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Cleaning Out the Gun Safe

There will be a time when you may have more guns than you need. This is also an opportunity to trade up and own a fine gun that you never thought was possible.

By Peter B. Mathiesen

Cleaning Out the Gun Safe
Photograph Courtesy of Peter B. Mathiesen
The only handgun brought to Alaska, one that is used as bear protection nearly every day of the summer and fall.

The struggle is real when it comes to firearms ownership. As shooters, hunters, and family gun owners, we all tend to hold on to our guns as if they were a last meal. 

I make no excuses for that. The narrative in the media doesn’t help. Nor does political volatility nor side issues like shortages in ammo manufacturing. We who have a passion for firearms and shooting are all tuned to never part with our firearms. 

But, at some point, you gotta let some of ’em go.

I was faced with this dilemma about seven years ago. My family and I were pulling up stakes and moving from a 30-year stint in the suburban Midwest to rural Alaska. Our household needed serious downsizing, including a gunroom filled with more than 50 firearms. I had to face reality: I just couldn’t take them all. 

I’m sure many of you reading this would ask, “Why not?” Well, there’s shipping, paperwork, storage, transfer fees—in this case, we are talking nearly $2,000 in fees from my Alaskan gun shop alone—and weight. A pass through Canadian Customs potentially complicated the issue. The final tab easily hovered around four grand.

After telling my wife that we could only take two sets of dishes out of our five, her instant inquiry was, “How many guns are you taking?” I had to be cognizant of our goals as a family to streamline our lives and possessions, and at this juncture, I was clearly adding to the complication factor.

First Comes Love, But Need Wins the Day

Photograph Courtesy of Peter B. Mathiesen
A gun safe holds the treasures of range and field, but there are times when we have to let go and make some room.

I surveyed my friends and found my household was above average in firearm numbers. Some of my acquaintances had (only!) three, four or five. Yet most of the active deer, duck, turkey hunters or range buddies were well beyond two dozen. A few were over 100. It should be noted, the federal estimate of household firearms ownership in 2013 was 8.1 guns.

The moment of reckoning will come when you’re standing in front of your safe with the door open and asking yourself: What do I need, What do I want, What do I love? 

Naturally, the answer is all of them. But when choices must be made, you get past the what-do-I-love and settle on what you will need.

The handguns side of my safe was easiest for me. I owned a .454 Casull, Ruger Alaskan … yep, those were headed to Alaska and its inherent bear country. The Colt 1911, the vintage SIG and many other gems were left on the rack for sale at my local dealer. 

Shotguns were my more difficult decisions. The quandary started with my Browning Citori 28-gage over/under. It lingered with my three Benellis and more than dozen others. One of the hardest was my father-in-law’s mid-’60s Belgium Browning A5 Magnum 20. It had held a position of honor on my rack for 12 years. But I realized I had hunted with it only twice. The gun didn’t fit me particularly well, and my son also passed on the shotgun. The number fell to 10. 

On the rifle side, I kept three Remingtons, all with life in Alaska in mind. First was a custom-built 700 in .300 Rem. Mag. for large game. A versatile custom 700 in .270 I’d hunted with for almost everything, including elk, made the cut. As did my late-’50s 722 in .300 Savage that helped me bag my first two whitetails. A .50 muzzleloader was packed for the ride, just in case I ever drew an Alaska buffalo tag.

Back to the shotguns, my 28-gauge Browning Citori made the list, and my Remington 870 Express that has been spray-painted 11 times made the grade. A newly acquired Remington Versamax 12-gauge auto traveled to our 48th state as well.

Everything else, a custom Ruger 10/22, a CZ .17 Mag., two old Berettas, numerous Benellis, Mossbergs and Brownings, were taken to a variety of stores or sold to my range pals and hunting buddies. The choices had been made—and my safe had elbow room once again.

Wrestling with Value

Photograph Courtesy of Peter B. Mathiesen
The road-worn Browning 28 that had the staying power to make the trip to Alaska. It sees 25 days a year hunting grouse.

Part of the complication in parting with guns—whether it’s because of a costly cross-continent move or because you’ve found the gun to beat all guns and the safe just can’t take another ounce of steel—is what to ask for them in their selling. Most gun owners have an inflated idea of what their firearms are worth. This is swelled by the emotional attachment we have when touching the stock as the memories of our moments in the field or range return.

Depending on the state you live in, your only option may be to sell to a dealer. I did find this process less enjoyable than selling the guns to my friends and hunting buddies (which was legal). With my friends, I had the chance to possibly see the guns again, but I also knew they’d be appreciated for the stories behind them and because they were shared among friends cut from the same cloth. Remember, too, that a retailer needs to make money on the gun. Although they appreciate a particular gun, the story of how it gave you the best day of pheasant hunting in your life won’t translate to more value crossing the counter for them. For direct dealer sales, expect 50- to 60-percent of the price that the retailer will list for. If it’s consignment, expect a 20- to 40-percent fee. With consignments, be realistic. If the consignment is priced too high, it just won’t sell.

Complicating the sale—and pricing—is the possibility that time may not be on your side. If you don’t have six months to lighten your inventory before, say, a sudden job transfer, your firearms may have to be sold for wholesale prices. That’s likely going to hurt, but it can beat a lot of last-minute scrambling with paperwork and transfer fees.

When pricing your firearms, is an impressive research tool. Final auction prices are the best indication of current value. Don’t let the overinflated “buy now” prices—typically on the high side—influence you. Fjestad’s Blue Book of Gun Values is also a good place to get a grip on what your firearms are worth, but visit the used-gun racks at your area FFLs, too, to see what they’re getting for models similar to yours in the local economy.   

Trading Up

Cashing out is certainly an option when it comes to making space in the vault, but for some, a long-awaited trade could be the calling. If the latter is you, this is an opportune moment in your shooting lifetime to take your inventory and trade up to something special. 

Maybe it’s a custom rifle with the ultimate optics. Perhaps it’s a truly collectible Colt Single Action Army. In my case, and I’m still waiting for the moment, I have always wanted an English or Italian small-frame side-by-side. When that moment arrives, the cull will begin again. But for now, and for my move to Alaska, I stayed with my well-loved Browning 28 over/under. And it’s okay if that side-by-side doesn’t appear, because in so many ways, that Browning is the dream gun I already own.

In my tenure in the 49th state, I have held on to all the long guns that braved the trip with me on the Alcan Highway. My Ruger 545 was transferred to an Alaskan dealer. To refill my Alaskan safe rack, I’ve acquired a Daniel Defense MSR and an SAR 9mm, and because I just couldn’t live without it, a beater Ruger 10/22.

These are my treasured firearms. You’ll have yours. But the best thing for both of us is that there are more out there. You just have to make room in the safe for them.

About the Author: Peter B. Mathiesen has hunted, guided and fished in 12 different countries on four continents. As a full-time journalist since 1995, he frequently writes about gear, automotive, travel, fly fishing, wilderness construction, and the shooting sports.

Over the years he has been a contributing editor on the mastheads of Field & Stream, Bassmaster, and Outdoor Life Magazine. In addition, he has written for American Hunter and Rifleman, In Fisherman, Fly Rod & Reel, Popular Mechanics, Shot Business, and Range 360, His most recent book, Tales of The Alaska State Troopers is available on Amazon.

You can connect with Peter on Facebook.

As local communities continue to update Covid-19 regulations, local destinations for outdoor recreation may be closed. Please visit official websites for the latest information.