The art of collecting airguns – Part 1
by B.B. Pelletier
So, you’ve finally come to terms with the fact that you’ve been bitten by the airgun bug and now you want to do something about it. You have been reading everything you can find and you find that you’ve developed a taste for some of the vintage airguns of the past. They could be common guns such as Benjamins and Crosmans, or maybe you’re more eclectic and fancy a cased Webley Mark II Service rifle with three different barrels.
Finding a Webley Mark II Service rifle would be great. Finding a cased set with all three calibers would be fantastic!
Go where the fish are biting
Whatever the attraction, there are some things to consider before you charge blindly into the breech — pun intended. The first is obvious, except that most people seem to miss it: You can’t catch Marlin in the Mississippi River, and you can’t find rare and exotic airguns at most gun shows, either. You have to go to where the action is, and even then you may not find what you’re looking for.
Gun show finds can be anything, but the likelihood of them being rare and exotic airguns is slim. It does happen if you attend enough shows and talk to enough dealers, but gun shows are not the No. 1 place to find desirable airguns. Airgun shows, on the other hand, are great for it! So, instead of attending nine gun shows at a cost of $200, why not spend even more to attend just one good airgun show and increase your chances for success? In two days at one good airgun show, you can probably find hundreds of times more of what you want than in 10 years of attending local gun shows.
Buy what’s for sale
An old salesman’s adage is, “If you want to make the sales, you have to make the calls.” I’m going to modify it just a bit to this: “If you want to buy vintage airguns, the time to buy is when they’re for sale.” What I mean is that you should try to be open and flexible to the buys when they come your way. Instead of digging in your heels looking for a third variation of the Crosman 140 multi-pump air rifle, be open to a great buy on a Benjamin model 107 pistol in the box when you come across it.
Just recently, I saw a Benjamin model 107 pistol with 96 percent of the original black nickel finish. It was the most perfectly finished Benjamin pistol from the 1930s that I’ve ever seen. It was purchased at the airgun show in the original box with all the papers for $60! Why so cheap? Well, the trigger was broken. And the buyer guessed that the trigger had broken way back 80 years ago when the gun was new, because there was no finish wear on the pump rod. The gun had barely been used.
Benjamin’s earliest model air pistol was a front-pumper like this. It was finished with silver nickel over the brass body and black nickel over the silver. This pistol has about 80 percent of its black nickel, a high number for such a fragile finish.
A replacement trigger for this gun might cost $20 and the riskiest part of the entire transaction is scratching the finish when you install the new trigger in the gun. So, for $80 you’ve purchased a museum-grade vintage airgun in the box with all the paperwork. It just isn’t the Crosman third variation 140 you wanted. By digging in your heels and only settling for exactly what you’re seeking, you’re letting the treasures of the world pass you by.
I cannot tell you how many people make this mistake. They’re so fixated on just one airgun that they cannot see the cornucopia of values spilling out in front of them. They just want a red M&M, darn it, and that’s the only thing that will satisfy them. A year later I meet up with them again, and they’re off the red M&Ms. Now, they want the green ones that were being given away in bags the year before.
Buy what’s available to you if it’s a good deal and save it for later. If you buy right, you’ll soon have some very desirable items to trade for what you really want, or to trade when that unexpected great deal comes along. This year, I stocked up on vintage 10-meter rifles, not because I really need or even want them, but because each one represented a great deal, plus I know they’re so desirable to other collectors that I can use them as premier trade goods in the future.
Know something about airguns
When I started out in this business, there were way fewer than 100 airgun books in the English language. We clung to our Smith’s Standard Encyclopedia of Gas, Air and Spring guns of the World like it was a Bible; and if the guns we saw weren’t in there, it was just tough luck. Today, you have marvelous resources like the Blue Book of Airguns to tell you minute and trivial details of guns we knew nothing about just 30 years ago. And, yet, some airgunners would rather argue about all the mistakes there are in the Blue Book, just as some people argue about supposed inconsistencies in the Bible. You’ll do a lot better by just reading the book and committing it to memory, and that holds for both of them.
Learn to spot a fake
This is a difficult task, but it’s not impossible. Step one is to use some common sense. Nobody is going to fake a Crosman Mark I when there are tens of thousands of them still around. But a Daisy first model worth $3,000-$4,000 is fair game for the fakers. Last week, I was offered an 1858 Old Model Remington .44 caliber percussion revolver with about 90 percent of its finish. Had it been right, it would have been worth at least $2,000 to $2,500. The asking price was $300. That sent my antennae up fast. The marking on the gun looked wrong to me, and the Remington markings were far too faint, because other markings on the same surfaces of the gun were much deeper. Under a jeweler’s loupe, I could see that the letters were much larger than they should be. They were also uneven and looked nothing like the ones Remington used on these guns. I knew what to look for in this case, but even if I didn’t, the asking price was a pretty good signal that the gun was a fake.
A genuine Remington New Model 1858 Army like this one is worth at least $2,000 in this condition. A fake is worth nothing.
Don’t be afraid to ask the seller all about the item you’re interested in. Most people will not offer compromising information about a gun they’re selling when a deal is in the works, but the same people will also tell the truth when asked. So, learn to ask those penetrating questions. Is this the original finish? Does it hold air? Is it shooting as it should? Have any of the parts been replaced? The higher the asking price, the longer your list of questions should be.
Learn the particular weaknesses of the models you want
Here’s what I mean. If you want to buy a Schimel pistol in good condition, check to see if the barrel has welded itself to the frame over the years. Look for shrinkage of the hard rubber grips. Look for cracks in the backstrap. Check to see if the seals are modern, or if they’re the type that swell in the presence of CO2 gas. The Schimel was ahead of its time in design, but the materials of the early 1950s from which it was built were not up to the tasks to which they were put.
A beautiful Schimel gas pistol from the 1950s, but this old design had problems with dissimilar metals welding themselves over the decades, plus gross shrinkage of the plastic grip panels. Not many airgunsmiths can reseal one today, either.
If you want a Sheridan Supergrade, know that it has to be cocked before you pump it, otherwise the valve will leak air. Know that the end of the shot tube on a Daisy No. 25 pump-action BB gun has to align with the air tube on the end of the piston. You can break a Daisy No. 25 just by incorrectly inserting the shot tube.
The Sheridan model A, called the Supergrade by collectors, is the same size and power as the Blue Streak, but it’s worth considerably more. It must be cocked before it will accept a fill.
Learn to look!
How many times have I bought guns that I didn’t examine closely enough to spot obvious faults? On breakbarrels, it’s often a bent barrel. Many people want to see how fast the barrel will close if they fire the gun with the barrel broken open, and you’ll always find these barrels bent upward at the point where they enter the baseblock. Don’t believe these people for a second when they tell you they weren’t aware of this fault in their gun, or that the barrel slammed shut on its own. This was a deliberate act, and nobody shoots a gun that hits 10 inches high at 10 yards without knowing it!
Then, there are the guns without sights! Unless you look for them, the sights are easy to miss. Maybe that beautiful compact scope has distracted you from noticing that this target rifle is missing $500 worth of target sights! A $50 scope can distract you from this critical cost accessory, and you’ll never recoup your losses. And on some guns, the loss can be considerable, because the sights are next to impossible to find.
I’m adding this last part to encourage you guys who are just getting started or want to start collecting soon. Today, I heard from a close gun-trading buddy about two guns he just bought for $1,250. One of them is a very desirable collectible Winchester that I immediately told him is worth $1,400 by itself. But he told me he was seeing the same gun in the same condition on Gun Broker going for $2,200 with four bids and five days of bidding remaining! The other gun was also a collectible handgun worth at least $500. But the seller never looks on the internet, so he doesn’t know this. He goes by the values listed in the Blue Book of Gun Values, which are sometimes deeply undervalued.
I’m not saying that you should try to hurt someone in a deal, but in this case, the seller set the price! When that happens, don’t argue, just act. Be ready when the bluebird of happiness lands on you or when you get beaten senseless with the lucky stick!
Tomorrow, I’m going to a local gun store to try to trade two valuable firearms for an extremely desirable collectible rifle that I believe to be severely undervalued. I’ve been watching this rifle for the past five years, and now I’m in a position to do something about it. The store may reject my offer or they may want more than I’m offering, but if the deal goes through I will share all the juicy details with you.
I labeled this report Part 1 so I could return to the subject with additional information. There’s certainly more to be added, but I’ll see what sort of response this one creates before writing anything further.