An antique firearm is, loosely speaking, a firearm designed and manufactured prior to the beginning of the 20th century. The Boer War is often used as a cut-off event, although the exact definition of what constitutes an “antique firearm” varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Antique guns are usually collected because of their historic interest.
Antique firearms can be divided into two types: muzzleloading and cartridge firing.
Muzzleloading antique firearms are not generally owned with the intent of firing them (although original muzzleloaders can be safely fired, after having them thoroughly inspected), but instead are being owned as display pieces or for their historic value. Cartridge firing antique firearms are more commonly encountered as shooting pieces, but most antique cartridge guns made from the 1860s through the 1880s were made with relatively mild steel and were designed to use black powder. They were limited to low bullet velocities and had heavily arcing “rainbow” bullet trajectories. However, advances in steel metallurgy and the advent of mass-produced smokeless powder in the early 1890s gave cartridge rifles of this new era much higher velocities and much flatter trajectories than their predecessors. These advances, typified by cartridges such as 8mm Lebel ( 1886 ), 7×57 Mauser, .303 British, and 7.62x54R made many smokeless powder rifles manufactured in the 1890s quite capable of accurate shooting at long distances. In fact, many antique smokeless powder cartridge guns from the 1890s can still compete satisfactorily in target shooting events alongside modern guns.
This article concentrates on antique breech loading cartridge guns from 1865–1898 rather than earlier muzzleloaders. Prior to the late 18th century, there was little standardization with regards to muzzleloading firearms, which sometimes make establishing the provenance of early muzzle-loading pieces more difficult than with a later cartridge firing arm.