One of the most misunderstood aspects of firearms collecting is the preservation of antique arms. Many times the first collectible firearm a person obtains comes as a hand-me-down or from the estate of a recently deceased relative. The condition of the gun could range from “Factory New” to “Relic”, and condition is less associated with age than the type of care the weapon received in the hands of its previous owners.
Humidity causes wood to shrink and swell. Over time wood loses moisture and it can develop cracks and even split along the grain. Before plastics and polymers became common, gun makers would apply various types of oil and varnishes to the wood components of their guns to reduce the influence of moisture. Over long periods of time the oil can evaporate, and the varnish can be worn away exposing the wood to the elements.
Metal finishes are applied to the steel components of the gun to prevent damage from moisture. The original “finish” applied to iron weapons was a fine polish. The smooth surface reduces the number of small pockets where moisture can cling to the surface of the iron and start to form rust. This polished finish is referred to as “in the white”, and was common on the rifle muskets used during the War of Southern Independence.
In the White has two downsides. The first is it is reflective. That might look good in a military parade, but that is not a desirable quality when you are trying to put the sneak on dinner or an enemy. The second is it requires frequent polishing to keep rust flecks from forming. The alternatives to in the white were “Browning” and “Bluing”.
Most people are familiar with blued guns because that finish produces a dark bluish-black color on the metal while still letting a bit of the shiny metal surface polish to show through. Think of the .44 Magnum carried by Clint Eastwood in the Dirty Harry movies, or the dark finish on the snub-nosed revolvers carried by detectives in films and TV.
Browning, also referred to as “Plum Browning” is a metal finishing process common to guns made prior to 1900, and still found on some high-end shotguns of modern manufacture. It creates a kind of a dark tan color on the iron that approximates the color of the flesh of a plum.
Browning and Bluing in actuality are chemical processes that produce specific types of oxidation (rust) on the metal. This very thin layer of oxidation resists the formation the more corrosive red rust people are familiar with. “Resists” is the critical thing because if left exposed to moisture blued and browned iron will rust. Friction from handling, holsters, pockets, & etc. wears away these finishes creating spots that are In the White, and especially vulnerable to rust.
Rust creates pits in the metal and these pits are what rapidly degrade a firearm’s value. Small spots of rust on the surface of a metal part can be removed by brisk rubbing with a cloth towel. Heavier rust that has formed scales can require steel wool to remove.
This is where most newly minted collectors go wrong.
The rubbing with the towel or the steel wool will remove the finish around the rusted area. The key is to only apply friction to the specific area where the rust exists and no more pressure than is required to remove the rust scale. Once the scale is gone, STOP!
If the gun has no collector value and is kept as a sentimental keepsake and shooter, the finish can be fixed by the application of bluing or browning solutions, or the owner may opt to have the entire gun refinished. Refinishing a gun can have a significant impact on the collector value, so the owner should get an expert opinion on the value of the piece before proceeding with a refinish job.
A safer approach is to use a common wax intended for metal. Turtle Wax comes to mind. Rust requires moisture and oxygen to grow. Wax seals the metal surface and prevents both of those elements from contacting the metal. In addition, wax can be removed with common solvents.
Do NOT use wax in the bore of any weapon that is in firing condition. Wax build up could behave in the same way as a barrel obstruction. The barrel could be ruined, and people injured as a result of firing the gun in this condition.
Wax can also be used to preserve the wood parts of the gun. Use wax specifically developed for use on furniture, and follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
If the gun is heavily rusted or the wood is falling apart, do not attempt to remove the rust or repair the wood. Have the piece appraised as a “relic”. The appraiser may be able to suggest methods of conservation.
A final error made by tyro collectors is trying to fire older guns with modern ammunition. Make double sure you know EXACTLY what cartridge your individual specimen is chambered for, and NEVER attempt to substitute any other cartridge for the original. For example a Colt Peacemaker chambered for .38 Long Colt will chamber .38-44 and .357 Magnum cartridges. Stuffing that Colt with either of those rounds could easily turn that pistol into a grenade with disastrous consequences for everyone in the area.
In the White finish