Lock, stock and an old smoking barrel

They claimed lives once, but antique firearms are admired for their style. Are you ready to join the musketeers?
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The Independent Online

Owning any sort of firearm in these politically correct times is likely to be as popular as having a stag mounted above your mantelpiece, wearing fur or admitting you find Jim Davidson funny. But those who own antique firearms insist their interest is not so much to do with a love of bloodshed and violence, as of machinery and the decorative arts.

Owning any sort of firearm in these politically correct times is likely to be as popular as having a stag mounted above your mantelpiece, wearing fur or admitting you find Jim Davidson funny. But those who own antique firearms insist their interest is not so much to do with a love of bloodshed and violence, as of machinery and the decorative arts.

"Collectors of antique firearms tend to be interested in them for the same sort of reasons as collectors of antique clocks," says David Williams, head of the arms and armour department at auctioneer Bonhams. "They like the mechanics of them and the decorative side: the wood and metal, the carvings and intricate patterns."

The definition of antique firearms is anything that doesn't need a licence and doesn't fire with a self-contained cartridge: in other words, something down which you have to ram gunpowder. They tend to have been made between the 15th and late 18th centuries and have technical names such as "matchlock", "flintlock", "wheel-lock" and "percussion". Many were decorated in painstaking detail by some of the finest craftsmen of their time. For centuries, clearly, men believed it preferable to be shot and killed by an instrument that had style rather than one that did not.

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of antique arms collectors are male, with interest particularly strong in America, followed closely by Europe. However, enthusiasts are extremely coy. "If you say you collect firearms, people look at you as if you're a loony," says militaria writer Frederick Wilkinson. "But just because you collect arms and armour doesn't mean you have a violent nature. They're a product of a whole range of crafts. They're works of art and each one is unique because in those days they were all handmade. Even if you have a pair of pistols, you can see differences if you examine them closely."

Mr Wilkinson says that our obsession with political correctness means many important items of armoury are no longer displayed in a number of major museums. For example, the V&A in London owns a large collection of antique arms but much of it is in storage.

If you want to see some real-life collectors venturing out, and some firearms at the same time, try one of London's big antique arms sales, held in February, April, September and October.

The large auction houses also hold regular sales of firearms. On 1 April, Bonhams in London is holding a sale for the entire collection of the late Dr Hans Georg Plaut, spanning centuries of manufacturing.

Dr Plaut, an engineer, was typical of many firearms collectors. His interest was kindled by a fascination with antique watches. He understood that early locksmiths knew how to manufacture wheel-lock mechanisms used in firearms as well as clock mechanisms, and this - coupled with his interest in engraving, chiselling and carving - led him to amass a large and comprehensive collection of highly decorative firearms.

Leafing through the catalogue for this sale, even the most ardent pacifist can see the attraction of owning one of these sleek creations of wood and metal - many with fantastically intricate etchings of hunting scenes, women's heads or grotesques on silver, brass or shell. If you forget what they were used for - which is not easy, because many were clearly much used at some point - you can appreciate their shape, colour and design, particularly in the more ornate examples.

If you are thinking of starting an antique firearms collection, you will need quite a bit of cash to do it properly. Prices at the Plaut sale range from around £1,500 for early hackbuts to around £18,000 for a cased pair of French silver-mounted pistols.

"There's been a gradual increase in prices of firearms over the years," says Mr Williams at Bonhams. "But I would say that other fields have seen more growth. However, really good-quality, rare items in very good condition have greatly increased in value."

"Buy the best you can afford," stresses Mr Wilkinson, "because good-quality stuff continues to rise pretty strongly, whereas the medium and low stuff doesn't."

As an investment for the future, it is difficult to predict whether antique firearms will rise in value exponentially. Certainly there are fewer new-found items coming on to the market, which is good news for future price increases. But no one knows how strong the interest will be in decades to come, particularly if more of the world eschews war and violence as a means of sorting out problems. The antiques themselves may no longer be used for their original purpose, but you can't get away from the fact that this is what they were made for.

Get your gun

Prices start at £200 to £300 for a decent percussion pocket pistol, rising to £222,000 for a very rare Colt revolver in very good condition.

More information www.armsandarmour.net; www.bonhams.com (details about the 1 April sale); www.antiquearmsfairsltd.co.uk

2004 events

24-25 April, 25-26 September: the London Antique Arms Fair, Thistle Hotel, Heathrow.

13 October: the Park Lane Arms Fair, Marriott Hotel, Grosvenor Square, London

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