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Firearm Restorations: What is The Correct Approach? Case Study: Japanese Arisaka

When it comes to collectible firearms, there are two type of collectors.

There are those who preserve firearms for their original condition, as a pristine historical object; they are called "historical collectors". These collectors are included in the Italian school of thinking - which also includes pottery collectors, architecture restorers, porcelain doll collectors, car collectors, stamp collectors, and any other type of collectors who collect items that draw their value from having been preserved in an outstanding original condition. Matching serial numbers, the firearm not having been fired, the pristine condition of wood and metal, no intervention on the firearm (like restorations, parts replacements), are all prized and increase the historical value of the firearm for these collectors.

The other category of collectors are the ones affiliated to the German school of thinking - these are the so-called "typology collectors" who value items based on the design itself.

These collectors can also be found in any field - architecture, pottery, porcelain dolls, silverware, etc. When it comes to firearms, they are interested in preserving a firearm specimen that is supposed to be completely functional and kept in an outstanding finished condition, restored to the original condition or better. Serial numbers matching and preserving the original state of the item does not matter - what matters is the functionality of the item, as it was intended, as a reflection of the particular time in history when the item was designed. In this scenario, the primary goal of the collector will be to have the firearm functional even though - for example - at one point the barrel needed replacement. As far as the integrity of the design goes, as long as the firearm is fully functional, the item is collectible.* Note that the common denominator of the two schools of thinking is honesty in preservation: either by preserving the original historical value of the item 100% intact (Italians) or by preserving the typology of the item 100% intact and functional (Germans). Most firearms that are left from one generation to another, the so-called family guns, have seen quite a bit of use. Many firearms that have been inherited have been repaired throughout time, they have had small parts or large components changed. Firearms in original condition that have never been fired, stored and preserved in optimal conditions usually come with a certificate of authenticity which very often will be obtained by the historical collectors who will need these certificates in order to insure these firearms as they sometimes cost more than a car. But the average firearm left from one generation to another is more fitted to be collected along the German school of thinking - and restoring it to "better than original condition" will increase the value of the firearm. This is why the best way to decide how to preserve a firearm is usually by analysing the firearm, learning everything that is to learn about that particular specimen, and come up with a conclusion. What we don't often recommend is investing in a firearm in order to have it restored to the aged look - and this is where gun collectors have the edge over the gun owners, merely by having access to accurate information and taking the right decision about their firearms. A firearm that is to be restored, having little to no value for historical collectors, obtains a higher value for typology collectors and those preserving a family legacy after being restored to better than original condition. "Better than original" condition means that the entire metalwork is polished, any pitting and rust removed, and the original machining marks are removed. The original machining marks are way shallower in depth than scratches, rust and pitting, so it would be impossible to remove rust and pitting without removing the machining marks. This also increases the durability of the restoration and continued longevity of the firearm, as the finer the metal is polished, the better corrosion resistance it has, as there are no machining marks or pits or scratches to trap the dirt and moisture. JAPANESE ARISAKA CASE STUDY In the last 3 years, we have seen an increase in the number of Arisakas on the American market. They often come through the shop completely coated in Cosmoline. We recently had another Arisaka come in the shop for an assessment, which is what inspired this article. The Arisaka rifle (Japanese: 有坂銃, romanized: Arisaka-jū) is a family of Japanese military bolt-action service rifles, which were produced and used since approximately 1897, when it replaced the Murata rifle (村田銃, Murata-jū) family, until the end of World War II in 1945. The most common models include the Type 38 chambered for the 6.5×50mmSR Type 38 cartridge, and the Type 99 chambered for the 7.7×58mm Type 99 cartridge, which is comparable in power to a modern .308 Winchester round. Cosmoline is a common class of brown, wax-like petroleum-based corrosion inhibitors. The Cosmoline usually used on firearms conforms to United States Military Standard MIL-C-11796C Class 3. They are viscous when freshly applied, have a slight fluorescence, and solidify over time with exposure to air. The main ingredient in Cosmoline is aliphatic petroleum solvent, which is volatile and evaporates over time. When applied on firearms, this Cosmoline is not only brushed on, but applied in abundance, as a thick coat. This is why cleaning up the firearm of Cosmoline can be a meticulous and time-consuming endeavor, but especially when the firearm coated in Cosmoline is a family firearm, it is time well spent. In spite their exotic origin and catchy names, Arisakas rifles do not come at a particularly high value. Arisakas in general are not particularly sought for by collectors. However, in order to be collectibles - in terms of what the general population understands in the States about "collectible items", they need to be in a particularly well preserved state, have all their numbers matching and currently the Chrysanthemum stamp present on the receiver. Even if collected for their historical value, Arisakas are not particularly valuable. Collecting Arisakas for the design and typology is a good choice for now, when the rifles are available in abundance and one day they might be almost extinct. The operations that we often see done on Arisakas when being restored, are reversing the sporterized stock to an original stock. Refinishing the metal, refinishing the wood, and addressing the mechanical issues, if present. When preserving a firearm that does not have matching numbers, the most value / investment is obtained when the firearm is restored to "better than original condition". Much less return on investment is obtained when only some certain restoring operations are carried out, but not to a complete restoration. For example, a finish is applied to some components of a firearm, but not to the complete firearm. The new finish is merely mimicking the worn finish of the parts that have not been restored. The new finish is basically a “fake” old finish. When we were recently presented with an Arisaka that had its stock replaced 2 times, no Chrysanthemum stamping and no matching numbers, we needed to assess the return on investment. The condition of the metal was particularly poor, and the request was that we hot salt blue only two of the barrel bands and re-create the patina that is present on the entire firearm using the hot bluing process. There are several reasons why a request similar to the one that was made above is not financially feasible or desirable from a collector's point of view: Firstly, the firearm is of no value when it comes to a historical specimen, because some of the parts have already been replaced, the numbers don't match and the original parts are missing. The firearm had been used intensely, and the metal and wood have not been preserved well at all. Second, regarding the nature of different types of bluing, there seem to be some confusion regarding what is possible and what is not possible with different processes. The myth says that depending on when the salt bluing (also known as hot bluing or industrial bluing) process is stopped, the metal will develop a patina similar to a time-wear on it. But salt bluing does not produce patina regardless of when the process is stopped. In fact, the reason why salt bluing got a bad reputation is because the industrialists, looking to increase profits, were pulling the metal parts that were being blued out of the bluing tanks as soon as the parts had some sort of color on them, and the rusting process was being stopped before it actually had the chance to be thick enough to protect the metal.

With rust bluing, there is a possibility to create a patina that can match more or less the metal of the rest of the rifle, but it is a very time consuming process and it does not contribute to placing the rifle in one of the two categories that would increase the value of the firearm - on the contrary! The Italian / historical type of collections require no refinishing of original finishes and pristine preserving from the beginning. The German / typology style requires complete refinish and mechanical functionality, not a "fake aging" finish. Remember, both schools of thinking have at the core the honesty of the item. A time-aging process reproduced at high speed through chemical processes to mimic the passing of the time is, simply put, dishonest. Dishonesty makes collectible items lose value. Last, but not least, the costs involved in "faking" time patina are way greater than the costs involved in honestly restoring the item. We went so far that we made an analysis of time and investment on the Arisaka mentioned above, with the hope that this analysis will help you make the right decision when it comes to restoring your firearm: For a couple of barrel rings to be finished with slow rust bluing and to have the time patina re-created though a technically-correct process, one is looking at around 4 hours to clean up the rings of existing rust and pittings, and then have the pittings re-created artificially. This is done because the existing, original, time-created pittings contain oil, dirt and other contaminants that would ruin the rust bluing process before even getting to the aging of the piece. No serious restorer would accept this. So all that original pitting needs to be removed, and then the appearance of pitting and patina can be created.

For re-creating the pitting and building the rust unevenly to create patina, one is looking at metal prep time (about 4 hours for 2 rings) followed by a very laborious process of boiling and re-boiling the parts twice / day for 5+ days in a row. That means 1/2 hour in the morning, 1/2 hour in the evening (every 12 hours) for 5 days, a skilled gunsmith would need to work on the project. This leads to an approximate time of 8-9 hours of work. Ironically, the same amount of time (1/2 hour twice / day) would be required for dealing with the entire rifle as well (the only difference would be in the initial time needed to prepare the metal for finishing - metal polishing). This is why bluing an entire rifle is still an acceptable price, but for only a couple parts, it is not feasible. Again, this is a SLOW RUST bluing process, not a FACTORY / SALT BLUING. With factory / salt bluing, this cannot be done, because the process is different.

Regarding the value of the firearm, restoring any parts of it (even just the two rings) would affect the value for Italian / historical collectors. Firearms that are valued by collectors for their historical value need to be in pristine original and unaltered condition. For this category of collectors, any refinishes or alterations will affect the value. Matching numbers are of utter importance for this kind of firearm collectors.

For German / typology collectors (those who collect not for the age of the firearm, but for the type of design), firearms that are fully restored and fully functional are more valuable than firearms in original, corroded, pitted and un-functional mechanical condition. Matching numbers don't matter, because the value rests in preserving the design and functionality of the firearm, rather than keeping it a unique unaltered individual specimen.

Basically, restoring only parts of a firearm would leave the firearm in between the two categories. It is better to either not restore any parts, if the firearm has matching numbers and all parts are original, or, if that is not the case, then the firearm would have way more value when restored completely rather than just partially. (*These two ways of restoring collectibles are not the only ones - especially the pottery and the architecture restoration fields have developed a few additional schools of thinking. However, when it comes to firearms preservation and restorations, these are the dominant trends and 99% of firearm cases and firearm collectors will fit in one of these categories. A good example of a black swan in restoration (that would fall under that 1% of cases) was a rifle that we recently had in for mechanical issues. The firearm presented no historical value but the client had a particularly vibrant bond with the uncle who passed on the rifle: "I don't want to wipe HIM off the firearm." In this case, the firearm had a value as a "spirit carrier" for our client, more than a historical or typology value. In cases similar to this, we recommend that some of the dings and deeper markings on the metal and wood are preserved, and not steamed completely out, so the "spirit of the ancestors" can still be seen on the firearm.)


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