Spotting Fake Firearms - originally from the Antiques Roadshow

By Dennis Gaffney

A man at the Seattle ANTIQUES ROADSHOW came to the event to learn more about a gun he had purchased a dozen years earlier because it "appeared to be an Indian rifle." The guest handed the gun to Bill Guthman, an Americana expert based in Westport, Connecticut. With just a quick once-over, however, Bill knew that the gun had originated with unscrupulous owners, rather than Indians.

"You're a collector, you've been collecting a long time, and we all like to buy wonderful things," Bill told the man. "But sometimes we don't buy wonderful things." The metal butt plate, there to protect the wooden butt of the gun, was added after the gun's construction and fit crudely. The brass tacks were hammered in to the gun's butt to approximate a lightning bolt, a Plains Indian motif.

Those who venture into the antique firearms market have to watch out for fakes. Here's how to avoid an ambush

"These tacks were aged to look old," Bill said, "but you don't see any oxidation around them. The whole rifle has been made to deceive."

A faked antique firearm is not a rare occurrence, according to Bill and to Chris Mitchell, a militaria expert based in Point Clear, Alabama. At the militaria table at ROADSHOW events, both men have exposed enough fakes to arm a small company of soldiers. They say that beginner gun collectors should go into the field armed with knowledge. And to help collectors avoid shooting themselves in the foot by purchasing a phony gun, the two sharp-shooting experts offered the following advice.

Sizeable Sums
Gun forgers only bother making fakes when their product can earn them a sizeable sum. That's why gun forgers usually copy only the most expensive guns in the marketplace, such as Colts, Winchesters and Kentucky rifles, or rare guns that have survived from the Revolutionary War or from the Civil War's Confederate Army. That's not to say that the forged guns all mimic ones that sell for tens of thousands of dollars or even more. Many fake guns sell for under $10,000 (the one that Bill saw in Seattle was bought for $250), prices that are large enough to make a profit yet small enough to avoid the scrutiny that might uncover deception.

In almost all cases, forgers tend to copy older guns, which are generally worth more. Authentic old guns corrode over time and show natural signs of aging. "After looking at a lot of guns you can tell what man has done and what nature has done," Bill says. "Nature applies the right patination. You can tell when it's artificially applied." Less-than-honest handlers stain wood to mimic age and rub new metal with acidic chemicals to make it appear old. "You can often smell the strong acidic odor," Chris says.

From Old to "Valuable"
Instead of manufacturing a new gun and making it look old—usually an expensive proposition—most forgers make their job easier by modifying an ordinary old gun to make it seem more valuable. Deceitful sellers often mess with a gun's markings. A practice in vogue today is to take contemporary Italian reproductions of Confederate handguns or Colts and remove the Italian markings. The resellers then artificially age them to pass them off as originals. It's easy for counterfeiters to file off an original marking and even to add a new false mark—"spurious markings" as they're called in the business—to make it seem like a more expensive model.

"You can often see a dishing in the metal where it's been filed," Chris says. "Although sometimes they'll try to weld them back in to shape."

Another trick is to improve a gun's cachet by adding an engraving. "They might put the name 'Wells Fargo' on a gun to imply it was owned by that company," Bill says. Chris says that the unscrupulous might also connect an anonymous gun to a historical person to bolster its value. "They'll find a beat-up Colt and they'll find some Captain John Doe who was killed during the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg and engrave the gun, 'Presented to Captain John Doe as a token of esteem from the members of his company.' Now you don't have a beat-up Colt anymore. You have a Colt with history." The sharp edges of these inscriptions often reveal them as forgeries.

As Always, Do Your Homework
Bill and Chris say the best protection against being duped is the guidance of a reputable and knowledgeable dealer who can verify a potential purchase. For those who want to stay in the antique gun-collecting field, the two experts recommend a solid education in old guns. "People should look at as many guns as they can at museums and dealer shops and familiarize themselves with what's real and what isn't," Bill says. Chris sends serious beginners to books. "The truth is that books are the backbone of everything," Chris says. "Whether you want to be a mathematician or a gun collector, you're better off spending your first $2,000 on doing research and building a library than buying $2,000 worth of guns."