Finding a pre-1899 gun among junk

A reader from New Jersey emailed me this cool story …

I’ve been a follower of your blog for about three years now and I really enjoy it! I have a part time job working as a junker, basically people pay me and another guy to remove junk from their houses.

The other day a friend and I were clearing out a room in a lady’s house and came upon a rifle. I immediately ‘called it’ and was able to take it home. From my internet research, I was able to find out it is a Marlin Model 1889 32-20 caliber. It’s not in bad shape and most likely is able to fire.

A very lucky find! The Model 1889 was not produced for very long, just one decade I believe, so it it quite likely to be a pre-1899 firearm and therefore legally classified as an antique.

[ Many thanks to Scott for emailing us the story and photos. ]

Steve Johnson

Founder and Dictator-In-Chief of TFB. A passionate gun owner, a shooting enthusiast and totally tacti-uncool. Favorite first date location: any gun range. Steve can be contacted here.


  • halfway

    Cool story bro.

    No really, that’s an awesome story. Wish I’d find something like that!

  • Komrad

    Nice. You might have a hard time finding ammo, but with a little restoration, that should be a nice shooter.

    • Komrad

      To be clear, by restore, I mean restore to working condition, not refinish or take a wire brush to it.

  • H. L.

    Very cool! What a find!

  • Darkness

    Sweet find!

  • Way coolio!!!

    Not sure what’s up with those buggered screws, I’d be very careful taking it apart.

    But if it cycles, clicks on the hammer, and firing pin works, get some real black and roll up some 32.20 and air out that barrel.

    If going for smokeless, ‘cowboy’ loads tend to be loaded on the low end of the smokeless powder charts.

    • Christopher Wetmore

      @ Cemetary’s Gun: Thank you for answering the question before I could ask it!

      How hard is it to find 32-20 loads (if that’s the proper term)?

      • Mail order is your friend.

        simply google ‘32.20 cowboy ammunition’, you get brands like Ten X and Ultramax. Some small companies also supply cartridges.

  • Scott

    I was the one who found it, I was wondering if anyone could tell me if id be able to shoot modern 32-20 ammo? Is all 32-20 ammo made to be fired in old black powder guns like this? Id appreciate any information on safe firing of this gun. Thanks

    • David/Sharpie

      If I were you I’d reload modern cases with black powder, that’d be fun to see the smoke and stuff when firing it.

      I love blackpowder guns

    • Flounder

      That is a post to midway USA’s youtube page. Larry re barreled a 32 something to 38 special. He suggests in one of the videos that the barrel is probably plenty strong. Its the action that really needs to be checked out. Maybe send it to a good gunsmith and have it restored. New finish, new screws, completely cleaned, stock refinished.

      Like I said just food for thought. That is already a beautiful classic rifle. And it is prior to 1900… I forget if that means that registration is optional or not. It is really close to the cutoff date.

      EXCELLENT FIND by the way! And congrats on the new gun!
      pun intended.

      • Jeremy G

        Great find. For your sake, do not refinish the rifle. There is value in that aged patina.

    • Hi Scott, as a fellow resident of NJ, I’ll tell you this right now, beware of NJ gunsmiths with old guns like this. I have an 1892 Winchester I took to a so called ‘gunsmith’ who couldn’t figure out how to put it back together properly. I have, and will continue to, ship guns out of state, and wait months, for simple piece of mind.

      I think you might find it easier to find people who make modern repro parts and try to get it to run yourself. Old time lever guns are actually simple, before they got lawyer’d up.

      Before you decide on what to do with it, it might be good to actually find out it’s value, which would dictate what you might want to do with it.

      Be sure to heed that advice and check out that Marlin Collectors website.

  • Jeff Smith

    In my best Napoleon Dynamite voice: LUCKY!

  • Bagworm1

    I think if it was me, I’d call the NRA Museum and see if they could give you more information before you do anything fancy with that gun. Just my 2 cents. Fantastic find……..!!!!!!!!!

  • Charlie
  • Lance

    Unfair make me wish you could find a 73 Winchester going dumpster diving behind a old grampas place. LOL

  • I wouldn’t post this on the internet. I think in New Jersey you need a special license to find a firearm, and still be legal. Maybe find a payphone and make an anonymous call asking if there’s an amnesty for rifles found without a Firearm Finders License. You don’t want to end up like Brian Aitken.

    And now for something completely different:
    “This is my rifle, and this is my gun. This one’s for fighting, and this one’s for fun”.


    • Fred Johnson

      Finding a payphone ought to be fairly interesting. 😀

  • KBCraig

    Scott, please-please-PLEASE ignore those calling for you to “restore” it.

    Restoring it will completely destroy any collector’s value it might have. Don’t even clean it, beyond spraying (no rubbing!) with a light oil.

    Even with the buggered screws, the original patina is worth more than any restoration job would ever make it.

    Contact the Marlin collectors for advice and information, and how to proceed with identifying, verifying, and valuing your find. Don’t worry about shooting it, until you find out what it’s worth untouched.

  • Rob

    man look at those crappy screws, is that normal?>

    • Bryan S.

      Years of people not using the correct hollow ground screw drivers, instead using commercially abundant wood screw drivers.

  • Bryan S.

    As per

    (16) The term “antique firearm”
    (A) any firearm (including any firearm
    with a matchlock, flintlock, percussion
    cap, or similar type of ignition
    system) manufactured in or before
    1898; or
    (B) any replica of any firearm described
    in subparagraph (A) if such
    (i) is not designed or redesigned
    for using rimfire or conventional
    centerfire fixed ammunition, or
    (ii) uses rimfire or conventional
    centerfire fixed ammunition which
    is no longer manufactured in the
    United States and which is not
    readily available in the ordinary
    channels of commercial trade; or
    (C) any muzzle loading rifle, muzzle
    loading shotgun, or muzzle loading
    pistol, which is designed to use
    black powder, or a black powder
    substitute, and which cannot use
    fixed ammunition. For purposes of
    this subparagraph, the term “antique
    firearm” shall not include any weapon
    which incorporates a firearm frame or
    receiver, any firearm which is converted
    into a muzzle loading weapon,
    or any muzzle loading weapon which
    can be readily converted to fire fixed
    ammunition by replacing the barrel,
    bolt, breechblock, or any combination

    And as per:

    “Antique firearm” means any firearm which is incapable of being fired or discharged, or which does not fire fixed
    ammunition regardless of date of manufacture, or was manufactured before 1898 for which cartridge ammunition is not
    commercially available, and is possessed as a curiosity or ornament or for its historical significance or value.

  • Bryan S.

    Scott, you dont live in a free state, I would watch very carefully who you talk to. If it was made in 1899… you could be in big trouble.

    If you ever come to anything resembling the USofA… someone here would love to have you out shooting 🙂

  • Scott

    I will not be getting it restored. I might take it to a gunsmith and find out if the barrel is in good enough shape to be fired. I am also going to inquire as to the legality of owning it and what I actually should do.
    I appreciate all the feedback.

    • Christian Tisch

      Scott, E-mail me I can provide alot of insight on that gun. I’ve researched them quite extensively…Chris

  • Mike Knox

    Deal with it the same way as finding a million dollars, don’t skwak about it until you completely know what to do with it.

    Lucky find though. Just the rifle, no ammo?

  • jurassicpop`

    Scott (and anyone else with intrest in pre 1899 guns)
    Head over to and search pre 1899 guns. They have a lot of information. Although most of the legal information is about the federal laws, it is a good place to start.