by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

Part 1

A history of airguns

This report covers:

  • Numismatics
  • Coin grades
  • Back to guns
  • 1894 Swedish Mauser
  • Is refinishing bad?
  • Cleaned coins
  • Three types of collectors
  • Different finishes equal different wear patterns
  • Last story
  • Summary

Today’s subject is one of the big ones in collecting. However, it must be understood in light of the intentions of the collector. Are you collecting because you enjoy airguns? Are you collecting as an investment? Or are you collecting to make money? The answer to these three questions can sometimes drive the issue of condition.

Numismatics

I will start with coin collecting and then transition to firearms and airguns. There are thousands of times more coin collectors around the world than airgun collectors. And, in the world of collecting coins, condition is one of the most fundamental issues. Let’s get specific.

Coin grades

There are many grades of coins and even a numerical scale that’s more precise, but for this discussion we will just consider the following grades.

Good
Very Good
Fine
Very Fine
Extremely Fine
Almost Uncirculated
Uncirculated

Let’s look at two half-dollar coins. Both are 1858 Seated Liberty Halves that were minted at the New Orleans mint. One is in Very Good to almost Fine condition. In Very Good condition, this coin is worth $50 today. In Fine condition it’s worth $67.

VG half Obverse
This coin is in Very Good to almost Fine condition.

VG half Reverse
The reverse of the same coin in also Very Good to almost Fine.

This coin sold for $49.00 on Ebay. That’s a good price, though sharp hunting and bargaining could acquire the same coin for less.

The second coin is also an 1858 O half dollar, only the condition is Extremely Fine. In that condition this same coin is worth $133. First lesson —  two grades higher means almost three times the value (in this case). That ratio differs for each coin.

This coin sold for $29.00 on Ebay. Why so cheap? Because someone had drilled a hole in it, either to wear it on a chain or to sew it into their clothes for safekeeping — a very common thing in the 19th century. That hole cost this coin nearly all of its value! If you melted it down for the silver at today’s rate it is worth $6.33 (minus a little for the hole). The hole dropped the value of that coin to one-eighth that of the same coin with no damage.

Holed half Obverse
This coin would be Extremely Fine if not for the hole. Look at the features on the head, hand and shield.

Holed half Reverse
The reverse is just as nice.

These damaged coins are collected by newer collectors who haven’t got the resources to have nicer examples. And, when coins are extremely rare and cost tens of thousands of dollars and more, a holed coin is the only way for the average person to own one.

Back to guns

The condition of coins is a thousand times more exacting than the condition of airguns! Even firearms are much more exacting than airguns, because there are more firearm collectors. Let’s look at a firearm example.

1894 Swedish Mauser

The Swedes created the Swedish Mauser in 1894. It was an extremely short carbine by the standards of the day, and in 1896 they redesigned it into a longer battle rifle. The 1894 Swedish Mauser is scarce and desirable. An average battle-worn one that is unfooled-with will fetch at least $800 today. A nicer one brings $1,200 and up.

I have one with the serial number 389. That rifle was made in 1895! It was made by Mauser in Germany, in the first production run of the rifle. Fifty-two prototypes were made in 1894, and the first production run totaled 5,000 rifles. Condition-wise, it appears to be in NRA Good to Very Good condition. That would put it at around $1,800 to $2,200 (because of the low serial number). BUT…

Years ago somebody thought it would be nice to sand down the stock and give it a coat of Birchwood Casey’s Tru Oil, so it would shine like a new penny! And it does. That one thing cut the value of the gun in half! Why? Because it’s no longer in original condition.

1894 Swedish Mauser
The 1894 Swedish Mauser is a short carbine that survives in low numbers.

1894 Swedish Mauser serial number
The rifle’s serial number is 389.

Is refinishing bad?

Refinishing isn’t necessarily bad, unless it’s done to a collector’s item and subtracts from the originality of the piece. Then it probably matters a lot. But even cleaning can, in certain circumstances, affect the value of something.

Cleaned coins

A silver coin that is worn down to Extremely Fine condition should have little or no original mint luster. All of it came off while the coin was in circulation. Yet many of the silver coins in that condition that you see for sale are shiny. Why? Because they have been cleaned. In coin collecting a cleaned coin is called a “whizzed” coin. An Extremely Fine 1858 O half dollar that is worth $133 in untouched condition drops to $65-90 if it’s been whizzed. And ALL of the shiny silver ones with that date and wear have been cleaned! Ponder that!

Did you notice that both the coins shown above are very dark? That’s the patina (tarnish) of age. American silver coins have traditionally been 90 percent silver and 10 percent copper, or very close to it, since this country began minting coins. If a coin has circulated it will become tarnished. Even if a silver coin is not circulated, but has been stored near certain other materials for some time, it will tarnish.

Three types of collectors

A coin collector who is in the hobby for the enjoyment will spend more to get the best condition coin he can afford. An investor will do the same, because he knows that coins in high condition hold their value best. But someone who is looking to make money may have a different agenda. For example, he may know that a newer collector isn’t as attuned to the issue of condition that you have just read. A newer collector may want the whizzed (bright) coin more than the one with original patina because it looks better to him. The money-maker can profit by buying something from a real collector at a devalued price, based on its having been cleaned, and then selling it to a new collector for more than it’s worth because it looks nice.

What about airguns?

Different finishes equal different wear patterns

Airguns have all sorts of different finishes. Some are blued steel. Others are steel that has been treated with black oxide. Those are the ones we most often call “blued,” but they aren’t. Black oxide wears differently than real bluing. There are even different types of bluing to consider, so it gets quite complex.

Usually I would just make a statement like, “…there are even different types of bluing to consider” and move on, but not this time. Let me talk about two types. Rust bluing is just what the name implies. This kind of bluing simply rusts the metal and then carefully removes the active red rust to reveal an even blueish appearance. It is applied over time, by numerous applications that are labor intensive. That makes it a very tough kind of bluing. Treat it well and rust bluing can last for centuries.

Fire bluing is a more vibrant and impressive kind of bluing that’s applied with — you guessed it — fire! Any blacksmith knows that as steel heats it turns from silver to light yellow, to dark yellow, to brown, to light blue, to dark blue to violet. If you stop heating when the steel is dark blue, you have a fire-blued piece. Unfortunately, this finish is extremely fragile and will rub away with just handling — or even by rubbing against the inside of a poorly-fitted gun case. It is so fragile that it is usually applied only to screw heads. But an entire gun can be finished this way and then it becomes a sight to see!

presentation Colt
This Colt Dragoon has been fire-blued all over, then inlaid with gold figures and leafy vines. The finish is extremely delicate, but this gun will never be fired. It won’t even be cocked!

I could go on and discuss painted and plated airguns, but I will save that for a later installment. Just know that refinishing can decrease the value — again depending on the original finish.

Last story

Years ago I had a Haenel model III DRP. It was a blued gun in 95 percent condition, with just some bluing wear on the barrel from cocking. I gave $300 for it because of the fine and still shiny original finish. That was every penny the rifle was worth at the time (maybe even more), but I figured if I held onto it, the value would increase.

I then sent the rifle to a gunsmith friend, to extract the broken pivot bolt and make a new one. Since he was a friend, he also reblued the gun for me at no extra charge. He meant well, but by buffing and then black-oxiding a 1930s airgun that had been in fine original condition with a real blue finish, he turned my collectible rifle into a shooter worth perhaps $80-100. I never told him what he had done because what could he say? When the original finish is gone it can never return, and friends are worth more than money.

Summary

Condition is important to a collectible airgun. There is more to say, but it crowds over into a discussion of modification, so I will leave it here for now.