What is it? And: Is it right, or wrong?
An excerpt from Gunsmithing Guns of the Old West ©2001 & 2004 by David R. Chicoine
Restoration is a word that seems to be bandied about more and more these days, but with the likely hood that fewer people rather than more, actually understand what they mean to say when they use it. This term "restoration" can have various meanings, with each one being dependant upon the individual circumstances and the restored article, but dependant most of all on who it is that is doing the telling. Even the trusty dictionary refuses to be pinned down to one single, good explanation of the word restoration, so it might just be worthwhile to take a few moments to try and sort out this word as it specifically applies to antique firearms. Perhaps if we really try, we can find some useful clarification and apply it to this often misunderstood little word that has on occasion proved itself a bane to antique arms collectors and dealers alike.
Some definition: What in the world is a firearms restoration? Over many years of handling antique arms it became necessary along the way to develop some practical answers to this question. Almost all the time I have found that it will normally come down to one of the following three definitions which we will normally use to define the word restoration.
1) A "full" or complete restoration. (a.k.a.; a museum-quality restoration, a.k.a.; "make my gun look and work as new".) Any work of this extent would necessarily involve the craftsman going over everything in, on, and around the weapon, no crevice would be left untouched. This would entail a complete renewal of the gun, both mechanically and in terms of the exterior finishes and original markings, including areas of the weapon that are not readily seen during the casual examination as well as the exact duplication of factory finishes, which may well be long obsolete. In many instances this will mean actually re-manufacturing many areas of the weapon, especially when there are extensive rust damages and where new replacement parts are not available. Any job this extensive may easily have costs that run into the thousands of dollars.
2) A "factory type" restoration. (a.k.a.; "make the gun look and work like the factory would have if it were sent back to them in the 1930's, or the 1880's, etc.") A job like this would entail repairing all the gun's mechanical areas so that the firearm is made fully functional, and on the metal it would involve re-surfacing and restoring the external factory lines, original (often obsolete) finishes, and sometimes the markings. This work would normally be done with an eye toward the preservation of any factory markings present, even when that means leaving some of the deeper rust damages. The wood may also be given a factory like refinish, also with an eye to preserving any markings, and the fit of wood to metal must be maintained. Some old scars in the wood, and/or small pitted areas in the metal may still be present, although the gun should look like the factory had done the work. A job like this will usually cost in the area of several hundred to a thousand or so dollars. This is the most commonly encountered type of restoration. Today the gunsmith ends up with restoration jobs like this because, for the most part, the gun factories either no longer exist, or they are no longer willing or able to perform such work on their obsolete models.
3) An historical restoration, a.k.a.: purely preservation. During this third definition of arms restoration, the weapon would be carefully disassembled and thoroughly cleaned. Any mechanical problems would be corrected in order to bring the gun back to a fully functional, original mechanical state. External wood or metal repairs may be made but only with a view to make the weapon complete, and functional as original. No refinishing work would be done, excepting perhaps to preserve some specific damaged area but with the proviso that any such work would be made to match as closely as possible, the guns' present condition. This historical restoration process is done solely to preserve the weapon historically, never to make anything look new. Speaking of values, a firearm's historical value may, or may not have anything to do with its monetary value. For instance, great-grandad's well-worn old Model 1892 Winchester rifle may only have a listed book value of $300., however just the fact that it has been in the same family for four or five generations could place this gun in the category of being priceless to its present family-member owner.
And not? Alright, now we know that we have some clear idea what the definitions for a restoration are; how about what is not a restoration? Restoration is not a re-blue or re-nickel on a Civil War vintage weapon using modern methods along with a high luster polish that is achieved by the aggressive use of buffing wheels with modern abrasive compounds. Work such as this is often performed by an unskilled worker and although there are exceptions, it usually lacks any semblance of craftsmanship. Poorly accomplished, it is not only completely inappropriate for the older firearm but can permanently change the physical shape and appearance of the arm, ruining sharp factory corners and edges while obliterating desirable factory markings. Wood stocks or grips would never be sanded while they were off the gun in areas where the wood fits together with the metal; such over-sanding causes the edges of the wood to be lower than the metal, thereby leaving unsightly, unprofessional looking gaps and effectively ruining the wood. Nor would it be called restoration to alter the weapon from standard by changing caliber, shortening the barrel, milling metal off the receiver or frame in order to fit "special" target sights, or altering hammers, triggers, grips or stocks to suit some unique personal preference.
Is restoration right or wrong? Here is a truly important and valid question, but after the reading the definitions of the word, one that also doesn't seem to have a single, easy answer. Restoration of some sort may be quite right for some weapons, and yet totally inappropriate for others. I suggest that it is first necessary to determine what you have in the way of a firearm before trying to apply one or more of the above definitions for restoration. In other words, does your weapon qualify for restoration work, and if you think it does then what kind of restoration work would be proper? We will have to keep asking questions in order to find the correct answer to fit your individual firearm.
How will restoration work effect the value of an old gun? Again, any answer would be given in the subjective sense because value, like beauty is often in the eye of the beholder so in the end; the intrinsic value of the gun before restoration will determine your answer. Should the gun be deemed as fairly rare but it has sunken into deplorable condition, a first class restoration ought to increase its value. Bear in mind that much of any collectables value is based on its rarity and originality, then its condition, thus any attempt at restoration work, if it were poorly done like the work described earlier may completely destroy the value of an antique firearm.
How rare is the weapon in question? The answer to this will help determine what sort of restoration work, if any, might be appropriate. For example; if we were thinking about a one hundred and twenty five year old firearm which was one of a production run of only 1000 guns, so that perhaps 80 known examples of these weapons still existed today in collections and museums; then any work performed on a weapon like this should fit within our third definition of restoration. This means all restoration efforts are made with the intent toward preservation from further deterioration, and of course, to rehabilitate and maintain the weapon's original functionality. A firearm such as this would certainly have important historical as well as monetary collector value as it is, so any refinishing work would be totally incorrect on a piece such as this.
On the other hand, if we are speaking of a regular production gun from the same era, one of many that was manufactured in quantities of thousands or even hundreds of thousands we could have a much different answer. In such a case it may be perfectly alright to properly repair and refinish the weapon so that it meets with an original factory standard if the owner so chooses. Well executed work should not harm the weapon's value and furthermore, if we assume that the piece was probably in awful condition to start with, the work should actually improve its monetary value, as well as leaving the owner with a great looking and functional example of this type of weapon that may now be enjoyed.
If you were to consider that same situation, with this identical category of gun but one that instead retained 70% to 90% or more of its original factory finishes, then the advice would have to change. Aside from any repairs that might be required in order to restore proper function and perhaps a professional cleaning, any old firearm with this much factory finish should be left strictly alone. Some might chose to disagree with me on this, but I have never believed there was anything to be ashamed of about having a bit of "good, honest wear and tare" on an old gun. In yet another scenario; suppose for a moment that you have proof that a very important historical figure had owned this gun, and further, it was learned that it was "he" who had put the wear on the gun. What do you think. . .should this piece be refinished? The intrinsic value of any such a weapon would depend strongly upon exactly who that important previous owner was, but as a rule of thumb, any firearm falling within this category should never be refinished or altered in any way, it should be preserved as is.
We can see that restoration does not automatically mean that the weapon will get refinished to a bright and shiny new condition and in fact, restoration work might, or might not involve any refinishing. Your true definition of restoration will always depend on the individual firearm; on the arm's relative rarity, as well as its present condition but most of all, the final choice of both definition and of the weapon's fate, will be made by the weapons owner. From a historical standpoint, firearms restoration in whatever form you chose should be viewed first and foremost as the preservation of a piece of history, as such; any form of antique restoration ought to be done correctly, or not at all.