By: Peter Suciu
Depending on your perspective regarding firearms, the words "wall hanger" could mean "junk" – but, just as often, it could mean something worthy of display, even if its functional use has long passed.
Unfortunately. because of the glut of "collectible" shows (hello, Pawn Stars, yes, we're looking at you), the term "wall hanger" has become rather pejorative, and at times even bordering on an insult.
These shows tend to send the message that if it "can't shoot," it doesn't have value. To some collectors, this may be true, but to others, it is completely a moot point. Interestingly, in the world of sword collecting, no one regularly goes out to see if a vintage blade can chop a branch off a tree; yet when it comes to vintage firearms, there remains the opinion that guns that can shoot are somehow special.
As a vintage firearms collector, I would disagree with that opinion. I see no reason to shoot my British Brown Bess musket, which is dated 1798, or my 17th century Japanese matchlock musket. Nor do I care to shoot my 1878-dated British Martini Henry.
In theory, all of these guns could probably shoot, but why would I want to risk damaging these historically valuable firearms?
And now to address the headline of this article:
The first suggestion in "how to care for antique guns you use as display pieces only" is to simply treat them as display pieces. The reason museums have collections of vintage arms and armor, including old firearms, is that they aren't used or "played with." And here is an irony – action figure collectors are respected for having said figures in the original packaging and never playing with them, but because of the "experts" on various TV shows, it is suggested that "functional guns" are suddenly worth more.
Consider this… would opening the packaging to ensure that a Boba Fett figure can be played with make it more valuable? No. Condition is considered the benchmark on value. Firing a gun wears it out, and doing so would bring the value down.
The fact is that these TV shows like to show guns being fired, and thus they created the myth that firing a gun proves it functions and increases the value!
Preservation of All Antiques
The other consideration with old guns comes down to something many collectors take to heart: that we're temporary caretakers of history. To this end we should preserve these artifacts so they'll be here long after we're gone.
Obviously, I'm not the first owner of the aforementioned matchlock, Brown Bess, or Martini Henry. All of these were likely in collections before my time, and it is my duty to ensure these will be kept in good condition so that they'll be in collections long after I'm gone. As noted, the Brown Bess was made when the United States wasn't even 25 years old! Clearly, past owners cared for it, as I am doing.
While it is a "wall hanger" on display, this could itself be an issue. Some collectors maintain that such items should be in a controlled environment, under glass and kept out of any and all light. For most collectors, that is simply impractical, as we don't live in museums – and for the record my house only looks like one, as I've filled the den with old swords, rifles, and other bric-a-brac.
The other half of the equation is that I paid for those items to be enjoyed, not to be hidden away in a locked trunk in the back of the closet. With that said, I admit that I'm probably allowing these to come in contact with a bit too much light, a bit too much humidity, and certainly too much dust.
With that in mind, I am conscious of how each of those elements can be detrimental to antiques. For my valuable collectibles, it is advisable to maintain heat and humidity. This means in the summer I keep the air conditioning on when it is hot and humid, and I use a humidifier in the winter so that it isn't too dry. Maintaining humidity from 30-45 percent is ideal for the wood on the firearms. The metal parts, of course, would do better with less, so inspecting the guns (as well as swords and other metallic items) is something I do regularly. If surface rust appears, I try to lightly oil the metal to keep the rust at bay.
I use an air purifier throughout much of the year to reduce the amount of dust that collects on items, and I also inspect cloth items (typically not an issue for firearms) for moth damage. In the room where I have my collection, I keep the blinds closed, so that these items are never in direct sunlight. That can dry out the wood very badly, and far worse even than humidity.
Then there is the issue of mounting those wall hangers on the actual wall. What I don't do is to nail or screw the guns to the wall – and sadly this is something I've seen done. Instead, when it comes to firearms, I like to use brass rifle mounts that have a cork or felt strip for padding. These are better than steel rifle mounts or simply hanging a gun on nails – the brass won't spread rust to a firearm, and cork ensures the brass doesn't scratch or gouge the wooden stock.
As for maintenance, I take the "less is more" approach. If the antique firearms are kept dust-free, and the humidity is maintained, I avoid wood oils or floor cleaners, as those can actually dry-out the wood over time, and even make dust stick or adhere to the wood! Rather, if the wood is in good condition, I simply try to keep it that way by keeping it dry and clean from dust.
With a little bit of care, I expect that 220-year-old Brown Bess will be around for at least another 200 years, and long after I'm gone.
Peter Suciu is a freelance writer based in Michigan. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.