Hard to identify or value firearms
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.
For most general types of firearms, you can find info on how to identify & value at this link:
However, there are certain types of firearms that are just tough to identify or estimate a value on. These are guns where published references are few, and either there are few specialists in the field or if there are specialists the guns can only be i.d.'d by an expert hands-on inspection. Even then, the identification is often more art than science, and value estimates may be speculative.
Here are some of the types of guns this applies to:
ANTIQUE FLINT & PERCUSSION GUNS - "BLACKPOWDER," "MUZZLE-LOADERS," etc.
Original handmade flintlock & percussion ("cap & ball") firearms. These are original antique muzzleloaders that are made by individual gunsmiths or small manufacturing concerns, usually prior to the era of mass production, but sometimes well into the mid-19th century. There are literally thousands of small individual makers, and often such guns are unsigned with no sure way to identify the maker. In these cases, an expert hands on inspection may result in a reasonable estimate of value based on such factors as probable maker, condition, quality of construction, style & extent of decoration. Some may have considerable value, in thousands of dollars. Others, such as well worn no name double barrel shotguns of average quality & low condition may be worth well under $200.
Some general considerations for antique flint & percussion arms by small makers:
- Generally, signed guns will bring more than unsigned. The gunsmith is generally considered to be the name (if any) that appears on the barrel. Often gunsmiths purchased pre-made locks from small manufacturers, especially during the percussion era, and the name appearing on the lock will often be the lock supplier rather than the gunsmith.
- In the U.S., American-made guns tend to be more desirable and more valuable than others, especially from the flintlock era. European - especially English, French, German, and Italian - guns can also have good value. Generally, but not always, Belgian-made guns will have a bit lower value ("ELG" proofmark indicates a Belgian made gun.
- The type of gun will impact value. Among American-made guns, generally flintlock will be worth more than percussion (guns that started as flintlock, were converted to percussion, and more recently converted back to flintlock will bring less than original flintlocks); full stock will be worth more than half stock; rifles tend to bring more than fowlers. There are many exceptions to all these generalizations.
- "Tourist" guns - These are often North African, Mid-Eastern, or Balkan in origin. Flint and other early pattern gun have been made in these regions for sale to tourists for centuries, and are still being made today. They are often artificially aged and sold as old guns. The majority that show up in the US tend to have little value beyond decorators, altho some of the older ones may have some value. They are often very ornately decorated with mother of pearl and wire inlays, although the workmanship will tend to be crude. Some will copy European designs, including copying makers' names. Others will have distinctive regional features.
Researching small early gunsmiths - Generally, these will not be listed in most price guides. There are some texts that include basic information on some of the small gun-makers of this era; usually only such basics as dates of death & birth, locations, and general types of guns made. Small Arms Makers by Gardner lists both American and European makers. American Gunsmiths by Sellers, and American Gun Makers by Gluckman & Satterlee list American makers. A number of book by Dr. James Whisker and various co-authors list Amercian makers by specific region.
Modern blackpowder reproductions - It's not at all unusual for someone to confuse a modern blackpowder reproduction with an original. If a gun is marked "BLACK POWDER ONLY," or "MADE IN ITALY" (or any other country name), it will nearly always be a modern reproduction.
TRADE NAME GUNS- In the 19th & 20th Centuries, several large manufacturers would make guns with any name on them requested for resale through hardware stores, large distributors, mail order catalogs, etc. Often when a cartridge firearm has an unusual name on it, it is such a "trade name" gun. They usually have little collector value & are primarily valued as shooters.
Researching Trade Name Guns - Tables showing the true manufacturer of various trade name guns can be found in the two major price guides. Standard Catalog of Firearms table tends to focus more on earlier late 19th & early 20th Century trade names, while Blue Book of Gun Values tends to focus more on mid-20th Century trade names (for example, guns made for Sears, Wards, Western Auto, etc.) Side by Sides of the World by Charles Carder in an excellent encyclopedia of trade names used on double barrel shotguns. Suicide Specials by Webster is a similarly definitive reference for small late 19th Century spur-trigger revolver trade names. Both these last two may be out of print, try inter-library loan or Amazon.com, etc.
SMALL EUROPEAN CARTRIDGE REVOLVERS, ca. mid 1800s to early 1900s. These were made by a large number of cottage industry type makers with few distinguishing marks in a bewildering variety of styles and configurations. These would include folding trigger hammerless revolvers sometimes lumped together as "Velodog" or "Puppy" type revolvers. Altho some can have good collector value, many seem to sell in the $100 to $200 range IF you can find a buyer. Similar situations apply to other European firearms by obscure makers (altho some by fine artisans can be quite valuable) and Pinfire firearms and unlicensed European copies of American revolvers from the same time eras.
CUSTOM GUNS - Although much money is spent on customization of guns, they are very hard to value in the secondary market & can be slow sellers. This especially applies to military rifles that have been "sporterized". Signed works by early famous gunsmiths can be an exception to this generalization, as can essentially custom built rifles by top makers, although these can be slow to sell.
Non-factory open-ended production commemoratives - There are several firms that issue firearms that they have purchased from the factory and then had engraved, inlaid, or otherwise decorated. These are often designed to commemorate an individual or event, and are advertised in full page ads in newsstand type magazines. Sometimes the company does not particularly limit production of these, and will continue to produce and sell them for as long as folks buy them.
These are often very handsome guns, and the buyers enjoy them for their beauty and because they have special appreciation for the subject of the commemorative. As such they can certainly be a pleasure to own.
However, my personal experience with the secondary market for those types of guns has not been positive.
If you look them up in the better price guides, you will find that they will sometimes list an "issue price" but do not generally give guidance as to what the gun's resale value might be. There's a reason for that omission.
I get them in the shop occasionally, and I find that I sometimes have to retail them for significantly below their original price to get them sold - sometimes half or less. Generally, they will bring a slight premium over what the same make & model without decoration would bring. However, this is sometimes quite a bit below the original retail price that the owner paid.
HISTORICALLY ATTRIBUTED GUNS - Generally, the value of these guns is much more determined by the quality of the documentation proving them to be what they are alleged to be (the "provenance") than any other factor. See also Pieces of History.
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
- 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