Restoring Or Conserving Old West Firearms:


By Jesse L. Hardin

July 3rd, 2008

Illustration & Photography by Jesse L. Hardin




The following is the second in a series of in-depth articles on the firearms of the Old West, their history and lore, and the remarkable men and women who carried them... excerpted from Jesse’s full-color book Old Guns & Whispering Ghosts ( Click here to read the first article, Hideouts & Sneaky-Guns: Concealed Carry In The Old West.

One doesn’t have to be a gun enthusiast to appreciate the aesthetic and appearance of a Model 1873 Winchester.  The outline of its heavy hammer is suggestive of elk antler or buffalo horn.  The dip in the receiver, the graceful curving of its raised side-plates, the complimentary juxtaposition of its sculpted lines could make it an art show contender in any known era.  The Winchester’s design flow is not unlike the classiest of 1920’s and 30’s cars.  Its recessed planes – and the way the plates are overlaid – evoke metal sculpture or hand carved furniture more than the ungainly machines upon which it was made.

Fresh from the factory, this famous lever action would have featured handsomely blued barrels and a receiver case hardened in caustic chemicals to create a brilliant array of mottled colors.  But for many reasons I prefer the grayed metal and imperfect wood of an arm that’s seen plenty of use.

My favorite carbine has a lever burnished deep from being repeatedly jacked open and closed by its owners’ anxious hands.  The walnut stock has a dish-shaped wear mark on the left side, likely caused by years of riding in a saddle scabbard, rubbing against the rolling shoulders of a succession of well traveled horses.  The designation “MAG 2” has been neatly burned in near the butt, indicating it was once part of an inventory of weapons secured in a government or company storage facility sometimes called a “magazine.”  I’ve often enjoyed wondering if it was issued by a state militia or lesser known frontier freight company.... imagined it hanging on the saddles of crusty range detectives or being handed out by a railroad “super” to his closely shaved guards.  It could have been in such service that it suffered the gouge long ago scarring the stock’s right side.... or a chip from a subsequent hunting trip, or damage inflicted during a bumpy Model-T ride.

Like an up to date forensic investigator or clever Victorian sleuth, one can read a lot about a gun’s past owners and the different purposes it was put to if we can first determine how it was handled and cared for.  But more than that, each scratch or ding is a scar marking a specific event and a certain moment in time, the same way that the rings on a fallen tree map its history of experience: the night it suffered a near fatal lightning strike, and those periodic Summers it bore the hot licks of swirling grass fires.  The fortunate wet seasons when it grew the fastest, and the difficult periods of extended droughts.

Like the wrinkles on a woman or man, like the water marks on canyon walls, like the wind blown tracks of a passing animal, the wear on a firearm paints a chronicle of feelings as well as events:  Successes and failures on the field of battle, or while chasing wild meat year after year.  Episodes of violence and virtue, avarice and justice, tragedy and tenderness, resistance and rescue, damage and repair.

Our physical and emotional scars describe not only what we’ve suffered but what we’ve survived, and what we’ve accomplished as well as endured.  The absence of such markers of significance and experience suggest a person too young, protected or divorced from reality to to be counted on for insight, wisdom or judgment.  Such a person likely has a potential to express, but not much of a story to tell. 

Likewise a new gun hasn’t had a life yet, and a valuable arm that’s been maintained in perfect condition for a hundred or more years makes for a boring tale.  Its history is one of cardboard boxes or wooden presentation cases, of bank vaults and gun safes, closets and attics.... instead of struggling wagon trains, gunfights and buffalo hunts.  Beautiful as such rifles, pistols and shotguns can be, they’ve had to sacrifice the scent of crisp outdoor mornings and saddle leather for the smell of dehumidifying crystals or protective cosmoline.  Saved from the so-called ravages of age, they’ve also been deprived of the chance to fulfill their intended function as firearms, to prove their mettle under pressure, to be held in the hands of men and women as they face the serious moral and existential choices in their very real lives.  A gun with wear is personalized, as thus particularly revealing.

Now mind you, this individuation is different from carving one’s initials into a stock, or deliberately “notching” a rifle to mark the number of deer it has killed.  It was seldom anyone’s intention to either disfigure or treat their guns roughly, and in the Old West their care and maintenance could spell the difference between dinner and hunger, victory and defeat.

Unless dropped down a cliffside or trampled by a shying horse, even the worst maintained arms will long outlast their shooter.  They potentially remain both functional tools and repositories of significance and meaning for a succession of owners.  In this sense we don’t possess a gun or other artifact so much as caretake it for either the period of our interest or the length of our life, and we have a degree of responsibility to both those shooters who came before and those sportsmen, collectors and re-enactors who will follow.  A responsibility to a gun’s visionary designers, its heroes and its common folk.  To its future buyers or heirs.

This responsibility includes the proper cleaning and storing of vintage arms.  Pieces kept locked away can develop surface oxidation unless thoroughly coated with grease.  I’ve also seen rifles with one side of their receiver in excellent condition, but with the side that hung for years against the wall now hopelessly rusted.  When we obtain an old arm with preexisting damage or clumsy alterations, this responsibility (the “ability to respond!”) may include prudent and careful restoration.

Unfortunately, far too many classic arms have been unnecessarily vandalized for the sake of vanity, experimentation or imagined “improvement.”  During the 1960’s and 70’s, for example, huge amounts of Winchester Model 1892’s were rebarreled with Numrich and other barrels, and rechambered for the then state of the art .357 and .44 magnum cartridges.  While still credible shooters, these custom mutts gave up historic credibility for only a small increase in terminal effectiveness over the original .38-40 and .44-40 (.44 WCF) versions.  First generation Colt Single Action “Peacemaker” revolvers are getting as rare as hen’s teeth, and even those with shot out bores and mismatched serial numbers fetch high prices from collectors.  Yet in the mid to latter part of the 1900’s an embarrassing number of them were plated with nickel so thick you can no longer read the letters or make out the trademark “rampant colt” logo.  Others had adjustable S&W sights specially fitted to their topstraps, or were dickered with for the then popular recreational sport of “fast draw.”

I offer for your consideration the following rule of thumb: Restore that which has already been messed with, bringing it back as much as practicable to its original form.  If an arm was modified during or shortly after its historic period of use, you may want to consider keeping it just as is.  Leave all other vintage arms unaffected, except for the careful removal of surface rust (using solvent and a rag only, and no abrasives), and a light oiling of wooden stocks and forearms.  Thus we’re moved to replace an incorrect ejector housing on a Colt .45, or the hacksawed rear site on a Winchester ‘94 with a buckhorn site from a period parts gun.  Non-period add-ons get pitched.  A stock that has been mercilessly sanded down or reshaped can be replaced with either a hard to find old one or a well fitted and properly oil-finished chunk of new wood.

A rare arm with the bluing naturally worn off has more integrity– and will tend to retain more financial value– if retained in that condition.  We call such arms and their existing wear “honest.” However, an older rifle or handgun that has been ingloriously reblued (or even “cold-blued,” heaven forbid!) can and probably should be polished down by a professional restorationist, and reblued or case hardened using vintage formulas and processes that approximate the original factory colors and hues.  Grossly nickeled specimens can have their plating stripped, and then be kept in a natural looking “gray” (or “in the white”) gun-metal state.  

Worn or cracked grips are preferable to replica replacements.  Any additions such as tang or peep - please share it with whoever you can.  Your shoulder slings and so forth should be not only old but of the period– and for Western enthusiasts, it should be likely that they saw actual Western use.  When in doubt, leave it out!  Holsters and rifle scabbards are a different matter entirely, since few vintage specimens have survived and those that have are most often too fragile for continued use.  While an antique gun can be kept (and used) as original, unchanged, a shooter likely has to pack his antique iron in a quality reproduction holster.           

Replica arms, clearly marked or otherwise obviously of modern manufacture, are honest recreations of period models.  They are generally more affordable, dependable, and easier to find parts for.  Given the large number of rounds regularly fired in cowboy action matches and other competitive events, it would obviously be better to use a quality replica on occasions rather than wearing out an antique gun.  The main problem with newly made models has been their shiny out-of-the-box look, and some contemporary companies have started producing revolvers with a dull gray finish, historic or martial stampings and “weathered” stocks.  This is a decided improvement so long as they are marked as to their real make, or are otherwise clearly of modern manufacture. 

A fake, on the other hand, is unconscionable.  All too often we hear of older period arms with a cleverly aged patina or artificially induced wear, intended to fool a gullible buyer into plopping big cash down for a counterfeit “frontier” piece.  Supposed “outlaw” guns have been big business ever since Jesse James’ mother started selling buckets full of cheaply bought revolvers she claimed had once belonged to her murdered son.  Any beat up wall-hanger can have some old brass tacks added and be sold as “Indian owned.”  Mind you, faux is anathema to history itself– built as it is upon authentic lives and events, laughter and hope, tears and blood.  The proliferation of clever fakes demonstrates rank disregard for those feeling, fallible mortals who came before us.... dishonoring those whose efforts and sacrifices have helped make our own lives and freedoms possible. 

So called “upgrades” are a stickier situation.  Gunsmiths have long felt inclined to make changes or add embellishments to various fine shotguns, particularly Parker Brothers doubles, in order to bring a gun up to the specifications of the next higher (more expensive) grade.  This seems reasonable when accompanied by papers verifying the condition it was originally shipped in, and the fact and date of its alteration.  The only problem is that the papers can then be “lost,” and the arm sold for a unfair amount in subsequent transactions.

In the case of most antique guns we might ever buy, actions can reasonably be tightened, internal parts replaced, and the arms made functional and shootable again.  But In most cases the best thing we can do is to do nothing at all.  It’s the same whether we’re talking about relationships, the natural world, or an old firearm at our disposal: when one doesn’t fully understand the ramifications and possible results of making changes, it’s better to leave them alone.

As with plastic surgery and real estate development, firearm “enhancement” can sometimes do more lasting damage than good. What appear to be relatively recent and shallow scratches in a stock or grip can be judiciously removed with a light sanding, but I can tell you from experience that it is all too easy to ruin the wood to metal fit, or to begin scraping away the deeper aged marks that are graphic witness to a firearm’s historic use. 

That which we honor for itself, for its authenticity and its inner beauty, we may not be so anxious to change or redefine.  When we accept that we are intrinsically worthy, the only real “self improvement” we need is to become ever more who we really are, in touch with our real needs and the ways we can most naturally and effectively serve.  And by extension we can help others to be more who they really are, ultimately helping the world be more its whole and holy self. 

Superficial cosmetics don’t look nearly so important, next to the story a Western firearm has to tell.... nor in the face of a person’s love, or in the presence of their deeds.

As it is with these old guns, it is for us.  As the years and then the ages pass the once polished stocks are worn, and steel resolve turns into a faded blue. These are not flaws: the cracked fore end and graying hide of Great-Grandfather’s favorite Parker side-by-side.  In the same way, the deepening creases in our foreheads are neither shameful disfigurements nor simply the peculiarities of age.  Over time, wrinkles create a roadmap of sadness and delight, worry and surprise, intent concentration and heaving breath. Like our scars they tend to indicate just how fully one does or doesn’t live, between the glad hour of one’s birth and the sad occasion of their death.

Like the nicks and scratches on vintage guns, the marks and lines on our faces are the accumulating evidence of our continued presence, our involvement, our effort, and our past.  Any lines sprouting at the corners of our eyes will be the result of not only our earthly trials, but our undeterred hopes.  Our relentless love.  Our forever irrepressible smiles.

Jesse L. "Wolf" Hardin


This article is adapted from Hidden Thunder, a chapter in Jesse’s book Old Guns & Whispering Ghosts: Firearms Of The Old West 1866-1916. 

Click here to read Boge’s review of this book. 

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