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Collecting guns won’t fatten the retirement fund, but the ones kept out of sentiment bring rich rewards

  • Author: Steve Meyer
    | Alaska guns & hunting
  • Updated: January 23
  • Published January 23

Keeper guns are measured in sentiment, not in retail value. Jan. 2021. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

She looked at me with the expression that became all too familiar early in a marriage that suggested domestic bliss might not be a priority for me.

“You spent the equivalent of two-house payments on a .22 rifle. What the hell is the matter with you?” she wanted to know.

I shrugged my shoulders, smiled, and said, “Well, it cost about half as much as the one I really want.”

This scene occurred in the early 1980s after reading about the Kimber M82, a bolt action, magazine-fed rifle chambered for the .22 Long Rifle and built with the care and craftsmanship of a fine big-game rifle.

The gun writers of the day compared it favorably to the Winchester M52, the .22 rifle that had set a high standard for American .22 rimfire rifles.

Introduced in 1919, the M52 started life as a target rifle and quickly amassed a winning record around the globe. Winchester brought out the sporting version, essentially a scaled-down version of a big-game rifle in .22 Long Rifle.

The M52 eventually suffered the fate of most of the great, old Winchesters. Production costs were too high, and the typical American hunter couldn’t afford the cost of such a well-built rifle, which cost more than the beloved M70 in .375 H&H.

The last iteration of the rifle, the M52C Sporter, built from 1954-60, produced around 1,300 rifles. The result was a collector’s market that drove prices into a range only the wealthy could afford.

Since receiving my first rifle, a bolt-action Winchester .22, I had lusted for a M52. The availability of the Kimber M82 seemed the closest I would get.

Gene Hill and Patrick McManus wrote humorous works explaining how freshly married men could build their gun collections without drawing the ire of their partners. The subterfuges included sneaking the guns into the house that, over time, would be thought of as “all those guns” instead of a particular gun.

You could also give the gun you just bought to a buddy and have him show up at your house with it, saying something like, “Hey, here’s that gun I borrowed a few years ago, guess we both forgot about it.”

Or you could disguise it with a lamp shade draped over the barrel and put it in the living room, and after objections it could go to your den to join the rest of the guns.

The classic line, and the one probably used the most even today, is, “It’s a great investment, honey. A couple more like this and we’ll be set for retirement.”

Yeah, not so much.

That might happen if the gun you bought for a few hundred dollars turns out to be an 1873 Winchester proved to be used at the Little Big Horn, a Walker Colt used by a Texas Ranger in the Indian Wars of the southwest in the 1800s, or the A.H Fox side-by-side shotgun that Theodore Roosevelt took to Africa on his extended safari in 1909. That shotgun, which would have sold for about $500 when it was built in the early 1900s, recently sold at auction for $862,500.

There is money to be made in collectible firearms, but it’s a field that requires hours of research, inspection and verification simply to scratch the surface of that world. Because of my passion for firearms and the study of them at an early age, I knew the guns I bought for hunting and target shooting were not going to provide a valid source of income, so I never said, “It’s an investment,” or used any of the other justifications for a new gun.

The rationale I used for firearms acquisition beyond the immediate needs of hunting, then and now, is they are a savings account you create memories with, and maybe amass a bit of interest along the way.

Of course, I am in the enviable position of having a partner whose idea of class is showing up in the duck blind with her 1958 Browning Superposed. If you were to close your eyes, reach into our gun safe and grab any gun, the odds are better then even it would be a gift from one of us to the other.

Christine Cunningham and Cheyenne with Christine’s Superposed, an investment in memories. Sept. 2020. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

Some folks who acquire a firearm never sell it, no matter what it is. I’ve never been like that. I learned two things early on in my love of firearms. First, in order to be proficient and understand them, I had to have them, shoot them and take them apart to learn their qualities. Second, I would never be able to afford to buy and keep them all.

There are a few I’ll keep forever. The Colt .45 Lightweight Commander that I’ve carried most of my adult life is a permanent attachment. The shotgun that brought Gunner, my first Chocolate Labrador, into the waterfowl world is another. Also a custom-built FN Mauser that Christine got for me. She didn’t know much about guns at that time and the fact she got that one right showed how much she cared about what I love.

Friends and co-workers presented me with a 28 gauge over/under shotgun at my retirement party. That gun, which I’ve carried more miles than I care to count following Winchester in the mountains, is another keeper, is a wonderful way to remember those folks. Sentiment and history trump resale value.

The rest I’ll use and learn about, then when something else interesting comes along, I’ll get rid of something to continue to learn.

Over the years I’ve had countless hours of pleasure with guns — shooting them, fixing them, re-finishing them or simply looking at them in the glow of a campfire or woodstove. With all of that, I’ve about broke even. Not sure if there’s anything else you can do that with.

The Kimber that started this story is gone. Times got a bit tough and it had to go. Had I kept it and took care of it, as one does with guns, it would be worth about double what I paid for it. Doubling your money in 38 years doesn’t reek of investment strategy.

On the other hand, almost anything else you might acquire for use in the hunting world — boats, ATV, snowmachines — end up in the junk pile after 38 years. There are plenty of guns out there, well over 100 years old and still serving their owners well.

With the advancements in manufacturing that cut costs, Winchester brought back the M52 at a reasonable price point. The one sitting in the gun safe doesn’t have the character that an old original would have, but it’s still a great .22, something every hunter ought to have, and that’s another story for another time.

Steve Meyer is a longtime Alaskan and avid shooter who lives in Kenai.