Volume 26, Number 2 February/March 2018

Used guns can be a valuable profit center, but not if they’re relegated to a dim corner of the shop

Hoo-boy. Twelve hundred bucks. “I remember when these sold for $25!” I couldn’t help saying so. The proprietor shrugged. “Wish I’d bought a bunch of ’em, too!” He understood. An old Krag carbine propped in a corner once got all the attention of a broom. Now, an unaltered specimen is a prize.

None of the rifles in that secondhand rack had escaped damage or tinkering. I’d scrutinized all, from aged infantry arms to a bruised Savage 99 perforated for a side mount. The dozen or so shotguns had seen hard field use, with one exception—An early Ithaca 37 appeared factory-fresh. No tag. “How much?”

“I’ll knock off some for cash.” He then quoted a figure six times as much as the 16-bore had cost new. I sighed, thanked him, and perused the pistols. A Python at two grand. A reblued S&W K38, a few 1911s, and Ruger single-actions.

used guns

Used guns can be a valuable profit center. Interest in previously owned firearms is high, but to cash in, you need to create an atmosphere that encourages a customer to part with his hard-earned money.

Paying the Bills

You may not have left that shop, as I did, without a closer look at those new striker-fired guns or the AR-15s and synthetic-stocked bolt rifles lining the wall. But if you’re selling, not shopping, your habits matter little. Customers pay your bills, and right now in many gun stores, traffic is migrating toward secondhand racks of used guns.

used guns

Vintage photos help create a nostalgic atmosphere that can nudge a customer to pull out his wallet.

“We get regular visits from old duffers,” a shop owner told me. “They shuffle past the new stuff, hoping they’re first to a recent trade-in we’ve underpriced.” While we talked, one of his regulars entered. Plaid shirt and roomy jeans. Fleshy middle. Silvered hair thin at the hem of a ball cap. He paused briefly at the Krag, lifting his chin to check the price through bifocals. “A hard sell,” nodded the proprietor. “Knows guns. But he’ll strip out the green if he thinks someone might otherwise beat him to a deal.”

Later, in another shop, I watched a repeat of that scene. This time the customer was young, in his mid-30s. He wasted not a glance at a row of shiny new MSRs. Instead, we shared the rack of used guns.

If visitors to your shop are spending less time browsing lately, they’re probably spending less. As automobile dealers know, people kept onsite, eyes and hands on product, are most apt to buy. You’ve no doubt completed 4473s for customers bent only on leaving with specific hardware, but such blessed sales may well diminish as the imperative to snap up modern sporting rifles has faded, if only temporarily. From what I see and hear, enthusiasts are now supplanting first-time buyers of bedside pistols and novice hunters sifting prices of entry-level long guns.

Enthusiasts include an eclectic mix of people, some with narrow focus. You won’t lure them all. However broad and competitively priced your selection of firearms, it will only by chance draw a check from an advanced collector. But the history, scarcity, and obsolescence that make guns collectible enhance the value of more available, affordable models. These can suck in traffic to your shop when monochromatic ranks of the latest MSRs fail to draw a crowd.

Remember wood? It once appeared on firearms. At a gun show decades ago, I bought a restocked Mauser with a lovely piece of French walnut because the owner had many rifles to sell and quoted a grad-student price. That .270 would bring with it the friendship of a man who, over many years, would teach me much about rifles. I bought a dozen more from him. He had no shop, but I was surely a customer.

A single sale can spark a relationship that serves buyer and seller. It can broaden the enthusiast’s field of interest, as it did mine. It all but ensures repeat visits as well. If memory serves, I’ve returned to every shop that has sold me a firearm, and referred other enthusiasts to them.

used guns

This rifle and saddle are both hard-used. But together they draw the eye. Character sells used guns, so be sure to tap into it.

Character Matters

Unlike new models with only mechanical and ballistic virtues, secondhand guns have character. They’ve traveled, some to wild places. They’ve molded someone’s holster or scabbard, or pulled birds to someone’s prize retriever. Each has a past as unique as the walnut in its stock or grips.

Last fall I hunted with a borrowed 1899 Savage. This .25/35 had short reach, an anemic punch. But it brought to hand that innocent time before the Great War. Silently it carried an era all but palpable in its wear-polished walnut, barely veiled behind its brass front blade.

“I got a new rifle last week,” said a pal on the phone recently. He builds super-accurate rifles on costly actions, so I expected him to extol the virtues of some modern wunderkind. Instead, he said, “It’s a .22 High Power. Dates to the ’20s. Know where I can find some .227 bullets?”

used guns

This Holland & Holland was stored in a coat closet. Put out the word you’ll pay for used guns!

You won’t get such interesting firearms from factories or distributors. You’ll have to buy or trade for them. The internet has reduced the chances you’ll find a steal in local classifieds. But not every hunter old enough to have paid $315 for his Browning Superposed or $95 for a S&W 38/44 Outdoorsman lives online or wants to ship guns. Let customers know you’re looking for used guns—and can appraise them. The best guns from estates often wind up with appraisers. When price stalls a customer ogling a new gun at your counter, recite the car-dealer mantra: “We give top dollar for trades!”

A car lot packed with shiny vehicles draws the most interest. So your shop will get more traffic if the used-gun racks are full. Plumping your secondhand inventory also costs less than adding new guns.

used guns, folding tang sight

Early Tang sights bring fat prices. their removal affects the value of a rifle like this 1892, but not by much.

The Blue Book of Gun Values is a huge help in pricing firearms. Reaching beyond local markets, you’ll find more secondhand used guns and can nudge your asking prices higher. But staying local throttles advertising and shipping costs as well as risk. You get models and chamberings popular in your region, guns most likely to attract walk-in buyers.

Your gun shop isn’t a hardware store. Customers don’t need firearms the way they need hammers and doorknobs. They don’t dash in and hurry out. Instead, they loiter, holstering, aiming, and swinging as they imagine the next hunt or contemplate personal safety. They find in your digs other enthusiasts to chat up, learn from, and argue with. A used-gun rack triggers memories that fuel stories. Everyone likes stories. Everyone longs to be an important part of a larger narrative.

Oddly enough, many shops give secondhand guns second-tier status, stacking them at rack ends or in dim corners. To draw attention to used guns, display them prominently and apart from new ones, so buyers like me see them. Mark the model, chambering, and price on a hang tag anyone can read without having to handle the firearm. Add another tag to note attributes that hike value (“pre-’64” for a Winchester 70, for example). Accoutrements like costly scopes and folding tang sights may profit you most when sold separately.

Cabela’s taps into the imagination of customers with plush Gun Libraries that add perceived value to used firearms. Bristling with antlers bigger than most hunters will ever see afield, Cabela’s is a destination, not just a source. Your gun shop, if less palatial, can work the same magic.

Besides taxidermy, you can add posters and calendars. The iconic image of John Wayne, Winchester in one hand, saddle in the other, still appeals to men of his generation—but also to youth. The Duke was a screen hero; heroes command attention. Although black-and-white Westerns have given way to dark police serials, the appeal of a cowboy at full gallop, carbine or six-gun in hand, remains. Resurrect the Old West near racks of early lever rifles and stacks of Cowboy Action ammo, and you may attract even those ogling the guns of “black-ops” video games. Theme-based enticements to other firearms include hunting photos, vintage cartridge boxes, or copies or covers of period magazines. Old bullet boards and the more affordable tin reproductions of industry placards also set the mood.

Bringing your shop to life in this manner broadens the overall appeal of these guns and helps draw in new, younger customers. When bent, graying duffers in loose overalls must step around customers in their 20s and 30s to peruse your used guns, you’re on the path to bigger profits.

used guns

Single-action Colts draw attention, and displays such as this can help clinch a deal.

Cartridges and Caveats

Most shooters know the .244 and 6mm Remington are identical, that the 7×57, 7mm Mauser, and .275 Rigby are also one, and that the 7.62×51 NATO is a military .308. They know you can fire .22 Shorts in .22 Long Rifle chambers, .38 Specials in .357s, .44 Specials in .44 Magnums, .45 Colts in .454 Casulls. They may know the .41 Magnum, with a .410 bullet, doesn’t follow suit; .41 Long Colt bullets mic .386!

used guns

Knowing common cartridge substitutions in old firearms—and those to avoid—can help you sell guns bored for obsolete rounds. For instance, .25/35 ammo can be used in rifles for the .25/36 Marlin. But while .38/55 rifles accept .375 Winchester ammo, its high pressure makes it hazardous in vintage .38/55s.

A common question: Are the .223 and 5.56 the same? The .223 arrived in 1957 for the Armalite AR-15 rifle. After adoption by the U.S. military, and a couple of bullet changes, it became the 5.56×45 NATO. Remington began barreling .223 rifles with an abbreviated throat and steep leade (entering angle of the lands) to enhance accuracy. The generous chambers of battle rifles aided cycling with dirty ammo. Case dimensions for the .223 and 5.56 are the same. Ballisticians tell me, though, that the .223 is loaded to 55,400 CUP, 5.56 service loads to 58,500. Freebore in .223s is commonly .125 shorter than in 5.56s. SAAMI recommends that shooters do not use 5.56 ammo in .223 barrels.

Guarantees on used firearms? Your call. Whether buying or selling, I assume every sale is final. It’s the frontier way to deal in used guns.

Selling Tips By the Dozen

Having bought many firearms since my first in 1964, and sold far too many, I’ve learned the following:
Brands matter. Guns with a name other than the manufacturer’s (Glenfield, not Marlin) bring less.
Common models in pristine condition sell quickly and at a premium, especially with box and tag.
Pretty wood makes an ordinary gun look valuable. So do screws that have never been touched.
A light scrub with a toothbrush and boiled linseed oil renews checkering. Follow with a dry brush.
Refinishing and alterations repel enthusiasts, even if the changes don’t affect feel or function.
Cleaning a bore is like detailing the interior of a car: a quick, easy effort certain to be noticed.
A cheap or marred scope adds no value to a fine rifle. Ditto a cheap strap. A proper leather sling can!
Unscarred period scopes and mounts are best left on if the rifle was drilled or altered to accept them.
Custom-built rifles seldom bring near-replacement cost, and are often hard to move even when priced low.
10 A dark bore or a frosted throat doesn’t preclude tight groups, but it can affect how soon a gun sells.
11 Cylinder play on the crane and indexing tells much about a revolver’s past, and its accuracy.
12 Replacing a badly fitted or shaped aftermarket recoil pad, or a disfigured one, can help a gun sell.

—Wayne Van Zwoll

—Opening Photo by Tim Irwin