What exactly were they buying? How
does one assess the “history” of a gun? An old gun accompanied
by a pile of newspaper clippings, documents, and photographs can
make a very impressive package. However, more than one collector
has paid a handsome premium for such a package, only to
discover, sometimes years later, that there is nothing that
really ties that particular gun to the individual or event so
heavily documented in the paperwork.
Collectors have more or less agreed
on a couple quantifiable systems for evaluating the “condition”
of a gun. I’d like to suggest that a similar system for
evaluating the historical claims of a gun might be a useful
mental tool for the collector or enthusiast.
PRICES OF HISTORY
Here’s how I approach it:
The value of a historically attributed gun is the sum of two
The gun’s INTRINSIC VALUE plus
The gun’s HISTORIC ATTRIBUTION
The INTRINSIC VALUE is the gun’s
“Blue Book” value – it’s worth as a gun with no story attached,
as determined by make, model and condition. In this respect, it
is similar to valuing collectible coins.
The HISTORIC ATTRIBUTION VALUE is the
amount added to the gun’s value for the story attached to the
gun – it’s historical ownership or usage. This is usually a far
more subjective figure, and is more similar to valuing
collectible historical documents.
This Historic Attribution Value is itself the product of two
1. The HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE of the individual or event, and
2. The CREDIBILITY of the evidence supporting the gun’s claim.
HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE Of these two
factors, HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE is the most subjective, and
will vary from collector to collector, depending on that
individual’s interest in the history involved.
A gun’s historical claim usually will
involve either ownership by a particular individual or usage in
a famous or infamous incident. Those with the highest value will
What you are pricing is the fame or
notoriety of the individual and/or event in question.
Presidents, generals, famous lawmen and outlaws seem to rank
highest. Ownership by the most famous of these can easily result
in a six figure gun, especially if combined with a particular
Ownership by lesser political or
military figures, obscure lawmen, or less notorious criminals
will still significantly enhance a gun’s value.
Even attribution to an essentially
unknown individual can add value, usually proportionate to the
distance in time and the amount of information that can be dug
up on the person in question.
Popular perception can certainly
heavily impact the value assigned to “Historical Significance”,
sometimes in ways that would make an academic historian blanch.
Perhaps a way to conceptualize the value of the historical
significance is to look at the cumulative media & literature
devoted to the individual or event. In ascending value:
Small town newspaper clippings,
family records, etc.
Reference to individual or event can be found in library.
There has been a book published on the individual.
Commonly recognized name.
Portrayed on Mount Rushmore or by Kevin Costner in recent movie.
You get the drift?
A gun traced back to someone who
lived, got married, had a job and died may have a little
historical value added, whereas a gun proved to have been used
by a legendary character in a notorious Old West shootout may
set record prices.
The CREDIBILITY of a gun’s historic
claim lends itself to a more objective analysis – an analysis
that a prospective buyer ignores at his own financial peril.
I tend to assign a historically
attributed gun’s credibility a grammar school grade – A,B,C,D,
or F. Each grade represents a level of authenticity.
As with school grades, each level can
have a plus or minus rating.
Once a dollar value has been
established for the gun’s HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE, a factor can
be applied based on the gun’s CREDIBILITY rating. The following
scale might serve as a guideline:
A – 100% historical attribution
B – 75% to 50% historical attribution value.
C – 50% to 25% historical attribution value.
D –25% to 5% historical attribution value, with the caveat that
a “D” gun should never go for more than double the gun’s
intrinsic value. In most cases, a “D” type story gun will bring
only a small premium or perhaps make the gun easier to sell at
its intrinsic value.
F – 0% historical attribution value. In fact, the intrinsic
value of the gun may be lessened if a disproved historical name
has been permanently marked on the gun.
Let’s take a closer look at
evaluating the CREDIBILITY of a gun’s historical claim:
To get an A rating, a gun must
inspire a high degree of Certainty that it is what it purports
to be. It must be accompanied by documentation which satisfies
the following criteria:
i. TIMELINESS – The documentation
must be from the period of claimed historical association. Not
from three generations later. Not from 10 years after the fact.
ii. CERTAIN IDENTIFICATION – It must
specifically identify the individual gun or group of guns in
question. Most often this is done by serial number. Occasionally
it may be possible to do by photograph or description of
specific unique physical characteristics, but extreme caution
should be used in relying on such an approach. In some cases
“Provenance”, discussed in B, may provide reasonably certain
identification, but also should be approached with open-minded
iii. CREDIBILITY OF SOURCE – The
identification must come from a credible source, one unlikely to
intentionally or accidentally misidentify the gun. Factory
records or court records are preferable. Newspaper accounts, and
signed documents (preferably notarized) from credible
individuals may meet this requirement.
A rated guns are very, very rare.
Sort of like true “mint” guns.
B. B rated guns have a high degree of
Probability that they are as represented. They typically are
guns with strong historical documentation, but which fall a
little short of the stringent criteria required for an A rating.
The most common difference between A
and B guns lies in the area of Timeliness of the documentation.
Often a B gun will have certain identification from a credible
source, but the identification will come at some time later than
the period of historical use. Often it is the case that the
documentation will come from a descendant of the original user,
and the gun will have been passed down within the family.
A gun that is rated “B” may also fall
short of “A” status by lack of certainty of identification. This
is usually a case where a stack of documentation accompanies the
gun, and appears to have been with it forever. However, on close
examination there is a break in the claim identifying the gun
that is with the documentation as the gun referred to in the
documents. This is especially common in guns lacking serial
numbers or other unique identifying characteristics.
It’s my contention that most of the
guns which are accepted in the collecting community as
“authentic” to a particular ownership are B guns. And it is here
that we must address a term that is bandied about quite a bit –
“Provenance” seems to be something of
a term of art. You find it in $40 a pop four color high end
auction house catalogs, and esoteric dealer ads. It seems to
mean the “pedigree” of a guns past ownership, and tends to be a
document that states something like “This gun was originally
owned by Mr. W who gave it to Mrs. X who sold it to Mr. Y who
sold it to me, Mr. Z.” A gun with superior provenance with
separate documents confirming each past owner, each meeting all
the A criteria above can easily become an “A” gun.
However, often a study of a gun’s
provenance will reveal gaps in the documentation. For example,
in the hypothetical provenance in the paragraph above, “W to X
to Y to Z”, the credibility of the gun is tied inextricably not
only to the credibility of Mr. Z, but also the credibility and
accuracy of W, X & Y.
Remember that several factors other
than malfeasance can figure into the misrepresentation of a gun.
Guns may be inadvertently switched. There may be errors in the
recording of serial numbers or other identifying
characteristics. Plus there is always room for error in
intergenerational tale telling. Granddad tells seven year old
Sonny how Jesse James personally gave him the old owl’s head
revolver in the night stand. All the adults in the room
recognize it for one of Granddad's beloved tall tales. Sixty
years later, Sonny is certainly willing to draft an affidavit as
to what his granddad told him.
When supporting documentation comes
up short in the areas of timeliness or certainty of
documentation, it is especially important to look at the
credibility of the source of the information. In spite of the
Grandpa & Sonny illustration above, I tend to give most credence
to notarized statements from the descendants of the original
I also believe that the better
dealers of antique and historic arms realize that their
continued success in the business rests only on their long term
reputation for veracity and fairness. A written statement from
such an individual outlining the purported history of a piece
can go a long way to establishing B status in my mind. The
contents of any such statement must be carefully evaluated, and
a conscientious dealer will make clear exactly what is known
about the gun and the source of that information.
There was a recent Country & Western
song, “That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it”. A gun can
acquire something like B status in the same manner. If a
particular gun establishes a particular claim and sticks to it
long enough, it comes to be accepted as factual. This usually
occurs through the magic of publication. If a gun is pictured in
a book or magazine and represented to be a particular historic
artifact, it comes to be accepted as such. The effect is
magnified by repeated publication or passage of years, much in
the way that it is said that old buildings and old whores
I must confess, I have a hard time
fighting my knee jerk reaction to accept whatever appears in
print. However, I try to take an extra hard look at a “B” by
publication” gun to see if it might fall into the D or F
Some gun cranks are fond of saying
that a historically attributed gun must be “Provable in a court
of law”. This is essentially a good perspective, but any lawyer
will tell you there are varying standards of proof. An A gun is
provable “beyond a reasonable doubt” while a B gun holds its
claim “by a preponderance of the evidence.”
Put another way, a B gun is an A gun,
but less so.
C. C rated guns are Plausible. They
“feel right” but you can’t prove or disprove them. A good C gun
will often be supported by some sort of documentation. There are
several general types of guns that I tend to give C status:
Dealer-lettered guns – as discussed
above, a thorough and well drafted report from a reputable
dealer or researcher will put a gun squarely in the B or C
category, depending on what the statement reveals. To me, a
blanket statement that “This gun belonged to so and so” raises
serious questions as to the credibility. The document must state
the writer’s reasons for accepting the gun’s history. The best
ones are “Joe Friday” letters – “Just the facts, ma’am.”
C Guns Continued:
Stack’o clippings guns – You’ve seen ‘em. A gun displayed under
glass with yellowed newspaper clippings, old letters, service
records, tintypes, a rusty badge, etc., etc., etc. They are very
impressive and nearly always fascinating. The problem is, there
is nothing in writing directly connecting the specific gun in
question to the individual or deed so lavishly reported.
Self-testifying guns – That is, a gun
whose historic claim in based solely on a marking on the gun
itself. Usually these are guns with an individual’s name etched,
engraved, or otherwise marked on them. Probably many are
authentic, but the fact remains that, lacking other information,
they cannot be proven. CAVEAT – The credibility of a
“self-testifying” gun is inversely proportional to the fame of
the individual in question. I.e., on a Civil War era revolver, I
would give 98% credibility to a gun inscribed “To Cpl. Joe Blow
from his mother” and 2% credibility to one inscribed “To Capt.
G. A. Custer from Gen. U. S. Grant.”
D. A “D” gun is a C gun that has a
faint odor to it. Something about them makes their claim
Questionable, but not impossible.
I tend to classify self-testifying
guns with famous names inscribed on them “D” status. Also,
inscribed guns where the method of inscription doesn’t look
Most “story” guns which lack
documentation must be considered D guns. Especially if the
seller is not willing to put the story in the form of a
Often D guns require a sizable leap
of faith. Such as “Well, sure, most Wells Fargo guns were marked
with a line stamp, but this one was probably done at a little
branch office out west where they didn’t have a regular stamp
and couldn’t spell too good. . . “ or “Yeah, I know he said,
never trust a woman or an automatic pistol”, but this is
probably the 1911 that jammed on him and make him say that.” All
of which brings us to. . .
F. For Fake. For Fraud. For Fail. For
Impossible, no way Jose.
These are guns that are just flat
wrong on their face. Most common and obvious examples are the
many six-guns attributed to various Old West desperadoes that by
serial number were made years after their death.
TYPE OF HISTORY CLAIMED
While we’ve been discussing these
ratings mostly in terms of association with a particular
historical individual, they can also be applied to the
credibility of other historical claims, such as military,
police, or agency usage; period of engraving; or attribution of
engraving to a particular artist.
Please note that when using this letter rating system, you must
specify exactly what historical claim is being rated. In
application a single gun may have different ratings for
Consider a Colt Single Action Army
Cavalry model in the so-called “7th Calvary” serial number
range. Assuming the gun itself and all its markings are correct,
it might be considered an “A” as a US military gun, a “B” as an
Indian War gun, a “C” as a Little Big Horn gun, and a “D” or “F”
as Gen. Custer’s personal sidearm.
Let’s see how this system would apply
to some examples. To avoid threatening letters, we’ll consider
guns which are either from my personal collection, or which have
been widely reported in the gun press, or where I’ve changed the
names to protect the guilty.
We’ll start out by considering four
different guns associated with Theodore Roosevelt:
1 The first is a beautiful little
engraved S&W lemon squeezer with pearl grips, the engraving
featuring a representation of a mustachioed pistol wielding
horseman bearing a passing resemblance to Theodore Roosevelt as
a Rough Rider. It is accompanied by a letter from a leading West
Coast gun dealer and auctioneer, reporting that the gun came
from a prominent South American family, and that family legend
was that it had been given to their ancestor by Roosevelt during
his South American explorations. The S & W factory “letters” it
as a special order gun shipped to a major distributor, further
details not known.
The little gun has a good “feel” to
it. It is known that TR took a S&W on his South American
expedition. Roosevelt featured a hand drawn illustration of a
lemon squeezer in one of his books. The revolver strives
mightily for a “B” rating. However, it must remain a “C” gun,
especially considering Roosevelt’s prominence. It is a “story
gun”, with some supporting documentation from a credible source
and with supporting circumstances, but sadly lacking in
timeliness of its documentation. “C”.
2. The next gun is a cased S&W New
Model #3, acquired from a prominent East Coast gun auctioneer.
It is accompanied by a letter signed by a descendent of Henry
Cabot Lodge, stating that the gun had been presented to Lodge by
his good friend Theodore Roosevelt. The factory letter states
that there is no shipping information available on the gun. This
could be consistent with a gun pulled from production for
special presentation to a prominent individual, but also could
have several other equally possible explanations.
Again, it sounds like a good
candidate for “B” status. However, the letter did not identify
the gun by serial number. This problem was rectified to some
degree by obtaining notarized statements from the auctioneer and
intervening owner of the gun that the revolver referred to in
the letter was in fact the gun in question. All told, I consider
this gun to warrant a “B” rating as one owned by Henry Cabot
Lodge, but a “C” rating as a Roosevelt gun.
3. The third is another New Model
Number Three, this one factory engraved with target sites,
chambered for the .38 service round. It is accompanied by a
notarized letter from a prominent dealer stating that it was
reportedly purchased from a descendant of Roosevelt’s valet,
corroborated by a prominent collector. The icing is a factory
letter stating that the gun was shipped to Col. Roosevelt in
1898. I give this gun an “A” on strength of the factory records.
4. It might be interesting to
consider the Theodore Roosevelt Holland & Holland double rifle
which recently brought the record price at Butterfields. The
exact and complete provenance of this gun is known from when it
left the factory, specially made for TR for his African safari
and commissioned by a group of prominent individuals whose names
appear inside the lid of the gun case. There are photos of TR on
safari with this exact gun and it’s sequence of ownership is
well known and documented up to present date. An “A” gun if ever
there was one.
5. Compare this to “the gun that
killed Jesse James”, which was also recently sold at auction.
For most of the 20th century, the S&W has had the reputation of
the gun used to do the wicked deed. In fact it reportedly went
back to the S&W factory for engraving of the inscription on its
side commemorating the event. However, a look at the supporting
documentation raises some questions.
The story is that the gun was given
by Bob Ford to the young son of t he Marshal who briefly jailed
the Ford brothers after the shooting, in appreciation for
kindness to the imprisoned Fords by the boy. The date of the
earliest documentation appears to be a 1904 affidavit and
newspaper article. Yes, this is along time ago, but it is also
twenty two years after the incident in question!
The waters are muddied further by the
fact that there is another gun out there with the same claim – a
Colt Single Action Army mentioned by Ford in a newspaper article
a month after the shooting. It helps not a bit that an 1882
newspaper account of the incident records the gun variously as a
“Colt’s .45” AND a “Smith & Weston” (sic).
Where does that leave us? I’d give
the gun a solid “B” as a Bob Ford gun, and it certainly
approaches “B by publication” status. However, given the
conflicting claim, it seems to exist in some sort of
schizophrenic “B/D” limbo as the gun that laid poor Jesse in his
6. Consider Wyatt Earp’s S&W American
as another example showing that many of our greatest historic
guns exist in the “B” to “D” rating range. This is the
beautifully engraved gun that was used by the Franklin Mint as
its model for the Wyatt Earp reproduction which graces the walls
of many Old West buffs around the country. It currently resides
in the outstanding Gene Autry Western Meritage Museum in Los
The museum reports, “It is, in fact,
dangerous to assume that it is a gun carried by Wyatt Earp. At
one time the gun was exhibited in a small Tombstone museum with
pearl grips and the name of John Clum. Those grips have
disappeared and new looking walnut grips have taken their place.
A number of writers have questioned this gun, others have
endorsed”. Give the gun an “A” as a great Western gun, and a
“C-/D+” as Earp’s.
7. This might be a good point to
consider the reports of incredible time-travel guns. For many
years a Colt SAA has been prominently displayed in a small
midwestern museum as the gun given to a local doctor by outlaw
Bob Dalton in payment for medical services. Perhaps it’s most
intriguing characteristic is the fact that its serial number
shows it was manufactured eleven years after old Bob met his
My pet theory here is alien
abduction. However other explanations may occur to the
thoughtful reader. “F”.
8. Self-testifying guns are always
intriguing, but must be approached with caution when considering
likelihood of authenticity. This is illustrated by an engraved
pair of S&W .44 Double Action First Models which surfaced in
different parts of the country, each with a semi-famous Western
name engraved on the backstrap – “Billy Dixon” on one and “Allen
Parmer, Texas” on the other.
Either gun by itself might rate a “C”
as a self-testifying gun. However, taken together, some
questions arise. The engraving is rather crude, but an identical
pattern is used on each. In each case it is difficult to guess
the age of the engraving.
While it is certainly possible that
the same frontier engraver did both guns, the fact remains that
the .44 DA is a relatively inexpensive old west six shooter
which might have value enhanced considerably by fraudulent
engraving & attribution.
In historical attribution, skepticism
must rule, and the coincidence raises enough questions to put
the guns in “D” status unless further information can be
9. Which brings us to the subject of
“discovered” guns – A gun whose history is not known, but is
“developed” by a researcher. And here is where a potential buyer
must proceed with utmost caution.
There is a gun in circulation which
has been attributed to a certain very notorious Old West outlaw.
The owner “discovered” the attribution by examining an old photo
which may or may not have been the individual in question and
deciding the grainy blob sticking out of the holster in the
photo was the self same gun he happened to have. By proclaiming
this association long enough, the gun began to have a life of
its own and garner quite a bit of press. Without additional
documentation however, it remains a “D” gun.
And, it is no doubt for sale to the
first reasonable offer in the mid five figures. . .
“Factory letter” has come to be a
generic term meaning a letter from a recognized authority based
on a search of the gun’s manufacturer’s original records as to
the disposition of a gun from the factory. It is one of the most
powerful tools available to you in researching the authenticity
of a gun’s historical attribution.
Under optimum circumstances, it will
show the purchaser of the gun from the factory (usually a
distributor, sometimes an individual), the date it was shipped,
the configuration of the gun (finish, barrel length, caliber,
etc), and any special features. Sometimes, incomplete factory
documents mean some of these elements will be missing.
Any gun that has value added for
history should have a factory letter if available. At a minimum,
the factory letter should not show information inconsistent with
the claimed history. It’s helpful if the disposition is
consistent with the historical claim (i.e., gun in same
configuration, shipped to same geographical area at plausible
date, etc.) Under the best of circumstances, it may confirm
shipment to the individual claimed.
Generally speaking, the more
information you provide in your request, the more likely the
researchers can find something interesting if there is something
to be found. At a minimum, include positive identification of
the mode, serial number, caliber, and any special features.
Remember, like guns, documentation
can be faked! Most factory letter sources will write a fresh
letter on a gun that has already been lettered for a reduced fee
in order to confirm the information in the previous letter. Also
bear in mind that it is not unknown for serial numbers to be
altered on guns to correspond to an historically attributed gun.
COLT – Colt Historical Dept.,
Kathleen Hoyt, P. O. Box 1868, Hartford, CT 06144. $45 fee on
most guns, some early guns not available due to destruction of
records in a factory fire. Current turn around time
approximately 90-120 days. Send caliber, patent dates, serial
number, model if known and other details.
RUGER – I believe Ruger has a program for researching
collectible Rugers. 10 Lacy Place, Southport, CT 06490.
SMITH & WESSON – Factory Historian
Roy Jinks, P.O. Box 2208, Springfield, MA 01102. $20 fee.
Earliest guns sometimes not available. Important that gun be
correctly identified by model, best to include a photo or
tracing of gun with all markings noted. Be sure to mention any
unusual or special features (engraving, unusual barrel length,
markings, special finish, etc).
U.S. MILITARY ARMS – Springfield
Research Service, P.O. Box 4181, Silver Springs, MD 20904, does
ongoing research on military arms in government records and will
research individual guns for fee ranging from $10 - $50.
WINCHESTER, MARLIN, & L.C. SMITH – Buffalo Bill Historical
Center, P.O. Box 1000, Cody, WY $40 per letter, telephone
searches available for Patron Association members. They have
records for most early Winchesters after Mod. 1866 s/n 125000;
for early Marlin lever action rifles; and for most L.C. Smith
shotguns from 1890-1971.