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Gun collector has lofty cabinet of vintage weapons

March 21, 2002|BY RICHARD F. BELISLE

Monty Whitley's gun store in downtown Waynesboro is not a hangout for those who like modern-day weapons.

The newest gun he sells didn't even make it into the 20th century. Selective, well-to-do collectors, after some negotiating with Whitley, can pick up a beautifully crafted, German-made Tshenke wheel-lock small-game rifle, circa 1650, for around $12,000.

For Whitley, who specializes in antique sporting guns, the golden age of guns ran from about 1790 to 1820.

With few exceptions, the guns in his store were made before 1899, the year the federal government uses to distinguish between a collectible and a firearm.

Whitley, 53, started in the business as an outgrowth of his hobby of hunting gamebirds with vintage weapons. He still hunts a little and his favorite shotgun is a English Purdy hammer double barrel built in 1869.

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He's been in the business for 20 years, he said and the way he does things today varies greatly from when he started out.

"I used to do 40 shows a year. Now I do less than 20. Most of my business is over the Internet. I sell all over the country. I even have customers in Australia," he said.

He was photographing an ancient piece Tuesday that will end up on his Web site.

He said he learned the antique sporting gun business by doing it and by working for David Condon of Middleburg, Va., whom he called an expert in the field.

"I worked for him for two years and it was like getting a Harvard education in the business. It gave me a 10-year jump," he said.

Whitley has an extensive library on antique guns."I've read all the books," he said.

The value of the guns he sells holds up better than the stock market, he said.

"Guns never go down," he said. Anyone who invested in guns like those in his store 20 years ago would have made a better investment than going to Wall Street, he said.

"This is a solid business. I'm busy all the time. These are museum quality and are unlike any other collectible," Whitley said.

His store is low-key, open usually only by appointment, although he spends most days there, he said. It's in the former Fisher's stationery store location on the square.

Some of his inventory is in authentic Civil War era guns - Spencers, Springfields and Sharps. Their average price runs from $3,000 to $5,000. He said he once sold a pair of rare early Colt revolvers "in the quarter million range."

His stock also includes swords dating from the Civil War to as far back as the 16th century. His display cases also hold bayonets, antique canes, some old watches and antique optics.

A few old oil paintings of sporting scenes hang on the walls.

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