A common question that gets asked is “how much is my Model 1 worth?” What follows may be a longer answer than you want, but this question is deceptively simple and deserves a fuller response.
My grandfather was a coin and stamp collector of good repute, and he used to tell me that “something is only worth what someone will give you for it.” So it went for coins and stamps, and so too with guns. All of the collecting guides and price guides and internet sites are just estimates, so caveat emptor.
Most collectors learn to buy the best condition guns that they can afford. Condition is tied closely to the originality of the gun, and it’s most often the case that a gun in its original state of finish (even if it’s suboptimal) will be worth more than a gun that has been “cleaned up.” That said, the NRA Museum has an excellent page on how to describe a gun’s condition in the most objective manner possible.
That said, here are some observations about what Model 1’s are selling for these days.
- The most common Model 1’s (and the least valuable) are the garden-variety 2nd and 3rd Issue guns with the 3 3/16″ barrel. With some exceptions (see below) these seem to fetch $200 to $400 in NRA “very good” condition. Guns approaching NRA “excellent” condition may fetch $750 to $1,000 from the right buyer.
- The Model 1, 1st Issue is subdivided into seven different “variants,” with the earliest variants being the most valuable. A 6th variant in NRA “very good” condition should get $750 to $1,000, with the prices steadily rising for the earlier variants. 1st and 2nd variant guns are almost never seen for sale; the few that come onto the market generally sell for high five figure to low six figure sums.
- The factory short barrel Model 1, 3rd Issue (identified by the barrel roll marks on the side of the barrel, NOT the top) are fetching $750 to $1,250 in NRA “very good” to “fine” condition.
- The rare “straight side plate” variant of the Model 1, 2nd Issue will get somewhere between $1,500 and $3,000. These guns are extremely rare and are seldom seen for sale, but are generally only sought by advanced collectors.
- Virtually all Model 1’s were sold through Smith & Wesson’s sole sales agent, Joseph W. Storrs. Model 1’s that shipped elsewhere (with a factory letter to prove this) are probably worth two to three times their regular value, given their rarity.
- Engraved and “fancy” guns generally command a small premium, since most of these modifications were not done at the factory. Factory “fancy” guns (with the factory letter to prove this) are extremely rare and would almost command a healthy four digit sum, with rarer variants approaching five digits. Engraving done by a well-known engraver (L. D. Nimschke or Gustave Young, for instance) would add substantially to the value of the gun, but making a positive attribution can be very difficult.
- The gutta-percha cases remain popular and in demand. Cases with minimal damage and the original hinges seem to fetch around $2,500, give or take.
- The original cardboard boxes for Model 1’s are extraordinarily rare, since they weren’t marked (meaning that most people will have no idea what originally came in the box). I’ve never seen one sell before, so prices are speculative at best.
- Inscribed guns (with a person’s name) can add to the value. Guns attributable to Civil War soldiers are always in demand, as are those attributed to well-known politicians and public figures. How this affects the price would depend on the person, so the answer ranges from “it’ll help the value a bit” to “you’ll retire on the sale of that gun.”