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The Boston Phoenix The Gun Men

Looking down the dark barrel of American history.

By Tom Scocca

MAY 18, 1998:  You wouldn't think, here at the New England Antique and Collectable Arms Show on this early Saturday morning, that somebody could stand out from the crowd by being well armed. There are tens of hundreds of guns spread out on long tables in Hall A of the Rhode Island Convention Center, being shown and sold by dozens of collectors and dealers. There are long arms and short arms, Sharpses and Winchesters and Colts and Walthers and guns that have passed beyond known manufacture or provenance. The room -- very clean, very cavernous -- has firepower the way a bake sale has calories.

And yet, there's no question who the Gun Guy is. Over on the far side wall, Frank Sellers of Alstead, New Hampshire, presides over an array of weaponry that puts the rest of the hall to shame. Sellers himself, sitting low in a folding chair off at one end of his row of tables, is inconspicuous: a roundish, sixtysomething man with flat, sandy bangs and a freestanding goatee. But his guns are impossible to miss. There are a full 500 of them -- "only" 500, Sellers says, with no detectable irony -- pistols laid out like tiles, crowded nose to butt in yin-yang fashion till the deep-blue tablecloth barely shows underneath. A rack along the back edge of the table holds the overflow, propped up in a row with pegs in their muzzles, canting in various directions. The price tags range from $25 for a beat-up Smith & Wesson to $1600 and up for rare and singular items, which Sellers keeps in three flat showcases on the table right in front of him.

"I had 200 guns before I was 10 years old," he says. In the 45 years he's been a licensed firearms dealer, Sellers has sold more than 100,000 guns. He holds a toothpick steady in the right corner of his mouth as he talks, and he keeps his gaze fixed on the tabletop. From his position, the jam-packed guns present a complete and orderly surface, so that he can see whenever a passerby picks one up, and can yell if it gets put back wrong.

Sellers, an electrical engineer by trade, has the standing in the gun world to get away with yelling at people. If he is irascible, it is the irascibility of a guru. When he says in passing that he wrote the book on something, he means that he wrote the book on it: American Gunsmiths: A Source Book (Gun Room Press, 1983), Sharps Firearms (Beinfeld Publishing, 1978), and American Percussion Revolvers (with Samuel E. Smith, Museum Restoration Service, 1973). When people have guns to show off, or questions on matters of value, they come to him.

For example: a man with a large Yellowstone National Park belt buckle, his wife at his elbow, holds a silvery Colt revolver -- nickel-plated, Sellers notes.

The man nods.

On an 1865 model, Sellers says. "You don't see a lot of 'em."

The man perks up.

Mainly, Sellers continues, because Colt didn't start nickel-plating guns until 1867. "Therefore and to wit," he says, "this was plated after it left the factory" -- most likely by a craftsman in New York, he adds.

The Yellowstone man maintains his poise, with difficulty. Does Sellers have any idea what it might be worth? "I have an exact idea," Sellers says. "Josh," he calls down the table to his twentyish son and assistant, "hold up my sign."

Josh, who's clearly used to this, dutifully digs it out: the sign says APPRAISALS $10 PER GUN. The client, whipped, forks over the money. "I would put it at $1200," Sellers says. "I don't really want it, because it's refinished." The gun, rejected, vanishes back into its carrying case. By way of farewell, Sellers tells the man that the 1865 Colt in full original condition would have brought about four grand.

It's disconcerting to think of a 133-year-old six-shooter -- one of the very guns that won the West -- as being nothing special. But America is, and has been, a bountifully well-armed country. In the mid to late 19th century, the Colt factory in Hartford produced 215,348 Model 1851 Navy revolvers, to say nothing of the 1861 Navy, the Model 1860 Army, the 1849 Pocket, and the über-cowboy gun, the 1873 single-action Army. There are collectors at this show who handle nothing but Colts, and collectors who won't deal with them at all. The attics and garages of the nation are spilling over with other brands, too.

Like most serious collectors, the gun enthusiasts here have a certain detachment from the objects of their devotion. Many of these people will be going to 30 or 40 shows this year, their stock changing all along the way. Sellers says he has guns warehoused all over the country; his collection includes items he hasn't laid eyes on in 20 years. He is not sentimental about objects. There is a particular Civil War-era Sharps carbine, he says, that he's bought and sold eight or nine separate times since the late '40s. "I sold it again last year," he says. "It's strictly a commodity, as far as I'm concerned."

For the gun folks, firearms are basically just historical curios, like pocket watches or baseball cards. The New England show was organized by a Randolph collector named Bill Brady and his son Colin, who run a military-collectibles shop. Like many of the other exhibitors, the Bradys have augmented their weapons display -- which focuses on early-20th-century German military arms -- with other period artifacts: a Nazi uniform tunic worn by one of the generals who plotted against Hitler, assorted official documents, playing cards with Nazi and Imperial German motifs, swastika poker chips. Just before he starts enumerating the finer points of a World War I Erfurt artilleryman's Luger (an extra-long barrel and detachable stock, for shooting people from afar), Colin Brady confesses that it's the gambling souvenirs he really gets excited about. And his brother, Jeffery, he adds in passing, has "one of the finest Coca-Cola memorabilia collections in the country."

A long, black Erfurt Luger is a damn sight scarier than an old Coca-Cola bottle. But you'd never know it, to see the people around the exhibit hall. I seem to be the only person in here who's concerned with Rule One of firearms safety: namely, treat every gun as if it were loaded. All over the room, people pick up rifles and pistols, swing them around, point them this way and that. Potential trajectories sweep over me; I lose track of how many eyes of how many gun barrels I've found myself staring into. Even the ones with plastic tie-offs around the hammers or up the barrels give me the jitters.

Of course, the chance of catching a stray musket ball in the spine is pretty much nil. Many of the guns in the room -- the ones made before 1898 -- weren't designed for the high pressure of modern smokeless gunpowder and are supposed to use special handmade ammunition. Under federal firearms laws, they don't even count as weapons. As far as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms is concerned, anything manufactured before 1899 is a harmless antique; you don't need a permit to buy or sell one. (Pre-1899 guns do need to be registered in Massachusetts if cartridges are "readily available" for them, according to Bill Brady -- though Brady can't name any such guns offhand.)

Someone who wants a gun for nefarious purposes would probably, one dealer points out, have an easier time on the ordinary black market, rather than messing around with black-powder cartridges or cap-and-ball loads. Guns made from 1899 to 1945 -- built to use modern ammunition -- are classified as "curios and relics" and do require a federal dealers' license. Would-be buyers who aren't dealers themselves need to arrange to take delivery of such early-modern guns from a licensed dealer in their home state, at which point they will have to go through the formal paperwork.

Still, there are a lot of antique firearms out there. There are thousands of shows around the country each year, with sales in the high multiples of millions of dollars. "I couldn't begin to count 'em," Bill Brady says. It's one thing to think about all those people trading decrepit matchlock rifles, but it gets more disturbing once the Bradys show you what a hundred-year-old German automatic pistol looks like: sleek and lethally up-to-date.

Much the same goes for the late-19th-century Smith & Wesson .32 revolver that exhibitor Nicholas Cook is handing off to me: it seems a bit old-fashioned, maybe, but hardly obsolete. In a witty touch, some early owner, dissatisfied with the S&W's skinny handgrips, replaced them with fat ones made of ivory, featuring folksy-looking relief carvings of skulls. "It's kind of a reminder that this is a deadly thing," says Cook, a lean man from Amagansett, New York, considerably younger than the sixtyish age of most of the dealers. He's wearing a green vest with a tin star on it that reads SINGLE ACTION SHOOTING SOCIETY.

The badge is not just a piece of costuming. The Single Action Shooting Society is a real organization, with 200 affiliated shooting clubs and some 15,000 participants. Society members dress up like cowboys, Cook explains, and get together for shooting tournaments in which they act out Western-movie scenarios, blasting away with antique guns or replicas at cutouts of villains. He uses real antiques, he says, as "a professional thing. I like to show that my stuff is still working."

So it is that, at the height of Cook's explanation of the S&W .32's operation, he's passed it over to me for a demonstration. The skulls nestle in my hand. The steel frame of the gun is flatter, more platelike, than I'd expected. It is exactly as surprisingly heavy as it's supposed to be. I've carried and fired rifles and shotguns before, even dry-fired a blunderbuss, but it occurs to me that I don't believe I've ever handled a pistol.

Still, the hand knows what to do. I point the .32 down and away, with diffidence, obeying Rule One as best I can under the circumstances. If there's been some horrible mistake, the slug will at least have to tear through the tabletop and spang off the floor before it hits anybody. I thumb back the hammer, per Cook's instructions, to full cock, then touch off the first shot: click. It's a double action, so I can squeeze off another: cluck-click. Then I pick up my thumb and do it all again, click, cluck-click.

Though Cook also works with guns full-time, his collection is much smaller than Sellers's. He has just 28 guns with him at this show -- 27 on the table and one in his boot. The one is a Merwin-Hulbert .38, considered by some the finest revolver ever made. He's had it since last night, when Frank Sellers traded it to him for two old Remington .38s, a box of rimfire cartridges to fit them, and $50.

Eagerly, he runs through the exactingly engineered features of the Merwin. It has a folding hammer spur that won't snag on your clothing; the whole thing can be disassembled, cleaned, and reassembled without a screwdriver. Once it's cleaned and tightened up, it's going to be a prize.

Among the currently salable merchandise, Cook's favorite is a flashy, heavily retooled 1884 Colt .44-40 revolver that a friend got for him in Mexico. The barrel has been cut down to a stub and equipped with a new gunsight, a fat gold band around the muzzle that bulges on top, like a signet ring. It is plated with silver and gold, with a gold dragon on the handgrip. Apparently, none of this finery mattered to its last owner, who happily traded it for a beat-up but serviceable Ruger automatic -- a dull gun, but a good one for "a person who actually uses the gun," Cook says. His enthusiasm is so contagious that it's a good half-hour before the moral implications of this deal sink in with me.

To give the profession its due, the history of guns involves a great deal more than outlawry and war. Across the room from Cook and Sellers, Steve Willadsen, on behalf of Single Shot Exchange magazine, is showing 19th-century rifles that were never made to be fired in anger. Up until around World War I, Willadsen explains, target shooting was a favorite gentlemen's sport, popularized by German immigrants and sponsored by social organizations known as scheutzen clubs; the Boston Press Club, he notes, was a major presenter of shooting contests.

The rifles in Willadsen's display are long and elegant, obviously well cared for. Their stocks are fluidly shaped and ornate, made of rich-grained wood. They have telescopes on top, and knobs underneath for a steadier grip.

Willadsen lives in Atlanta and does voice-over work for commercials and industrial videotapes. "It's difficult at times to be involved in guns," he says, "because there's this stigma that goes along with it." His own specialty is even narrower than the Single Shot Exchange's: he collects and shoots target rifles made by the Wurfflein family of Philadelphia, who quit the business in 1895. "It's like collecting paintings or any other piece of fine art," he says -- a reasonable comparison given the gracefulness of the guns behind him. He rummages in a gym bag under the table and comes up with a picture of the Wurfflein storefront, which featured a three-story sign in the shape of a rifle pointing skyward. It looks cheery and aspiring, a salute to American enterprise.

Still, this is not the mood I'll be carrying out of the exhibition hall. We Americans are an ingenious people, sure enough. We fed ourselves with the firearm, and we freed ourselves with the firearm, as Bill Brady takes pains to remind me. And we had energy left over for the rest of the world, too: we kept the whole Czar's army in Smith & Wessons, it turns out, and the Luger was an American patent. But it's hard to look down a hundred gun barrels -- to see the Sharps rifles that all but exterminated the buffalo, the ranks of Civil War Colt revolvers with the government inspection seal, approved for fratricide -- and come away feeling good about it.

Nor is it really cheering to spend too long at Sellers's table -- utterly, in its own way, a monument to ingenuity. There's the squat, ungainly Reid knuckle-duster: seven shots, then you can turn it sideways and use it for brass knuckles. There's a palm pistol -- a flat disc like a snuff can, with a short barrel, that you conceal in your hand and fire out the gap between your middle and ring fingers. There are hammerless pistols to hide in your pocket and .25 automatics not much bigger than a deck of cards. They look cheap and harmless, like toys. But with the exception of one .02 caliber Kolibri semiauto, a pinkie-size novelty gun that comes with a velvet box, every last one of them, Sellers assures me, "would kill you today."

The question is not entirely academic. Toward the end of the day, while I'm making a final pass around the room, I see Sellers shaking his head in disgust as two young men quickly walk away. He is put out; they'd been asking unsavory questions about the availability of one of the .25s, priced at $45. "Those people," he says darkly, "looked like they were on their way to the 7-Eleven." I turn around, trying to spot them, but they're gone, off to some less brightly lit corner of this well-armed nation. Sellers settles his gaze back on the table top. Everything sits in its proper place. He is at ease again.

Tom Scocca can be reached at tscocca@phx.com.

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