A section of a Firearms, Ammunition, Parts and Optics inventory spreadsheet (details redacted).
How many guns do you own? If you only have one, that’s an easy question to answer. What if you have fifty-something? Over 100? Hundreds? There are people like that. You might just be one of them.
We’ve heard a few horror stories about guns that went walkabout when the owners thought they were secure in a safe. Until they turn up at a crime scene, and it turns out the gun’s been in the criminal gun pipeline for years. That could be you, and you could go for years without knowing that the handyman’s helper boosted one of your less-frequently-handled guns.
In a way, the tendency to lock guns away in safes and vaults and such containers actually exacerbates this risk. If it’s hanging on the mantel, you notice when it’s not there.
The military, especially its reserve components (the military Reserves, which are Federal formations, and the National Guard, which have State and Federal duties), used to be casual about weapons security, and got embarrassed repeatedly by criminal elements who exploited that carelessness. Gunsels like Dillinger and Bonnie & Clyde frequently ripped off National Guard (and police) armories, and 1960s radical terrorists did the same thing. For example, the M2 carbines beloved of Patty Hearst and her Symbionese Liberation Army comrades came from a government gun stash. Indeed, burglarizing armories has been a main source of weapons for insurgents and terrorists always and everywhere, especially in extreme anti-gun regimes. (Remember the campus cop that Flashbang and Speedbump murdered in Boston? They wanted to steal his gun). So the Army and the other services tightened up physical security in the 1970s. Many of their policies and procedures are overkill for the private citizen, but some of the basic principles include:
- Keeping weapons locked up multiple ways;
- Keeping weapons storage under surveillance;
- Alarming and (often) surveilling that weapons storage;
- Using the “2-man rule” to guard against the insider threat;
- Conducting periodic inventories, and less frequent but periodic 100% by-serial-number inventories; and,
- Conducting no-notice inspections to ensure in integrity of the inventories.
Today, we’re talking about inventories.
Two Kinds of Inventory
There are two basic kinds of inventory: in one, weapons are simply counted and reconciled with a master list by eyeball. “84 M4A1s on the register, two signed out for repair, nine signed out with a deployed team, we count 73 M4s in the racks, we’re good.” This is done, in the Army, every time the arms room is about to be shut, and on a periodic schedule. For a lot of private gun owners, this kind of inventory is good enough, because unless you’re an advanced collector each of your guns is different enough from the others that you won’t confuse them.
The second kind of inventory is the by-serial-number inventory. This is required, under Army regulations, at specific times and intervals, and must be done in certain ways. (For example, a reserve component unit closing up shop after a weekend drill is supposed to require a by-SN inventory of the stored arms by two officers or NCOs of the rank of Sergeant First Class or higher). In this inventory, every single weapon’s serial number is matched to its paper (or computer) record. Any discrepancies are resolved on the spot, or, if irresolvable, reported forthwith.
How to Adapt this to Civilian Life
You probably don’t need to by-serial-number inventory your firearms often, but you ought to think about doing it at least once, to establish a baseline; after that, do it again at long intervals or when a major change (acquiring or divesting a group of guns, moving house, changing or modifying storage arrangements, etc.) seems to call for it. Use the judgment God gave you, and make the inventory a tool that works for you, not some check-the-block finger drill that wastes your time (and tempts you to cheat).
For example, our inventory was triggered by the installation of a new security container, which was going to change the cross-loading of stored weapons. Good time to get eyes on every one and its serial number.
If you don’t know for sure where each and every one of your weapons is, it’s time for an inventory.
A Computerized Inventory
Computers make inventory a lot easier, unless you do it the
stupid Army way, by printing off the property book on an impact printer in nearly unreadable type on a sheaf of hundreds of pages of paper. Instead, keep the inventory in soft copy on a laptop, and store a copy in an encrypted offsite repository (the burglars who steal any of your guns will certainly take your laptop, which is even more readily convertible to cash; and then where are you, if that’s your only copy?)
While a very large collection may call for using a relational database, you can manage a collection of hundreds or thousands of weapons with a spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel, OpenOffice (a free MS Office knockoff), or Apple Numbers.
Here’s the Excel sheet we use, with some data dummied into it so you can see how to use it. It’s free to use or share, just preserve the copyright information. Suggestions are welcome, also.
Firearms Inventory Sample.xlsx
Some Discoveries during an Inventory
An ongoing 100% inventory of Weaponsman.com firearms, ammo, optics and parts has produced some interesting discoveries.
- We made a list of firearms before starting the inventory, a list we figured was comprehensive. Until we stumbled on three different firearms we’d forgotten we had. D’oh!
- Getting eyes on every single firearm let us catch creeping tarnish, that would have been rust if left unchecked, on several of them, and full-blown rust on several more.
- We determined that one serial number in all our records was wrong — it had two digits transposed. (We had this happen, once, on an auto VIN when a Registry clerk fat-fingered it, putting an impossible VIN into title and registration records. What a nightmare that turned into! Fortunately, we don’t have to register guns here, so our records are our own).
Likewise, a review of current values — in our spreadsheet, there is a column for the cost-basis value of each firearm, and one for its current mark-to-market value — showed that we had several valuations miles off from the market.
Finally, working with the spreadsheet made us realize that it contained an error that exposed us to considerable risk. The column after “Value, Cost Basis” and “Value, Mark to Market” was labeled “Unrealized Profit,” which is not only technically incorrect, but also might suggest, were we ever to discuss this inventory with ATF, that we were dealing without a license. We think the term “Unrealized Appreciation” or possibly “Unrealized Gain” is a better fit, both because it is more financially accurate * , and because it is less likely to convince some ATF Ahab to make us his personal white whale.
Note that if you are a Federal Firearms Licensee or Special Occupational Taxpayer, you have records-keeping requirements that a simple spreadsheet may not meet.
Setting a Schedule
Our next inventory is likely to be a more routine check by eyeball, just checking quantity by type, without the serial matching. So if we see two Johnson M1941 rifles, we know we’re up on Johnsons, without doing the Army OCD thing of checking the serials to see if some prowler has substituted his Johnson for ours.
We’ll now do some kind of inventory every month, and the serial number inventory at least annually.
The other tabs of our spreadsheet let us track Ammo, Parts and Optics, by serial number where that’s possible.
We find that maintaining positive inventory control over our firearms is rewarding in terms of personal comfort and peace of mind.
And there’s a side benefit. Since there’s only one number to remember, we can now answer the question, “How many guns do you have?” without resorting to the smug and nonresponsive rejoinder, “If you know how many guns you have, you don’t have enough.”
Not that we have enough, yet.
* It is more accurate because there is no profit in a gun collection; if you think there is, you are either not accounting for the Opportunity Cost of your time, or the Time Value of your money, properly; or because you are cherry-picking high-appreciation guns from your set without factoring in the dogs, or all of the above. This is true of almost any collection of anything, from Paterson Colts to Picassos to double-strike Pennies — collect it because you love it, not because you’ve conned yourself into thinking it’ll pay the kids’ way to Harvard or Stanford.