by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

The history of airguns

This report covers:

  • Case one
  • Case two
  • Case three
  • Airguns are different
  • Is restoration ever okay?
  • Stradivarius
  • How does all of this relate to airguns?
  • So — refinish and rebuild, or no?

This question plagues collectors in every category — not just airguns. You have something that’s old and you would like to see it work again and even look pretty. Is it worth the time and money to do that?

Let me lay out three hypothetical cases that deal with the same model gun. I will be talking about a firearm — not an airgun, because the lines are clearer for firearms.

Case one

Case one — you own a Winchester model 1873 rifle that you would like to shoot again. It’s worn out, both outside and inside, and several of the parts must be replaced or repaired before it will work safely. In its present condition the rifle is worth about $550. Restored to working condition with a like-new finish it will be worth about $2,000. It will cost approximately $4,500 to repair and restore this rifle to like-new condition. That’s a job done by an expert restorer like the Turnbull Company — not a hack job that buffs out all the marks and rounds all the sharp corners on the gun.

This rifle will never be worth what you pay to have it restored, because restoration removes all collector value. However, a fine restoration job will increase the value of the gun significantly over one that’s worn out. If the gun has sentimental value, have it restored. If not, sell it and look for one in better condition. A similar rifle in the condition you will be restoring this one to, but one that is in original unrestored condition, is worth no less than $6,000.

Case two

Case two — same Winchester 1873, only this one is a One of One-Thousand gun — a special very limited edition version that Winchester made. In like-new condition this would be a half-million-dollar gun, and that’s just an estimate. The prices go up all the time and depend on what a person with money is willing to pay.

The one you own is worn and pitted with a shot-out barrel — just like the gun in case one. Should you restore it?

No! Even worn out, a One of One-Thousand rifle could still be worth $5000-10,000, because it is so rare. If you restore it to like-new condition like the same gun in case one, the value will be the same $2,000. You will have lowered the value by restoring the gun, because it went from being a genuine One of One-Thousand in poor condition to just another restored Winchester 1873. It has value, but all collector value is gone.

Case three

Case three — Same Winchester 1873, but this one is well-documented to have been the personal rifle of Judge Roy Bean — the law west of the Pecos. Same poor condition. Restore it?

No — no — a thousand times, no! This gun has Roy Bean’s fingerprints on it. He put many of the nicks and scratches that are on it. Its value is in who owned it — not in what it is.

Airguns are different

Now with airguns, it becomes more complex to make the call about restoration. An airgun that was made in small numbers may still not command much money today. For example, there were fewer than 160 One of One-Thousand Winchester 1873 rifles made. That puts it in the same category as the Falke 90 air rifle that is believed to have had only about 200 made. Yet the Winchester commands six figures today, while a nice Falke 90 can be purchased for less than a thousand dollars.

In this case the Winchester name adds interest to the rifle’s story. Nobody other than a serious collector ever heard of the Falke company. Then there is added interest from Winchester’s close association with the old west. The Falke 90 is associated with the 1950s and nobody is trying to remember that era.

The Winchester One of One-Thousand was featured in a movie of the same name. Falke never made it to the big screen, as far as I can tell. So the differences between the firearm and the airgun are significant. Of all those differences, though, it is the history that drives the price of the Winchester, more than anything.

Is restoration ever okay?

This is a question that gets asked every time the subject arises. There are two camps that oppose each other. One says never restore anything and the other says it’s always okay to restore. The truth lies in the middle, as it often does. Let me give you an example.

Stradivarius

You may not know much about violins, but everybody has heard of a Stradivarius. Made by Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737), these instruments are widely regarded as the finest violins in the world. Many have been owned and played by master violinists who gave the instruments their own names upon passing. So there is the Paganini Strad, The Viotti Strad and I am quite sure the Strad owned by Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999) will acquire his name someday, if it hasn’t already. Most of these unparalleled instruments have been maintained over the centuries and today bear the unmistakeable marks of repair and even (shudder) modification.

So, even when a violin is worth tens of millions of dollars, it is considered perfectly okay for them to receive expert care and maintenance when needed. They are valued for their provenance and origins, but also for their performance, and performance trumps collectibility almost every time. Except once.

In Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum that was founded in 1683, there exists a Stradivarius that has never been maintained, altered or worked on by anyone since the master last held it. The Messiah is the most famous and probably most valuable Stradivarius in the world — being in like-new condition. It has scarcely been played since it was completed in 1716. It may be okay to maintain other Strads, but this one, alone, must remain untouched for as long as it exists. Its value is in its pristine condition.

These violins are the cream of a very exclusive crop, but beneath them there exists a much larger population of instruments that have been dropped, sat on, modified for players of small proportion and otherwise deflowered. These violins have been lovingly restored and maintained, once they were recognized for what they are. Today they comprise the group of Stradivari that trade for only a few million dollars — almost affordable!

How does all of this relate to airguns?

First, there is almost no value added to an airgun owned by a personality — with a few exceptions. The NRA National Firearms Museum has a Feinwerkbau 124 that was customized by Don Robinson for His Royal Highness, Prince Charles. The prince donated the air rifle to the National Firearms Museum, where it now resides. This rifle does have additional value because of who it belonged to.

I have seen a Daisy Red Ryder with a sundial and a compass in the stock that was made for and used in the classic Christmas movie A Christmas Story. In that movie the gun played a starring role as “Old Blue,” the BB gun that Ralphie Parker desperately desired and eventually received. The gun I saw was on display at several airgun shows with a sign that explained its origins. What the sign did not explain, though, was the fact that there were several BB guns made for that movie — each to be used in different scenes.

The curious fact about the Christmas Story Red Ryder is the fact that the gun never actually existed before the movie. Author Jean Sheperd blended memories of the real Red Ryder with those of Daisy’s Buck Jones that had the sundial and compass. Daisy cooperated with filmmakers by creating the gun in Shepherd’s memory for the movie and later they made a run of similar guns for the commercial market.

The owner valued his movie prop at $10,000, which is an, “I don’t care to sell” price. It’s hardly worth that much, though a spirited auction might bring surprising results. So, this is another real-world example of how celebrity affects some airgun prices. Beyond that, though, it really doesn’t matter who has touched the gun. It may make a difference to one person, but in the wide world of trade value, airgun celebrity is almost nonexistent.

Maybe Robert Beeman’s custom R1 that was stocked by Gary Goudy is worth something additional, but besides the association with Beeman there is the Goudy cachet that carries some force of its own. That rifle is worth a lot simply because it is worth a lot!

So — refinish and rebuild, or no?

Unless the airgun in question meets the rather exclusionary criteria described here, by all means rebuild and restore it. But know what you are doing. A nice Falke 90 in original condition with the peep sight should bring $850 or so today. My Falke 90 that was a wreck when I bought it was overhauled y blog reader Vince.He got it to work and then the stock got a professional refinish. Even with all that the rifle isn’t worth $450. I know that because I have offered it at several airgun shows without the slightest interest. I have more than $450 in the rifle at this point, so the restoration was not a money-making investment. But it did give me an air rifle I can hold and handle without needing a tetanus shot!

My feeling is if the airgun has some original finish and it works — leave it alone. If it doesn’t work, fix it. Only refinish it if it’s in really horrible shape, like the Diana 23 I am currently working on. And know that collectors usually want things as original as they can find. A refinish may make the gun more appealing, but it may not add much to the value.