So I have a character who collects antique firearms. Would a gun from the 1800’s , say American civil war era, still function enough to make it an effective weapon, provided it was well taken care of?
Yes, with some critical caveats.
Mechanically, firearms are destructive. I don’t mean the bullet is harmful; that’s also true. You have a piece of equipment designed to contain violently expanding, burning gasses. Powder is, often, corrosive, and of course, you’re setting it on fire, and sending that stuff everywhere. You’re also grinding pieces of metal against one another.
Guns have an operational life, (usually) measured in rounds fired. As you use them, components will wear out or break. In some rare cases, this can turn into a Ship of Theseus scenario, where you’re replacing the entire gun a piece at a time. (Unlike Theseus’s Pardox, this one has a concrete answer: It legally becomes a new gun when you replace the receiver.)
The important thing to remember is: Every single time you use a firearm, you’re dealing a little bit of irrevocable damage to your gun.
In most cases, you wouldn’t want to actually fire a civil war era antique firearm. Mechanically, they may still be sound, but that’s something you don’t really want to test on a firearm from the 1860s. This is especially true when dealing with some of the more mechanically complex weapons of the era, like the Colt Walker revolver.
I’m going to use the Walker as an example for a moment. There were roughly 1,100 of these guns produced in the late 1840s. 1000 of those were intended for a military contract, and the remaining 100 went up for sale to civilians. The original revolvers suffered a high rate of failure, somewhere around 300 of these were returned to Colt for repairs during the original operational life of the guns. Frequent issues involved soldiers overloading the cylinders, exceeding the intended pressure tolerances, and causing the cylinder to rupture when fired. (Fun fact: Exceeding the intended pressure tolerances in a firearm is a fantastic way to destroy it. Don’t do this.) There were also a number of semi-fragile components which would wear out or break after extensive use.
Walkers saw use during the Mexican – American War, during the Civil War, and in the hands of Texas Rangers after that. In short, there aren’t a lot of these guns left. They are also phenomenally expensive today. At auction, a Colt Walker in functional condition, with original parts can easily fetch $100k, with pistols sometimes selling for between $300k-$600k.
Your character, who is a collector, wants to put rounds down range through something that expensive? Especially given their history for mechanical failures?
Also, for reference, a Walker with a ruptured cylinder will usually sell for somewhere around $1k.
Now, in fairness, this is an outlier. Most guns aren’t going to be that valuable, nor that fragile. But, even if you’re talking about something relatively common, much cheaper, and hopefully more durable, like a Sharps Rifle, it’s still a valuable antique. (Rarer Sharps variants can auction for $10k-$20k.)
Another factor is that these don’t use modern ammunition. The Walkers were chambered to a .44 bullet, but these were muzzle loading black powder firearms. (In fact, most of the Walker’s cylinder failures were due to soldiers loading too much powder, and then loading the gun’s conical shaped bullets in backwards, resulting in substantially higher pressures than the cylinder was designed for.)
The mid-19th century did see the introduction of the first metallic cartridges. The Sharps Rifle fired a .52 caliber, black powder cartridge. There might be some place you can buy these prepackaged, but, I suspect, if you want to shoot a Sharps, you’re going to be hand loading your cartridges.
So, if you want to fire something like a Walker or Lamat, you can, theoretically do so. But, you’ll need a lot of associated equipment and preparation time. Loading either is a time consuming process. You need black powder, percussion caps, and the bullets themselves. So, it’s possible, but not a great option.
All of this said, there is another very simple reason to say yes, which bypasses all of these considerations. Modern replicas of weapons like the Walker, or Single Action Army (the Colt Peacemaker, which is not a Civil War era pistol, as it dates to 1873) are fairly common, durable, and functional. In the case of the Walker, there are some significant mechanical changes to allow the revolver to accept modern cartridges, including the addition of a loading gate. Conversion Walker reproductions are something of a novelty.
In general, reproductions of historical firearms, particularly 19th century ones have a serious enthusiast community. It would be entirely unsurprising for a collector of rare and antique firearms to also keep a selection of replicas for recreational use. In fact, modern Colt Peacemaker reproductions are a semi-common sport revolver, because of the handling characteristics.
Replicas and reproductions also offer an entry point to the hobby, for a lot of enthusiasts. Very few potential collectors can shell out half a million dollars for a revolver, but modern replicas will only set you back around $300 – $400. Given it may also take modern ammunition, that’s a much easier price point for a potential collector.
Personally, I wouldn’t fire a gun that’s over a century old, if I had another option. This isn’t a hard number, but that’s a long time for factors like corrosion, to become a serious consideration. Like I said, I have no issue with modern reproductions of those designs, I’m honestly rather fond of Colt Peacemakers chambered in .357, and slightly less fond of 1911s, but I wouldn’t want to fire an original production version of either, simply because of concerns over damaging it.
A somewhat common problem for gun collectors is, having weapons which are historically or mechanically interesting and significant, but are too valuable to shoot. This is also true of elaborately engraved firearms. The simple answer is, you don’t do it. If you enjoy shooting, and also enjoy collecting antique firearms, those are going to be two separate collections. There may be thematic overlap, via reproductions, or they may also collect modern firearms for shooting, but they’re not going to be shooting their antiques.
There’s also a separate issue that I haven’t really addressed yet. With some exceptions, you wouldn’t be getting a particularly effective weapon. At least, not if you’re facing opponents armed with modern hardware.
The early cartridge rifles were game changing, because you could start producing weapons that could fire 8-10 rounds per minute. Early Revolvers were similarly amazing.
If your opponent has a pistol that needs to be reloaded after each shot, and you can put six rounds down range before having to reload, that’s a significant advantage, even if reloading will take far more time.
Today, most modern assault rifles have cyclic fire rates between 600 and 900 rounds per minute. That, 8 to 10 range doesn’t sound nearly as impressive in context. (Granted, the actual rounds fired per minute would be much lower for an automatic weapon.) Someone armed with an AR15 pattern varmint rifle can be much sloppier with their shots and still get the job done in less time.
Shot placement is critical. If you can get the job done with one bullet, then having extras is just gravy. But, semi-automatic weapons allow you to quickly correct and compensate for errors faster than a single shot weapon will allow. If you try to make a shot with a single shot rifle, you will spend more time, preparing for your next shot, than you will with a semi-auto rifle.
Reloading modern firearms is much faster than with a civil war era weapon. Compounded by the fact that they will need to reload after every shot. Even if your modern firearm has a small 5 or 10 round detachable box magazine, that’s a lot more firepower on a much faster reload.
I’ve said before, the 19th and 20th century saw an explosion in firearms technology. In less than 200 years, we’ve gone from firearms that needed to be manually reloaded, by pouring powder down the barrel, to weapons that can deliver 30 rounds, down range, in under five seconds. Modern guns are more accurate, easier to operate, more reliable, and in general, much more lethal. Now, someone who knows what they’re doing with a Peacemaker, or a Sharps could still come out on top, if they really know what they’re doing, but working with weapons like those, in a live combat situation, is a serious handicap.
It’s also worth noting that there are some, very old, firearm designs that do hold up, in their intended roles. The Peacemaker is one excellent example. It’s not a good carry pistol, but these are still remarkably accurate revolvers chambered in a powerful cartridge. There are better options for a revolver, but these will deliver.
Another pair of examples are the M1903, which is a very accurate bolt-action rifle, and the M1911, which has become an iconic handgun design. (Though, modern 1911s do have some significant design changes, to make the weapons more reliable, and user friendly.)
So, you have a gun collector, who has a lot of civil war antiques. They need to pull something from their collection to shoot someone. The best option would be if they have guns the use recreationally or for other purposes. These may be reproductions, or they could be more modern firearms. Your collector wouldn’t reach for one of their antiques, even if the gun was technically operable.