Survival is Everything
by Terry Wieland
Show the average person a Walker Colt—none of which were engraved, most of which were used hard (often to pound in horseshoe nails), almost all of which were altered later in life, and few of which retain any of the original finish—put all that together, and most people would not guess that hunk of battered grey steel is worth, at a minimum, a quarter of a million dollars.
But a quarter mil is generally considered the base price for one of the surviving Walkers. If you want to add one to your Colt collection, you’ll need at least that.
Conversely, show that same guy (or gal—either way) a cheap Belgian-made side-by-side double, complete with mismatched hammers and loose top lever, and if it has any engraving at all—even the usual crude hen-scratching sported by these old rattletraps—and he (or she) will gush “Ooo, look at the etching…” and conclude the thing must be worth something. When, of course, it most definitely is not.
Such, however, is the impact of aesthetics.
Obviously, people who know so little about guns are not going to be the ones holding up the bidding cards at auctions as prices go through the roof. They are, however, all too often the temporary custodians of Uncle Bob’s agglomeration of “old guns and stuff” when Uncle Bob shuffles off this mortal coil and no one in the family has the slightest interest in the artefacts that were his passion in life. They just want them out of the house.
The harsh truth is that most people, faced with this situation, will save those things that look valuable, even if they aren’t, and sell for scrap anything from a Twigg duelling pistol to a Baker rifle, either of which might be worth from ten to fifteen thousand bucks.
I long ago lost count of the men (they’re always men) who look at a nice shotgun and sneer that “all that fancy engraving doesn’t make it shoot any better.” Which is perfectly true. What the engraving might do, however, is keep that gun safe and shooting a century after its unadorned contemporaries have gone into the fiery furnace at British Steel and been turned into razor blades.
Women, on the other hand, look at engraving differently. Instead of immediately seeking some way to denigrate that which they can’t afford, they usually see how pretty it is and admire it just for that. This difference between the aesthetic senses of the sexes becomes important when you consider that, most often, Uncle Bob’s gun collection is disposed of, after his death, by poor Aunt Martha.
The question of wills and executors and unscrupulous gun dealers gets us into a can of slimy squirming worms, so we’ll leave that right there. A topic for another day.
At various times, gunmakers have produced beautiful guns with no engraving whatever. Arrieta, in Spain, made one model—a very expensive one—that had a lustrous blue-black finish and only a line of gold outlining the lock. If memory serves, it was called the Model 874 and cost double the lower-priced guns. Since engraving is often done to conceal or obscure minor flaws in workmanship, the idea was to display the superb workmanship, naked for all to see.
I believe James Purdey, in London, has sometimes done something similar, and occasionally one comes across a duelling pistol finished the same way.
Ironically, by producing a superb but outwardly plain gun, the makers might be condemning it to be dismissed by a future heir as obviously worthless, since it lacks the adornment that denotes a “valuable” gun. The only defence against this is the discerning eye and touch of a knowledgeable gun guy.
Unfortunately, a gun can be passed down for centuries, looked after at every turn, but then fall into the wrong hands once. And once is all it takes. One more good reason to make sure you know what will happen to any treasures you happen to have in your custody now. Because that’s all it is: Temporary custody, regardless of what you paid.
Gray’s shooting editor Terry Wieland feels more and more like a shepherd with a flock of sheep, surrounded in the night by slavering wolves.