In industry and commerce, when someone tells you that “you think small” you certainly wouldn’t consider the remark very complimentary. However, if you are a maker or a collector of fine miniature arms and weaponry, thinking on the Liliputian scale is a prime prerequisite to enjoying, appreciating and understanding these beautiful artifacts.
Miniatures have been called many things by many people: minikins (in ancient times), minuscule, petite, curios, minis, and even models. Defining what properly constitutes a miniature firearm may be the best way to introduce this fascinating subject to the uninitiated. An ideal miniature firearm would be built in an exactly reduced scale, preferably at least two-fifth or smaller. It would be made out of the same materials as the original, have the same finishes and markings, and have all of the operating features of the full sized piece. In addition it must be fully capable of functioning and cycling through all of the operations and be able to fire with with the proper ammunition. Also, where possible, it should be built or manufactured using the same techniques as the original model.
Similar comparison can be drawn for other miniatures such as edged weapons, articulated suits of armor, and even cannon. However, such fine collectibles as military figureness, “lead soldiers” model tanks and planes are not considered miniatures by any stretch of the imagination if the above mentioned criteria and qualifications are applied. These equally fascinating subjects should be treated in their own merits and will not be part of this article.
What type of individual is the maker of miniatures? What talents and disciplines must he have to work under such regimented conditions? Basically the miniature makers fall into two broad classifications, based on the type and number of miniature firearms they want to produce. One artidan uses the “hand” as much as possible, rather than machine tools. This type of maker best exemplifies the techniques used in the making of a Kentucky rifle or a one-of-a-kind piece. The other type of maker will utilize whatever equipment and machinery he may have available. He will utilize “manufacturing” methods and will probably produce a limited production run of certain models and types. However, because of the very limited market, production is likely to be only a dozen or so pieces at best.
Both types of makers share many of the same skills and talents to varied degrees of proficiency. In essence they are metalworkers, artisans, craftsmen, gunsmiths, gunmakers, jewelers, watchmakers, lockmakers, machinists, tool-makers, fabricators, metallurgists, engravers, silver and goldsmiths. Add to that list the patience of a monk, the eyesight of an eagle, and the steady hand of a currency plate-maker. Such a listing of disciplines and requirements will quickly eliminate many very skilled people from pursuing such a demanding occupation. Does this mean that we don’t have as many makers now as in ancient times when this profession supposedly was in its prime? Hardly. At the present time, there are probably more such craftsmen around than at any time in history, especially in the United States and Canada.
Time is just an important a factor in the making of finely detailed miniatures as are the related skills and talents. It may take anywhere from two hundred hours to make a single-shot Derringer to as many as several thousand hours to execute a Thompson submachine gun, or a highly engraved double Wheelock. That is one main reason why many times the makers will not and can not produce the number of minis which the market will bear. Also, the demanding work required on a museum quality piece does not permit a steady eight or nine hours of uninterrupted activity, not where a single mistake or slip-up can cause the scrapping of many hours of work. Since there is no short cut to producing quality craftsmanship, there will never be a surplus of finely executed miniature arms of any sort.
The history of miniature firearms making dates back to almost the very invention of gunpowder and guns. A few of the fines museum collections have examples of Wheelocks made in 1560’s. No matter when they were made, minis reflect a master’s touch and must be considered as labor-of love projects. Otherwise their acquisition costs would be almost prohibitive. Since it is extremely difficult to put any kind of hourly rate on a high-art object, this costing system should not be attempted in establishing in value. Better to acquire it really is, an example of a man’s dedication to his art, history, and culture.
In ancient times when miniatures were mainly commissioned by royalty, costs were secondary considerations, pride of ownership being foremost. Nowadays there are two types of collectors: the investor and the art student. The former has the resources to invest in this form of high-art and expects a return on investment, while the latter is a true collector and want to pass on to his posterity something of historical and cultural importance. In the latter type of collector, we have found a person who can build up a fine collection by trading, or by making a duplicate to be used as bait in acquiring additional collectable pieces, and otherwise working diligently on an interesting pastime.
How to start collecting miniature firearms?
The techniques used by regular gun collectors apply directly to miniatures. Know your subject, and keep your wallet tightly closed until the proper time to pick up that exceptional piece or real bargain. Bargains may not mean getting the “cheapies”, as these items do not appreciate and are really hard do dispose of later. Trading is still the best way to get what you really want. We know of at least one instance where a maker did trade, but not for financial gain. Because this maker was an aficionado of western culture, he gladly exchanged some museum quality items for some relatively common Colt single actions and Winchester rifles. The end result was that both traders were equally thrilled at the outcome.
Up until 1973 there wasn’t a single organization that could bring together the miniaturist, both the maker and the collector, on common ground to pool their combined interests. Information prior to that time was sparse in that only one good book had been published on the subject. A few magazine articles could be found, but they were very sketchy to say the least. A group of American collectors organized the Miniature Arms Collectors / Makers Society, Ltd. (M. A. S.), which has been serving as a central group to acquire and disseminate information on miniatures. Some masters sell their products in different countries through the Internet and give an opportunity to get acquainted with it in distance, looking at detailed photographs and demonstration videos. For example, here you can see a video showing the work of the smallest pistol in the world.
If it takes so much time and skill to make a miniature, who can afford to collect them? Obviously, miniature collecting is not for everyone. Museum quality pieces demand and get top prices. Perhaps you might have to set your sights a little lower and settle for miniatures that don’t have all of the features you may desire. Or just turn to scale models, novelties, charms and even toys as a ready source of collectables. Of course, they don’t look so authentically, but, probably, they will become your way to the fascinating world of miniatures.
Resource: “Man at Arms” magazine, #1, 1981