by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

A history of airguns

This report covers:

  • Success!
  • Reality
  • How rare is rare?
  • Second gun
  • The big one
  • A defective design
  • USMR
  • History is the point
  • Scarce gun number 2
  • The difference
  • Celebrity association
  • Moral?
  • Is it real?
  • Sow’s ear
  • Don’t fall for it
  • Market-driven scarcity
  • Summary

Success!

This history section of the daily blog is a big success. Many readers are interested in collecting and learning about vintage airguns, so I am starting a series on collecting. There will be some things that you have seen before, but I hope to put it in a new light. And I have some new things to share, as well. I have already identified several topics for reports, so this promises to be a long one! I won’t run it consecutively, though. I’ll weave in in amongst the reports on historical items of interest. In the end I may turn it into a feature for “Firearms News”.

I have decided to depart from my usual fundamental writing style for this series. This will be written to an higher level.

Reality

I’ll start the series with a discussion of scarcity. The reality television shows that show buying, selling, finding and identifying rare items have helped me understand this topic immensely. Sure, many of the shows are scripted, and shows like Pawn Stars can be embarrassingly corny and amateurish. But among the maize there are nuggets of gold. That’s why I watch.

How scripted are they? A couple years ago I shipped a big bore air rifle to one reality show, so it could be “discovered” and addressed on the air. That’s how scripted they are.

How rare is rare?

Here are two examples to illustrate my point. I will present two guns that were each made in quantities of approximately 1,100. One from the mid-1800s is worth anywhere from $500,000 in fair condition (that’s NRA Horrible to most of us) to over one million dollars for one in good condition. Good means NRA Good, which means some small parts have been replaced and all the finish is gone, but the gun is still in functioning condition. If any historical provenance accompanies one of these guns, a zero can be added to it’s value.

Second gun

The other gun is a century newer, so mid-1900s. I am envisioning one that’s in very good condition — some finish missing but the gun functions, has all its original parts and has no modifications. There is very little chance of an historical connection with this one, but later I will address how personalities factor in. You can pick up one of these for $1,400-1,600 today.

Fourteen hundred dollars to one million dollars sounds like quite a spread for two things that were manufactured in similar quantities. One gun is close to a thousand times more valuable than the other. What are these guns?

The big one

The first gun is a Colt Walker revolver, named for Samuel Walker, the Texas Ranger turned Army company commander who convinced Samuel Colt to produce it. The U.S. Army ordered 1,000 revolvers and 100 more were made for the civilian market. They were revolutionary for their day, but they didn’t hold up in service!

Colt Walker
The Colt Walker was so far ahead of its time that the technology wasn’t ready. The gun suffered many major malfunctions.

A defective design

First — these revolvers were subjected to the harshest conditions of combat in the American Southwest, where they were deployed. Second, the metallurgy of the era was not quite up to the challenge of the design. Guns blew up! Third, and this goes along with number two, the gun held a charge of approximately 60 grains of black powder in each of its six cylinders. Colt recommended only 50 grains, but 60 were possible and soldiers loaded by filling the chamber with powder and ramming a ball down on top of the charge.

Sixty grains of powder is a rifle charge — not a pistol charge. Combine that with the borderline metallurgy and Walker Colts have become extremely scarce. Close to 300 of them blew up in operation within the first couple years in service.

USMR

The Walker was issued to the First Regiment of Mounted Riflemen, although the history books now call them the U.S. Mounted Rifles. These were dragoons — like cavalry, only they packed more firepower. They were shock troops. I know the correct name because I was assigned this this regiment for the first three years I served in the Army.

When I was there it was called the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment, but I saw their after-action report of the War with Mexico in our regimental museum, and Sam Walker’s name was in it. He commanded Company C. Kit Carson’s name was also in that report! Ironically, at the time I was there the regiment was stationed at Ft. Bliss, Texas, on the border with Mexico! We were the unit that gave Mexico Los Ninos de Chapultapec – five Mexican cadets and one instructor who fought to the death rather than surrender at the Battle of Chapultapec. The last cadet, Juan Escuita, wrapped himself in the Mexican flag and jumped to his death off the ramparts of the castle at Chapultapec — Mexico’s West Point. When Chapultapec fell, Mexico City, the capital, became vulnerable and had to surrender to the U.S. Army. This is celebrated every year by a national day of memory on the 16th of September.

The Mounted Riflemen fought on foot that day, leading the charge that took the castle. When the battle was over, the commander of the American forces, General Winfield Scott, said to them, “Brave rifles! Veterans! You have been baptized in fire and blood and have come out steel!”

History is the point

My point is — the Colt Walker revolver carries a lot of history with it — maybe more than any other firearm that can be named. Even a dug-up relic of this famous revolver is worth a lot of money!

Scarce gun number 2

The other scarce gun is an airgun — a Sheridan Model B Sporter, to be specific. Sheridan started producing the model B in 1948, in an attempt to lower the retail price, because their model A priced at $56.50 in 1948, was not selling well. Little wonder, when $44.50 could buy a new Winchester model 61 slide-action .22!

Sheridan and Winchester
In 1948 the Sheridan Model A (bottom) was $12 more than a Winchester model 61 pump gun.

So Sheridan developed their model B. It had all the build quality of the model A, but was cheaper to produce. The stock was still walnut, but had no cheekpiece, so the blank could be thinner. And the finish was changed from plating to a black paint. However, it wasn’t that much cheaper. Instead of $56.50, the model B retailed for $35.

Sheridan model B
Sheridan model B was a less expensive version of the Supergrade. This one has been refinished.

Conventional wisdom says when you want to sell more of something you lower the price. But that’s only partly correct. Yes, lowering the price will raise interest, but if the new item with the lower price isn’t perceived to be as good as the older item, you may not sell more of them. You may sell fewer! That’s what happened to the model B. Only about 1,100 were made, compared to 2130 of the pricier model As.

Yet a model B commands very little more than a model A today. They typically sell for $1,400 to $1,600 in very good condition. Certainly it is nowhere near what a Colt Walker will bring. And, when the condition of the model B degrades, the value drops fast. There will always be some value because of the parts, but it’s nothing like the Walker that is still worth five figures when it’s rusted into a solid clump.

The difference

I chose two guns from opposite ends of the historical spectrum for this comparison. One is the most well-known model of its type and is associated with names from history that every fifth-grader knows. The other gun is in a category that is unknown to the majority of the population. No history is connected to this gun beyond its own story that only a few airgunners know or care about.

Celebrity association

If Samuel Walker’s personal pair of revolvers (as far as I know, they have never been found) were to come up for sale there is no telling what they might bring, but I feel confident it would be over ten million dollars. If the personal rifles of E.H. Wackerhagen or Bob Kraus (WHO? — the two founders of Sheridan) were to come up for sale they might fetch as much as twice what another model B in similar condition would bring, but not ten times as much. It might take a long time before even that much would be realized, where Sam Walker’s personal revolvers would merit a television special and worldwide attention, were they to be sold.

Moral?

The moral of this is — be careful when you are asked to pay extra because an airgun was once owned by someone famous. There are many levels of fame. If a certain guitar was owned and used by Ted Nugent, it will fetch a lot more money than the same guitar in the same condition that was once owned by your music teacher! A person isn’t famous just because you have heard of him.

Is it real?

Here is something I see all the time. A guy is walking the aisles at an airgun show with a red felt bag. When you ask to see what he has, a conspiratorial look comes over his face as he guides you to a quiet corner. There he tells you a tale that goes something like this.

“When Daisy started making the Red Ryder BB gun, they used copper bands at the end of the forearm wood and around the muzzle. They called them “golden bands” in their sales literature. Well, what a lot of people don’t know is Daisy made three Red Ryders with real solid gold bands. I think they were 14 karat, but I’m not sure. These three were given to the president of the company, to Fred Harman, the cartoonist who created the Red Ryder series and to one other person. But Daisy’s marketing department also had 25 other rifles made with gold-plated copper bands. These rifles were finished with deep bluing and extra attention to the wood. This is one of those!”

Sow’s ear

The gun he shows you is a first variation Red Ryder that has been heavily restored. The wood has been sanded and re-stained, the metal has been highly polished and reblued. All the stamped lettering on top of the receiver looks melted as a result of the aggressive buffing. There are nuts on the ends of the screws that pass through the receiver that weren’t there when the gun was new. If you ask the guy about any of these details he has long and interesting stories for each one.

Sure enough, the bands on this gun are not copper-colored. They appear to be gold, except at the edges, where the gold has worn away to reveal the copper underneath.

Don’t fall for it

If your spider sense isn’t twitching off the scale at this point, you should take up a different hobby! What you are looking at is a junker Red Ryder that’s been buffed up and refinished, then fooled with (the gold plating) to make the bait more attractive. The fact that this is bait makes you the fish! Don’t be a sucker.

We could go on with other examples of rare guns, but the point has been made. Rarity by itself is not enough to make an airgun valuable. And any ties to celebrity have to be to real celebs. There is another facet that must be considered, as well. Is this an airgun people want? If people don’t want it it doesn’t matter if it’s the only one in existence.

Market-driven scarcity

Finally there are scarcities that are not driven by rarity, but by other things — things like location, laws, and customs. For example, silenced firearms are a scarcity in the U.S., but far less so in the United Kingdom and Europe, where the gun laws are different. Obtaining a firearm is more difficult there, but getting and using a silencer is easier.

The United Kingdom prohibited CO2 pistols for a long time. All air pistols in the UK have to be under 6 foot-pounds to be considered airguns (and not subject to legislation regarding ownership), but all CO2 pistols required firearm certificates for many decades. This built up a desire among UK airgunners to try CO2 pistols — especially certain models. Specifically they wanted Crosman Mark I and II Target pistols and Crosman 600 semiautomatic pistols.

When the laws changed several years ago, and CO2 pistols of less than 6 foot pounds were legalized, the UK market went ballistic. They began importing these Crosman pistols as fast as they could. Crosman Mark I and II and model 600 pistols are not rare or even scarce — except in the UK at that time.

Crosman Mark I
Many of Crosman’s Mark I and Mark II went to the UK when the ban on CO2 was dropped.

Crosman 600
The Crosman 600 10-shot semiautomatic pistol was a big hit in the UK when the CO2 ban was dropped.

The demand drove the price for these models sky-high. An average working Mark I that had sold for $80 one day was bringing $200 the next day. And 600s were topping $300 in the box at one point. This went on for several years until the itch was scratched thoroughly. Then life returned to normal, but with the prices of all these models a little higher than before.

Summary

Some guns are rare and command a lot of money. Some guns are rare and don’t seem to command the money their rarity implies. Some “rarities” are manufactured to deceive. Some guns command more because of association with celebrities, and some guns are scarce for market-driven reasons.

If you want to collect airguns you need to be aware of these facts. The decisions you make are up to you, but at least you know what’s true and what isn’t.