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What to Know About Cartridge Collecting

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One piece of advice from an old pro at collecting ammunition: Start with rimfire ammunition and focus your efforts on intact boxes.

I’m not a collector of anything, really. I like looking at collections of guns, but I prefer shooting them. I really like looking at collections of ammunition—yes that’s a thing—maybe even as much as shooting the stuff. Attached to the dashboard of my truck, there’s a little bobblehead-type figurine. She’s been riding with me for five years, and her name is Casey. Here’s the story of how we met, and some insight on the hobby of ammunition collecting.

Marv Briegel worked knuckle-busting hard all his life. The only time he ever got a paycheck was during his three years in the Army. He’s a farmer and will be one until the day they cover him with the same dirt he’s toiled in all his life. He’s also a hunter. On his farm along Nebraska’s Republican River, he once used a .270 Win. to put a Boone & Crockett whitetail on his wall. The wall that deer head hangs on is inside a vault, attached to a farmhouse, that you’d not expect to find anything in other than an old man, old newspapers and maybe a fat cat.

I met Marv the day after I’d taken a nice whitetail on his farm. He drove up in a pickup looking as worn out as he was. He got out, shuffled over on legs that’d been carrying him around for almost 80 years, and said, “Who’re you?” I introduced myself and he asked, “What’d you shoot him with?” I explained I’d used a wildcat cartridge I’d designed, and Marv said, “You’re an ammo guy. Get in the truck.”

Marv’s truck was dirtier on the inside than the dirt we’d been standing on. Bouncing along the farm road I noticed a cute figurine of a scantily clad woman on his dash. Marv noticed I’d noticed, and said, “That’s Casey. She doesn’t say much.” We pulled up to Marv’s house and he said, “Come on.” I followed him through his cluttered home, and we entered a vault door wide enough to drive a riding mower through. I stopped, staring in awe. Marv looked at me, smiled for the first time, and said, “I knew you’d like it in here.” I was standing in a room of probably 1,000 square feet, and it was full of books and guns, but mostly ammunition. Not the kind of ammunition you’d want to shoot, the kind of ammunition you want to look at.

As editor of Gun Digest’s “13th Edition of Cartridges of the World” and the long-time Ammo editor for this magazine, I’m sometimes referred to as the “ammo guy.” But, here in the near-nothing town of Arapahoe, NE, I’d uncovered a physical manifestation of the encyclopedia I’d worked so hard to publish; a treasure trove of ammunition history. Shelves upon shelves of cartridge boxes—full of ammo—some dating back well before I was born. There were cabinets with drawers filled with cartridges of every length, diameter and size you could imagine. It was a lot to take in, but the most amazing thing was that Marv knew everything about every box and every individual cartridge of the thousands in his collection. There were no notes. He had it all, perfectly mentally indexed.

Marv leaned close, close enough I could smell diesel fuel, cows and corn, and said, “This here’s the good drawer.” It contained a hoard of shotshells. He picked up a candy-striped example, handed it to me, and said, “This’ns worth $500.” Another cabinet contained nothing but pistol cartridges, others were packed with rifle cartridges, but most of Marv’s cabinets were full of every type of shotgun shell you could imagine.

Marv’s been as far as Germany to scavenge ammunition antiquities. He showed me the cartridge that started  him on his collecting journey: a single round of 45/100 Pacific Ballard. Nudging me, he whispered, “Rimfire cartridge boxes are where a guy should start if he’s going to be a collector. They’re affordable and easy to find. Just make sure they’re full.” Marv’s favorite to collect are shotshells, because, as he explained, “With shotshells the information is printed on the shell and matches what’s on the box. It’ll tell you gauge, shot size and so on. With rifle and pistol cartridges, all you got is the head stamp and no idea ’bout much else.” Like he had inside knowledge on how a horse race had been fixed, Marv looked around, seemingly to see if anyone was watching us, and whispered, “Robin Hood. Any Robin Hood shotshell is good and the boxes are better’n gold.”

After hours of rummaging through Marv’s treasures, he took me to lunch. On the way back he gave me 10 tips on cartridge/ammunition collecting. If that’s something that might interest you, pay attention:

1. Check out estate sales, especially if guns are listed.
2. When you see bulk reloading equipment for sale, that’s a good place to look.
3. Paper-hulled shotgun shells are worth the most.
4. Be on the lookout for window shotshells—shells cut to show the load inside.
5. Make sure boxes of ammo are full, they’re worth much more that way.
6. Box quality matters and can increase the value as much as four-fold.
7. The older the ammo the better.
8. Keep an eye out for original paper-patched and blackpowder rifle cartridges.
9. Don’t forget commemorative and special/short-run ammunition.
10. Invest in new loads or cartridges that have failed in the marketplace.

Leaving, I handed Marv a single cartridge of the wildcat I’d used to kill the deer on his farm. Marv pulled Casey off his dash, handed her to me and said, “Here. I think she oughta ride with you a while.” Walking away, I looked back, and Marv was fondling the cartridge I’d given him. It’ll go in one of his many drawers. Someday, he might show it to someone like me. Casey? Well, she’s been riding with me ever since. I’m looking for the right ammo guy to hand her off to.

Article by RICHARD MANN

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