While we here at RTBA are usually focused on modern firearms, high-tech creations of polymer and stainless steel, we have a deep appreciation for that which modern guns are sorely lacking—beauty. Even though they make great defensive handguns, Glock, SigSauer, and Springfield Armory do not produce beautiful weapons. To be fair, they don’t need to, and I’d trust my life to any of them. In fact I do, every day. But as much as I love my Glock 21, I’m not blind to the fact that it’s an ugly pistol. Square, blocky, ungainly—Gaston Glock was definitely a believer in the old adage “form follows function.”
But there was a time, not all that long ago, when gunmakers strove to make their creations visually pleasing as well as functional. Even military arms had an aesthetic value to them, and sporting arms were truly beautiful works of art, art that is actively collected by firearms enthusiasts. Early 1st generation Colt Single Action revolvers can be worth upwards of $30,000. Classic cased double-barreled Express rifles by makers such as Heym, Westley & Richards, and Holland & Holland can easily bring six-figure sums.
But that doesn’t mean you need a six-figure bank account to get into gun collecting. There are vintage, collectible arms that are available for not much more than you’d pay for a new AR or SigSauer. In the following list of collectible firearms, we recommend ten classic weapons that can be had at a reasonable cost, and should appreciate in value.
(Editor’s Note: The values listed below are based on an informal survey of prices on online gun brokerage sites.)
#10 – Colt Single Action Army
Colt Model of 1873, Single Action Army—Value: $1,500-30,000 No weapon is more closely associated with the time period in which it was used than the Colt 1873 Single-Action Army. Though there were a wide variety of handguns used in the American west in the decades between the Civil War and the turn of the century, Hollywood has made the Colt SAA the iconic arm of the era—and who am I to argue with the thousands of hours I spent watching westerns while growing up? Not only that, but I have a personal connection with the SAA—the first real firearm I ever held was a reenactor’s Colt at the wild west-themed Six-Gun Territory amusement park, outside St. Augustine, Florida.
As my dad looked on approvingly, a modern-day Wyatt Earp briefly handed his revolver to an awestruck three-year-old, and a lifelong love of the old west was born. Introduced in 1873, Colt manufactured it continuously until 1941, when the Second World War caused Colt to shift resources to militarily important production. The popularity of Western movies and TV shows in the 1950s inspired Colt to put the venerable revolver back into production in 1956, and they’re still turning them out. While early 1st Generation models, especially those with highly desirable Inspectors marks, can command prices approaching $50,000, late 1st Generation and 2nd Generation guns are much more affordable.
#9 – Walther P-38
Walther P-38—Value: $600-3,000 The Walther P-38 was a true advancement in the state of the art in weapon design,and for the Wehrmacht it came along at just the right time. Far more rugged and reliable than the P-08 (commonly known as the Luger) it replaced, it was one of the first double-action auto pistols, and the first with a decocking safety.
My example was a post-war West German Border Police surplus gun, and one of the few 9mm’s I ever owned. While I have no use for the nine as a serious defensive cartridge, and my P-38 never fed anything but FMJ’s reliably, I still miss that pistol. The accuracy was great, and when I fed it what it wanted to eat, it never gave me a problem.
#8 – Beretta M1934
Beretta M1934—Value: $600-1,200 The standard Italian service pistol of the Second World war, the Beretta M1934 is the direct ancestor of the US Pistol M9 that is the current US service pistol. Chambered for the 9mm Corto (.380 ACP) cartridge, the M1934 is a pleasant little shooter as well as a collectible firearm. Produced from 1934 to 1992, more than a million of the little pistols rolled out of Beretta’s factory. The high demand examples are those acquired by Nazi Germany for secondary issue, primarily to rear echelon officers and Nazi party officials. These are usually stamped with a Waffenamt, coded markings used by the Germans to identify the manufacturer (in the case of Beretta, WaA162).
#7 – Remington 1858 New Army
Remington 1858 New Army—Value: $1,400-2,500 While not as familiar as its competitors from the Colt factory, the Remington 1858 Army revolver had much to recommend it. First, it was chambered for a .44 caliber ball, instead of the .36 caliber of the Colt. The full-frame design, with the solid top strap absent from Colt’s revolvers, made for a more robust pistol, and the Remington was said to be faster to swap out an empty cylinder for a loaded one, though how useful this practice was in combat is dubious. To me, however, the main advantage it has over the Colts, either the 1851 or the 1860 models, is that it just looks better.
#6 – U.S. Rifle M-1 Garand
U.S. Rifle Cal. .30 M-1 Garand—Value: $2,000-4,000 It was called the “… greatest battle implement ever devised …” by Gen. George Patton. The American GI swore by it, and at it. It was carried in every theater of conflict, from the Aleutians to Sicily. Over six million of them were made, by the Springfield Armory and Winchester. It was the greatest firearm ever designed by someone whose name wasn’t Browning. It was the US Rifle, Cal. .30, M-1, commonly referred to as the Garand. And it’s inclusion on this list is a no-brainer. I love vintage military rifles, and have owned several. This remains at the top of my wish list.
#5 – Browning Hi-Power
Browning Hi-Power—Value: $800-3,000 One of John Moses Browning’s last designs was the Browning Hi-Power, manufactured initially by Belgium’s Fabrique National in 1935. Though Browning began work on the pistol that would become the Hi-Power before his death in 1926, it would be another nine years before his work would be completed by Dieudonné Saive, a Belgian firearms designer (who would go on to design the FN FAL rifle). Chambered for the 9mm Parabellum, the Hi-Power has been in production for 80 years, and is still the standard service pistol in many nations. The fact that so many were produced means they are readily available, but there are some rare variations that can be worth quite a bit.
#4 – U.S. Rifle M-1917 Enfield
US Rifle M-1917 Enfield—Value: $500-1,200 Developed from the British Pattern 14 rifle, which was designed to be manufactured in the US to help fill the massive requirement that the British empire had for weapons after the start of the First World War, the M-1917 became the most numerically important American rifle of that war. While the more familiar M-1903 Springfield was the standard US service rifle, nearly 2¼ million Enfields were produced, equipping 75% of the ‘Doughboys’ sent to France. Most of the rifles were produced by Eddystone; the remainder by Remington and Winchester. Alvin C. York used one to win the Medal of Honor at the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne. After the war, the M-1917 was prized by sportsmen for the strength and versatility of the action, which was used as the basis for many custom rifle builds.
#3 – Colt Detective Special
Colt Detective Special—Value: $650-1,800 Introduced in 1927, the Colt Detective Special is familiar to anyone who watched police dramas in the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and into the ‘80s. The ‘snub-nosed .38’ is the quintessential plainclothes detective’s weapon, and was until semi-auto pistols replaced revolvers in police department inventories beginning in the 1990s. Rugged and reliable, they’re not hard to find and hold their value well. And they still make great carry guns.
#2 – 1873 Springfield Carbine
1873 Springfield Carbine—Value: $1,000-4,000 At the same time that the US Army was ordering the Colt Single Action Army into production as it’s standard sidearm, it was also settling on a new breech-loading rifle and carbine, the 1873 Springfield ‘Trapdoor’. The rifle variant was issued to infantry units, and the carbine to cavalry troops. There was also a cadet version, and in all, 700,000 1873s were produced. In use up to the Spanish-American war in 1898, early production examples, especially those produced prior to the Little Big Horn massacre of Lt. Col. George A. Custer’s Seventh Cavalry, command the highest values.
#1 – Smith & Wesson Model 29
Smith & Wesson Mdl. 29—Value: $850-3,000 The brainchild of noted gun writer Elmer Keith, who favored hot custom .44 Special loads in beefed-up revolvers, the S&W Mdl. 29 was made famous as the “… most powerful handgun in the world …” in the 1971 film Dirty Harry. After the movie’s release, gun shops couldn’t keep the big .44 Magnum revolver in stock, and it remains popular today. Still in production, the 29 is easily found, it holds its value very well, and it is tremendously fun to shoot
…Who could ask for more in a collectible firearm?