July 25, 2023
“It’s not an investment if you’re never going to sell it.” With that simple statement, my wife shot down what was arguably my best excuse for dropping great gobs of money on something old, black, and oily. However, as much as it pains me to admit, she has a point. Firearms fall outside the norms of investments for the gun nerd truly committed to his craft. The biggest issue in my case is difficulty letting go.
I have squeezed triggers for fun and money for four decades now. Along the way, my gun collecting has evolved from a passing interest to a passion to an abiding compulsion. Now, forty years in, I have drawn some conclusions concerning what works and what doesn’t. Investing of any sort is really just respectable gambling. You might analyze the trends and make sensible, reasoned decisions. However, at the end of the day, the success or failure of your investments turns on stuff that is innately unknowable and beyond our control. That’s why it is called risk. However, a little professional knowledge can go a long way toward mitigating that risk.
The best gun investment I ever made was a stripped transferable M16 receiver I bought on my 21st birthday for $600. The year was 1987, and the accursed machinegun ban had been in effect for nine months. Corrected for inflation, that $600 would be about $1,600 today. However, it still represented a prescient investment. It would take nearly $30,000 to replace that thing today. It’s a terrible shame I can’t go back in time, skip eating for a year, and put that money on M16 receivers. Nowadays, there are still plenty of investment-grade guns to be found. You just have to know where to look.
Investment Breakdown Points
What actually makes a gun accrue in value is polyfactorial. The first criteria is always relative rarity. My antique M16 receiver is objectively worth about 75 bucks. What makes it valuable is not the physical nature of the object. It is the fact that May 19, 1986, was the cutoff date for future manufacturing of machineguns for civilian ownership. Civilians can still own many different automatic firearms, but there is now an ever-decreasing supply of models built before the cutoff date.
Old West weapons like single-action Colts and vintage Smith revolvers never get any cheaper. Likewise, martial handguns from World War I and World War II do not come down in price. However, just because a gun is out of production doesn’t mean people want to own one. There still has to be something special about it. For lack of a better term, let’s just call that sex appeal.
Take twentieth-century martial weapons as an example. World War II was the most expansive conflict in human history. During the course of the war, the sundry combatant nations produced enough small arms ammo to shoot every human being on the planet forty times. They also made a whole lot of guns…but then they stopped. That created a fixed pool.
The second World War touched every person on the planet. Sixteen million Americans served. As there were not nearly so many rules back then, a significant percentage of those old veterans dropped captured firearms into their duffle bags and sea chests before redeploying back home. In short order, the luster wore off of most of those mementos. Many of those vets sold them to get money for rent and diapers. That put all those vintage Lugers, P38’s, and Nambus in circulation for collectors. Now, some 75 years later, the market for such stuff goes no place but up.
Ours is an undeniably Eurocentric culture. World War II-era Germans, moral reprobates that they were, had a well-earned reputation for quality. By contrast, the Japanese were constrained by the nature of their island and its relative dearth of raw materials. As a result, the quality of Japanese firearms dropped precipitously toward the end of the war. Forget that none of us buy these things to actually shoot. The perception of poor quality is adequate to hamstring a gun’s value on the collector’s market. While both guns are comparably elegant, that’s why Japanese Nambus typically run markedly less than what a comparable Luger might.
Sometimes You Buy the Gun, Sometimes You Buy the Story…
A decent vintage Colt single-action army might set you back $5,000. However, let that Peacemaker be the one that Pat Garrett used to kill Billy the Kid in 1881, and it goes for $6.03 million at auction in 2021. What really adds to a genuine collectible gun’s value is a good story. However, let the buyer beware. This deep into the Information Age it is REALLY easy to fake a good story. I never drop serious money on a gun with a story unless that story is reliably verifiable.
That’s not to say the stories aren’t both out there and compelling. I have several pieces in my own collection that I bought at a fair market price only to find out that there was some fascinating family legend or other that went along with it. Whenever I buy a gun online I always inquire. Such stuff is like crack cocaine to a gun writer. However, I wouldn’t pay above market for a gun on the strength of a story I got via email from some guy on the Internet.
If you do end up with a gun that has some compelling tale, at least write it down. Even better, get the seller to scribble it down and sign his name to it. That’s not quite Library of Congress-grade authenticity, but it adds flavor if you try to sell the piece in the future. Original capture papers for vet bringback guns are pure gold. Photocopies of the originals are the next best thing.
The Details Make the Gun
Condition will always be critical, but not always in the way you might think. Ugly vintage weapons will almost always be worth more than refinished pretty ones. Reblued classics can be hard to tease out. Dependent upon how well the job was done, often the markings and sharp edges will be softened enough to discern in photographs. If you own a vintage firearm, NEVER refinish the gun or drill and tap it for scope mounts. I don’t mean to shout, but that is important.
A critical part of cashing in any investment is that you have to find a willing buyer. A quarter million-dollar gun is nothing more than a paperweight if there’s nobody out there actually willing to pay that for it. GunBroker reaches the masses. Auction houses like Rock Island Auctions and Morphy’s reach the whales. If you do find yourself in possession of something truly exceptional, I’d check with the specialized auction houses. They charge some stiff buyer’s premiums, but they are the conduit to the enthusiasts with serious money.
While vintage military weapons are my forte, the same guidelines can be applied to other genres as well. I don’t have much use for gold-inlayed, engraved commemorative weapons myself. However, if the host is unusual and rare and the workmanship superb, you can likely find somebody who wants it enough to pay a fair price. The same thing goes for stuff like top-end trap and skeet weapons. The criticality there is always a mystical melding of quality, rarity, and publicity.
In most cases, the days of really cheap guns that will rapidly become valuable are probably gone. The global reach of the internet makes it tough to find serious bargains online these days. Most of the old World War II surplus caches overseas have already been exploited, and import restrictions make it tougher to bring in these cool old guns than was previously the case. That means we are, for the most part, stuck choosing from the pool of weapons already in the country. The financial starting point will usually therefore be substantial. The exception might be the kindly family member or ignorant survivor. However, you really don’t want to go to your grave having stolen a valuable firearm from some vulnerable widow. I always pay a fair price for those guns.
If you are looking at guns for an investment be discerning and patient. It will take a little cash to get started nowadays. With few exceptions, that’s inescapable. Additionally, prices tend to creep up over time where previously they might skyrocket. Some of that is driven by legislation and is subsequently unfathomable. You really don’t buy investment guns to get rich off of them someday. Quality collectible firearms can indeed be a reliable hub against inflation. Under certain circumstances, the right pieces can also offer a decent return. However, it is just way more fun to paw over that vintage German Artillery Luger than it might be an electronic stock portfolio or some dreary old 401K.
So, start haunting GunBroker and keep an eye out for regional gun auctions offered online. Bidtobuyguns.com is a clearinghouse for such stuff. Put the word out among like-minded friends that you’re interested if anything old, cool, and oily turns up in grandpa’s attic after the funeral. Take your time and make informed decisions. Every now and then you’ll still trip over a real gem.
If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.