Researching your guns

by Ken Doherty | January 29, 2024

I spend considerable time researching vintage firearms. For quick identification or valuation, I turn to reference books. For mystery guns or detailed analysis, however, I thoroughly examine and document them. Then, I just use Google until I find the information that I need. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Start with local experts. Wes Winkel, president of Ellwood Epps Sporting Goods near Orillia, and his staff are happy to share their years of experience and extensive database. His favourite reference books are AB Zhuks’ “Illustrated Encyclopedia of Handguns” and “Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms.” Paul Switzer, owner of Switzer’s Auction & Appraisal near Bancroft, encourages conversations with gunsmiths, but praises the Internet. Jeff Tombs, general manager of Peterborough’s Accuracy Plus, views the “Blue Book of Gun Values” (Blue Book) as “a fantastic resource,” with as his favourite online source.

Locate basic information on the barrel and receiver. What type of firearm is it? Describe the action (hinge; bolt-action; lever; pump; falling block; semi-automatic; flint lock, percussion, or in-line). What type of magazine? What calibre or gauge? What model or version? Who made it (full name) and where? Any patent information?

The basic info stamped on your barrel will help you find an owner’s manual or YouTube videos. Both can help you disassemble and reassemble your gun to locate serial numbers and proof marks.

Find the serial number (SN)

It may help you discover when your gun was made. While most American-made firearms have SNs, some are easier to find than others. See the photos on the next page for some likely spots.

You may also find matching SNs on other metal and wooden components on vintage military and sporting firearms. This practice decreased, however, with the introduction of interchangeable parts after the Second World War.

Proof marks

European firearms often have proof marks instead of SNs. Proof marks are stamped on various parts to confirm they have been tested. Each Proof House has its own mark, which may identify your gun’s origins (Blue Book or>media>proof). Look for distinctive symbols, like crowns, crests, or animals. Date codes, inspection, import, and government service marks are also clues. Search the Internet for photographs of symbols or guns that look like yours.

Describe the barrel and sights. Start the detailed examination by measuring the barrel. What shape is it? Light or heavy? If there’s a rib, what type? What’s the finish (e.g., blued or stainless)? Is the front sight a bead, blade, or fibre-optic? Is the rear sight notched, buck horn, flip up, elevator, aperture, or scoped? To find the right terminology, just Google it.

Details like barrel length, for example, help identify early versions of Winchester’s Model 1894: Sporting Rifle, 26-inch; Carbine, 20-inch; and Trapper’s Carbine, 14-18 inch (www.homestead->appraisals>1894).

Describe the receiver and action. What shape is the receiver? What finish (e.g., blued, case-hardened, or stainless?) Any engraving? Where and what pattern? Describe the bolt, trigger guard and trigger. Where’s the safety; what type?

Describe the stock, forend/forearm. Is it one piece or several? Is it made of walnut, other wood, laminate, or synthetic? What shape is the comb? Is there a cheek piece? What type of hand grip? Describe the grip cap, butt plate, or recoil pad. What shape is the forend/forearm. Is there any checkering; what pattern and where?


This is the most crucial factor affecting value. How much original metal finish is left? Any scratches or dents? Any signs of rust like freckling, pitting, or scaling? Is the bore clean, shiny, dirty, or corroded? Any signs of wear or abuse? How is the original wood finish? Any scratches, dents, gouges, cracks, or repairs? How well does it function?

Be objective when you assess your gun’s condition rating. Compare your findings with the “NRA Modern and Antique Gun Condition Standards” to determine your gun’s rating (>gun-info-research). The photos in the Blue Book’s Photo Percentage Grading System help estimate percentage of original finish. Winkel warns that “guns are seldom at 98%!”

For more info on your gun’s condition, see “Condition Critical,” pg. 40 of the June 2021 issue.

What’s it worth?

The Blue Book is the definitive resource, but the prices are American. Instead of converting to Canadian dollars, both Switzer and Tombs recommend taking them at par because of market differences. I recommend monitoring Canadian gun shop and auction house websites.

I hope this overview has been helpful. Watch for my next article in this series on photographing, appraising, and insuring your guns. Happy sleuthing!

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