By: Peter Suciu
“You mean it doesn’t shoot?” are words this reporter has heard many times when discussing the topic of “dummy guns.”
So-called dummy guns are firearms – typically machine guns – that have been rendered inoperable. These are original vintage firearms that were used in past conflicts, but the receivers – the part ATF considers to be the very essence of a machine gun – have been either cut or replaced by solid metal.
Why and Why?
The question of course is WHY would anyone want a machine gun that can’t shoot? And the next question is WHY would anyone pay the kind of money these guns fetch? As a collector of machine guns, I can answer both questions easily enough: it is easier and these are still part of history.
Vintage machine guns are actually quite rare, and those that operate can be extremely expensive. Now, numerous reality TV programs have made it clear that when vintage firearms can shoot, they are simply worth more money. This is true in the case of many guns, but who is really going to fire that 17th century wheel lock, and how often would the owner of the Second World War German FG-42 automatic rifle – the one that set auctions record when it sold for $330,000 plus fees – really take it out to shoot?
‘It’s a Shooter’
Sure, it is probably enjoyable to take these firearms out to the range, but in the world of collectible firearms there is a popular term: “It's a shooter.” That means a vintage firearm that might have mismatched serial numbers, is scratched or pitted, and while functional, isn't as aesthetically pleasing as others. In other words, the nicest firearms are seldom shot – if at all!
In the case of machine guns, there are a lot of hoops to jump through to own one (I’ve written about this topic for GPM in the past). Buying a machine gun isn't easy, finding someplace to shoot it is a hassle, and then shooting it can be very expensive. The other consideration is that, just as vintage cars parts wear out when you use them, shooting a machine gun means you’re slowly destroying it through use.
For those reasons, as a collector, I'm satisfied with my collection of vintage machine guns that include original parts but can't shoot. I accept that some of the parts, notably the receivers, have been replaced. Thus, some of the history is lost, and that's an unfortunate aspect of collecting these vintage weapons.
Dummy Guns Will Suffice
As a collector of uniforms, helmets, and other "militaria," firearms are a natural extension, so these leave a hole in the collection. While it is also desirable to have firing examples, this is cost prohibitive, especially if the collection tries to be complete. For this reason, I've long accepted that dummy guns will suffice.
In other cases, I've had to "settle" for replicas of some firearms as well. This is because most dummy guns involve either destroying part of the gun – as in the receiver – or using parts kits where a gun has already been stripped of its key functional pieces. For some firearms, there are few, if any, dummy versions, simply because so few of the guns existed in the first place.
I accept that I'll never own a real FG-42, the aforementioned automatic rifle developed by Nazi Germany for its elite paratroopers during World War I. Only some 1,200 of the first pattern were made, and only another 2,000 of the second model were produced. A handful of these are in museums, and a smaller number are in private collections. As noted, the price for these weapons when one comes on the market can exceed what many people pay for a house!
Replicas Will Do
Even if I had won the recent record-setting Powerball Lottery earlier this year, I wouldn't have been tempted to go out and spent nearly a half a million dollars to buy one of those guns. I'm more than happy with the replicas, which I was fortunate enough to win at a past auction. These are now highly collectible, and routinely sell for more than $1,000 each because the Japanese firm that made these only produced the same number of replicas as the real ones that were produced.
As a collector of World War I and World War II small arms, this is as close as most of us can get to owning these firearms, and that's good enough, even if these can't shoot. But as I noted, who would actually want to shoot the real one given its high price tag?
Now, of course, there are purists who say they won't have a replica anything in their collections, but that is shortsighted. Museums around the world have replicas, including small arms and larger items like tanks and airplanes. Even the original tanks and planes in museums have typically been restored and repainted, so fully original is a concept in the world of history we have to accept is hard to come by. Consider, too, that many European castles have been largely repaired over the ages – so are those original or not?
I see it better to have a gun that doesn't shoot than not to have it at all. Well, the prices are also high – a World War I Vickers Machine Gun, for example, can be more than $3,000 today. Consider, too, a live one could be $20,000 or more. So if you're not planning on shooting it a lot or even at all, why not opt for the more affordable deactivated version?
In the end, for collectors it is all about the history, and sometimes the functionality is secondary.
Peter Suciu is a freelance writer based in Michigan. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.