Recently LoveToKnow chatted with LeRoy Merz, a specialist in antique Winchester rifles.
Interview with LeRoy Merz, Antique Gun Specialist
LTK: How did you become interested in antique firearms?
LM: Old firearms have an interesting and colorful place in the history of this country. If these old guns could talk they would have many stories to tell.
I feel that preserving these antiques preserves the history of our country. You can learn a lot by researching old guns. In addition, I am always impressed with the quality of craftsmanship that was achieved over a hundred years ago, using tools and machines that we would consider primitive today. Without spending thousands of dollars on hand-made work, no modern company can match the quality of workmanship you find in antique guns. The attention to detail in the construction, the wood-to-metal fitting, and quality of bluing far surpass the guns that are typically produced today.
Collecting Antique Winchester Rifles
LTK: What makes the Winchester so desirable to collectors?
LM: The romance of the Old West, as seen in movies and books, draws a lot of people in. In addition there are still a lot of them around with many variations, which makes them fun to collect.
When you consider that before 1930 Winchester made over a million Model 1892s, over a million Model 1894s, over a million Model 1895s, over three-quarters of a million Model 1873s, plus many other models, that covers a lot of history in this country, not counting those made by dozens of other manufacturers.
LTK: Are there any especially rare and desirable Winchester Rifles?
LM: Every Winchester has value, but ones with special order features are usually worth more. A longer or shorter barrel than normal (assuming it has not been cut), rare calibers, deluxe models, fancy wood, presentation models, engraving, gold, nickel or silver finishes all increase the value.
LTK: Do antique Winchester rifles have any special markings?
LM: Winchesters almost always have a "legend" on the barrel, which lists the address of the factory, New Haven CT and other info. Also the model and serial number are usually stamped into the metal somewhere. Many models list a variety of patent dates, but those are not important for determining value, once the model has been established.
LTK: Is there a particular Winchester that you like the most? Why?
LM: I like them all, but especially the Model 1873, because of its part in the history of the Old West. That model is where Winchester got most of the kinks worked out of their designs and really ramped up their production.
LTK: What is so special about repeater rifles?
LM: The old muzzle-loading guns took about a minute to load each round, which is tough to do if you are in a situation where you need them. They were susceptible to getting wet, misfiring, or not going off at all. The metallic cartridge was a huge improvement, because it was much more reliable, quick to load, and easy to keep on shooting.
During the Civil War, many soldiers from The North had Henry Repeating Rifles, which was a predecessor to Winchester rifles, but the South still had mostly muzzle loaders. There was a saying that went something like, "That Yankee rifle can be loaded on Sunday and shoot all week long." That might be one reason why The North won the war.
Evaluating Vintage Guns
LTK: What should a collector look for when contemplating the purchase of an antique rifle?
LM: Originality and condition. The gun should ideally retain all the parts and finish that were originally on it when it left the factory. Any later alterations from the original configuration, or wear to the finish, impact the value negatively.
LTK: What determines the value?
LM: It's similar to ordering a car today; you could get the basic model, but many special-order options were available, which increase the resale value. A trained eye can tell the difference between a factory-original feature and one that somebody altered later. Keep in mind that long before collectors came along, these old guns were tools that were used every day. It's not unusual for something to get repaired or altered over time, but the ones that retain all the original features are worth more. It is the same with condition. The metal parts were normally finished with a dark blue color. Over time that finish turns brownish, then gray or silverish. Old guns with the original blue finish are worth much more than ones where the finish has worn away.
Maintaining the Value of Antique Firearms
LTK: Should an antique rifle be refinished at all?
LM: Refinishing, rebluing, polishing or cleaning always reduces the value of old guns. Once you start refurbishing, you might as well buy a whole new gun, because the parts you don't change will look out of place, and the collector value will be lost.
LTK: How should one of these vintage firearms be stored and/or displayed?
LM: Do not store in a case. Keep in a dry place with a coat of light oil on all metal parts. Oil on the wood can damage the finish over time, so better to use a light wax on the wood.
Collectors Come From All Walks of Life
LTK: Who collects antique firearms? By that I mean, who is your average customer?
LM: There is really a broad range of folks interested in old guns; everyone from doctors, farmers, construction workers, musicians, college students to the insurance salesman next door.
LTK: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?
LM: No matter what their budget is, people can start collecting at any level. There are good collector's items at every level. Some interesting memorabilia can be bought for a few dollars, a lot of good guns are in the $200 range, or in the few-thousand-dollar range, or $100,000 and up. There really is something for everyone.
If anyone has any old guns to sell, I'll be glad to take a look.
Antique Guns For Sale
You can get more information and look at some of the antique guns that LeRoy has for sale at his website Merz Antique Firearms. Be sure to give yourself lots of time to browse; there are some fascinating items on his site.