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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



  1. Just one more high end collector dribble seeking to pump up the value of his guns. Ditto for the coin collectors.

  2. There is another auction company that has an auction coming soon. All of the Lugers in that auction have import marks on them because the owner brought the collection from Switzerland. So is anyone actually interested in owning SUPER RARE Lugers with import marks on them? It's too bad that our .gov has to put import marks on rare guns (or any guns for that matter) As it was said in the article, value decreases since engraving is happening to the guns.

  3. Liberals ruin everything they touch.

  4. Regarding the Julia Sturgess guns, are they even legal the way they are marked? I would not spend my money on a gun that could be confiscated as being illegally or incorrectly marked, to much risk!

  5. I am only repeating information found in an internet article and I do not have the title and author for reference, but I am sure could be found online with a little effort. I therefore do not guarantee this information or the validity of what I am repeating. I am just being the messenger from memory. Something of importance that I read a short while ago when researching import marks is that these US Govt. required markings pertain only to the Importers and the various firearms when actually imported into the US. Importers are required to mark their arms to comply with US laws and I imagine provide records for the arms they import also for several reasons ( as you mentioned ). It was explained that these laws did not apply to private individuals or their import gun ownership once in their possession. The article stated that it is not illegal for a private owner to remove the markings. So, this presents a dilemma, IF TRUE ( I am not a lawyer or authority on laws ). Is marking removal a recommended practice, or does this constitute legal fraud in a sense ? I personally don't feel that removing the markings is a wise move in case damage is done by amateurs, which further devaluates a firearm. I suppose if professionally removed and refinished produces an acceptable collectable then it is wise to seek a "real expert" opinion and examination before buying if you want an unmarked firearm. As with vehicles, some people prefer "restored" vehicles ( increases value ) and others "original" condition drivers. For firearms I am referring mostly to US made firearms that were lend/lease, or loaned, etc.during or after a war ( as was common in WW II ). My feelings are that with or without these markings the piece is still representative of it's origins, use, and more importantly "history" regardless of being marked or not. It gets down to what is really important here ? There is a big difference between an investment in a $600 ( six hundred dollar - I know that is a past value ) M1 Garand and a $40,000 collectable ( your example ). I have had guns with old, and more recent import markings and as in one of your highlighted sub-topics, don't really care, since I am more interested in an accurate shooter than a collectable. My choice. Besides, due to the demand and availability of firearms these days, I don't really think anyone will lose any money ( at least in my area ) on a $150 Mosin - Nagant with import markings even though the market appears to be flooded with them. They still sell well. I don't intend on getting rid of anything in the future that I currently own, and what I have liquidated in the past didn't seem to matter if marked or not as to what I was paid. Therefore, I have to disagree a bit with what you say. Your information pertains more to high end collectors who can afford the pristine firearms. For lower income and beginning ( amateur ? ) collectors the import marks don't make as much difference concerning purchases. Sure unmarked firearms are better to own if that is important to you, but personally I just don't really care one way or the other when unmarked examples are unattainable. Your information is of value, but does not apply to all. I am an enthusiast who enjoys any and all firearms, whether a relic or a white gloves handled rarity. I enjoy them all as a hobby / sport since young, and am not concerned with "investment values" or pleasing anyone but myself. Just my personal view based on over fifty years of gun collecting and shooting. Thanks for listening and reading my rather lengthy reply. No offense intended, just another side.

  6. With the exepllary Sturgess colleciton coming-up, it would be crimnal for posterity to ruin such guns with the hideous marks; they are not part of theer history (as well argued in the blog) but an imposotion by a thoughtless beureaucrat. I can understand why Dr Sturgess is selling his collection in the USA, but I would not dream of doing so, hence I sell hardly nay collector firearms to the USA. In UK, at least proof marks can be positioned discretely and out of main sight - under grips, ejector rod stems, under slides etc., not ideal but of some help. The desecration imposed by the US import marks beggars belief and is a disapointment to me, believing the USA to be a land of minimal state intervetion.. Chris Smith. Essex, England.

    1. Better to have them de-milled Blighty style, what?

  7. No import marked weapons for me, the value is cut in half when these ridiculous markings are applied, also agree with previous comments on legality of the markings on the Sturgess guns, what if they have to be correctly remarked again? Julia is a good operation, how did they get involved in this mess.

    Big Mike

  8. "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............if it is imported after 1968, it has to have the proper information on it."


    See, this is the problem with so called experts writing articles about subjects they are not actually experts on. It is completely possible to bring firearms into the country, with an approved Form 6, and not have them import marked. There are not only one, but actually two different completely legal methods of doing this. And no I'm not going to post them. Do your own legwork.

    1. The CMP imports Garands, Springfields and M-1 Carbines without import stamps.

    2. Beg to differ. Simpson Ltd are experts on importation of firearms. If there were any way to avoid marking these rare and unique arms he would know of it. They have legally imported hundreds of collector's arms. How many have you imported? Do you even have an FFL much less an importer's license?

    3. Apologies for the late reply but yes, yes I do. Type 08 Importer and Type 07 Manufacturer/SOT. Thanks for asking.

  9. Putting an import mark on a gun is somewhat like tattooing an 18 year girl. It is passable now but in twenty years it is going to look terrible!

  10. First of all it is NOT wise for the RIAC to start using the private and-for-profit coin grading companies as any good model for our area. There are BIG technical and ethical questions regarding the market for "better than mint" so-called certifications which come only from for-profit coin industry-related companies. Originally intended for certain very collectible coins (and open to challenge even there), this type of "certification" has been reduced to "instant collectable"status by having someone search through 50,000 new mintage coins and then adding a huge price tag differential for a few in order to extract too much money from the mostly-gullible. "Professional coin grading" on recent mintage coins is a bubble waiting to burst. Reminds me of the old CADA dealers - I could just see them trying to make a "CADA condition system" instead of using the standards we have, then trying to charge extra for it!

    Back to guns, RIAC doth protest too much. It is far too complex an issue for an article like this. Lugers and military rifles, for example, are very different in this regard. Certainly dealers have promoted this all as a huge issue, but that alone should give you pause. Certainly the most pristine with no import mark is always preferred, but so what? Would you rather have a typical 75% mixed parts US Garand or a nice closet queen at 95%, all original parts to the gun- but with an import mark from the country we loaned it to?

  11. The article missed two important very points (on purpose?):

    Firstly, weapons where non-import marked examples are nearly impossible to come by. The m/39 Mosin they used in an example picture was a HORRIBLE choice. I challenge you to find a non-import marked m/39 in the US. If you were to do this, you would probably never add an m/39 to your collection unless you moved to outside the US. Also, m/39's are in no way the same as an M91/30, a point I'm not sure the author understands (like so many older and elitist collectors that look down their nose at any rifle that happens to have a Mosin action). If one is trying to type collect, then why would they ever try to exclude they types that can only be found with import marks? They wouldn't; they'd have import marked examples. Same with finding a rare piece that is import marked. No one in their right mind would turn away a very rare example merely because of a discrete import mark, especially in the case where only a few are known to exist.

    Is the author of the article trying to say that entire huge areas of firearms collecting are less worthy merely because import marks can't be avoided? I seem to read this as the case as it is often an attitude I run into with collectors who are elitist in what they personally collect. Maybe the author doesn't fully understand that people collect for genuine interest in certain topics and in order to full that particular collecting interest, they have to deal with import marks.

    Secondly, weapons where the import mark lends to confirming it's originality. Often an import mark can confirm that the weapon entered the country in it's current configuration. This point may fly over the heads of US arms collectors that routinely swap out parts to unscrupulously create piece that conform to a configuration they desire, but in most areas of collecting, building something to look like something that existed in the past is NOT OK and isn't worth much typically.

    I think in this case the author lacks the experience in collecting items that are typically import marked in order to opine on the topic of import marks in a knowledgeable way. He should either stick to collecting with an elitist attitude, only collect as a form of investing (which isn't really collecting IMO), or should read what I've written and understand that the entire would of firearms collecting isn't ONLY limited to common items that have large numbers of non-import marked stuff.

  12. What ever your opinion is on the import markings I am surprised nobody has commented on the possible tax obligation on that collection?
    This was posted on Julias website concerning these guns.

    "Is there FAET Liability on the imported Sturgess guns?
    Over the past couple of weeks, some clients have called and have as ked about the Federal Firearms and Ammunition Excise Tax, and whether it applied to the collection of Dr. Geoffrey Sturgess. To answer these questions, we retained
    the services of Mark Barnes & Associates, a law firm based in Washington D.C. specializing in firearms laws and
    regulations in this area both nationally and internationally. Mark and his team prepared the following conclusion for our firm. Hope fully this will provide clarity for those interested in items in the Sturgess collection. We are pleased to present his findings:
    Conclusion regarding the FAET and imported guns:It is our conclusion that James D. Julia, Inc. is not liable for paying the FAET, as it is not the beneficial owner of the firearms. Furthermore, any successful bidders will not be responsible for paying the FAET, provided they purchase the firearms for their own personal use or collection. Licensed FFL dealers who are successful bidders may be obligated to pay the FAET if they intend on selling the firearms and already or will by
    auction acquisition have manufactured or imported 50 or more firearms in the calendar year."

    50 guns in a calendar year,? you might be in for a hefty tax bill on these guns!

  13. In spain all guns that bear codes like BYF, AC, S/42, or nambu's, or russian arsenal symbols on nagant rifles ect
    or lee enfield's with codes.. m47 etc.. they all need to be restamped with BOPE as the offical brand..
    this is a wrong interpretation of the european directive 2008/51 but noboby seems to be able to change this wrong policy of the guardia civil in spain...what a SHAME WHAT A STUPIDITY...

  14. The reason the USA requires markings is that they do not register firearms en masse and this marking process is an aid to the process of attempting to find out where the gun came from. Tracing in the US can be done from the manufacturer/importer to the first dealer - after that the firearm will in 99% of cases fall into the unknown abyss. The UN marking and tracing instrument requires import marking by all signatories - this was pushed by the USA AND Canada. ITs purpose can be beaten by counterfeit import markings and the lck of resources on most countries to have this done at import by government agencies.

  15. The fact that a firearm has import stamps should be reflected in the purchase price, which in my opinion allows many collectors to obtain excellent examples of firearms they could not otherwise afford. The import marked gun will increase in price based on its scarcity, just not as fast or as astronomical as the museum quality piece without import marks will. The mega-thousand firearm is so expensive because it is the closest to factory original, but ordinary humans who enjoy firearms will still appreciate the less rare version if the price is right.

  16. I am sitting on the sidelines for this auction, to many uncertainties.....what if the ATF changes there mind on how the guns were agreed to be marked? THEY ARE NOT MARKED PER THE ATF STANDARD, PERIOD! The rarity of these guns is fantastic, why oh why do they have to be defaced by these hideous import markings, just once you would think an exception could be made for the sake of history.

  17. In my opinion the case "Why you should avoid import marks", has not been made. This title seems to be sour grapes for not getting the Sturgess collection. The article is a good article, the title is not. It is a crying shame that these guns had to be defaced. But, there simply is no alternative for USA collectors. Are import marked guns worth less than comparable guns not marked. In many cases yes, how much less only the market will tell.