by B.B. Pelletier
Connor Moynihan is this week’s BSOTW.
This report just bubbled up on its own. I was scanning Gun Broker the other day when I came across a listing for a “Benjamin Franklin” model 312 air rifle in exceptional condition. Whenever I see a listing for a Benjamin Franklin airgun, I know the person doing the listing doesn’t know anything about airguns, because there never was any air rifle that was called a Benjamin Franklin. That was just a title on certain Benjamin airguns as a play on the company name.
Instead, I concentrated on the “exceptional” condition that was mentioned. A model 312 is a multi-pump that has a Tootsie Roll pump handle. It’s made from all brass that’s been plated with silver nickel and then plated with something we call black nickel, but I don’t think that it actually is. The black wears off quickly with handling. The silver lasts a lot longer. And, finally, the gun wears down to the brass, which the owner often shines up like a trumpet. The gun in question was a shiny brass one.
In other words, far from being the exceptional gun mentioned, this was a well-worn air rifle with no original finish remaining. It graded good, at best. That started me thinking about the condition of used airguns and whether they should ever be refinished. That’s what I would like to talk about today.
Is condition everything?
If you’re in the middle of a large, deep lake in a small boat, you want that boat to be waterproof, first of all. The question of whether the cushions match the paint scheme can be tabled until you are safely ashore. So, in certain circumstances, functionality trumps appearance. You can equate that to most things that we use and also collect.
If you bought a Feinwerkbau 125 (a very rare 5mm version of the FWB 124) to hunt with, and subsequently cut down the barrel to carbine length, you now have a nice spring carbine that’s no longer collectible. The fact that it started out as a collectible doesn’t matter after the gun was changed. As a hunting rifle, your gun has value. As a collectible, it has none. But it’s not always that clear, is it?
Let’s say you bought a nice Crosman model 101 multi-pump that was made between 1925 and 1940. It’s not a rare airgun; and when you bought it, it wasn’t holding air, so you had the gun resealed. You spent $100 for the gun and another $40 to get it resealed, so you now have $140 in it. But you’re something of a handyman and decided to refinish the outside of the gun. You strip it, sand it, repaint the metal parts and refinish the wood. The gun now looks like new, and you have about $175 in it. At this point, you probably have a little more money in the gun than it’s worth. As nice as it looks, who knows? Someone might pay $175 for it. Or perhaps they’ll even pay $200.
The point is that this particular gun has gone as far as it can go. As the years pass, the gun will increase in value, but it won’t increase very fast. Compare that to a genuine like-new model 101. This one really is in like-new condition and still has all the factory finish on it. More importantly, the owner can prove that it’s all original. This gun might bring $500-600, even if it doesn’t hold air. Why the difference, when it looks no better than yours, and perhaps not even as good? Because it’s in all-original condition, which is something collectors want. This airgun is collectible, where yours is a good-looking shooter and no more. Add an original box to this gun and the value might easily double. Add a reproduction box to your own refinished gun, and the price won’t increase by a nickel!
Wait a minute!
If what I just said about guns that have been fooled with is true, then there are practically no original M1 Carbines remaining in the world! Why? Because over the past 50 years, ill-advised collectors have stripped the guns and replaced them with parts all made by the same manufacturers — in spite of the fact that when they were made this never happened! Finding a Carbine in factory condition is next to impossible today, unless something very unusual happened to it to preserve its integrity along the way. So, has almost every M1 Carine been reduced to the status of a shooter? Absolutely not!
In the case of the M1 Carbine, collectors accept the fact that all the guns have been fooled with by the swapping of non-original parts. By non-original, I mean parts that were not put on the gun when it was manufactured. The parts are, in fact, genuine M1 Carbine parts — they simply weren’t installed on the guns they’re found on today, because the government had an aggressive program of swapping parts between manufacturers in the Carbine program. It was designed to promote interchangibility, and it’s why a gun that has mostly Winchester parts or mostly Inland parts today was not originally manufactured that way.
But collectors of Winchester firearms are very different! They want their guns to either be exactly as they were produced; or if they’ve ever been changed, they want those changss to have been done and clearly marked by the Winchester company.
Colt collectors are much the same as Winchester collectors, with a few exceptions. The most common exception is the 5-inch artillery model single-action Army Colt, the Peacemaker, that was manufactured during certain years in the late 1800s. This gun, alone, is allowed to have grip straps and triggerguards with different serial numbers than the frame of the gun, because these guns went through an arsenal rebuild process where they were all disassembled and put into piles of parts for refinish. When they were reassembled, no attention was paid to the serial numbers matching, and that fact is understood and accepted by Colt collectors for this one model and range of guns. But it doesn’t apply to any other model of Colt.
And so it goes. Each collectible firearm or airgun has its own set of rules. No one can give a single set of rules that fits all models and circumstances. I could go on with various anecdotes, such as the Schmeisser-type bolt-action air rifles that often have their stocks cut in front to fit inside a duffle bag, so they could be brought back from the European theater after World War II. But for the sake of brevity, I will stop right here.
Now, I want to talk about airgun conditions and tell you what’s official, what’s accepted and what’s wrong.
NRA Modern Condition Descriptions
Let’s start with the NRA standards for modern firearms. These are published and maintained by the National Rifle Association and are the accepted definitions to describe the conditions of any gun. However, if you obtain these standards from other sources, many of them will be paraphrased, resulting in confusion. I have copied these from the Blue Book of Airguns, whose publisher, Steve Fjestatd, is a long-time board member of the NRA. If any source can be considered accurate, it is this one.
New: Not previously sold at retail, in same condition as current factory production.
Perfect: In New condition in every respect. [NOTE: This is often listed AS NEW]
Excellent: New condition, used but little, no noticeable marring of wood or metal, bluing perfect (except at muzzle or sharp edges).
Very Good: In perfect working condition, no appreciable wear on working surfaces, no corrosion or pitting, only minor surface dents or scratches.
Good: In safe working condition, minor wear on working surfaces, no corrosion or pitting, only minor surface dents or scratches.
Fair: In safe working condition but well worn, perhaps requiring replacement of minor parts or adjustments which should be indicated in advertisement, no rust, but may have corrosion pits which do not render article unsafe or inoperable.
Then there are a separate set of NRA standards for antique firearms.
NRA Antique Condition Descriptions
Factory New: All original parts: 100 percent original finish, in perfect condition in every respect, inside and out.
Excellent: All original parts; over 80 percent original finish; sharp lettering, numerals and design on metal and wood; unmarred wood; fine bore.
Fine: All original parts; over 30 percent original finish; sharp lettering, numerals and design on metal and wood; minor marks in wood; good bore.
Very Good: All original parts; zero to 30 percent original finish; original metal surfaces smooth with all edges sharp; clear lettering, numerals and design on metal; wood slightly scratched or bruised; bore diregarded for collector firearms.
Good: Some minor replacement parts; metal smoothly rusted or slightly pitted in places, cleaned or reblued; principal lettering, numerals and design on metal legible; in good working order.
Fair: Some major parts replaced; minor replacement parts may be required; metal rusted, may be lightly pitted all over, vigorously cleaned or reblued; rounded edges of metal and wood; principal lettering, numerals and design on metal partly obliterated; wood scratched, bruised, cracked or repaired where broken; in fair working order or can easily be repaired and placed in working order.
Poor: Major and minor parts replaced; major replacement parts required and extensive restoration needed; metal deeply pitted; principal lettering, numerals and design obliterated; wood badly scratched, bruised, cracked or broken; mechanically inoperative, generally undesireable as a collector’s firearm.
The difference between airguns and firearms
Airguns are often made from materials that are very different than those used to make firearms. They don’t have to endure the same working pressures, operating abuse and general ruggedness standards to be acceptable to airgunners. Let me illustrate this with an example. The Desert Eagle firearm is made of steel, is extremely robust and can stand up to the hardest abuse and still operate. The Desert Eagle airgun is made of large amounts of plastic and, while acceptable to shooters, it cannot withstand any of the rugged treatment the firearm can.
I mentioned that certain firearms (Colt SAA artillery model, M1 Carbine, etc.) are treated differently than the NRA standards dictate, for various reasons. This also holds true for airguns. The Schimel GP22 is a single-shot CO2 pistol from the early 1950s. It was designed to resemble a Luger pistol, even to the point that the loading bolt was part of a toggle linkage that was manually raised up from the receiver to load each pellet — much the same as the toggle link works in the semiautomatic firearm — every time it fires.
The Schimel was a CO2 pistol made in the early 1950s.
The Schimel was constructed of potmetal parts with reinforcements for needed wear durability. For instance, the rifled barrel is a thin steel tube that’s pressed into a potmetal jacket that resembles a barrel on the outside. Because two dissimilar metals were in contact, many guns suffered electrolysis over the decades, and these parts are now welded together.
Schimels were painted with a flat black paint that did not hold up well over time. As a result, most guns have lost some to all of their original black finish.
Schimel grip panels were made of a synthetic that shrank over time. Most grip panels will show some shrinkage, which makes me suspicious of any Schimel with grip panels have not shrunk.
I’ve never seen a Schimel in 100 percent original condition, and I’m pretty sure one doesn’t exist. I’ve seen a couple of 80 percent guns that I thought were refinished. I’ve seen Schimel grips that were not shrunk, and I am all but certain that are not original parts.
So — what would make a perfect Schimel collectible? I think a gun that has as much as 25 percent of the flat black (don’t handle this gun because that paint is still flaking off!) and shrunken grips in a nice original box is about the best you can hope for. Anything beyond that is either a gun that was in a mammouth’s mouth when he was flash-frozen, or it’s been refinished. That’s my opinion, and it’s not necessarily true.
Back to the first gun I talked about — the Crosman 101. If the American Pickers suddenly discover one that has been housed in a warehouse in a dry climate, it may be possible that it has its original finish. But 99.999 percent of this model that have 100 percent finish have been refinished. They may be worth as much as $200, where a good shooter might bring only $100. But that one lone gun the American Pickers found is worth whatever anyone is willing to pay.
Rarity means very little
Every airgun is potentially unique in this respect. And, despite the efforts to which some refinishers have gone to make the guns shine, their collector value remains low because of the major changes that were made to get the gun in the finer condition.
I own a Falke model 90 underlever spring rifle. According to the best information available, there may have been fewer than 200 of these airguns made in the early 1950s. Mine is in fair-to-poor condition because of the vandalism of a former owner who tried to carve his initials into the stock. If my gun was a Winchester that was just as scarce, it would be worth five figures in this condition. But as it is, my Falke has been offered at several airgun shows at $450 in working condition and has been ignored. If it was in 80 percent condition (even if restored to that condition) and had the rear peep sight, it might bring $450. But it probably wouldn’t bring a lot more.
In contrast to the Falke, Sheridan produced 2,130 model A (Supergrade) rifles from 1947 to about 1953. One of these that works and has been restored to near-new condition will fetch about $1,400 today. That’s despite the fact that this rifle is in no better condition, from the NRA standards standpoint, than my Falke.
Slang terms used to describe condition
Here are some terms that are commonly used to describe the condition of airguns.
Pristine: Meaningless, but it conveys about the same as NRA Excellent condition.
Mint: Same as Pristine. Meaningless for firearms or airguns. Minty is a subset of Mint.
LNIB: Stands for Like New in Box. It conveys that the condition is New and there is also a box.
Excellent condition, considering its age: Watch out for anything sounding like this! The seller wants to cover the true condition by having you imagine what it might be. Whenever I see this phrase, I think I’m about to be swindled. The only time you should consider the age of an airgun is after you’ve been told what the real condition is, as in, “This gun is in Good condition, which is not too bad when you consider its age.”
Also watch out for sellers who try to mix the condition ratings, like, “This gun is in 95 percent excellent condition. The one thing that keeps it from being rated that high is a small area of deep pitting, where moisture from the box rusted the left side of the slide at some time.” He has taken a gun that is in NRA Fair condition (the deep pitting) and upgraded it to almost Excellent by how he worded the description. This is dishonest but probably not intentional. Watch out for it, nevertheless. Like blurry closeup photos — you don’t know whether the guy is covering something up or is just a lousy photographer.
Be concerned when someone tries to come across as your friend when they describe a gun. Such as, “This gun was obviously loved a lot by some proud little boy,” is code for “It’s a wreck!”
What does it all mean?
Collecting is complex. That’s the lesson I think you can take from today’s report. Rarity, alone, often has little bearing on the value buyers will place on an airgun. However, there are things to watch for. Guns that have been modified have generally lost all collector value, if they ever had any. That doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable — just that collectors won’t see them that way.
Restoring an airgun can add to its value — to a point. And that point will differ with each and every model.