The other day I saw a post on a gunsmithing forum from a fellow who had picked up a somewhat rough but otherwise intact Argentine Mauser to modify into a hunting rifle for his wife. My immediate reaction was that it was a shame he had chosen an intact military rifle instead of one that had already been modified. My instinct is that a piece in authentic historic condition – even if it’s been seriously abused and damaged – ought to be left intact as an artifact.
In fact, I find the really beat-up guns often more interesting than pristine examples (as evidenced by what I bought in Belgium). But I do have to wonder if we are being too dogmatic about the idea of preserving everything in the oldest possible state. Many of the most historically interesting guns are the ones that have passed through many hands and had marks left on them by each successive owner. For example, something like a Westinghouse Mosin-Nagant made in the US, shipped to Russia, captured by Finland and used in the Winter War. Or a Nazi-marked Mauser converted to 7.62 NATO and used in Israel’s War of Independence. And it’s not just military modifications that make interesting history and valuable guns, but also civilian conversions. We have in the Reserve Collection a gorgeous sporting rifle made from a Waffenamped Oberndorf Mauser. The original receiver-top markings were destroyed by nicely stippling the area, and the gun was outfitted with a double set trigger, new stock, new sights, and sturdy scope mount. Do that to a gun today and you’ll be a blasphemer against history, but do it 50 years ago and today it’s worth much more than an unmolested K98k (see, I still can’t stop myself from using words like “molest” to describe the excellent craftsmanship that went into this rifle).
The disconnect we have today is that we assign automatic historical value to anything over a certain vague age. Cut the trigger guard off a pocket revolver today and you’ve ruined it; find one cut in the 30s and it’s a valuable artifact. But the only reason any of these historic interesting guns exist now is that back then someone took the gun that was cheap or readily available or whatever and repurposed it. Bubbafied it, you might say. If we have a reflexive policy of never modifying a gun, we are really stagnating things because there will be nothing for collectors to ooh and ah over in 50 more years.
Of course, that view, if made into the same inflexible dogma leads to things like dumping trash on the ground to please future archaeologists. What we need to really accept, I believe, is a tolerant middle ground qualified by workmanship. If you have some project in mind and you have the intent and ability to execute it well, there is really no harm in using a base gun that has of might have some historical value. I wouldn’t cut down the barrel of an original gas-trap Garand, but there are plenty of run-of-the-mill M1s out there to cut a few up. If I’m just learning how to do gunsmithing work, I think it would be both logical and reasonable to use a rifle that had been previously messed with, so I don’t destroy some piece of historical value simply by poor workmanship.
On the other hand, time does inevitably produce value, it seems. Can you imagine what a gas-trap tanker M1 would be with if you could prove it was made in 1936?