If This Old Gun Could Talk

We’ve all heard it, thought it or even said it at one time or another, and for good reason – “If this old gun could talk”. Our old guns can be time capsules that we pass along from one generation to the next, each telling a story like few other things can.

Our old guns can be mechanical marvels, works of art, prime examples of old world craftsmanship or a metal canvas for a master engraver. They can remind us of how things were made back in the day. They can be a reminder of our favorite hunt or can be a sentimentally priceless heirloom that has been passed down from grandfather to grandchild. If we take the time to look, they always provide us with clues about the era they are from, who may have owned them and where they travelled. Each is a tangible reflection of days gone by.

It may be that small gauge SxS with a fair amount of wear that’s looking a little tired when sitting in a gun rack along with a dozen other guns in higher condition and gets passed over. But when we take the time to pick it up and shoulder it, things start to come into focus. Only then do you realize and appreciate why it has all that wear. It’s because it was once someone’s favorite “go to” gun because it balances and points like an absolute dream. You just feel like it grew out of your shoulder and moves like an extension of you. Here’s just another way guns speak to us, (and non gun people wonder why we give them pet names!)

image11The path every gun takes during its ongoing journey from one person or generation to the next, its time spent in a gunsmith shop being repaired to get it ready for its next hunt, having new life breathed into it from a thorough restoration or simply preserved to prevent it from fading away so it will survive for the next worthy owner is as unique as the people who own them. Fortunately for me, “if this old gun could talk” is something I get to hear, see and experience on an almost daily basis as the Manager of the Fine Gun Room and Gunsmith Performance Center at Bass Pro Shops in Denver. Here is a closer look at what happens behind the scenes from the other side of the counter when a customer brings a gun into us for trade or repair.

The Fine Gun Room

The reasons guns are brought in for trade varies greatly. The owner may have grown disenchanted with its performance or would rather have the newest model. They may be interested in generating cash flow or inherited but don’t have a connection to the guns, (or maybe because of the connection and memories they bring.)

They may want to trade up for that once in a lifetime purchase to own best-of-the-best, an investment grade purchase. They may want to try a new shooting sport or it can be as simple as “I’ve never owned one”. Yes, I’ve used that one myself – the list goes on and on.

One constant ingredient in a truly successful gun trade is confidence. Confidence to the customer typically means:

  1. The process we use to determine a fair market value for their gun is accurate.
  2. That our trade-in program is structured fairly.
  3. We guarantee their satisfaction with the trade.

Doing a gun trade “right” also means balancing several factors. Paying enough to have a satisfied seller who would come back again. Selling the gun for a low enough price to have a satisfied buyer who would come back again while leaving my bosses satisfied enough with the transaction to have me come back again!

image4Establishing fair market value is ever changing business and can sometimes be an elusive process. This is where the friendships one has made with those who have a passion and specialize in gun collecting becomes invaluable. These folks have spent countless hours researching and studying, learning more about the intricacies of their particular niche than I could ever hope to know. This network of trusted resources is one of the aspects of gun trading that goes unseen in most instances. No one, and I mean no one, knows it all.

On a personal note, I can tell you that after working as a gunsmith and doing gun trades for the past 30 years I get humbled on an almost daily basis. However, it is this very fact that also keeps my interest and allows me to learn something new every day, and that makes the job very rewarding.

The first place we start is to properly identify what gun we are working with. It sounds pretty simple at first glance. Unfortunately for the seller, this is all the “look” some trades get when being evaluated. Customers should always be careful of the 10 second estimate!

A gun’s history may be hard to identify. This is where we rely heavily on studying proof marks. Proof marks are more than just intriguing to look at. They can tell you everything from where and when it was made, chamber length, how heavy of a load it’s rated for, what it’s choked, bore diameter, black or smokeless powder, what countries it’s been to, etc. They’re like its own personal specifications and history embedded right into the steel. You get to see the mystery unfold as the clues fall into place and you never know just quite what you’ll end up with. Sometimes frustrating, but always rewarding!

After properly identifying the gun we look at its condition and originality. It’s extremely important to recognize that in the industry, guns are graded and valued by original condition, not just condition. We see plenty of guns that have been refinished back to a high percentage of condition and the owners are expecting their trade to be worth much more than is realistic.

image8That said, properly restored guns certainly have value, it just won’t be reflected correspondingly or directly by the various blue books. In these cases, sometimes all we have to rely on is what our best educated guess is of its selling price will be. The internet is an invaluable tool to see what other people are asking for something that is very similar.

A good rule of thumb is the more desirability a gun has as a collector’s item the more the price drops from having had a restoration. Not always but it’s a good place to start. Custom guns present a unique challenge as there are no book values available to account for all of the endless variables the custom maker can perform. Here is the approach I use.

If you were to take a high end luxury or sports car and remove all of the emblems and logos telling you what it is, you are now free to look at it based on its own merits. Things such as the quality of the materials, workmanship, the “core” it was built on, its unique features, how everything works together mechanically and how it flows visually.

After taking all of these things into account, I compare it to other similar guns on the market to get a feel for its desirability as a customer would. At this point one can have a starting point for basing its fair market value. How a custom gun “speaks” to prospective buyers is ALWAYS a guessing game. I call this the crystal ball estimate. If you ask ten people, you will get ten different estimates. It’s important to make sure people realize that rarity and value do not go hand-in-hand. Supply and demand, or better said desirability,are the two major factor on what a gun’s value is based – on in my opinion.

An owner’s attached sentimental value is also one of the most difficult obstacles to value when we’re purchasing a gun. We have to buy a gun based on its fair market value and not its sentimental value. When we see that a gun has had the particular family history behind it we will, on occasion, certainly recommend that they keep it because that gun is priceless to them and for the next generation. Selling it would be far more of a loss to them and their unique history than any monetary gain they might receive today. Customers should value the fact one can’t just go down to the store and buy a gun off-the-shelf that has the same history as the gun that you own, that’s what makes it unique and special, its connection to not only you but its history.

image5Most of the time we’re able to find common ground and make a deal, sometimes we‘re not. When we don’t, it typically boils down to the fact that I just don’t have the same faith that the gun will sell for a certain price as the owner does and, that’s OK too.Many times we have the same customer come back after they have done additional research and looked at other offers and decided to work with us.

Like any commodity, market values on guns can go up or down. Sometimes a gun that I believe has great value can sit on the shelf for a long time before it sells and sometimes a gun I think will be hard to sell hits the floor and its out the door the same day, you just never know.

The most common question we get in the Fine Gun Room regarding our high end, investment grade gun inventory is, “Why do these guns cost so much?” a fair question. My answer is usually, “There’s always a premium for owning the best of anything”.

After all, a $10K watch doesn’t tell time better than a $50 watch, but they sure are nice to look at and give the owner a special pride of ownership that only comes from owning the best there is. Pride of ownership never goes out of style. These guns typically represent several or all of the following features: the finest materials, craftsmanship, mechanical design, artistry or provenance available.

Engraving and high grade wood can significantly affect the cost of any gun, and its desirability. These two factors are usually the most influential final decision makers on which “best class” gun a customer eventually chooses. They are also the most subjective. Trying to speculate what a customer will like is unpredictable for as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder; you just know it when you see it. We’ve all had that certain gun, for whatever reason, that just speaks to us.

When people are deciding where to buy a best class fine gun a major influencing factor can be the businesses ability to not only stand behind the purchase, but have an experienced gunsmith on hand to handle any problems or custom work in house. Something a private party is not typically able to offer.

Custom work, like bending stocks and opening chokes are common request and can make the difference between a gun that looks great in the gun cabinet and one that also performs great on the range and in the field. There’s just no substitute to having things tailor fit for you, especially a fine gun.

The Gunsmith Shop

image6Most people first think of visiting their local gunsmith shop after they have gone out shooting and found themselves holding, what was, their pride and joy and it’s not working for some mystical reason. At this point it’s always good to keep in mind that it is just a machine that was designed and built by us flawed humans!

A gun that isn’t working always “tells you” what’s wrong. The trick is to be able to tune in to what it’s saying and find what components are working correctly and what components aren’t.

Gunsmiths can take care of most functioning issues but, there are many more services and benefits they can provide. First and foremost, they can inspect to see if a gun is within safe operating spec’s and safe to shoot, always a great place to start with any gun. This is particularly important if you are thinking of getting that older gun that’s been in the family for years back into use. An old shotgun for instance may have 2.5 inch chambers or Damascus barrels. It may have been made to shoot black powder cartridges and isn’t safe to shoot modern smokeless ammo. These things do not necessarily mean that it is unsafe to shoot but it should be evaluated carefully before you pull the trigger on a round. A properly done safety check is the cheapest insurance policy you’ll ever buy.

Our gunsmith shop’s ability to perform these services not only helps customers but compliments and supports our Fine Gun Room as well. Guns will often go through an evaluation process before any transaction to determine whether or not the action is tight, has been refinished, has hidden stock cracks, loose ribs, acceptable barrel wall thickness, within headspace, if the barrels have been shortened, have bulges, cracked locking lugs etc. These things do not necessarily disqualify a gun from being traded for but it does allow us to factor in any additional needed labor to get the gun in proper working order and sell it for a fair price.

For these reasons, Bass Pro Shops has made the decision to certify every used gun they sell. This provides customers an added level of confidence, (there’s that word again), and peace of mind when they buy. This peace of mind is important to everyone whether or not you’re selling, buying or repairing. They can also make sure the gun is operating properly. Many people make the mistake of thinking, if their gun operates, it’s within proper specifications and this may not be accurate. Think about the tires and brakes on your car, just because your car rolls and stops doesn’t mean everything’s within safe operating specifications.

A quality gunsmith shop can also do creative custom work of course. Some of the most rewarding projects are finding solutions for uncommon, hard to solve problems.

One recent example brought into the shop was a great handling little AYA SxS28 gauge. That is, it was a fine example in every way except it had a buttstock that had been shortened several inches. The owner had supplied a nicely figured piece of wood and wanted it attached to the existed stock and shaped in order to extend the length of pull and match his individual final stock dimensions and fit him correctly.

After laying out the stocks and determining there was indeed enough wood to work with, the next step was to do it in such a way as to leave it strong enough to handle the rigors of hunting while hiding the seam where it attached.

For this I decided to cut the existing stock along the checkering border just behind the grip area. The next step was to match this angle and cut the supplied add on wood so when the two were mated it would leave enough wood to carve out the final stock dimensions to “reveal the stock that was trapped inside” so to speak.

In order to make sure the stocks were attached in such a way as to leave it strong enoughI made a fixture and drilled a hole into each of the two pieces separately from the cut side of each piece of wood.A large wood dowel was then used that slide into each section of the buttstock and epoxied in place.

Drilling each hole separately in each piece at the correct angle so the holes would line up when assembled and epoxied was definitely a challenge. Laying this out was compounded by the fact that a large dowel would be need to be used to offer enough strength to do the job AND the stock had yet to be shaped out of the blank which take in to account the drop at comb, drop at heal cast off and length of pull.

I could have epoxied the wood pieces together image12first and then drilled a hole from the back of the buttstock but then there would be a hole to fill in and we both agreed we wanted to avoid that for we wanted it to be as clean as possible. Sometimes the story behind the work is what you don’t see!

With some patience, and luck I might add, it worked. Then it was a matter of shaping and sanding it to dimension. We decided to stop at this point and put a temporarily seal on the wood so he could put a season of hunting under his belt in case he wanted to change any of the dimensions before bringing it back to be refinished. The photo he sent after shooting it and hitting his first two birds pretty much tells the story of how a gun that fits performs in capable hands.

There is simply no substitute for learning how to be a great shot than lots of practice combined with proper instruction. Above all, these folks are consistent, shoulder with precision using minimal motion and have guns that fit.

Ahh yes, guns that fit. This can be an elusive quest, the topic of much discussion and even more opinions and more than a few disagreements. I have had the good fortune to work with some very fine shooting instructors. I’ve also had the good fortune to witness some truly great shooters and hunters. A humbling experience when you’re just an average shot like myself.

I say good fortune because I have learned a number of tips on what works by simply observing them in action. I do quite a few gun fittings here in the store every year I have been able to put these tips to good use with my clients. There is typically a sharp improvement in their scores after a gun fitting session.

The topic of gun fitting could make a small book so I will give a quick overview of my approach. I first establish how the gun will be used, i.e. waterfowl, sporting clays, upland game, warm or cold weather, etc.

The next thing I communicate to a client is there is no such thing as a singularly universal perfect technique or form that exist that fits everyone. Everyone is simply built and moves differently mechanically. My approach is to work around how they move instinctually.A quality shooting instructor can really help at this point!

In this way you’re not trying to make your body move in a way that’s not natural to you. What we do naturally, we do consistently. As an example, everyone walks but no two people walk the same. We don’t think about walking we just let the process happen, and so to it goes for shouldering a shotgun “properly”.

The next message is to realize that consistency trumps everything else. Only when a person’s technique becomes consistent will they become accurate, for accuracy is a result of being consistent. Once this is achieved the shooter can then “dial in” their shots at the target.

The next critical aspect is to make sure that where they look and where the gun is pointed are lined up. I point out the eye is the rear sight on a shotgun, literally. This is easily demonstrated since if the eye is high relative to the rib the gun will shoot high. If it’s to the left, the gun will shoot left, etc. I know that not every instructor agrees with this school of thought but it works well combined with my approach.

I then start at the feet focusing on proper placement and weight distribution. Placement of the feet plays an important role with every sport. I then work with how the gun fits the shoulder, proper hold, placement of the cheek on the stock and so on. I do this while working on their mount and making it as consistent and with as minimal a motion as possible.

A good way to see if your gun fits well is to point the gun, making sure it’s unloaded first, straight into a mirror with your eyes closed multiple times. If when you open your eye the gun is lined up with the rib consistently, you are off to a great start.

I highly recommend folks take their guns and pattern them on a patterning board especially if it’s new or has just been altered. In this way they can gain confidence that their shotgun is “sighted in“. Most of us wouldn’t dream of taking a rifle out hunting without sighting it in first, but many shogun shooters don’t take the few minutes it takes to make sure their shotguns are sighted in for season.

It’s important to be patient after a gun has been fitted to allow ourselves to reconnect with how it shoots. A great opportunity to see if a person’s shotgun fits well and is sighted in is at one of the give back & pass it on type events Bass Pro Shops supports each year in Denver is called the Generations Classic Shoot. It all started with a photograph I saw showing 3 generations of a family all out enjoying a day of shooting. There are several aspects to this event. First is the opportunity for different generations of shooters to get together and shoot in participation based, not competitive based, Sporting Clays event. This would give a time and place for generations to get together and pass along our shooting sports traditions.

image9Numerous Fine Gun Room guns are also brought out to give people the chance to shoot some of the finest, classic and iconic guns ever made – for free. We bring classic side-by-sides and O/U’s from Italy, England, Germany and Spain along with numerous American made classics. There’s also free instruction offered by 4H and local top notch shooter and instructor Mike Englund for beginning and experienced shooters alike.

I have taken an old Winchester model 36 that came in needing some major TLC and gave it a second life as an ideal youngster’s first shotgun. It’s chambered in 9mm Flobert (this converts to a 105 ga.) The gun is the same basic size as a BB gun and is therefore small and light enough to be held up by youngsters. The recoil is about that of a 22LR and has just enough power to break a clay target at 25 feet.

There’s not much more rewarding than seeing a youngster shoot their first target, the pictures say it all and that little 9mm shotgun has been a part of all of their stories. It also happens to be the most requested gun to shoot at this event year after year. Seems like a lot of very experienced shooters get a kick out of breaking a target out of the trap house with it and yes, I have seen it done!

Another shot for those pieces of history

Restorations are some of our favorite projects. Here we get to work with pieces of history that get a chance to shine again. I would say that over half of the projects we get were chosen by the customer because of the family history involved or an appreciation for how a particular make and model from days gone by looks and handles. For example, it’s about how an old SxS with Damascus barrels and a case hardened receiver looks after it’s been restored to its former glory and is now ready to go on another hunt

Most vintage guns can live again and be enjoyed for not only what they are but can capture the past and be used and appreciated by the next generation. And if you’re lucky enough to find a classic gun with detailed provenance it can not only talk to you, but can practically describe a story.

If you have an old gun, particularly with sentimental history, in your possession you may want to consider having it looked at by a gunsmith and see if there are still a few hunts left in it. It often doesn’t take as much to put that old friend back into the field than you might think. Who knows it may just become your favorite gun.

The various shooting sports groups and organizations that support cowboy action shooting, vintage guns, war reenactment, double gun shoots, various target shooting etc. have done a great job keeping these guns alive and appreciate all these guns represent. Find these groups and you’ll find some of the most passionate helpful gun enthusiast around.

It’s easy to see why gun collecting and shooting sports are so enjoyable. There are so many different aspects one can explore and enjoy; the options and possibilities are almost endless. It can be a bit overwhelming when you’re just getting started in collecting, customizing, repairing or shooting which is why having confidence in who you choose to work with is so important. Just start image2with the aspects that speak to you, do your homework, find trusted and passionate people and you’ll rarely be disappointed.

Bringing things back full circle

After we put a gun through our certification process and it passes, it is test fired to make sure it operates like it should. They then make the trip over to the Fine Gun Room where it waits to find the person it speaks to and on to its next chapter. So the next time you see that old gun sitting in the rack take a few minutes and look at it from a big picture perspective. Don’t overlook it just because it’s not new and has some character marks. Try to imagine what those character marks from the past meant, the story it tells and appreciate it for the roll it has played. The excitement the owner felt the day they took it home and showed it off, their first successful hunt, its place in the history of firearms development, how it may have helped defend a nation or the pride they felt passing it along to the next generation. These things have value and can make a connection to all of us. Turns out maybe our old guns have something to say… and can talk after all!