What Guns Should I Collect?

I have had a number of people email me saying that they are interested in starting a gun collection, and what would I say they should collect? I think this is a fundamentally erroneous approach to the question. There used to be a sort of understanding that “Gun Collecting” meant a specific group of community-approved  “collectible” guns, most notably Winchester lever actions, Colt and S&W revolvers, Mausers, and Luger pistols. I disagree with these artificial limitation in the strongest way. I think that the whole point of collecting firearms is to find a specific theme that you personally find interesting, and build a collection to gain a better understanding of it. That can mean shooting a thousand rounds a week or never firing the guns at all. It can mean collecting based on a country, a manufacturer, a time period, a mechanical action type, a specific conflict, a specific country in a specific conflict, a caliber, or really any other factor one can imagine. I have a friend who collects sporterized pre-1898 military rifles. I have another who collects guns all with the same serial number. The essential element is that a collection is based on your own personal interest. It is irrelevant whether your interest is shared by a million other collectors or by nobody at all.

If you want to begin collecting firearms, you need only consider what piques your curiosity and interest, and follow that thread. My apologies to your wallet in advance!

Also, buy books first. A few hundred dollars of books before you buy a single gun will save you a tremendous amount of money in the long run.

32 Comments

  1. I have what I believe to be the most complete collection of Rohm/RG firearms in private hands. They hold little intrinsic value individually but the concept of the inexpensive handgun (from their era) fascinates me.

  2. I’m a mechanical engineer. I studied that because of my love of mechanical things, like guns and cars. My “collection” reflects that. It would probably seem completely random to most people. But, it is mine, not theirs.

    • Agree Russell, 100%. Most collections are pretty eclectic. Rhyme and reason only to the collector.

      That being said, most engineers I know collect not to the aesthetic but more to the mind of “look at how they got around THIS problem…..”

      Also, most are more interested in the older, non-stamped-100% machined to the more modern weapons. Seems the older stuff has a panache absent in modern guns.

  3. I met a chap who collected Japanese WW2 rifles – by model, by year, by Arsenal, and when that got too big, he specialized to high and low serial numbers within the bounds of those parameters. He kept a list in his wallet of all his pieces. I was quite impressed at his diligence.

  4. Excellent video! I think a good working definition of a[ny] hobby is “a set of related activities that the hobbyist enjoys and finds interesting”. It’s all about the individual, yet the internet is full of self-appointed gatekeepers who think they have veto power over the “real” definition of particular fields of interest.

  5. Despite appearances, there is a lot of information available on firearms that will help a collector. The challenge is to have the wisdom to recognize what may have been perfectly well accepted 50 years ago, might not stand up to today’s tests. It is the never ending story struggle of all historians.

  6. It’s also possible that many gamers (some with money) don’t know what to do and are seeking Ian’s approval for something. Kind of sad.

    My own collection runs toward firearms mentioned in books, often thrillers, but that’s by no means the only things in the collection.

  7. I am and have always been a shooter, that said I love collecting Cold War era .380 handguns specifically, from all backgrounds (steel frame is preferable). Most are oversized and overbuilt in today’s standards and I just absolutely love them, so much fun to have and shoot. I love hunting for the different types and discovering more and more.

  8. I have this suspicion that there are folks who think that “collecting” firearms can be an “investment” where the monetary value of the collection will rise in a really significant way – which in my mind is probably really naive and misinformed. If something triple in value in 25 years that’s very roughy a 5% rate of return – so a rifle for $60 in 1995 selling for $180 today would be in that category.

    Basically I suspect some folks are having fun (??) fantasizing about how in 20+ years they will have this collection that is worth way more than if they had put the money in a stock market index fund (actually these folks probably do not really know what an index fund is) and that “if the apocalypse happens I’ll use the collection to win!”

    • By their nature, gun loving dudes (just like survivalists, preppers etc) are more inclined for something tangible, material, what they see and feel, than investing in freaking stock funds. Its their way of life and a philosophy.

      However, there is no denying that situation of selling cheap surplus stuff from Cold war (like in the 90s) will not happen again, as there is no ongoing comparable nations arsenals hoarding, not helped by the fact that these days most modern stuff is generic (plastic) AR15 system variants which will not have the same historical value 30-40 years later.

  9. I have had a few different collections over the years one of which turned out to be a very good investment indeed. Now my collections are by broad type. Side by side and OU shotguns and anything carbine. Mostly military but not all. It’s all about the searching for me.

  10. “I want to start a gun collection” sounds so much like “I want to be a writer,” “I want to be an artist,” or even “I want to be a jazz expert” that some further “buyer beware” is in order.

    Ask yourself: What are you interested in, what can you write about (do you love reading?), do you like to draw (do you go to museums?), do you actually listen to jazz?

    Usually collectors start with an interest in what they’re collecting, and next an interest in what they can afford. Jay Leno loves cars and can afford warehouses full of them. My friend M. loves cars and after filling a suburban garage, driveway, and streetcorner with them has fallen back on the charity of his friend who owns untilled farmland and a barn. Consequently M. had to borrow money from me to rehab the house he intends to retire to.

    Meanwhile, my friend D. loves knives, wears a different folder every day, and has a house big enough to store them (however, he drives a 1993 Chevy). Collecting itself can become a dangerous addiction or a neurotic need — as D. points out. He is trying very hard not to collect guns.

    Collecting firearms (unlike say, teapots or neckties or pocket watches) is a very special interest that requires special precautions and special responsibilities. If shootable they need protection from burglars and curious children. If valuable they also need insurance. If you intend to shoot what you collect you need training, technical knowledge, common sense, and familiarity with the applicable laws. Maturity and detachment don’t hurt. You will need less space than if you collect armored cars or railroad rolling stock but you will need adequate secure storage. It may be that you should just collect experiences: rent or borrow the guns that you wish to shoot, shoot them, then keep photographs and video.

    Collecting anything as an “investment” is risky and requires extraordinary expertise. My friend S. collects the published works of one author and fully expects to fund her retirement by selling her collection. I accept that she is an expert on that author and the market, and so refrain from laughing at her. However, I think of all the comic book collectors who were deluded out of their money, and I worry about her.

    I think the words of Matt and Mr. Enzer above are most probative. I might add a caution against the obession with “more more more” as opposed to “better.” My regards to the rational collectors out there, who might agree with me.

  11. I’m collecting Khyber pass copies of Victorian era copies of Wheelock era Saturday night specials, but only the ones in calibre .52 and octagon barrel, because it’s easier to weld a Picatinny rail on top of those.

  12. I go by mechanisms, specifically self-loading pistols. For instance, while a Type 14 Nambu may look somewhat like a P.08 in shape, internally it’s much closer to a C/96 Mauser. The Star Super A looks like a 1911, but it’s mechanically more of a P35 High Power. Then of course there’s the Vz52 with its unusual roller-delayed breech, developed 20 years before the Heckler & Koch P9. And so on.

    To me, it’s the different routes engineers and designers took to solve one basic problem (a self-loading repeating handgun) that makes them interesting.

    cheers

    eon

  13. Completely off topic: I can’t find part 4 of the Calico saga her on forgottenweapons, although it is available at Surplused. Why? Any idea?

    I collect black powder rifles from the Dreyse and Chassepot up to the Kropatschek, because they are “free” around here and because there was a huge technological development of these rifles in a short period.

  14. Thinking about it, I find guns interesting for exactly the same reasons that I find cars or aircraft or ships interesting, it’s the intersection of something being an interesting piece of machinery, a historical artifact and aesthetically pleasing. Only difference is that I can afford to collect guns!

  15. I’ve told people to focus on things that are limited production, not because there is something wrong with it, but everyone looks at as strange. this lowers the current price, and ups the later “cool” or “weird” factor

    a good example is the M47 medusa revolver. it was strange enough that just about everyone said “that’s cool, but not for me”. later down the line everyone is looking for them. right now the S333 thunderstruck is in the same category.

      • a good indicator of that is to check on the going price. I know people that have gun collections of what could only be described as horrible guns. guns you should never fire even when they were new, didn’t work well or at all, and just plain junk.

        funny thing is they have guns that everyone else would have thrown away, making them probably the sole remaining examples. they’re not that valuable, but you’ll never see another one.

      • Well, the S333’s advertising isn’t all that honest, or maybe all that knowledgeable. It’s neither the “world’s first two-barrel revolver” or the first to fire both barrels at once.

        Look in Firearms Curiosa by Lewis Winant (1955, rep. 1996 by NRA). Chapter 3 is titled “Two-Barrel Revolvers” and there were quite a few patented and manufactured from the 1860s to the 1920s. A lot of them were .22 rimfire, or (later) .25 ACP, especially in Europe.

        The Vaughan percussion revolver(USP #35404, Aaron C. Vaughan, New Bedford PA, 27 May 1862) also fired both barrels simultaneously with a single trigger pull.

        There really isn’t much new under the sun.

        Incidentally, as far as collecting goes, I have many more books on the history of firearms than I have actual firearms. Most collectors can probably say the same thing.

        cheers

        eon

  16. Could be the question is more about collecting as an investment than as a way to express a personal interest. I firmly believe that the two are inextricable; but if the question is, “What guns should I collect that are most likely to appreciate in value,” the answer may be quite different from what Ian discusses in the video.

  17. You may even call yourself a collector if you own only that ONE special gun. A friend of mine was interested in the Werder Blitz rifle (as he had inherited a full Bavarian officer’s uniform of the 1870/71-war from his ancestors). So he got into guns & ammo, made all the necessary efforts (which, alas, means quite a lot of money and patience in Germany) and, finally, got the rifle. A beautiful specimen, in great condition and for a good price.

  18. Interesting post, and I agree with everything that Ian said. There’s a wonderful book by Philipp Blom titled “To Have and to Hold,” which talks about the history of collecting and some of the psychology behind collecting. It’s a great read, and it helped me better understand how collecting appeals to me and why I do it.

    That said, I also don’t hesitate to sell the guns that are less interesting to me now, since my tastes and collecting interests continue to evolve and my research interests have focused considerably. And I’m also learning that this can often be done in a way that generates a small profit; enough, in some cases, to make the hobby self-supporting. This is where some of the old collecting maxims come into play; “buy the best quality that you can afford” remains great advice.

    Oh, and I’m not ashamed to have three original Glock knives (with the round logos) mixed in with my collection of 19th century Smith & Wessons. Sometimes it’s enough to add something to your collection just because you want to!

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