By Mike “Duke” Venturino, American Handgunner
When are handguns classic treasures and when are they junk? It’s a good question because many uninitiated people think just because a handgun is old it’s a treasure. That just isn’t so. If it was junk when it was new it’s still junk when it’s old.
A simple rule to judge them by is brand name. If an old handgun carries a name such as Colt or Smith & Wesson or Remington then it just might be a treasure. The operative word there is “might.” A good brand of handgun can still be rendered to junk by abuse.
Some years back a local fellow called and asked me to look at his family’s heirloom Colt. He didn’t know what it was but since it had that magic word on it he figured it was worth a bundle. He wanted me to tell him just how big a bundle he was sitting on.
It was a pretty small bundle and he didn’t like hearing that. His treasure was junk despite the word Colt on it. Specifically it was a Model 1878DA chambered as .44 WCF/.44-40 caliber. That was good. The bad was it was trashed. The cylinder spun freely and the hammer fell back and forth. Those problems could be fixed but deep pits all over the thing were going to be there forever. A normal barrel/cylinder gap is from 0.003″ to 0.008″. This old Colt’s was about an eighth of an inch. I don’t even know how that could happen.
Three typical “old guns” I see. The S&W’s (left and
center) likely have some value as they are clean and
work fine. The revolver on the right is from a cheap,
mystery-maker and worth about as much as a heavy
fishing sinker to savvy gunnies.
Why Some & Not Others?
Just because two handguns look like each other doesn’t mean both are classics. I’m thinking of late 1800’s small-frame Smith & Wesson top-break revolvers. Those were beautifully crafted little .32’s and .38’s, often nickel-plated and fitted with mother of pearl or ivory grips. In even half-way decent condition they have value. But, there were many copies of those little gems made both domestically and abroad, ranging from okay guns to junk from the day one.
But, even good samples of old small-frame Smith & Wesson or Colt revolvers don’t bring the bucks as do bigger holster revolvers of the same vintage. Why? How does a certain handgun become a classic?
Mostly, it’s a result of movie or television exposure. Do you think Colt SAA’s would have become so world-famous if not for their use in hundreds of movies for over a century? Look through a book of actual vintage photos of people with guns. In holsters you will see S&W No.3s packed in all its permutations, or the big Remington Models 1875 and 1890, or even other versions of Colts, like the double actions. Until recent years did you ever see such a handgun featured in a movie? No, Tom Mix, Roy Rogers and John Wayne all carried Colt SAA’s.
The S&W Model 1917 .45 at left is a collectible classic. The new version at right looks just like the early one but so far it’s just a shooter.
Is a relic like this a classic? The answer is yes, no and perhaps. It depends on where it was found. Near a famous battlefield? Then maybe.
Handgunners of my age will remember the frenzy for Smith & Wesson Model 29’s after Clint Eastwood used one in Dirty Harry. For years a Smith & Wesson Model 29 with 61/2″ barrel brought a premium price. After the sequel Magnum Force, there was a run on Colt Pythons.
I’m not immune to such things either. I bought an S&W 61/2″ .44 Magnum in 1973 even though I already owned a Model 29 with 4″ barrel. And I admit in May 1970, after the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid played in my town, I bought a Colt SAA with 43/4″ barrel. Maybe the era of cinema influence on handgun popularity is over? All you see nowadays are black, square-looking handguns. I don’t even know what they are, but it does seem gangs and novices do watch movies, as that’s what they prefer — not Colt SAA’s.
And lastly, survival rates can cause a classic rating. For instance, 50 years or so ago tons of British Mk VI .455 handguns were imported into the US. A huge percentage of them were converted to fire .45 ACP. That means the ones left original are now classics — like the one I bought.
And as a final word, all of the above is why I shy away when someone says, “Can you come and evaluate my guns?”