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Friday, February 7, 2014

The Life of A Gun Collector, Part III

If you progress to the third and final stage of firearms collecting, you, and your collection, likely have more than a few admirers.  People probably mention to you on a regular basis, “Wow!  That is some collection!”  Or maybe you overhear them calling to a nearby gun buddy to show them one of your guns.  These are all appropriate responses.  The final stage of collecting should come as an immense source of pride.  By this time, a collector or investor has logged countless hours researching, studying, seeking, haggling, bargaining, buying, and selling to achieve something they feel is as close to complete as they can reasonably make it, incorporating the most fascinating elements of their chosen genre.  They've achieved the respect of their peers and of those with similar interests.  Hopefully, they have also acquired a great deal of knowledge not only of the firearms and their prices, but of the history, context, mechanics, key players, and uses of their chosen subject.  

But now what?  You've got this amazing collection of guns that has taken decades to find and assemble, but now what do you do with it?  As luck would have it, experienced collectors have had plenty of time to think about those questions and have some great answers

Most experienced gun collectors, whether it has dawned on them or not, believe that the collections that they have assembled be used for education.  Even those who have yet to make the realization will often talk at length about their given topic, sharing their knowledge with others, and relaying specifics about given firearms and why they are special or desirable.  One could argue that it is simply an ego-boosting activity to tout one’s interests and have it validated by others as interesting or worthwhile, but even if that were the case, they are still educating people about their guns and that is what most collectors believe should happen.

Much like the director of a zoo or the head curator of a museum, the priority of many a collector resides in two places: conservation and education.  A collector cares deeply about preserving the guns that have been collected so that future generations may see them. Collectors, are also concerned about preserving the hobby of gun collecting.   A collector, like a zoo director, also knows that one of the best ways to make sure that guns (and the hobby) are preserved is to educate people about them.  Tell people why something should be conserved and they are much more likely to understand and take up that cause themselves.  All of this is well and good, but almost no gun collectors own their own museums, so how are they to educate people about a subject they appreciate so deeply?  After all, there aren't a whole lot of places one can openly display their firearms.

Gun Shows:  These gatherings are a fantastic way to get the word out on your passion to people who are likely to openly receive it.  The displays made by experienced collectors runs the gamut from guns laying on a table to elaborate and informative displays.  Not only is there often a charge to put a display at a gun show, but there is also the time, money, and effort involved in constructing it, setting it up, and tearing it down again once the show is over.  A person must truly care about their collection and interest to go through all this hassle for little, if any, reward.  Luckily for the rest of us, their decades of dedication have usually established a healthy amount of both passion and a willingness to share it.  Throughout this article will be photos of collectors’ booths that we’ve seen over the last year.

History-Based Groups:  These groups are always interested in the firearms of the period, whether it be military re-enactment groups or a local SASS (Single Action Shooting Society) chapter.  Most participants buy lesser condition models that they can use in re-enactments without worrying about damage.  However, they will ALL appreciate premiere specimens of the arms that fascinate them enough to participate in re-enactments.  Some participants are likely to keep some primo examples at home, ALWAYS appreciate the sharing and learning aspects, and may even consider buying/selling/trading.

It’s work!  It’s a pain in the ass!  You do a display, it costs you a little money.  Guns get handled, they get touched, they get scratched, but you've got to build the display…It’s not a money maker..I don’t do it for money.  You can’t do it for money. “
Dave C.

Common Questions from Experienced Collectors
Q:  Is my collection complete?
A:  Does it feel complete?  Unless you’re one of a very few of extremely fortunate collectors, you’ll always know that something is missing from your collection.  It could be the most expensive gun in the world, of which only 2 exist, one of which is in a museum, and the other’s whereabouts is unknown, but you know that it’s still missing from your collection.  However, such impossibilities are often easy to brush off as just that:  impossibilities.  The likelihood of obtaining such a rare and expensive gun is so far removed for many collectors than one can often consider their collection complete, or at least as complete as they can reasonably make it.  Reasonable is a funny term to use here because often, over the decades, collectors go to very unreasonable lengths to obtain the guns they need for their collections.  Many collectors will say that, “no collection is ever complete,” but will also recognize that with all the work they have put in it is complete to a point where it can still be a source of pride and enjoyment to the collector and a seemingly impossible dream to the many who behold it.

Q:  Do I sell them?
A:  Eventually someone will.  It could be you and it could be your significant other.  It could also be two generations from now with some member of your progeny who has no interest in firearms and very little sentimental attachment to the collection.  Some collectors never sell and never want the guns to leave the family.  That’s fine.  It took a lot of work to make that collection and some would like to see it maintained even after their death.  It may not always be a realistic request, but it is not an uncommon one.  Some collectors don’t care what happens to it after their death.  They often expect their spouse or other family members to sell it after their death for the best amount of money they can.  These collectors have been known to cite the collector’s adage that, “no one ever really owns a gun.”  Some believe that collectors are merely stewards of the guns while they are alive and it’s their job to maintain and protect them while they can.  Sometimes this protection often involves making sure the gun goes to a good home after they have passed by leaving them to close friends for a discounted price or even at no cost at all.

“I've got people who want some of my guns, I've been listed in wills, and I have people listed in my will.  ‘If I tip over, you call this guy and sell it to this guy for half of the appraised value because I want him to have it.’  People have done it for me.”

There is also a group of collectors who use their gun collection as their retirement fund.  This type of collector fully expects to see their guns sell during their lifetime, enjoys having some say in the process, likes to see where their guns go, and also gets to enjoy the fruits of their labor.  They plan on selling these guns as necessary to fund various trips, purchases, and other late life experiences.

“I have always told my wife, “This is our retirement fund… I don’t know if she bought it or not, but she tolerated it.  For years and years when I first started I’d come draggin’ somethin’ in and she’d say, “God, you wasted our money for that?!” …Then all of a sudden, after I sold a few things  and made some money on them, then she realized it was not maybe all crazy.”

The final type of collector will often bequeath their collection to a museum.  This type of gesture is thought of as charitable to the museum and a great way to preserve their collection.  After all, who better to preserve historical items than an organization whose business it is to do so?  However, this type of giving has fallen in ill favor with many in the collecting circles.  Unfortunately, museums often lack adequate space to exhibit all the wondrous pieces that they are so generously given.  This results in many of the items being locked away in vaults and various storage areas, away from admiring eyes of collectors, history buffs, and people who would like to own them for a collection.  It also offends the majority of experienced collectors, both those who would like to own the guns and those who feel the guns should be displayed, seen, and used for educational purposes.  They are far and few between who will take some small solace in the knowing that the guns will at least enjoy long, protected lives even if it is in a dark, climate-controlled drawer somewhere.

Q: If I do sell them, when is the right time?
A: Well, collectors don’t hold their guns for all those years to wait and pray on some market bubble that will increase your investment should it appear.  Collectors hold on to their investments for years and maybe even decades to sell them when they want to, if they want to at all!  You sell them when YOU are ready.  Don’t wait for a market boom that probably won’t come.

Once you’re dead, it won’t matter.  If the family loses money, I’m not gonna know it.  They don’t know what I paid so they won’t know they lost money so they won’t be unhappy.”
-Tom L.

“I've done well, but it doesn't do me any good because I don’t sell very much.  The kids and grandkids are all gonna be well off when I die.  But I’m not planning on selling very much before I die and I’m not planning on dying.”

“I tried to buy it and didn't have enough money and it just didn't work out.  I never forgot it.  It’s not one that got away, I just didn't have the money and that’s always the problem.  There’s always one more gun than you can afford.”
Dave C.

As a collector’s life and that of their collection progress together down a briefly shared path they share a lot with one another: shows, friends, and time.  The familiarity that a person might have with their collection is juxtaposed strangely at times with a feeling of being a foreigner in their own time - fleeting instants where one feels as a stranger in the present.   There can be strong feelings that one would be more at home in the original time frame of their collection.  Some may yearn to fight Indians on the great plains on the frontier, others may long to know the experience of the World Wars while remaining ever thankful that they never will, a few dream of that age of enlightenment and discovery before our country was born, and there are those who may just wish they had lived in those simpler times of quiet ranch life as America expanded her borders westward toward the shimmering Pacific expanse.  There are flashes when one knows they have been callously misplaced into an age they could never appreciate as much as the one they have spent their life trying to recapture.  Perhaps that is why so many are drawn to collecting.  It is a tangible way to live, if only for a moment, like those we admire so much; one can share a single experience even though decades or even centuries may have passed in the interim.

Often this dream of recapturing another time and place can become clouded with questions, many of which we've tried to answer in this series of articles.  Many questions will arise in collecting, and some will be much more specific than the ones listed here.  “Should I hand load my .45-70 with 300 grain or 350 grain?” “What year did the rear sight change on this model of rifle?”  and so on.  These questions may be part of a universal experience of collectors everywhere, but they are only the details that often cloud something much grander.  All collectors will have questions arise, but their true universal experience lies in feeling something for another time and place that is not their own.  By inspiring that feeling in another, you've single-handedly ensured the temporary preservation of the hobby and also earned the appreciation of another person who may feel just as misplaced as you do.

I operate on the theory that we’re only custodians of this.  It’s like real estate.  You don’t own land.  You may tell people, “It’s my land and I can do with it what I want.”  What happens when you die?  What happens to the 8-10,000 people before you that occupied that land and also died?  So I think you oughta leave everything in better shape than when you got it.”


  1. Great article! But I would disagree on one point. My friends and I who own collections, especially guns (which don't easily get secured in safety deposit boxes like a coin collection) pretty much keep our collections discreet for fear of robberies.

  2. Truly, Truly enjoyed this article. Thank you for taking the time to write this and put it into a perspective that even I as a collector didn't understand about myself. Great.

  3. One thing I know for sure, my gun collection has surpassed any fund in the stock market and given me a lot more pleasure then worry.

  4. I must admit when I hold them I do travel back in time and wonder what this tool of the period has seen and what it was involved can't beat it! I think we all dream of a simpler time after living in this day and age and for a moment my collection brings me there.

  5. ditto on the first comment. Since I collect primarily machineguns we don't show them since there are a lot of "gun ban" types at gun shows who frown on these types of guns.. Historical automatic firearms are what quickly changed the world, from ground guns to aircraft guns. The NRA even bans them from their shows.

    1. The NRA banning machine guns is a white lie. The TATA club, a Thompson collector club has won many first place awards with their displays in the last 5 years.
      I'd say the NRA is finally getting on board with NFA arms, realizing that they are an important part of history.

  6. this is a very large collection of guns. people are passionate about guns and it has become their sign of passion.