Opening a package in the mail is always exciting. I knew what was in this package, but the condition was the issue. I cut the end of the box and found it stuffed with newspaper. Reaching in and pulling out the first hard part wrapped in newspaper, I laid it on the table. It was rolled in several sheets and as the last sheet came off, I knew that I had, as we rednecks say, “done good”. I was holding in my hand a set of barrels and the forearm of a Hunter Special 20-gauge shotgun. I had paid $492 for the gun and the barrels and forearm looked like that of a brand-new gun. Once the stock and receiver were unwrapped, I saw that there were a few scratches on the wood, but the bluing and case colors were perfect. Were it not for the scratches in the 60+ year-old wood, the gun would have passed for new.
Opening the box of an internet gun purchase is not always that gratifying, but in all fairness, I have only sent one gun back out of several dozen purchases. That gun had someone’s social security number engraved on the receiver and the “strong case colors” were only visible on about 40% or the receiver. I was nervous about sending the gun back to the seller since he had my money, I had told him that I didn’t agree with his description, and I was now sending the gun back. The money for the gun did come back, though. When it did, I breathed a big sigh of relief and resolved to ask all the right questions the next time.
Many people I talk to are afraid to purchase a gun on the internet. It’s true that there’s always a chance of fraud and that a gun can be misrepresented, but this is offset by the choices that are available. I probably wouldn’t buy an “in stock” $500 gun on the internet. I’m sure that you are pretty safe in doing it, but I don’t buy that kind of gun normally anyway. Obviously if you’re buying something new, you have fewer concerns. The only issues you need to address are packaging, insurance, delivery and a dealer to handle the transfer.
My interest is in guns that aren’t at the local gun shop under most conditions. I like vintage doubles and you can go to 50 local gun shops and not see a single vintage shotgun. When I first became interested in these guns, I cruised pawn shops, gun shows and local auctions; I found a few. Then I discovered the internet and the fact that I could look at more guns in an hour than I could see in 20 normal gun shows. For the collector or shooter of a specialized type of firearm, the internet is the richest source of guns there is.
The Big Three
There are a number of auction houses on the net that are a great source of listings. I highly recommend buying from them. Compared to the big three internet listings, though, they’re a drop in the bucket. The big three are GunBroker, Auction Arms, and Guns International.
GunBroker is the heavy hitter here. It’s the third-largest auction site on the internet, with only eBay and eBay motors being bigger. It also gives you the option of searching auctions with the highest number of bids, an option that saves you from looking through thousands of guns with high reserves and high minimum bids. The guns with bids are obviously the only ones selling. Monitoring these auctions will also give you the true value of what you’re looking for. I do look through those endless pages though, sometimes there are bargains there.
Guns International is a listings site; listing guns with a description and a set price. You can find great bargains there, too. It does take a lot of time to sort through, however. One hint would be to sort by newest auctions first. Listings that have been on the site for more than a few days aren’t likely to be a great bargain. The best deals are gone within a day or two. If you’re looking for something obscure perhaps it would languish for a long time, but normally more popular listings with good prices disappear fast.
Steps for a Successful Purchase
My first internet purchase involved finding the gun on the web, calling the owner and then driving to his house to actually see the gun before I bought it. He was about 200 miles away in the same state. It took a long time to get the nerve up to send a cashier’s check to a distant address and wait for my purchase to show up at the local shop that handled my transfers. Eventually, the guns I saw, and the prices they went for, pressured me into doing it. Except for the one problem purchase mentioned, it went pretty well.
I found that the main thing is to ask all the right questions. Early in my learning process, I bought an Ithaca double for a low price. When I received the gun, I found that the stock had been cut and was an inch shorter than it should have been. Had I asked the right question, this wouldn’t have happened. I did buy the gun cheap, though. I had a recoil pad installed and sold the gun for only a small loss. Education is never free, but here are some helpful hints to get your purchasing process going and to help you jump the gun (no pun intended):
Ask all the right questions. If you have an interest in a specific type of gun, as most internet buyers do, put together a very specific set of questions to ask the seller. Pay special attention to things not mentioned in the description. Reasonably, your list should be about 15 questions that cover such things as evidence of refinishing, condition of finish, condition of screws, etc. Most sellers don’t mind answering a lot of questions since they realize that it’s an indication that you are a serious bidder. If the photos are not revealing enough, ask for more. Don’t be afraid to ask for a photo of some part of the gun you’re worried about.
Know the value of what you’re looking for. There’s no better place to learn the value of guns than the internet. Don’t think that asking prices have anything to do with value, though. The only real indication of what something is worth is what it sells for, not what is asked for it. To find what the gun you are looking for is bringing, find guns that’re drawing bids and mark them as favorites. When the auction is finished, you’ll at least know what that one brought. What you’ll find in doing this is that guns with a reserve or a set starting price don’t sell nearly as often as guns that start with no reserve and no opening bid.
While I look at several different sites, GunBroker is the most effective site for doing this. They have a preference that allows you to look at guns with the most bids first. These listings are also the best candidate for purchase as well since they’re mostly guns without reserves and high opening bids.
Take into consideration that the gun you’re interested in may be better or worse than described. The Hunter Special mentioned above was better than described, that’s not normally the case. Most sellers are optimistic about condition and I factor this into my top bid price. I bit about 20% less than I’d bid on a gun I could handle to cover the condition being a little less than described. Going by someone’s description is a lot different than holding something in your hands.
Set your price at what you think the gun is worth to you and stick with it. It’s easy to get emotional in an auction and when you do, you often wind up having more in something than it’s worth. Also remember, there’s some advantage to getting into the bidding late. Just because you’re being calm and unemotional doesn’t mean that the other guy is and he may run the listing up on you if he sees you’re interested early. On all but the rarest of guns, another one will come along shortly. Being patient will do more to get you a good deal than almost anything.
Have the logistics mapped out ahead of time. Unless you have an FFL, a C&R, or are dealing with something that is clearly an antique, you’ll need to go through an FFL holder so make arrangements ahead of time. Remember to factor the cost of the transfer and the shipping into the cost of the gun.
Communicate with the seller. Once you have won a bid, email the seller immediately. Ask him where to send your payment and FFL and be prompt. If you communicate with him, he’s more likely to communicate with you. This is no time to be shy. The more dialog you have with the seller and vice versa, the easier it is to resolve problems. Discuss how the gun is to be packed. If the seller has not mentioned insurance, tell him that you will pay the additional cost. You may want to spring for a hard plastic case to ship the gun in if the packaging he describes makes you nervous. They can be bought most places for about $15.00. Most sellers are more than willing to cooperate on such issues because has a positive effect on their feedback.
Whether you like it or not, the internet has made a huge change in the process of buying guns. For antique and collectible guns, it is a true marketplace. You can almost always find several examples of what you’re looking for and by watching for a week you can find what they bring. You can see more guns in one night than you can see in a season of gun shows. If you follow these steps your chances of getting ripped off are no worse than they would be at a gun show. Try it, I’m betting you’ll like it. See you on the web.
First image courtesy Dick Jones, second image courtesy Matt Korovesis, third image (sample FFL) from BATFE on becoming a FFL licensee