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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Why You Should Avoid Import Marks

Nobody wants something they value trashed.  This is true of everyone, but especially of collectors.  Whether it's Ming vases, cars, priceless paintings, sports cards, autographs, Beatles memorabilia, or antiques, collectors in nearly every field want their items to be in the best possible condition and above all, original.  Firearms collectors are no different. In fact, firearms collecting can be a much more demanding genre of collecting because originality is revered.  A field of collecting that will lend itself well to this analogy is that of coins.

In the world of coin collecting, as in firearms collecting, condition is a key factor when determining value.  Whether a deliberate or unintentional mishandling, if a coin is in less than perfect condition, it receives an appropriate grade to reflect its status.  Some coins can even receive the unsavory title of "No Grade."  There are two major coin grading services, Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) and the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC), and each describes the No Grade status in different yet similar ways.  Bear with me, I promise this will all come back to guns.

PCGS: "Occasionally, the experts at PCGS encounter coins which, for one reason or another, cannot be authenticated or graded. These "No Grade" coins fall into three categories: problem coins, inconclusive, or ineligible."  

Yes, such categorization can be rather vague without their helpful table. However, some of the characteristics that make a coin a "No Grade" for PCGS are the same ones that can make a firearm less valuable or desirable to collectors and investors.  Some of those undesirable qualities are: filled or unfilled holes, artificial retoning or polishing, harsh cleaning or polishing, counterfeits, large prominent scratches, refinishing, replating, intentional markings, and vandalism.

NGC similarly states that,

"Not all coins are eligible for grading at NGC because of detrimental surface conditions. These coins are commonly referred to as “no grades.” NGC understands that it can be a frustrating experience for a collector to discover that his or her coin is not eligible for grading, and in response has produced an Internet-based resource, “Understanding ‘No Grade’ Coins.

The online resource both describes and illustrates the following types of “no grades:”

Once a coin has been classified as a No Grade, it can suffer a 50-90% reduction in value depending on the coin and the nature of the damage.  Also, a No Grade status is irreversible because the coin has been irreparably altered.  Once it has been defaced in such a way, it can never go back.  Specifically, one of the ways that NGC further defines "Mechanical Damage" in the list above is Graffiti. Graffiti describes a coin into which initials or some other writing has been scratched or carved.

It doesn't take much of a leap to see the correlation of depreciating factors shared by numismatists (coin collectors) and firearms collectors.  Neither group wants their treasured items damaged by previous users, cleaned improperly if at all, counterfeited, corroded, stained, damaged, mutilated, bent, or marked after the initial manufacture or minting.  In both fields, damage reduces desirability, its ability to be traded, bought, or sold, and in turn the object's value.  It is with this in mind that we discuss the subject of import markings on firearms. 

Photo Courtesy of

Import Legislation
Despite the title of this article, prior to 1968 there were very few troubles with imported firearms.  Military surplus arms had few restrictions (except machine guns, silencers, destructive devices, etc), there was no legislation requiring firearms to have a "sporting purpose," and pistols didn't have to worry about characteristics that would have them labeled as a "Saturday Night Special."  However, once the Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA) was passed through Congress everything would change.  Among other changes, imported guns would suffer several new regulations.
As with most legislation, along with these new requirements came new difficulties, specifically for collectors and shooting enthusiasts to get their hands on quality arms from other countries.  One of the additional regulations required all imported arms to have certain information engraved on them to facilitate tracing by government or law enforcement agencies.  The data required to be on all non-antique firearms imported to the United States after the passing of the GCA in 1968 are as follows:

1.  Serial number:  This number cannot duplicate any previous one used by the importer.  Must appear on the frame or receiver.  Must use Roman letters and Arabic numerals (no Greek, Cyrillic, etc).

2.  Name of Manufacturer

3.  Country of Origin

4.  Model Designation 

5.  Caliber

6.   Name of Importer

7.  City & State of Importer

First of all, if you're thinking, "That's a lot of information to place on a gun to import it," then you're correct.  It is, but it doesn't end there.  Something that was omitted from each of the numbered requirements was the phrase, "must be conspicuously engraved."  Each of those pieces of information must appear, either engraved, cast, stamped, or laser written, in text at least .003 inch deep.  Furthermore, the serial number also has the sole height requirement of "no smaller than 1/16 of an inch."

In fairness, if any of that information already appears on the firearm from the manufacturer, it does not need to be duplicated.  Also, these markings are only required on firearms, but since the ATF does not recognize antique weapons as firearms they are exempt from the requirement.

Every gun imported to the United States since 1968 must have that information on it from the manufacturer or it must be placed there by the importer within 15 days after the firearm is released from Customs.  Doesn't matter whether it's a museum grade Walther or an off-the-rack Steyr Scout made in Austria, if it is imported after 1968, it has to have the proper information on it.

A pristine Luger
A Luger with import markings

Devil's Advocate
As we've already established with coins and guns, negatively effecting the condition of a collectable harms it in aesthetics, value, and desirability.  However, there are those that argue against the ill-effects of import marks on a firearm.  Here are some of those arguments.

Q: How are import marks any different than proof marks?
A:  On the surface, this question appears to have some validity.  If some marks can make a gun super rare and desirable, why are import marks such a detriment?  First off, proof marks are often placed by a manufacturer or an organization integral with its placement.  For example, collectable firearms will often have inspector's marks placed upon them or proof marks from being test fired.  Similarly, in the late 19th century and into WWI, Germans would at times mark their firearms to indicate the military unit using them.  Many sidearms have a police department's initials placed upon them.  Proof mark add value because they can indicate provenance, date of manufacture, or in a best case scenario truly set a gun apart if it has an especially rare origin.  For example, Winchester began marking the barrel and receiver frame ring with the Winchester definitive proof in late 1905.  This is a proof mark that can really come in handy for collectors trying to date their guns!  Proof marks can also add authenticity to a gun.  Why are proof marks different then import marks?  Proof marks provide history, origins, stories, and possibly increased value.  Import marks tell you what business imported it into the United States, its city & state, and information you likely already know like manufacturer, country of origin, model, and caliber.

Q:  Aren't import markings placed in "hidden" locations like under a forearm stock or behind a pistol's grip?
A:  Some of them may have been up until the year 2002, when the requirement was added that the markings "must be conspicuous."  In other words, you have to be able to plainly see it.  The markings cannot be covered by a flash hider, suppressor, or permanent parts of the weapon.  Furthermore, the markings cannot be placed in an area where they might be destroyed, easily eroded, etc.  If your firearm was imported after 2002 be prepared to see those marks on a more prominent location such as the frame, receiver, or barrel.

Q:  Don't the import marks tell a story like proof marks?  They're part of the gun's history.
A:  Since those marks do indicate where the gun has been during some part of its life, this is correct to a certain extent.  However, as indicated earlier, they cannot tell you the vast wealth of information that can potentially be gleaned from proof marks.  Import marks tell you the absolute most basic information like caliber, country of origin, etc.  They are used for tracking, documentation, and nothing else.  Period.

Proof marks, on the other hand, can tell novel's worth of stories.  You can find out where the gun was made, who inspected it, what military or law enforcement unit the item was issued to, they can further narrow down a date of manufacture, and so on.  What adds value about this?  Gun collectors love history.  Condition, rarity, and aesthetics are all important factors, but when you add a fascinating history to a firearm it's value can increase exponentially.  If you know the military unit that a particular firearms was assigned to, you know what possible battles it was in, the assignments of that unit, members of that unit, and so on!  You could possibly trace the gun's entire military history and that gets collectors very excited.  Besides, even if someone were to argue that both marks indicate a part of the gun's history, which one do you find more fascinating: the fact that the gun was used in the Battle of the Bulge or that it was imported by the ATF-compliant Billy's Gun Store & More, Las Vegas, NV?  Exactly.  Furthermore, if you knew your gun had the history of being used in such a momentous battle, would you really want such a modern influence emblazoned on it forever?  It's simply distracting and worse, is graffiti on a collector grade firearm.

Import marks are solely for ATF tracking information.  Proof marks tell history.

Q:  Import marks are small.  They're not that big of a deal.
A:  Millions of dollars lost in marked guns say otherwise.  Post manufacturer alterations of a gun always have consequences.  Why else would guns classified as "original" command such a premium?  Why else would collectors work so hard to put guns back into "as original" condition?  As mentioned with coins, or even a "salvage" or "flood" title on a car, marking a gun is a Pandora's Box - it can't be undone.  Say you have an extremely generous collector friend.  He offers you your choice of two nearly identical firearms.  One has an import mark and one does not.  Which one do you choose?

Import marks can be small, but they have a HUGE effect on value.  This picture is the import mark
on the lower of the two Luger pistols shown below.

Someone once tried to counter this argument by saying that "even the Sphinx has graffiti on it."  True, the Sphinx is still a treasure despite the years of graffiti carved into its iconic shape.  However, are people actually claiming that the Sphinx would not be better preserved without centuries worth of vandalism imposed upon it?  This is a question for those saying import marks are not that big of a deal.  "Are you really trying to say that the gun would not be better preserved without the import marks?"  Given the choice, nearly everyone will choose the piece without the import marks.  This demand increases both their rarity and their price.
This gun currently has an estimate of $5,500 - $8,500, but with out the import marks
it could bring between $8,500 - $13,000!  A difference in value of 65 percent.
This pristine Luger has an estimate of $14,000 - $22,500.   A similar percentage value loss would be tremendous.

If the gun you are buying was imported prior to 2002, you may be in luck if the gun you want has its import marks placed in a location that can only be seen after partial disassembly or field stripping the firearm.  The gun appears whole on the outside, but careful, honest, and established collectors will note that the gun has import marks.

Q:  I only bought this gun for a shooter.  I don't care if it has import marks.
A:  That's fine.  If so this article may not be targeted to your gun buying habits at this time and that's OK.  Shooting guns are meant to be shot and collector guns are purchased for a myriad of other reasons.  One is for utility and the other is not, which is fine.  Some stamps are meant to send mail and some serve better in collections.  By purchasing, for example, a Mosin-Nagant 91/30 as a shooting gun for $150, if you lose a percentage of its value for it having import marks, you really haven't lost that much of your investment.  However, if a high end gun collector purchases a rare 1904 Navy Luger or a 02/03 trials gun for $40,000+ and that buyer loses a percentage of their investment, the monetary damage would have significantly higher consequences.

Even so, do you really want this on your shooter?

Besides, the example of choice still rears its head. If you were offered an excellent condition Mosin-Nagant with import marks or a nearly identical one without them, which would you choose?  Why not take the one without the import marks?  What have you lost?  By taking the firearms without import marks, you can only gain demand, condition, and thus value.  By selecting a firearm with import marks you can only lose value or shoot it with a clean conscience that the value you decrease will be lessened.  The latter of which is not even a consideration for an investment grade firearm as it would not be fired anyway.

The majority of collectors love history and even if they don't they certainly love the financial benefits that an exciting, documented history can provide.  All collectors love condition.  If import marks can neither imbue a gun with a fascinating history nor enhance its condition, then they are superfluous marrings that are to be avoided.  No one sets out to collect the most mediocre examples of their hobby.  No one sets out to buy a truly poor specimen that is of little interest to like minded enthusiasts.  No one wants to apologetically explain or excuse away the glaring flaws in their collection.  Unfortunately, import marks on guns bring all those things with them.  Like a coin with "graffiti" or a classic car with a salvage title, no matter how lovingly cared for since that moment, they will forever carry forward their stigma with them.  The only time import marks carry little weight is when the gun itself has very little value to lose.  But those aren't exactly the guns one dreams of having in their collections are they?

-Written by Joel Kolander


Friday, September 6, 2013

Tortured By Indians

In the Rock Island Auction Company Preview Hall preparations are already being made for our September 2013 Premiere Auction.  Displays are arranged, guns are placed, cases are filled, and items glint under fluorescent lights.  Among all the revolvers, war trophies, lever actions, and antiques is a curious, small photo.  It is of a sturdy man posing in a portrait studio with rifle present and revolver on his hip.  It seems a rather simple item, but the story behind the man in the photo is anything but simple, thanks to a rather adventurous life.

Lot 3095: Historic Indian Wars Period CDV A.G. Stewart, Laramie City, Wy. Ter. Marked Photograph of U.S. Scout Robert Pilson Holding a Winchester Model 1866 Rifle

Scout Robert Pilson
The story of Robert Pilson is an interesting one that we may never know in its entirety.  We are told that he lived a life of "many deeds of daring in his younger days," and "his many eccentricities during the closing years of his life," but very little more.  However, even if we know little of Pilson individually, we may make certain assumptions of his life courtesy of his occupation.  He was a scout for the U.S. government and during his era that line of work would have some serious adventure to it.  What we do know of Pilson is so compelling, one can scarcely imagine what the rest of his life was like if it was as full of daring as our source implies.

Robert Pilson was born in 1840 in Woolwich, England and came to the United States at age 4, but an obituary from the Chicago Tribune states that he was born in La Salle, IL, however the rumor of his American birth is disproved by later census documents.  We are told he received his education in La Salle before moving to Moberly, Missouri "where he attained the age of manhood."  Reminiscent of the tales of young Abraham Lincoln, Pilson could wrestle and defeat any man for miles in any direction.  He was "a giant in size and in strength," often performing feats of strength for the delight of onlookers.  This resulted in him receiving several offers "to travel on a big salary," but he refused every last one of them.

Early in the 1860's he arrived in western Nebraska, but would later end up in Fort Laramie, Wyoming where he would take up employment as a scout for the U.S. government.  While that last sentence takes us right up to what we know about Pilson, it leaves out a terrible amount of detail.  Why did he move to Nebraska?  What pushed him even further west in Wyoming?  Why take work as a scout?  Like many men of his time was there an even more lucrative profession that awaited him out west?    We may not know what spurred his move west, but it would be safe to say that prior to his work at Ft. Laramie, that Pilson was a trapper.  Many scouts were former trappers or hunters.  However, this work would have been in addition to his work as a farmer, which is documented in an 1870 census of LaSalle County, Illinois.

Trappers knew how to survive on the land, what to eat, what not to eat, how to find water, how to track or "read sign," how to hunt, how to find paths, and they knew the country.  This knowledge would not only be immensely valuable to themselves, but also to their later employers who would depend on them as scouts not only for proper navigation, but also for sustenance and avoiding American Indians.  It would also be of value to parties interested in taming the West.  Scouts would be needed by settlers, soldiers, cartographers, railroad companies, and scientists all of whom had an interest in exploring, documenting, and blazing the trails in the new frontier.  However, the profession was not without its hazards, on the contrary, scouts would face death or survival situations almost daily.  Scouting was what George A. Custer once described as "congenial employment, most often leading to a terrible death."

Custer overlooks the massacre and mutilation of Lt. Lyman Kidder and his detachment.  "Custer's scout,
William Comstock, believed Kidder might have escaped had he heeded the advice of his own scout."
(Picture courtesy of Wheeler)
On the assumption of his former occupation as a trapper, we can also safely say that Pilson was likely engaged in selling pelts.  He would have entered the profession too late to capitalize on the beaver trade, a boom thanks to a European men's hat trend, which faded in the 1840s, but could still have made an excellent living for himself.  Working for a fur company, one could receive a guaranteed salary of $200 per year, but in a good season a trapper could make ten times that sum.  To put that in perspective, an East Coast carpenter would expect to earn not a penny over $550.  Given these figures, it would be hard to imagine him earning more money working for the government in a fort, but as a scout he could earn much more.  A trip from Laramie to Fort Hall, ID, a trip over 500 miles, could be contracted out for around $250 in 1842 and well known tracker William Comstock was paid nearly $125 each month for his services as a scout in 1868, almost 10 times the rate of a private soldier.

In this trapper's life, Pilson might have had his first experience with American Indians.  There are many documented instances of trappers getting into scrapes with the locals.  Indians would take the trapped animals, steal pelts, and even kill trappers.  These accounts are largely accountable thanks to their sheer numbers and consistency.  However, trappers are also well-known, by their own volition, of being hostile to the Indians in order to show they were not to be pushed around.  These first occupations of Pilson's tell us that he had excellent survival skills, was a strong, robust man, and may have developed a distaste for American Indians early in his adult life.

Apaches had a reputation for being especially cruel as documented in this
Remington painting of an "ambushed Mexican sheepherder, strung by one ankle
over a cliff and left to bake and shrivel in the Arizona sun.
(Picture courtesy of Wheeler)
Our next documented event of Pilson says that while working at Ft. Laramie, "up to this time he had not weighed over 200 pounds, but he now commenced to take on flesh so rapidly that it soon became a difficult problem to find horses of sufficient strength and endurance to carry the heavy-weight scout."  It appears that life inside the fort walls had made Robert soft, though "soft" living at that time would still be considered borderline brutal by today's standards.  However, it appears this gluttony did not hasten him in his duties as it is noted that, "Pilson was valuable to the commandant of the post, for his great courage and natural liking for dangerous and difficult undertakings placed him in constant demand."  One day, in the course of his routine scouting expeditions of enemy (Sioux) territory, Pilson was in the midst of a two day trek among the camps of the Sioux.  It being a lovely September afternoon, he decided to lay down for a much-needed rest within a group of rocks near what is now the town of Casper, Wyoming.  He was awoken violently as a group of nine Sioux warriors set upon him and tied him up before he had the chance to resist.  The imposing figure was then lashed to a horse and lead away from the white man's world to the head camp of the Sioux tribe, "situated in the Bad Lands, near Pine Ridge, Nebraska."

One can only imagine the thoughts and fear racing through Robert's head.  His trapping days had undoubtedly regaled him with tales of what American Indians would do to prisoners.  Stories abounded of prisoners being scalped, burned with charred woods, heated stone tools, or white-hot metals, dismembered, disemboweled, blinded, burned in various ways, flayed alive, mutilated, cannibalized, bound with wet rawhide (which would tightened as it dried), and countless other fates.  Torture sessions were not short exercises and could last days.  The American Indians could be creative captors and Robert had likely heard the worst.  All these things were certainly flashing before his eyes as he was helplessly lead to the what would likely be the last place he would see alive.

The torture and execution of William Crawford in 1782.  Thoughts of this event and
similar ones no doubt filled the young scout's mind.
When the band arrived back at their village they discovered that the chief was away.  In his absence the Indians tied Pilson to a stake and began a three day marathon of torture and pain on the scout.  Tomahawks and knives were thrown at his head and body, but Pilson bore his torture with resolute courage and a fortified constitution.  He was hit directly on several occasions with the deadly instruments, but never uttered a word, instead choosing to smile at his captors.  Other tribe members came round and would amuse themselves by marring Pilson's lumpy anatomy with burning sticks and small torches.  At the end of three days, the Indians became frightened of their mysterious prisoner.  They could not understand how he did not show the signs of the torture inflicted upon him.  A council was called, presided over by the medicine man in lieu of the chief.  The medicine man determined that the white man was no ordinary white man, but an evil spirit who would certainly destroy them all if they continued their slow execution.  Immediately, our scout was untied, his wounds dressed, and he was allowed to heal.

While Pilson was on the mend, the chief returned to the village and was apprised of what had transpired in his absence.  Whether from fear or genuine admiration, the chief treated Pilson with nothing but the utmost kindness until he left; nothing would be too good for their guest.  Once finally recovered, Pilson was given freedom within the camp, and when he finally decided to depart the scout was implored in earnest to return again soon to pay the village another visit.

"After these experiences Pilson was in several Indian wars, the last being in '78, when the Utes raided the Lower Platte valley."  That is the next line in the story from the original source and it gives the impression that ol' Robbie was after a little bit of vengeance on those that had made him suffer.  This is a comical twist considering that earlier in the source material it is claimed that the events of his capture and torture, "tested his nerve and at the same time placed him upon friendly terms with the Indians," and implies that they parted ways like old friends. Generally, one does not go to war against people they are on "friendly terms" with.  However, it is noted that Pilson "learned several Indian languages and served the government as an interpreter several times when Uncle Sam was negotiating with the redmen."  Perhaps he figured the best way to get back at the American Indians was to help the U.S. drive them off their lands and into reservations.

The cover of Keith Wheeler's Time-Life book The Scouts, with an excellent depiction of a scout.
The last ten years of his life, Pilson was a cattleman and was known to do business with Lord Ralli, a wealthy Englishman.  The only other text that I could find that specifically documents Pilson states that "Bob Pilson, (a) jovial 350-pound cattleman," bought the Cow Creek ranch in 1888 from one William F. Swan.  The role of a cattleman seems an odd twist in the life of Pilson.  Having once been a scout paid to help the homesteaders, his job in livestock almost certainly made him an enemy of many homesteaders as tensions between the two groups mounted in the late 19th century.  Was this just another example of money motivating the man?

At the end of his life at 1:42 p.m. on March 23, 1899, Robert "Bob" Pilson was 59 years of age and weighed a Toledo-tipping 529 pounds.  Thankfully, nine years before his death he had a special coffin built for himself with his own specifications in mind.  Again, sources differ on the particulars, but it was an extra-large coffin, adorned with oak and silk, and reinforced in several ways to ensure it could properly carry its solitary passenger.  The aforementioned "jovial" nature must have followed Bob the rest of his days.  An obituary from the Saratoga Sun states,

"An hour before the appointed time for the funeral, people began to assemble at the church. Every seat was filled and at the last, there was not even standing room. There were neither kith nor kin present to act in the capacity of mourners – not a soul to drop a tear. Yet the occasion was one of the most solemn that has ever been held in any church. It was such an out pouring of people and such a manifestation of silent sympathy that would have astonished the deceased could he have seen it, for he did not regard himself as having many friends... He was very eccentric, scrupulously honest, very kind-hearted and sympathetic. He has been a familiar figure on our streets for many years and his presence will be missed and regretted by all who knew him...He was one of the best known characters in the state, and his death removes from our midst one of the landmarks of the valley. Not a man who ever knew him but will express regret when he hears of his death, and pay that silent tribute which we all pay to the dead."

Robert Pilson is a fascinating character despite that we know so little about him!  He had a love for adventure, examples of bravery and courage, a mysterious transition into life after the Old West, a love of food and laughter, a keen business sense, and a large waistline.  One can only imagine the other tales of daring-do associated with his scouting days and the Indian wars.  He is yet another historical figure that Rock Island Auction Company is honored to have in this auction.

-Written by Joel Kolander


Wheeler, Keith. The Old West: The Scouts. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life, 1978. Print.