Determining Gun Values: Three Resources, Eight Lessons

If you’re a gun guy (or gal), sooner or later someone will ask you, “what is my XYZ worth?” or the ever-popular variant, “This was my relative’s… what is it, and what’s it worth?”

In our experience, the non-gun person who comes into a gun either (1) asks whoever he or she knows in the gun culture, or (2) takes it to a dealer, who delivers the wholesale value of the gun, or a screwing, depending on the dealer’s character.

If somebody comes to you with a gun and a question like that, how can you answer?

We’re experts in some guns and their values, mostly 20th and 21st-Century military arms. But from time to time someone does ask us the value of a gun that makes us puzzled. Civil War revolvers (turned out to be worth quite a lot). An snaphaunce with a broken mainspring (which meant, first, answering the question “what is a snaphaunce?” The owner thought it a flintlock). A collection of Spanish .25s (which turned out to be worth a lot less than the 19th-century wheelguns, but there are collectors specializing in them). A Browning Superposed shotgun with heavy engraving. A Smith and Wesson Chief’s Special. A German drilling (a three-barrel sporting gun with two shotgun barrels side-by-side and a rifle barrel below.

Expertise is by definition deep but somewhat narrow, and anybody who fired off appraisals on that array of guns simply on he strength of his memory is going to get one or more drastically wrong.

Lesson 1: Beware the snap, single-source appraisal, especially for an idiosyncratic collection of guns.

There’s a danger in asking a dealer for an appraisal of guns you plan to sell. That danger is obvious: the dealer has a conflict of interest. On the other hand, many “certified firearms appraisers” are essentially in the business of providing inflated appraisals that are used to protect gun owners vis-a-vis insurance companies.

Lesson 2: Beware the “agency problem.” Make sure the appraiser’s interests are aligned with yours.

There are a number of ways to get DIY pricing information of various levels of depth and accuracy. Here’s a quick table:

Blue Book of Gun Values Find it here: http://bluebookofgunvalues.com/Pro: pretty accurate. Fairly comprehensive. Easy and fast to use. Book is portable but 2500 pp. Website is The Gold Standard.Con: Costs money.(Book, about $31 at WalMart or Amazon. Website, $35-50/year).
Gun Trader’s Guide Find it here:Pro: Widely available (Amazon, WalMart, etc). Portable (600 pp).Con: Costs money ($23-30). Falls behind rapidly moving values. Weak on surplus and semi-auto weapons. Less comprehensive than Blue Book.
GunBroker Price Comparison Find it here: go to http://gunbroker.com/  and select “advanced search” then search for completed auctions.Pro: these are real clearing prices, not estimates like the books. Even extremely rare guns are covered here.Cons: a bit fiddly to do. Depends on you matching guns accurately. Vulnerable to variability in prices in the rarest guns.
Others? The three above are the valuation aids we use. We’d be interested to hear of any others you are using.

As you see, we like the idea of using GunBroker sold values. This also lets you plot short-term trends. The values books don’t have trend information, but are very handy for common, mass-produced guns. Even Gunbroker won’t let you properly appraise a unique gun, or a gun with a unique selling proposition, such as celebrity provenance or documented use or capture by a specific person. To keep an eye on those kinds of values, you need to watch the more rarefied collectors’ auctions that tend to draw the finest (and most valuable) pieces.

A single-source information supply is better than nothing.

Lesson 3: Ceteris paribus, information corroborated by multiple sources and methods is more trustworthy than information from a single source.

Lesson 4: It’s a lot easier, and more resources are available to help you, to appraise common, mass-produced, modern firearms.

Lesson 5: Before you go appraising guns have all these sources on hand. You can actually develop a statistical measure of confidence that takes into account your number of data points.

Many things influence gun prices over time, but the ultimate rigidity of the supply and demand equation holds. A popular World War II film increases the demand for World War II guns, for instance. The rise of cowboy action shooting increased the values of both original and new reproduction single-action revolvers, by increasing people’s interest in those particular firearms. Weapons from uninteresting places and time, or perhaps we should say unpopular places and times, because nothing is uninteresting if you examine it in the right frame of mind, are underpriced — and likely to stay that way. Things that have been produced in the hundreds of thousands and are still being produced are likely to have little collector appeal.

As a rule of thumb, original guns appreciate and reproductions or modified guns don’t, at least, not at a rate above inflation. Also as a rule of thumb, the highest-value weapons will appreciate the most, even percentage-wise, in a rising market (“them that has, gets”) and will also fall the hardest in a falling market. In MBA terms their prices show more variability.

A highly customized gun is like a highly customized car: it suits the taste of the man for whom it was made, and unless he was a trend-setter of impeccable taste, a seller has to find a buyer who has the exact same preferences. The gun is worth more than a box-stock gun to the right buyer: to everyone else, it is worth less. An example that made us smile a couple of years back was a semi-auto M16A1 clone that had been powder-coated from flash hider to buttplate. An exotic finish is one of those customization things: the next guy may be less impressed with your rattle-can “urban camouflage” than you. In this case, the powder-coat job, professionally applied at great expense and with some kind of matching paint on the nonconductive parts, was shocking pink. The market for girly-girls (and, presumably, girly-men) who want a pink M16 is rather constrained. The ultimate buyer got it at a steep discount over a standard gun (so the seller did not recover the sunk cost of the fancy refinish job). That’s something to think about before you have your M4gery decorated with currently trendy zombie graphics. In 20 years when you (or your heirs) go to sell it,  will it still be cutting-edge cool or will it be as much of a period piece as a 1960s paisley-print psychedelic poster?

But, wait! Before we go congratulating the guy who bought the pink rifle for less than the cost of a black one, we need to follow his story to its sad end. And what happened was this: it cost him more to remove the pink finish and reapply an original one than he had imagined, and in the end he would have been better off with buying a black one for a few dollars more in the first place.

Lesson 6: Don’t customize your gun beyond the point of no return, unless you don’t expect or need to recover the money you put into it.

Lesson 7: Buy the exact gun you want. In most cases buying something close and customizing to suit will cost more, and take longer, than patiently waiting for the right one to come along.

Things made with the idea that they would be sold to collectors, though, such as limited editions of common pistols and “War Commemorative Edition” guns with gaudy machine etching and inlay, often disappoint people expecting them to appreciate. The initial editions are usually large, the initial prices high relative to quality (obviously some firms’ custom-shop commemoratives are quite good guns), and the entire edition, or nearly all of it, will be retained in perpetuity in an unfired state. “Collecting” these things is a chump’s game.

Lesson 8 : Collect real rarities, not manufactured artificial ones.

Last thought on these lessons: if someone has “less on,” how does that make him a “more on”? And if you give enough “less ons” to a “more on,” so that he ceases to be a moron, what is he? Or is the English language just a profoundly strange amalgam of Nordic, Germanic, Latin and French that continues to steal shamelessly from the other languages of the world, thus increasing its growth and success? Nothing to do with guns, just food for thought.

1 thought on “Determining Gun Values: Three Resources, Eight Lessons

  1. oberndorfer

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Caveat emptor, though. P7 M13, anyone?

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