What to Consider When Buying a Machine Gun (part 3)

Machine guns for the collector with historical priorities
by John Keene, BATF Compliance/Inventory Manager & Class 3 Specialist

Highly Desirable German WWII MG-42 Machine Gun

In part 1 of this newsletter series we discussed the different kinds of machine guns, and subsequently zeroed-in specifically on what would make a good first-time machine guns in part 2 of this series.

In this article we will examine guns with an appeal to the historical machine collector/shooter, and also guns for the intermediate collector.

The history-centric machine gun collector is typically moved by the allure of history in either the development of machine-guns, or by fact that they were used by armed forces of a specific country, or at a particular event, or perhaps linked to a particular noteworthy individual. This kind of collector is by far the most commonly encountered and most passionate machine gun owner or would-be owner in the United States.

Guns which fall into the category of “historical” also are generally the prime focus of the would-be machine gun investor/shooter. It is the broadest and most far-reaching of all machine gun categories.

The most important element to consider when buying a machine gun is your own inner taste and motivation. Know yourself, and what appeals to you.

Many collectors start out with something with some family tie or significance, or childhood memory. If father or grandfather was a WWI/WWII/Korea/Vietnam Veteran then there might be, or at one time had been, a souvenir around somewhere. Even if not, seeing machine guns in films or on TV may have sparked a connection or interest. I recall that once I saw Steve McQueen using a Browning Automatic Rifle (B.A.R.) in the film, The Sand Pebbles. It only took one conversation with my father (who had used a B.A.R. in military service) to make me determined to own one someday. This is one reason why the B.A.R. remains at the top of my personal list for historic machine guns.

My assumption is that most people who want to buy a historical machine gun accept at the outset that they will need to invest a significant amount of money.

Also I assume that most collectors and would-be collectors want a gun that is functional, or nearly so, and they want the option of taking it to the range to shoot at least a few times with family and friends.

I am going to go a step further and place a premium on a gun that can be linked either through inference, or by genuine provenance to some particular event, location, or perhaps even very specific historical instance, or person.

Generally, the more “original” a gun is, the better the condition, the more linkage there is to something historical, and most of all, the larger the collector base is for a particular model relative to the number of registered specimens available, will determine the amount of money that will be required make the purchase. Even if one of these elements is taken away from a specific machine gun, if the other elements are strong enough they will usually overcome the shortcoming.

For example, one collector I know personally has multiple specimens of the German MP-40 machine gun. He still seeks a near pristine original example for his collection. It does not matter if its only service was to sit in a rack somewhere until it was captured and brought to America. This particular collector already has an MP-40 with provenance to its capture at Omaha beach in Normandy on June 6th, 1944. Although the condition is not stellar, the historical significance is so important that one can expect the only way this collector will relinquish this particular specimen would be upon his death. Historical provenance trumps condition in almost all cases.

The MP-40 has a wide collector base, is well made, very shoot-able, and also enjoys wide exposure and popularity in films. Add to this it is light and handy, simple to operate, and relatively easy to maintain.

For the collector with historical priorities they will prefer a “Curio & Relic” eligible specimen over one which is otherwise simply, “Fully Transferable”. This is a legal status difference between what otherwise might appear to be identical guns. The Curio & Relic (C & R) eligible gun as pertains to machine guns is one that is (at least the receiver) essentially as it left the factory upon original manufacture, and is at least 50 years old. It may or may not be refinished, but the steel of the receiver is what came from the original factory, and it was registered under the appropriate circumstances. The “Fully Transferable” gun on the other hand was manufactured (or at least the receiver was) later, as far as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) is concerned, and not by the original “factory.” The caveats, special cases, and observed or recounted anecdotes which can be applicable to “C & R” vs. “Fully Transferable” machine guns would fill all the pages of a Julia catalog and is far beyond the space available here to recount.

The historical collector may be content with non-firing “Deactivated” machine guns, as long as they are original specimens of their kind. These generally command lesser prices than their fully operational counterparts. These deactivated (DEWAT) guns still need to be registered, and if so, can be reactivated upon approval of application through the BATF. Many DEWAT guns registered for private ownership are out there. In the cases where the sought machine gun is a rare model, such as the first model German FG-42 machine gun sold at Julia’s in April 2017, the specimen is SO RARE that the fact that it is deactivated is not a great deterrent to the historically focused collector.

I want to relay that if you are considering acquiring multiple C & R eligible guns across State lines, it would be worthwhile to consider applying for a Curio & Relic Collector’s License through the BATF. This would allow the license holder to acquire guns across State lines without going through an FFL-01 dealer (subject to State restrictions).

Many, many, times each year machine gun enthusiasts ask me, what is my favorite gun, or what machine gun out of the vast array I have had access to do I like the best. On one recent occasion after conducting a gallery tour of a wide variety of machine guns being offered at Julia’s, a fellow employee asked me which one I would take if I could choose any.

I admit there was a long pause while I considered, but here are my thoughts:

When presented with multiple opportunities, focus your resources on the specimen which fits your interest and that you are less likely to encounter again in the future, especially if it has higher condition.

For example, there is a wide and passionate interest in German WWII machine guns, and in the upcoming Julia’s auction there are some fantastic original high-condition C & R fully-transferable specimens which include: an MG-42 on Lafette tripod, an MG-15 on AA tripod, an MG-34 Tank model on Lafette, and a Nazi Proofed ZB-26 (WaA 63).

Any of the above models could be the centerpiece for a WWII German machine gun collection. All are excellent, and one could not go wrong on any of them, but assuming one has limited resources I would focus on either the matching MG-34 Tank model machine gun, or the MG-15 machine gun first if I was going to assemble a comprehensive WWII German machine gun collection. The chances of encountering another of either of these specimens as complete with accessories and in as excellent condition as these are in future years is remote. Considering the matching serial numbers on the MG-34 tanker, and the fact that the MG-15 is C & R fully transferable make each remarkable. If you are more of a historical shooter than a historical display collector, then you might put the ZB-26 and MG-42 in the higher position on your priority list.

The best investment of your resources are in guns which combine: popularity, rarity (in status, as well as in model), condition, and provenance. Included accessories can also be an additional consideration.

But remember, what trumps everything is your own personal connection or interest in a particular model, or event, or theme.

I am here at Julia’s to help with advice and expertise, but nobody knows you better than you! Seek what ignites your passion, and find a way!

John Keene
John Keene

About the author:
John Keene is a full time staff member at Julia’s. He leads our BATF compliance efforts as well as being responsible for identifying, evaluating, appraising and cataloging specialty military firearms for auction. He specializes in Class 3 machine guns from the first half of the 20th century. He also has expertise with machine guns from the 1950s onward, as well as last century military firearms. Complementing this encyclopedic knowledge is his understanding of the complex rules and regulations associated with different machine gun classes as defined by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF). As such, he is a huge asset to Class 3 buyers and sellers, able to facilitate and complete transfer forms properly as well as make updates and corrections to the all-important BATF Class 3 registry.

Mr. Keene is a retired Army combat veteran who proudly served our country for over 28 years. Mr. Keene was a charter member and officer of the Hiram Maxim Historical Society. He can be reached at 207-453-7125 and jkeene@jamesdjulia.com.

Previous articles in this series (click to read):
What to Consider When Buying a Machine Gun (part 1)
What to Consider When Buying a Machine Gun (part 2)