That is the question.
Every gunsmith with two screwdrivers to rub together is queried regularly about restoring guns. Often, the guns are family heirlooms with sentimental value or basket cases that would cost many times their NIB (new-in-box) value to rehabilitate in good style. Many are perfectly wonderful and desirable guns that are just a little past their prime. Some are extraordinarily rare pieces, which deserve the work.
If ever there were loaded term, it is “restoration.” For most of us, it means returning to new condition, exactly as it was when it left the factory. In strictest terms, it is also an impossible standard. In the years since a gun was made, the craftsmen who made it have shed their mortal coils. Much of their equipment, materials, processes and formulae went with them. Consequently, at best, we can get infinitely close to original but never 100-percent there. On the other hand, there is “refinishing” which is probably best defined as getting a tired arm back into respectable condition with respect to function and appearance without regard to authenticity. It is often the best goal. A sensible gunsmith will raise a few questions before agreeing to a restoration project as there are pitfalls that would do credit to the average minefield.
Should you? Often as not, no. If your cousin brings in Uncle Willie’s Model 61 Winchester .22 showing decades of use in the field and proper care, it is probably best left alone. Honest, patina is the work of a happy lifetime in the field and must be respected. The costs of a proper restoration with great care taken with respect to duplicating factory polish, bluing, stock stains and finish, etc., will considerably exceed the value of the gun at this writing. Worse, all traces of Uncle Willie would disappear.
Suppose it is Aunt Bertie’s “Owlhead” top-break .32 revolver mail ordered right out of the 1905 Sears catalog for $3.45 and now an absolute piece of crap with broken spring, cracked grip, missing parts, half the nickel flaked off and heavily pitted from storage in the chicken coop. It might be possible to restore such a gun since it was possible to make it in the first place but it will cost thousands of dollars tedious welding, fabricating, filing and fiddling to do so. Then, what do you have? Despite great sentimental value, it is best nailed up over the doorjamb next to the lucky horseshoe.
Export Target Model S&W Triple Locks (above) are exceedingly rare in any condition.
This specimen has much of the original finish but is pretty banged up and in need of
some minor repairs so may be a good candidate for a maximum-effort restoration.
This lovely old Fraser rifle (below) is just a wee bit worn and misused to ignore and
will justify any effort and expense to heal.
Suppose, on the other hand, it was Great Uncle Willie’s Colt SAA taken with him to Oklahoma during the great land rush. It may be a hellish wreck now with sewer-pipe bore, missing front sight, bumper-chroming shop polish and re-blue and plywood grips. But, any Colt with a visible serial number that isn’t polished beyond the point of no return is a good candidate in the hands of an enterprise such as Turnbull Manufacturing, which can save most specimens in fine style. Sentimental value aside, even with an investment of several thousand dollars in a serious effort, you have only to watch the skyrocketing prices of these guns to see nicely restored examples as bargains next to some derelict, thoroughly molested originals. In most case, such work can only add value. It must be said, however, it is well to have a costly purchase of a costly antique arm authenticated by a knowledgeable expert since restorations have a habit of becoming increasingly “original” at every change of ownership.
A happy outgrowth of this new appreciation for restored guns is upgraded guns. Again, our friends at Turnbull Manufacturing are among the foremost practitioners. Special-order, highly finished Winchester rifles, for instance, are exceeding rare and valuable. A deluxe, engraved M1876 with many options turned out by the factory is probably worth more than a nice house in a respectable neighborhood. With a bit of skilled work, it is possible to reproduce such a marvel from a seedy standard model at a tiny fraction of the cost.
There is a special class of guns that must be saved at all costs due to rarity or intrinsic value. I have a few, one a miniature Fraser falling block rifle (circa 1885 or 1890) with split fore-end, scattered external pitting, broken firing pin, relined barrel, foggy scope and beat buttstock with wormy horn buttplate. It is unserviceable, abused and utterly magnificent. Daniel Fraser, one of Scotland’s finest makers, is thought to have produce between 400 to 425 of his elegant falling-block rifles, including 50 or so of the small ones. This is a favorite rifle, will be buried with me and cost is no object. I may not skilled enough to do all of the work myself and will be pestering friends who can help but, someday, this lovely gun will shoot again. Perhaps Mr. Fraser will look down upon it with approval.
By Hamilton S. Bowen
This S&W Triple Lock retains most of the original bluing and coloring though
touched with a little metal mold. It is best left alone since a costly restoration
wouldn’t add to appeal and would detract from value.
Smith & Wesson New Frontier Target models in .445 Webley are also exceedingly scarce.
Since this one was stored in a wet rag for decades, etched, pitted, and refinished with
indifferent cold blue, it is an ideal candidate for a careful, meticulous restoration.