Preserving Firearms

Recently, I was asked what was the first Civil War firearm I had owned. I really had to scratch my head and think on it, not because of how many I have owned (just a handful, really), but rather, because my interest goes back to the very first of military fascinations I had.

 

PLAYING CIVIL WAR

When I as about 5 years old, it was a big treat to play with a kid from another neighborhood by the name of “Joe.” Joe was three years older than me, but his family and mine spent time together usually on Fourth of July and around Christmas. Joe’s family was about the same size as mine: Five kids and parents. The two families’ ages were all pretty close. In fact, his family did have someone my age, but she wasn’t as interested in military stuff as me, so we didn’t play together that much.

One day during summer vacation, Joe came over to our house to play for the day. It was nice out, so Mom told us to go play outside. Armed with a couple of musket-length sticks, we decided to play “Civil War.” I had images in my mind of how we should play, but Joe was older. He called the shots.

First, to my inner disgust, he wanted to be the “Yankees.” This was long before I developed political biases. All I really knew was the Confederacy had much cooler flags. Therefore, I wanted to portray the Rebels. No dice. Joe was older.

The second point that stirred my ire when he wanted to plan an ambush for the imaginary column of Confederates who were fast approaching the courthouse park in which we decided to employ our line of defense. We were two against easily a brigade, in my imagination.

Joe’s plan was to climb a tree, hang one of our “muskets” by the sling (butcher cord tied at the butt and about three quarters of the way up the “stock”). We would use a second string to “pull the trigger” from a safe distant.

Okay, I was only 5, but this was outlandish. I knew we had only one shot with our “muskets.” And after each had “fired,” they would still be hanging in the tree as the ghost brigade of Rebels deployed in line of battle. This was a ridiculous plan. And I told him so.

In retrospect, I suppose Joe depicted a fine General McClellan, because he announced we had no other choice. There were “just too many of them” to risk ourselves. “And besides,” he threatened, “We do it like this, or I am going home.”

So, we hung our sticks in the tree, awaited the Confederate column until Joe announced, “There they are! Fire!” We both made musket explosions through our cheeks, looked at the empty road in front of us, and then each other. “Now what?” I demanded, already honing my sarcastic edge at the precious young age. “I guess I will go home,” was “General” Joe’s proclamation.

I stood on the courthouse steps watching him walk down the road where the Rebels just advanced. I looked up at our “branch muskets” still hanging in the tree. Our war was over, but I decided at that moment, “I am never gonna let anyone tell me what to do with my guns ever again.”

 

MODEL 1842 MUSKET

So, getting back to that collector’s question, “What was the first Civil War firearm I had owned?” That would be a Model 1842 Rifle Musket that I bought from Simpsons Ltd. in Galesburg, Ill., around 1982 for about $190.

At the time, I was a young, lean reenactor in the 41st Illinois Volunteer Infantry. One of the requirements of belonging to the unit was having a 3-band, 69-caliber muzzle loading percussion weapon. In those days, the only way to meet that requirement was to buy an original Civil War era weapon. There were no reproductions that fit the unit’s requirements.

It was a nice weapon: 1849-dated lockplate, matching date on the tag, original ramrod, and both sling swivels present. Today, we would call its appearance, “Attic condition,” referring to the dark brown coating of rust that penetrated many of these once-bright metal firearms.

A second requirement of our Civil War unit was that all of our firearms be polished bright, as they would have been during the 1860s. This requirement conflicted with my sense of museum training that I had already begun.

Sanding an antique steel barrel bright and then polishing it to a sheen with steel wool seemed counter-intuitive. But, I was enamored with the idea of recreating long Civil War marches and reenacting devastating battles. If, to be allowed to that, meant polishing an antique weapon, than that’s what I would do.

I had forgotten my vow made on the courthouse steps when I was only 5 years old. Someone was telling me what to do with my own gun — and I was letting them do it!

 

“I BOUGHT A MUSKET… NOW WHAT”

One of my editors recently commented to me, “JAG, it sure takes you a long time to get to the point of what you are writing.” Remembering his admonition, I want to say to you, “Thank you.” If you have read this far, I am about to get to the point.

A reader called last week, proud to have purchased a Model 1861 rifle musket at the Civil War show in Wheaton. He asked, “Now what? How should I care for it?”

The answer should have been simple for me. Years of working in museums, even more years of firearms training, competition, and buying and selling, should have meant I could rattle off a response without thinking about it. Instead, I remembered watching my friend, Joe, walk off as I thought, “No one is gonna tell me what do with my guns ever again.”

So, I guess, here is where I throw in my political disclaimer: “Do whatever the heck you want with your gun. Shine it, chrome it, hang it over the fireplace, it doesn’t matter — it’s your gun.” IF, however, you are asking, “How do I maintain its value,” that is another matter.

 

BEST THING TO DO? DO NOTHING

How many times does this need to be said to collectors? LEAVE the relics alone. You aren’t going to buff, oil, restore, or any other act of fondling to increase value. They are relics. Have you ever seen a 60-year-old person who goes to a tanning booth, receive Botox-injections, gets a facelift, boob job, or butt-rendering? It doesn’t make them look 23 again. It makes ‘em look like a 60-year old that couldn’t accept the fact they were 60 years old.

The same thing applies to historic relics. They are new only once. There is no magic potion to change that.

People pay the most for “original condition,” pretty much across the spectrum of militaria. Restore a musket lock to flintlock, it lowers the price. Restitch the visor on an officer’s cap, it lowers the value. Spread magic lotion on leather goods, it REALLY lowers the value. Messing with the relic might give you a sense of satisfaction, but you are lowering its monetary worth.

There might be a few exceptions to the rule, but face it, you and I aren’t the type to discover those high-end relics that benefit from a little polishing or highlighting! For the good ol’ found in antique shop or at a gun show type of stuff we buy, “leave it alone,” is the best mantra to follow.

Now I know that is excruciating advice to follow. We have been raised in a society where bright and shiny is equated with value. To leave something rusty, dusty, and brown, seems counter-intuitive. It is very hard to bring home a new firearm, helmet, sword, or uniform, and not think we can’t enhance its value just a bit by wiping some oil on it, buffing out some rough spots, or repairing a tear or rip.

I get it. Part of the fun of collecting, is thinking we are “preserving” history. And the easiest way to do that is not through researching, compiling, and publishing quantitative analysis, but rather, to do something with the relics we collect, be it, cleaning, washing, buffing, or sealing them with something.

Okay, so back to the guy’s new Model 1861 Rifle Musket. What advice did I give him—to maintain its value? Here is a quick run-down:

*Clean the exterior. Simply wipe it down with a clean, cotton cloth. If there is belligerent dirt, use a little warm water to dampen the cloth (ring it out) and gently work the area. Avoid any “scrubbing” motions. The great temptation is to clean a new weapon to the point where it looks “new.” This includes, not replacing mismatched parts, sanding and refinishing stocks, polishing, re-bluing metal parts etc. You may destroy the value of your weapon that has aged naturally. Harsh chemicals, solvents, abrasive cloth, steel wool should all be avoided. The goal is to preserve what original finish remains and not to affect any markings.

*Clean the bore. It is our nature, as shooters, to want the bore to be clean. I am not going to advise you to leave it as it is, because I know that might cause your head to explode some night, when you least expect it. SO, to clean the bore, use a one-piece, cleaning rod that is either plastic-coated or hardened steel. Avoid aluminum, brass, or fiberglass rods. These can pick up abrasive grit that will damage rifling. You should never use one of the harsh bore solvents containing significant amounts of ammonia on an antique firearm. Good ol’ Hoppes No. 9 will do the trick. Remember, it is a solvent, not a treatment. Use the Hoppes to clean the bore. Run patches down it until they come out clean. Then apply a bore protectant. Birchwood-Casey “Sheath” is a good choice, as its carrier compound evaporates after a few hours, leaving a protective film on the steel.

*Don’t take it apart. Again, counter-intuitive for anyone who has trained with weapons. It is a relic now. You are not going to defend your State from invaders with it. Each time you take an antique weapon apart, you invariably ding the screws heads, punch dents into the stock, or run other risks. Those things lower the value.

*Detail the weapon. This is a term from the car collectors, but basically it means, go over the exterior with a “fine-tooth comb.” Clean that which can be seen with a cotton cloth (not polyester—it can scratch) and good ol’ Hoppes No. 9. This is a degreaser—not an oil. Wipe the weapon dry after cleaning it. Then, if you must, apply a microcrystalline wax treatment. To make iron or steel rust, the presence of moisture and an oxidizing agent is all that is needed. The wax provides an insulating barrier between the surrounding environment and the object. Select a neutral microcrystalline wax like Renaissance Wax. Beeswax or other harder waxes tend to have acids in them and are much harder to remove. Any mild solvent such as acetone can remove the Renaissance Wax at any time. You should always wear cotton gloves when handling a waxed firearm. That thin protective layer is easily damaged.

*Store in free air flow. Don’t store your weapons in gun sleeves. Anything that surrounds the weapon becomes its environment. A gun sleeve creates a tight, enclosed “micro-environment” for the weapon it contains. Best storage—not considering the security from left or mishandling—is on an open rack with padded (again, white cotton over some sort of batting) “fingers” for holding each longarm.

 

These tips will help maintain the value of a weapon that you consider to be a “non-shooter.” The game changes, if you are going to go out plinking with your collector weapon. At that point, simply care for the weapon in the same manner you treat your other shooters.

But, the final word on all of this is, “It’s your gun. Do what you want with it.” Just keep in mind, if your long-term goal is recouping or even gaining on your initial investment, the way you care for your antique firearm might just be different than how you treat your AR-15, Model 870 Remington, or your Glock.

Two rounds to center mass! Unless you are carrying a Model 1861—Then, preserve the memories and retain the value,

John A-G
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine

 

 

 

 

 

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