers will duplicate all of this, but cruder modifications can be identified.
- Shun greed. Shun speed. Over and over the experts have said that if it's significantly underpriced, if it's too good to be true, if it's a one-time, go-fast, bottom-dollar, good deal, the warning flag should go up. Several mentioned that the faked items nearly always have a good "just came out of the attic" or "personally know the guy who brought it back from the war" story to go with them. Take your time in examining the gun.
- Re-do clues. The truly professional fakes and restorations will get past you. However there are some clues which may reveal less than perfect modifications. On a gun that looks too crisp, study for tiny pits and flaws under the surface of the finish. Look for blurring drag marks on the lettering and dishing of screw holes. Feel the edges that should be sharp for dullness. Learn if the factory had special "refinish" marks, and look for them. Check to see if the various parts have the correct type of finish for that gun (should the screws be fire-blued? the hammer and triggerguard case colored?). Look for polishing waves in the surface of the metal.
- Let there be light. Light and magnification are usually your best tools. Sunlight is often best, but not always practical. One of the very powerful "Sure Fire" flashlights can easily fit in a pocket and give you a deep look into a blued finish that would be impossible in most "gun show" lighting. Under strong light, century old bluing will usually show some amount of reddish "plum" color coming up underneath the blue.
- Do the cuffs & collars match? Is the condition of the gun consistent throughout? A perfect bore on a battered gray gun can be a warning of an artificially aged reproduction. Even on guns with excellent bores, if they have been fired at all there will generally be some sign in the forcing cone area on revolvers for example, and usually tiny dings at the muzzle visible under magnification. On the other hand, if buying a gun as an original mint unfired specimen, a look through a magnifying bore scope may reveal small pits and wear in the mid-barrel rifling that might suggest a lightly-used gun which has had the exterior professionally restored. Likewise, the internal mechanics should usually be consistent with the exterior wear.
- Buy from a reputable dealer. This, again, was a consistent recommendation. Buying from an established dealer or auctioneer with a reputation for integrity has obvious advantages.
- Get it in writing. When possible, get a receipt, description, and guarantee of authenticity from that reputable dealer.
- READ the writing you just got it in. Be sure you read the terms of purchase, and understand what, if anything, is guaranteed. Read what the words say, and not what you'd like them to say. Watch for phrases like "type" or "probably" or "most likely" or "in the style of." Study what, if anything, is guaranteed, and to what extent. Be aware that in auctions or elsewhere "as is, where is" means no guarantee, no recourse.
- The dissent. I feel compelled to present a contrarian view at this point. One collector vigorously suggested staying away from major dealers. He felt those with the most exposure and self promotion and expertise were among those most able to perpetrate effective frauds. Another felt that auction houses had a tendency to turn an intentionally blind eye to questionable merchandise. Perhaps it all comes back to the adjective "reputable".
- Get a second opinion. Ask the opinion of fellow collectors. They may catch something you missed, and most are very willing to help so long as you don't make them the "bad guy" if the piece is bad, and are not the type to hold a grudge if they guess wrong.
- Get a third opinion, this time from an expert. Get a dealer or consultant who specializes in that particular field to examine the piece and vet it for you, or maybe pay them a bit more for a formal written appraisal. Many of the better auction houses and major dealers will offer free informal verbal evaluations, in hopes of getting to participate in the sale of the item if it comes on the market. Yes, be aware of potential conflicts of interest here. However, balance this with the knowledge that you're gonna be playing by yourself if you decide not to trust anyone.
- * Trust, but verify. Get a factory letter, with the written agreement that the gun can be returned for refund if it won't letter. If it comes with a factory letter, spend the few extra bucks to have the factory verify the letter.
- Come up to the lab and see
what's on the slab. There are laboratory tests that can be
done that may expose some types of restoration or fakery. Practices
such as spark tests, x-ray, thermo fluorescent, magnetic resonance,
microscopic study of tool and die marks, and others can be
revealing. There are three problems with this approach.
- Some sources say fakers are learning to dodge lab tests as fast as the technology advances.
- Some tests require taking a sample of metal from the gun - not desirable on high dollar items.
- Finding someone to do it - state forensics labs are generally swamped. However, this may be an option worth considering when a once sweet high dollar deal is threatening to explode into litigation, which brings us to:
- Treatment for
snakebite. What do you do if you think you've been had?
This comes back to that "reputable dealer / in writing" concept. If
you know the guy you got it from, and have some sort of written
guarantee from him, you go back to him and politely express your
concern. IF the item actually IS faked (a major question in &
of itself), there is a good chance that the dealer, if he is
ethical, was fooled on it too. If he's not ethical, odds are he
still will say he was fooled on it. Either way, he may prefer a
quiet settlement to a public pissing contest. If you don't have a
guarantee, or your dealer disappeared when he packed his gun show
tablecloth, congratulations, you have just purchased an
The thoughtful may reader may well ask, "Hey, what happens to that phony piece after this quiet settlement?" Good question. Perhaps the noblest dealers would destroy it or hang it on their own wall as an object lesson, IF they could afford to do so. A more common disposition, but still arguably ethical, is that the piece is resold to another buyer for what it is - an altered specimen. Other times it may be channeled into an "as is / where is, caveat emptor" forum such as an absolute auction or gun show, and begin the process all over again.
Finally, civil fraud or criminal theft by fraud charges are always a possibility. The problem is finding the guy who originally created the fake with the intention to defraud, or sold the item with the knowledge that it was faked and misrepresenting it with the intention to defraud. The "intention" element of this approach is often very hard to prove in court. In cases where a serial number has been altered on a modern firearm, the BATF may be willing to take an active interest in the matter, as illustrated in the Rorabaugh case.
- New deck of cards. Reconsider the field you choose to collect. If the prevalence of fakes in your field worries you, switch to another area where you are more comfortable.
- Commit heresy. The first three rules of collecting are "condition, condition, and condition." Ignore them. Learn to love 50% guns, NRA Fair, and bobbed barrels. Won't work for you compulsives, I know, but works fine for me.
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.
- Increasing gun values - providing greater monetary incentive to fakery.
- Increasing information on details of collectible arms. This is a double edged sword. On the one hand, increased availability of detailed information provides the collector with knowledge to detect incorrectly altered pieces. On the other hand, it provides the forger with the information to make it look right.
- Decreased availability of top-drawer collectibles; increased demand. Noted authority R. L. Wilson, in his latest book makes a strong argument that the finest firearms are disappearing from the collector market into museums and permanent collections. Meanwhile, new collectors continue to enter the field, and the hot new sport of Cowboy Action Shooting increases public interest in and demand for old guns. As they say about real estate "They ain't makin any more." Hmm. Well, maybe with collectible guns, they are.
- Increased authenticity of reproductions. Like it or not, altered and artificially aged reproductions continue to be the basis of fakes, both crude and surprisingly sophisticated. The more the reproduction market demands authenticity, the less the faker has to do to create a plausible fake.
- Increased sophistication of both legitimate restoration and faking technology. To me, the most intriguing response has been to the question "Are there restorations and fakes out there that are undetectable?" There was a strong split in opinion among some of the top authorities in the country. One camp held that a faked item can always be identified if a knowledgeable enough expert has the time to examine it. The other reports that techniques of fabrication, recreating and then authentically aging correct finish, and duplicating markings have been perfected to the extent that "perfect fakes" can be and are being made.
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.
- "Mint" gun no longer the holy grail. This is probably my most controversial prediction, but I believe that the "Condition is Everything" concept holds less sway than it did a few years ago. I also think that as more perfectly restored guns are created using essentially undetectable restoration techniques, collectors who will pay highest premiums for 100% mint factory new guns will continue to decline. There are certainly collectors today who are less inclined to pursue a 100% gun, believing that it is more likely to have been dinked with than a gun that shows honest wear.
- Provable pedigree more important. Among the rarefied, highest dollar market, it would seem that the provenance of a high dollar gun will become more essential for a gun to realize top value. If sophisticated engraving, restoration, and aging techniques can fool the top experts in a field, it only makes sense that a gun that has been known and can be proven to have been in a particular state in a known collection for a number of years will bring a substantial premium over one that has just "come in out of the brush."
- Discourage new collectors? Nope. Refocus market? Yep. Common wisdom holds that the collector who gets burned early, or is frightened by tales of fakes, will soon be an ex-collector. There is also consensus that the hobby needs new blood, and cannot afford to lose a generation of collectors. I suspect we may be underestimating the allure of guns, and the innate smarts of new collectors. Yes, perhaps some will be scared off in certain fields. However, I think the market has it's own intelligence, and will shift to fields where fakery is less common and has less impact on values. Perhaps we can foresee a somewhat broader based collector market, with the heavily faked areas left to linger while areas that have been less glamorous, less pricey with less incentive to fraud continue to grow.
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
- How do you know it's old?, Harold Peterson, out of print.
- Flayderman's Guide to Antique American Arms, Norman Flayderman, DBI Publications, Chapter III "Restorations and Fakes."
- NRA Gun Collectors Guide, National Rifle Association, 1-800-336-7402, "Counterfeit Arms" chapter.
- Colt Cavalry & Artillery Revolvers, Kopec & Fenn, Chapter 17, "The Fakes, Facsimiles, and Frauds," POB 217, Whitmore CA 96096. Mr. Kopec also offers an authentication service for martial SAA's.
- "Introduction to Metal Preparation," videotape, Doug Turnbull Restoration, Inc., 716-657-6338
- National Firearms Museum - special display of fakes & frauds to open in 1998 at NRA National Headquarters, 11250 Waples Mill Rd., Fairfax VA.
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
- Serialization/ Date of Manufacture
- Store Brand Crossover List
- Proof Marks
- Gun Collector Organizations
Articles by Jim Supica
- A Brief History of Firearms
- What's my gun worth?
- Evaluating Firearms Condition
- Hard to identify or value firearms
- Pieces of History: A system for evaluating historically attributed firearms
- How to be a Gun Collector
- Collectors Federal Firearms License
- How to ship guns and ammo
- Gun Auction Buying Tips