Taking aim

PUBLISHED: 05:33 05 January 2015

Holland and Holland 12 bore side by side shotgun

Holland and Holland 12 bore side by side shotgun


The centuries-long arms race which started in earnest in the 16th century has left the modern collector with a wealth of material to choose from.

The earliest collectors of firearms were probably monarchs intent on amassing armouries to demonstrate wealth and power. They also became patrons, employing expert craftsmen to create better, more powerful weapons, as well as commissioning elaborately decorated guns that are rightly considered works of art.

It is the range of variations created during the four-century evolution of firearms, from matchlock to centre fire, which fuels the market in antique guns. Different types were created for sport, military use or self-defence. The code of honour that every gentleman was expected to own a pair of pistols for duelling has provided collectors with a rich source of fine boxed pistols from the 18th and 19th centuries.

The gun collecting community is fairly self-contained, but there are weapons of great beauty which will attract interest from a wider audience. Some of the most expensive firearms on the market are those of exhibition quality that were always intended to be admired rather than used. A collector of, say, 19th century English sporting guns can build up an excellent collection by paying prices in the low thousands and there is increasing interest in early-to-mid 20th century airguns, with prices are often under £100.

The law

In most countries antique guns can be freely bought and sold, either at auction or through dealers, but the definition of antique varies from country to country.

The UK has strict laws which govern the ownership of firearms, but a special exemption applies to antique guns kept for curiosity or ornament. The term antique is not defined in law but it’s usually assumed that all muzzle-loading weapons are exempt, as are breech-loading weapons where the calibre of ammunition is now obsolete. The identification of model and calibre requires some expertise and advice should be sought.

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Pointers to value:

Condition is probably the most important factor to consider.

Rarity will also affect value. Collectors tend to pay a premium for early examples of technical innovation or for novel items only made in small numbers.

Makers’ names are important. Purdey, Manton, Holland & Holland or Boutet, for example, are synonymous with quality and guns by them generally command premium prices, though condition is still of paramount importance.

There is always greater interest in guns that are still in the original maker’s case with all accessories, while missing parts will have a negative effect on value.

Provenance and association should also be taken into account. Previous ownership by one of the greats is often taken as a guarantee of quality.

Weapons that can be traced back to a royal armoury will also have special status, while guns that have been used by royalty or owned by one of the renowned sporting shots of the past will also be of special interest.

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Durrants’ sale including a selection of sporting and antique guns is on November 28, with a two-day sale of militaria and firearms on February 27 and 28 – consignments now invited. Contact Rebecca Mayhew on 01502 713490.

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