The art of collecting airguns – Part 2
by B.B. Pelletier
Today, I’ll fulfill my promise to tell you about the greatest gun deal I’ve ever made. Although the title says airguns, today’s article is about firearms. But the process by which I did what seemed to me to be impossible is the same one I described in Part 1 of this report series.
I’m going to have to give you some background information, which involves other gun deals, because without them I would never have been able to swing this deal. But first, let me tell you what I was up against. You are about to read the longest and most detailed single blog report I have ever made, so you’d better put on a whole pot of coffee and get comfy.
There’s a gun store in Ft. Worth called the Winchester Gallery, and it’s right out of the 1950s. Besides modern guns, they have a wide selection of fine vintage guns for sale. You all liked the looks of my Winder Musket when I showed it to you. The Winchester Gallery has two of them available!
The Winder Musket is a target rifle chambered for .22 Short and was sanctioned for NRA matches in the early part of the 20th century.
They also have a great number of other fine collectible antique firearms. About five years ago, my buddy Mac was telling me how interested he was in a single-shot rifle in caliber .38-55 Winchester. Well, imagine my surprise to find such a rifle on the wall at the Winchester Gallery. It was a Marlin Ballard Union Hill No. 9 rifle with tang sight and spirit level front sight with wind gauge (that means the front sight adjusts to either side for windage corrections). Don’t worry about all that terminology. I’ll show you everything and explain it today.
The only problem with this fine rifle was its price. They wanted $3,500 for it! I don’t look seriously at guns in that price range because, frankly, I don’t have that kind of money to spend. Life went on, I returned home and the beautiful Ballard remained on the wall at the Winchester gallery, where it had already been for many years.
I would return to the Winchester Gallery several times each year that followed and every time I would visit that rifle. I was drawn to it, even though I would never have considered it had Mac not been interested in the caliber. The wood was so beautiful that it looked edible and the color case-hardened receiver looked new! But at $3,500, it was all looky and no touchy!
Fast-forward to two years ago, when I acquired an unbelievable Winchester M1 Carbine in a deal that was the best firearms deal I ever made to that point. What I thought I was buying was a clean M1 Carbine that I could shoot. What I actually got was a highly collectible and rare first model spring-tube Winchester sitting in a presentation walnut stock.
This 100 percent spring-tube Winchester carbine was made in 1943, during the third month of production. It saw no service and was as new as the day it was proofed.
This Winchester was all that I wanted and more. Unfortunately, it was the “more” that broke my heart. You see, this was a rare collectible gun that was also prone to break early in its life. The spring tube that Winchester had used because they didn’t have the tooling to drill deep holes straight in the receivers was prone to crack the receiver at several weak points. I wanted something to shoot, but shooting is the last thing you should do with this particular model. What I really had was the famed Biblical pearl of great price — something so valuable that it could not serve its intended purpose.
After getting out of the hospital in June of this year, I engaged in a complex trade with a local M1 Carbine collector who took my Winchester and left me with a very shootable S’G’ carbine plus a rare 1862 Peabody rifle. The Peabody I have written about already. It’s a fine rifle but it had one fatal flaw, from my perspective. It was too valuable to modify in any way! Once again, I had a gun I could shoot, but not one I could put a scope on without destroying about a thousand dollars of collector value.
The Peabody rifle was a single-shot cartridge rifle that was purchased by three state militias and several foreign governments. This one is from Connecticut, the only state to rebarrel their rifles in .45-70 caliber with Henry rifling.
The Peabody has an outside hammer. When Martini of Switzerland modified it, he lost the hammer and went to an internal striker. The Peabody-Martini rifle design is known much better than the Peabody that preceded it.
Very few Peabody rifles are marked this clearly.
The Henry rifling in this rifle bore is close to pristine, despite use with black powder and corrosive primers.
You guys know that I ended up putting a scope on my Remington Rolling Block in .43 Spanish. And that rifle has met all my hopes for what it could be and do. Mac got to shoot it about a month ago and his first three bullets at 50 yards could be covered by a quarter!
This Remington Rolling Block in .43 Spanish caliber (the same as .44-77 Sharps) is now a real tackdriver.
So, I owned this nice Peabody in .45-70 caliber, but I already own a vintage Trapdoor Springfield rifle in the same caliber that serves me very well. I don’t need two rifles in the same caliber. Plus, I had to modify the sights on the Trapdoor to be able to see the front blade and also to be on target at 50 yards. The Peabody has sights that hit 14 inches high at 50 yards, and I can’t see its front sight blade anyway. Despite being a way-cool historical firearm, it wasn’t giving me a warm fuzzy as a shooter.
A second blue-chip trade
Now you need to know something else. A few weeks ago, I had a brief opportunity to purchase a Winchester model 55 takedown rifle for about half what it’s actually worth. The rifle is in very good condition, but I was able to acquire it for just $600, because the seller needed the cash to make his own incredible buy. I had about an hour to decide, but I knew I could always sell the rifle for a handsome profit. Even though it tapped me out of cash at the time, I bought it.
The Winchester 55 is a little-known cousin of the famed model 1894. Where about ten million 94s were made, Winchester made only about 35,000 model 55s. It’s three times rarer than the model 64, which is also considered to be a scarce cousin to the 94. This one is in caliber .32 Winchester Special.
The bluing has flaked off the receiver because Winchester used nickel steel for the receiver, which did not hold the blue. They even lose blue when left untouched. Later, they changed the alloy and the bluing stuck better. Oddly, the barrel retains about 98 percent of the blue, even though it’s also made of nickel steel. Apparently, the barrel alloy is different.
This rifle is a take-down design that worked flawlessly. They seldom, if ever, become loose.
This 55 is a takedown rifle, which is usually rare, but in a 55 it is the most common form. The solid frame rifle is the one you don’t see that often. This rifle is in .32 Winchester Special, which is ballistically slightly better than the .30-30.
The plot thickens!
Now, all the pieces of the puzzle have come together. I have two prime collectible firearms that I don’t really want, and I acquired them in either great trades or buys after June of this year. Together they’re worth — wait for it — between $3,000 and $3,800, though I didn’t pay anywhere near that much. Still, I didn’t put everything together until I wrote that airgun collectible piece for this blog. Then it dawned on me that I could take my own advice and get the gun I really wanted by trading the two I didn’t care about.
Or at least that is how the story would have gone in a well-written novel or movie.
In my case, the idea of trading had to be suggested to me by a gun buddy, because I was too obtuse to envision it. However, once he mentioned it, I saw the possibilities. Mac, this other guy and I had just visited the Winchester Gallery, and I finally got to show both of them the Ballard rifle I’d been drooling over for the past five years. And that was when my other gun buddy suggested the trade. Only he told me to offer my Peabody and my Winder Musket. But I didn’t want to get rid of the Winder. I really like it. Then Mac said I should substitute the Winchester 55 for the Winder and suddenly the clouds cleared and the sun shown strong and warm!
They already had two Winder Muskets on their walls, but no model 55s. In fact, the guy who handled the trade for the gun store said it had been many years since he had seen a 55. So, from a desirability standpoint, this was the rifle they wanted and needed more than a third Winder.
Long story short, I made the trade and came home with a drop-dead gorgeous Marlin Ballard Union Hill No. 9 target rifle. Ballard began making their rifles in 1861, and Marlin bought them out in 1875. Ballard rifling was considered to be among the best in its day — the Lothar Walther of the 19th century — and custom barrelmakers like Harry Pope liked the actions above all others.
Marlin made the Ballard single-shot rifle from 1875 until 1890, and they made just less than 36,000 of all models. The Union Hill No. 9 was introduced in 1884. From the serial number of this rifle, it seems it was made around 1886, but it looks almost brand new. It has walnut that would be called grade four today. The bore is bright, smooth and fresh despite may decades of black powder cartridges. Whoever owned this rifle, in fact all of the former owners, took painstaking care of it.
Marlin Ballard Union Hill No. 9 offhand target rifle in .38-55 caliber. This single-shot rifle was probably made around 1886. Distinctive features are the pistol-grip stock, the cheekpiece and the half-round/half-octagon 30-inch barrel. The rifle weighs about 9.5 lbs.
Although the lever makes the rifle look like a repeater, it’s actually a single-shot. Just look at those bright case colors on the receiver!
When the lever goes forward, the breechblock and hammer drop down for loading.
When the breechblock drops down, the breech can be accessed for loading.
The rifle is in .caliber .38-55. Today, with smokeless power dominating all our loads, we think of that caliber as a good deer and black bear round, but in the black-powder days of the late 19th century when bullets flew at much slower velocities, this same cartridge was viewed as a good offhand round for 200-yard target work.
Not familiar with the .38-55 cartridge? In the middle, flanked by the .30-30 Winchester (left) and the .30-06 (right). The .38-55 is a blackpowder cartridge that spawned the .30-30, but also continues to live its own life today. It’s a little more powerful than the .30-30, but in the 19th century was considered to be a great offhand target cartridge.
After some internet research, I’m 95 percent convinced that what I have is a Ballard Union Hill No. 9 rifle. All the specifications, save one, fit perfectly. What doesn’t line up is that my rifle has a black flat gutta-percha buttplate, where the No. 9 usually had a nickel-plated butt hook. But customers could make changes to the base models, and in all other ways, my rifle aligns with the No. 9 Union Hill.
What thrills me to no end is the presence of both a tang-mounted diopter rear sight and a rare wind-gauge front sight with spirit level. Marlin made both of these sights, so there’s no maker’s name on them. The rear sight is graduated to 900 yards, but careful examination shows that only 800 yards of adjustment is possible, and that was what defined the No. 9 rifle. The wind-gauge front sight is unusual because it adjusts for windage. While we have plenty of these sights today, they were not that common in the 19th century, but a target rifle like this one needed to have one. The spirit level refers to a bubble level in front of the front sight, so when you take aim you are careful to also center the bubble before firing. That way, all tendency to cant is eliminated.
This Marlin flip-up rear aperture sight mounts on the tang and adjusts out to 800 yards. Actual sight settings should be found through shooting at the ranges you want and recording the actual Vernier readings from the sight post in a shooter’s notebook for the rifle.
The rear of the front sight (top) is facing the shooter, so he levels the bubble before shooting. The front (bottom) has a Vernier scale for recording windage changes. Notice the complete absence of any crowning at the muzzle. This was common in the 19th century and was considered the most accurate way to finish a muzzle. Just keep it safe from bumps!
This set of marks was applied to Marlin Ballards made in 1881 and later. The patent date is Nov. 5, 1861.
What attracted me to this rifle the first time I saw it on the wall at the Winchester Galley was the beautiful wood buttstock and forearm. The figure in the wood is so gorgeous that it appears to be chocolate! Both the pistol grip and forearm are checkered well, but not with fine lines. This checkering is meant to grip sweaty palms in the heat of competition.
This is what I mean by “edible” wood!
A fine gutta-percha buttplate is held to the butt with two engraved screws. Notice the screw slots are aligned with the bore — a sign of quality gun-making!
If you just have to know how much I am into this rifle, the total is $1,850, or a little more than half the asking price. But wait a moment — I said this rifle had been on the wall at the Winchester Gallery for many, many years. In all that time, the price tag had remained the same as the day it was put on. So, the gun’s price never appreciated through the years as it should have.
You can go on Gun Broker and find Marlin Ballard Union Hill No. 9 rifles for $3,500 from time to time. But look at them closely, because none of them will have this grade of wood and their case colors will not be as bright and vibrant as those on this gun. Some may even have double-set triggers or Swiss butt hooks, but they’ll lack the spirit level wind gauge front sight. Get all the attributes the same as my gun and the starting price will be closer to $5,000.
This story has a point. Besides my sharing the tremendous find with you, I also hope to encourage you to think bigger than you have been. If you want a certain airgun, make up your mind to get it. A year ago, I would have said there was no way I could have ever acquired this rifle. But by putting into practice several of the tips I have shared with you in this blog regarding acquiring fine airguns, I was able to swing the impossible deal through a series of other deals within the past five months of this year.
Not only have I told you a great story about a fantastic deal. I now find that my vision of what is possible has been expanded to larger than its former size. It will never again snap back to where it was before. Having done this, I know I can do other things equally large, so now I want to do more. Not spend more money, but take some of the things I don’t care about and turn them into things I can treasure. This means I have to be open to great buys when they pass my way, even if I don’t want them. Someone wise once said the deal of a lifetime comes by about every 18 months — more often if you are actively looking.