Do you prefer things that are bright, shining and new, or things that are old, dull and rusted?
When the question is put that way, most of us will say the former; we like things that are pretty and new. However, if asked whether you prefer new things or antiques, many of us will respond that we like antiques, because of their age or craftsmanship or beauty. The perplexing enigma involved is that, even though we profess to like old things, we frequently want them to be in "as new" condition. Something like this pertains to people who acquire old firearms. We are fascinated by their antiquity, but it troubles us that they often look old and dirty, and particularly if we are not sure whether or not they function properly.
So a question the Cody Firearms Museum is often asked is, "Should I have my gun reconditioned?" The answer, interestingly, is "no" and "yes". The answer is "no" if you want the firearm to retain its collector interest and value. Reconditioning a gun almost invariably reduces its monetary worth, even if the job is well done by a skilled professional. There are some experts who are known for their ability to "restore" a firearm to something approximating its original condition. The results can be very impressive. From all appearances, the gun seems to be almost unused, as if it just came out of its original box. To a seasoned collector, though, there are clues to such a restoration, and their interest in the gun and estimate of its worth are severely diminished. In addition, a quality restoration job is quite expensive; it can easily surpass the value of the firearm itself.
On the other hand, the answer can sometimes be "yes". A restoration can be worthwhile if the firearm is to be displayed privately, never put up for sale, or if it is to be used by the owner. Even a gunsmith's reconditioning of a gun is justifiable under similar circumstances. If you want it to look good, and function properly, and are not concerned about its appraisal or market value, you will probably not regret having it done. It is wise to remember that it is an irreversible procedure.
This question almost invariably gives rise to another closely related one - "Should I shoot my antique firearm?" The answer is, only after having it carefully examined by a skilled and reputable gunsmith, and, even then, it is frequently advisable to have the gun X-rayed for internal fissures and weaknesses. If this seems a bit extreme, just remember that your eyesight, or even your life, could be at stake. When you're absolutely certain that the firearm is safe to shoot, make doubly certain that the ammunition is carefully tailored to the age of the firearm and well below the recommended maximum black powder loads in more than one reloading manual.
An antique firearm can truly be "a thing of beauty and a joy forever." Just be sure to make careful choices about its disposition…and safe choices about its use.