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The Philosophy of Gun Restoration – #020 of the Gun Room Podcast

The Philosophy of Gun Restoration – #020 of the Gun Room Podcast

A gunsmith at AYA works on a part.

The world of firearm restoration and collection is heavily nuanced; learn more about it through the passion of the Gun Room host

The 2021 Barrett-Jackson Auto Auction in Las Vegas was one to remember. With a record-breaking $48 million in sales, it would seem that there is quite a market for unique automobiles.

It has always intrigued me that in the auto world, it seems that the items of the highest auction block value can be relatively new production cars or just as easily be classics from 70 years ago. In this most recent auction, three wildly different autos broke the $1 million ceiling. They were a 2015 McLaren P1, a 1957 Mercedes 300SL Roadster, and a 2019 Ford GT. All amazing vehicles, feats of modern engineering and technology, lovingly cared for, and, I’d imagine, prized possessions of their owners. 

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You might be asking, what’s this have to do with guns? Bear with me. 

The difference between restored cars and guns

From what I can gather, the McLaren and the Ford GT are likely original condition vehicles. The GT had 21 miles on the odometer so that’s a safe bet. The 2015 McLaren probably had more miles, but chances are it was still near original. Now we come to the 1957 Mercedes 300SL. The Mercedes, though a stunning original example, is no longer in original condition. I pulled a bit from the write-up on the auction website. 

“After a careful mechanical overview, new sway bar bushings and new motor mounts were installed, and the brakes were serviced, cleaned, and adjusted,” it reads. “During the brake inspection, it was noted that there were no leaks and correct materials were used during restoration. Finished in the iconic 300SL color combination of DB 180 Silver Gray Metallic with a red leather interior. The silver paint was mixed with the correct metallic flake and was uniformly applied. The finish remains glossy and smooth with only light signs of use since the restoration.”

I would argue that based on this single example (forgive the small sample size) that restored vehicles can and do command attention and dollars on the auction block. It seems though, in the world of classic firearms, a “restored” version commands a different value than one in “original condition” even if “proper finish and the correct materials” are used during restoration.

I’ll admit that I am looking at this question of gun restoration from the ruby lens of my own experience. I got into gunsmithing and have spent countless hours performing restoration services on my guns. Dad and I were always looking for a ”gunsmith special” – a shotgun or rifle that was abused and misused, but still had the potential to be brought back. This desire was motivated by our financial limitations, or, I should say, my financial limitations which restricted what I could buy. 

Any gun in high condition was hard to justify. Not to mention they did not allow doing what it was that we set out to do: work on guns. Tear them down, learn how they work; fix parts, replace parts, make parts. We endeavored to find a project that represented a challenge and pitted our abilities (pun intended) against these relics relegated to the parts pile.

It would be hard to condemn us for what we did. The majority of our projects were inoperable, sold to us as “parts guns.” More than once I had to sign a paper that stated that I would not use a gun I was buying until I had it looked at by a competent gunsmith. But, in my reading, I would come to find that there was a contingent of folks in the gun world that seemed to question the philosophy of restoration. If they didn’t, why was it so important that a Parker I looked at on Gunsinternational was a “DelGrego restoration.” And why is that restoration deemed less valuable than an original gun? 

Perhaps I am a victum of my desire, creating my own reality, so to speak. I know that even in those early days I could recognize a “hack job” garage special. 

A replaced forearm that is not to original spec; maybe made of maple instead of walnut. Or an action that has been blued where the original was case color, or worse, spraypainted black. I’d like to think that the work we did was, at the very least, in the image of the guns original condition. Sure I couldn’t case harden the action on my single shot 20-gauge project. It was early in the Dad-and-Lad-gunsmithing-days, and heat treating was beyond our abilities at the time. Even still, we determined how to chemical color the action using some heat and products at our disposal. Is it truly original? No of course not, but the results provided created a gun that is far more pleasing to the eye.

The nuance of restoring firearms

I have had the opportunity to hold several restorations, from a variety of talented folks. I do believe that if a restoration is completed in a way that remains true to how the guns were delivered from the factory, there is merit to this work. There is so much nuance to this process though, starting from knowing exactly what a gun looked like, from the factory. What shades and colors were produced by factory case hardening? Were the patterns striped or blotchy? Were the barrels a deep dark blue or were they more black? Shiny or a bit dull? What checkering patterns were used and what lines per inch were they?

I am as guilty of this lack of knowledge as any other hack-job garage smith. I don’t necessarily know what the gun looked like when I start my work. Perhaps this is because I understand that my work will never be a true restoration in that sense. I am in the business of bringing a gun back from the grave. Perhaps, with a lifetime of practice, I could hone my skills to the level of factory original. At this point, I don’t have the desire or inclination to replicate the work of the original craftsmen. My restorations are my own and will carry my mistakes and lack of abilities along with them.

A field grade LC Smith, 12 gauge, with no case color, little blue, and checkering so worn that the lines are nearly gone carries little value. When the gun came to me it was inoperable. I am in the process of recutting the checkering, and to be honest, rather than sanding off what is non-original lines, I am simply chasing what is there. This would be a travesty for some folks, and so it may be. I believe that this gun might have had a worse fate if it had not landed in my hands. A restored field grade LC does not carry the value to justify the cost (a.k.a. time) to do a proper restoration. Unless of course, the gun carries other value –sentimental value most likely – that might justify the expense.

In my time working in a gunsmithing shop, several guns came to us needing copious amounts of work that would far exceed the value of the gun, restored or not. It was my job to explain to those folks that they were on the losing end of a deal, and to do so gently so as not to offend anyone’s sensibilities. Typically the discussion would go about as I have laid out so far, though the X-factor was always the history with the gun. Was it your fathers or grandfather’s? Had it been handed down over many generations? I saw guns that had been damaged at the hands of their current custodians. The guilt of damaging a family heirloom is a strong motivator to open one’s wallet and spend the money required to make repairs. 

History and provenance always factor into perceived value. The McLaren sold at the Barrett Auction was owned by Deadmau5, a very successful DJ. I am sure that the celebrity history of the vehicle added to its value. The same way that a particular F Grade AH Fox Shotgun could sell for a whopping $862,500. Now, at the time of this podcast, William Larken Moore has a very fine 12-gauge AH Fox FE for sale, a Philadelphia gun made in 1907. You likely guessed what I am driving at. The difference between these two guns mechanically may be small, but the difference between these guns owners is very large indeed and reflected in their price. I suspect that the William Larken Gun was never owned by Teddy Roosevelt.

For fun, I looked at the most expensive Fox on Gunsinternational. A $64,000 12-gauge Fox made for William Gough, serial number 6500. William Gough was an engraver himself and an engraver’s son. He worked on Fox, Parker, Winchester, Remington, Marlin, Colt, Meriden, and Aubrey, and is a celebrity in the gun world. The most interesting thing about this gun though: it is a copy. It has been upgraded and made to look like the original gun. This is noted in the Gunsinternational listing but brings up the not so pretty topic of fakes, imitations, and humped-up guns. The underbelly of the gun world as well as the art world, fashion world, car world, and so on. I do believe this is part of the issue folks have with restorations. For all but the well-trained, a gun can be made to look original, or more than original; a Field Grade gun can be upgraded to a lettered grade. Or as is the case here, upgraded to mirror a gun with history and provenance. 

And herein lies the bigger issue with restored guns. It’s a Catch 22 of sorts. A good restoration brings the gun back to its original condition as it was the day it left the factory; the best restoration may pass as an original. The problem is when people take advantage of the fact that restorations can be done so well, it is nearly, if not completely impossible to tell the difference. 

It is worth noting that in Europe, particularly in England, it was commonplace to send your gun back to the maker for upkeep. They did not call this a restoration, primarily because the gun was returning to the maker (the original manufacturer) for reapplication of the original finish. Barrels were rebrowned or reblacked. Stocks were attended to, dings and dents steamed and removed, checkering pointed and oil finishes reapplied. Although I am sure there are original examples of guns from across the pond, it is clear that most guns were cleaned up over the years and the view of what it meant to have a gun in original condition is rather different than here in the states. Most guns here never made it back to the factory for refurbishing, either because the service was not offered or because the maker was out of business.

The complex world of collecting and restoring firearms

The complexities of the collector gun world abound. Original, restored, or upgraded, with provenance and celebrity status or not, guns like cars will always have a value that is not simply based on their mechanics. 

Upgrading a gun may be a gateway to have a facsimile of an original, at a fraction of the price, although like many human endeavors it is when nefarious intent clouds one’s vision that this practice goes off the rails. It is one thing to upgrade a gun and represent it as such. It is completely different to upgrade a gun and knowingly misrepresent it as original.

The world of firearms restoration is multifaceted, the idea of upgrading guns even more so. I believe that there is certainly a place for firearm restoration. The idea of bringing something back to life appeals to those of us who enjoy shotguns and rifles both in the field and when they are apart on our bench. Not to mention the joy I find when I hunt with a gun that I have restored to function. There is something special in those moments afield, which for me, have been inextricably woven into the fabric of my life.

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