This article, "In Praise of Junk Guns," appeared originally as a Handguns Column in the July 2017 issue of Shooting Illustrated. To subscribe to the magazine, visit the NRA membership page here and select Shooting Illustrated as your member magazine.
Now, when I talk about adding “junk guns” to your gun collection, I’m not talking about some low-rent piece of dubious safety and even more questionable reliability. I’m talking about decent guns—maybe even top-shelf name brands—that for reasons cosmetic or mechanical get overlooked in dusty corners of display cases at shops and gun stores.
I first caught the junk-gun bug because of a promise I made at a gun shop where I used to work. We had a couple of really capable pistolsmiths working there, and when the opportunity arose to get a share of what was allegedly going to be the last batch of Argentine Sistema 1911s to enter the country, we jumped at it.
While the importer claimed they’d be in excellent condition, we knew they’d probably be pretty worn and scuffed and worthless as collectibles. However, they’d make great base guns for our gunsmiths to use as canvases on which to build slick custom 1911s. “If we order these,” I assured my boss, “I’ll buy one of them myself. I promise!”
Of course, when the guns arrived they were not in excellent condition. They were not even in pretty worn and scuffed condition. They were hideous. They looked like they’d come up off a U-boat wreck and then had the rust taken off with steel wire wheels. Some were patinaed, but most were bare metal, or “in the white.” Even the old rust pits were “in the white.”
I mean, they were definitely a collection of Argentine Sistema clones of the M1911, and all the pieces and parts were there, but they ranged in appearance from homely to godawful. But a promise is a promise, and I bought one. Feeling a little guilty, I bought the ugliest one, too.
Well, the gun was probably beyond cosmetic repair for any reasonable sum of money, so my first step was to recoup some of my costs by auctioning off the wide-spur checkered hammer and the one-piece steel trigger, which were eagerly snapped up by folks restoring less basket-casey USGI 1911s for their gun collection. I then carried my poor pound puppy to the gunsmiths in back and said “Teach me.”
I’m no pistolsmith, but thanks to their patient tutelage, I learned a lot about 1911s by getting that wreck up and running. Detail stripping it, replacing all the pins and springs, buying and fitting new lockwork—all were performed without fear of damaging a brand-new addition to my gun collection. What was I going to do, make it ugly and worthless?
Not long after that, I stumbled across an unbelievably good deal on a Colt 1903 Pocket Hammerless at a gun show. It was in amazingly good condition for a gun that was made in 1905, 102 years in the past at the time. The problem with that 1903 was that it was the first firearm I’d added to my gun collection that I was a little nervous about shooting too much. I mean, that old bluing is kind of fragile, parts are scarce and far between and…Junk gun to the rescue.
Prowling the aisles of the same gun show, I stumbled across a second 1903 of almost the same vintage—actually a year older—but which was worn to a dull-gray patina, sporting mismatched grip panels and had almost zero interest to anyone with a serious Colt gun collection. But all the pieces were there and the desperate seller was amenable to offers, so now I had a companion for the prettier Colt 1903 that I could shoot the bejeezus out of without feeling the slightest twinge of regret.
Bonus: It may have been ugly on the outside, but the rifling was still strong and sharp and the gun shoots like a house afire to this day. Rumors that I may have carried it on formal occasions in a stylish rayskin holster can be neither confirmed nor denied.
A common reason for collectors to pick up a junk gun is as a stand-in for a rare or expensive gun, a good example of which they haven’t tracked down or been able to afford yet. A mentor used to call these “representative examples,” as in “I have a few nice tip-up .22 rimfire Smith & Wesson No. 1 revolvers and then this rust bucket of a representative example of a .32 rimfire Smith & Wesson No. 2 that doesn’t even have all the parts because I’m poor.” (True story. Someday, I’ll find that nice affordable No. 2, though.) Another use for a junk gun could be as a stand-in for a cherished family heirloom. A pistol inherited from a departed relative might be too rare, fragile or meaningful to risk breaking or losing, so finding a duplicate you can bring to the range means you can shoot the same gun to your heart’s content without worrying about it.
Related to that, but more fun, is how and why I added a Colt Lightning to my gun collection. It’s a clunker; it doesn’t work. I’m kidding myself when I say that I’m eventually going to send it off to be restored by a professional such as Doug Turnbull or somebody.
But you know what? It was dirt cheap compared to a pretty and functional one, and when I’m staying up late on a weekend night watching “Young Guns II” for the thirty-eleventh time, that revolver near at hand was actually made when Billy the Kid was still alive. And since there’s not so much as a single round of .38 Long Colt in the house (plus the bit about the gun not working), I feel a lot more comfortable knowing the chance of “Elvising” the TV is near zero, unless I get really excited and throw the gun.