Is That Gun Worth It?

It can be really hard to tell if that used gun is a valuable vintage firearm or a near-worthless hunk of steel. This guide will give you some helpful pointers.

Value isn’t solely determined by condition. This Colt 1911 was carried through two wars and has some stories to tell.
Value isn’t solely determined by condition. This Colt 1911 was carried through two wars and has some stories to tell.author photo

Maybe you’re perusing the offerings at a local gun show, or one of your neighbors is hosting an epic garage sale. Or perhaps you’ve been shopping for gun deals at one of the online broker or auction sites. Whatever the scenario, how do you know when you’re paying a fair price for a used gun?

It’s easy to figure out if a new gun price is correct or not. You can just price shop a few different local store and online options and quickly get a clear picture of the going market price. But when it comes to used guns, there are a seemingly infinite number of possibilities.

Consider thousands of manufacturers, each making dozens or hundreds of models over a century or so, and it quickly becomes apparent that no human can catalog that much information in their head.

Determining the value of a gun is 50 percent research, 50 percent judgment, and 90 percent pure voodoo, but there are some tricks to the trade that serious buyers use. Let’s take a closer look at the two factors that determine a gun’s value.

First, you have to know what it is by identifying the company, model, and year of manufacture. Once that’s determined, you’ll need to make an accurate assessment of the condition.

What is it?

Modern car buyers are armed with more information than ever before. The KBB or Kelley Blue Book continues to be a staple for savvy buyers. Just as with cars, there’s a “blue book” resource for guns too.

The Blue Book of Gun Values is currently in its 38th Edition, having kept up with the changing market and new products introduced each year. The publication will do a couple of things for you as a buyer.

It contains over 180,000 price point listings that cover tens of thousands of gun models. Somewhere over 30,000 of those contain descriptions, so when you stumble across something interesting on the used market, there’s a great chance you can learn the basics quickly.

The section of the Blue Book of Gun Values that describes the Colt 1903 shown here.
The section of the Blue Book of Gun Values that describes the Colt 1903 shown here.author photo

You can get all 2,512 pages of the printed version of the Blue Book of Gun Values, or you can sign up for an online subscription that allows you to look up guns using a computer, tablet, or smartphone. As an example of how it works, let's take a look at one of my previous gun show finds.

The Colt 1903 pistol shown in the photos below caught my eye at a local show close to 10 years ago. I’ve always found the 1903 model stylishly elegant. It’s slim, well-rounded, and was technically advanced for its day and age.

Looking it up in the Blue Book of Gun Values, I get lots of information about the pistol. The basic description tells me features to expect like grip types, barrel length, safeties and how different model series varied.

I see that the 1903 pistols were manufactured from 1903 to 1946, and during that time there were six different series, including Types I, II, III, and IV, a U.S. Property Parkerized version, and a General Officer’s Pistol.

I can tell mine is a Series III model not just by the features but because the serial number is 301xxx. This particular gun was manufactured sometime between 1910 and 1926. Additional notes in the listing tell me that some models were made with nickel finishes and pearl grips, so if we run across one in that condition, it could be original too.

Armed with this information, the next step is to determine the value. To know that, we have to understand the condition of the pistol.

What's the condition?

Fortunately, there are some reasonably objective industry standards for evaluating and communicating the condition of a used gun. Subjectively, most sellers will always want to describe their offering as “excellent,” but how is a buyer supposed to know what that means? For years, the industry operated on a descriptive system that defined a half dozen or so condition categories.

For example, The Blue Book of Gun Values describes the NRA Modern Gun Descriptions like this:

New – Not previously sold at retail, in the same condition as current factory production.

Perfect – In new condition in every respect, may have previously been sold at retail.

Excellent – Near new condition, used but little, no noticeable marring of wood or metal, bluing near perfect (except at muzzle or sharp edges).

Very Good – In perfect working condition, no appreciable wear on working surfaces, no corrosion or pitting, only minor surface dents or scratches.

Good – In safe working condition, minor wear on working surfaces, no broken parts, no corrosion or pitting that will interfere with proper functioning.

Fair – In safe working condition, but well worn, perhaps requiring replacement of minor parts or adjustments which should be indicated in advertisement, no rust, but may have corrosion pits which do not render article unsafe or inoperable.

You can see that the frame of this Colt 1903 pistol has most of its original finish but there’s some pitting on the slide surfaces.
You can see that the frame of this Colt 1903 pistol has most of its original finish but there’s some pitting on the slide surfaces.author photo

While each term contains some specific descriptive elements that help one categorize a given gun, there’s still quite a bit of subjectivity in the process.

More recently, a new system has come into vogue that offers a more objective way to rate the condition of a firearm. Based on the amount of original finish remaining and the original status of parts, the system more specifically defined categories such as excellent, very good, and good.

Here’s how the Blue Book of Gun Values redefines the traditional NRA category system.

New/Perfect – 100% condition with or without box. 100% on currently manufactured firearms assumes NIB (New In Box) condition and not sold previously at retail.

Mint – typically 98%-99% condition with almost no observable wear. Probably sold previously at retail, and may have been shot occasionally.

Excellent - 95%+ to 98% condition.

Very Good - 80% to 95% condition (all parts/finish should be original).

Good - 60% to 80% condition (all parts/finish should be original).

Fair - 20% to 60% condition (all parts/finish may or may not be original, but must function properly and shoot).

Poor - Under 20% condition (shooting not a factor).

The Colt 1903 pistol shown here was originally finished in a charcoal blue color. Being about 100 years old, the finish on this one is both worn and aged. Higher use surfaces like the front and back straps of the grip have almost all of the bluing worn off, so they have an appearance more like raw steel.

The original blueing has turned into a brownish patina over the past 100 years, but the remaining finish is original.
The original blueing has turned into a brownish patina over the past 100 years, but the remaining finish is original.author photo

Areas that get less direct contact like the sides of the frame and slide still have original finish, although over the years the color has turned from blue to more of a brown. There’s also a bit of pitting on the front sides of the slide.

Pitting is rough or pockmarked texture on the metal surface, usually resulting from corrosion. Given the location, I suspect the pitting is there from sitting in a leather holster for years or even decades. If I was to rate this gun using the newer “percent of finish” system, I might place it in the 40% to 50% range, which would put it in the “fair” category.

Given its age and the fact that all internal parts appear to be original, one might make a case that it approaches the lower end of the “good” condition band, but that would be a stretch given the wear and pitting.

With this information, I can easily check a current edition of the Blue Book in either the print or online versions to find an approximate value. In fact, the current online chart shows the estimated value at $325.

In my experience, the Blue Book values tend to be on the low side for most guns. In other words, if I ran across this gun at a show tomorrow, I’d have to do some aggressive bargaining to get it for $325, but that’s OK. I’ve got a solid benchmark from which to haggle.

While condition has a lot to do with value, recognize that other factors come into play too, so street prices may or may not reflect what's shown by the Blue Book condition rating. After all, supply and demand is the ultimate price influencer.

There is more pitting near the muzzle. Perhaps this gun was stored in a leather holster for an extended period of time, leading to moisture corrosion.
There is more pitting near the muzzle. Perhaps this gun was stored in a leather holster for an extended period of time, leading to moisture corrosion.author photo

A Few Buyer Tips

There’s a similar process for antique guns. Given the potential for historic importance, that’s a topic for another day, but we can list a couple of important tips here.

• "Original finish" in the ratings means exactly that. Be careful not to confuse that with "pretty" finish. If a gun has been re-finished somewhere along the line, that can make it desirable as one to carry and shoot, but almost always decreases its value.

• Boxes and packaging are important if you are looking at something older. You'll be amazed at the potential price difference between two identical guns, one with original packaging and the other without.

• Dealing with fakes. While rarely an issue with guns in the three-figure price range, forgeries are a real issue at the higher end of the market. If you're into surplus military guns, be cautious about models described as "all original parts."

Most surplus guns have gone through arsenal refurbishing at some point in their lives, so finding one that has all original parts installed at the factory is a very rare thing. The odds are better that someone has found the “correct” parts and rebuilt the gun to the original configuration.

• Don't pay for stories without proof. Someone saying that Jesse James, John Dillinger or Audie Murphy carried the gun you're looking at means absolutely nothing without evidence. If you ever go to resell such a gun to a collector, they're going to expect documentation like a bill of sale or affidavit from that famous original owner.

• Many gun companies operate archive services. For a nominal fee, you can request factory records on a gun based on its serial number. The process takes some weeks, but you'll get a factory letter that specifies everything the company knows about the original sale of the gun. Who knows? You just might get back a bill of sale proving that your gun was shipped to a historical figure.

As with any other product, used guns are a buyer beware scenario. The more you invest in research and double-checking, the more likely you are to get a fair deal.