Elk NetworkRIFLES: Buying the Used Rifle

Hunting | January 1, 2016

Buying the Used Rifle

by Wayne van Zwoll

Every Midwestern farmhouse had one. A mud room. You went there first or suffered the wrath of the woman in charge of the kitchen. If you wanted an extra slice of apple pie, you didn’t track up the floor. You threw gloves, pulled boots and peeled coveralls in the mud room. It collected not only mud, but snow and cockleburs, straw and manure. It served as an exit ramp from the outside, a place where boys shed bad smells and barbaric habits with their Pioneer Seed caps and became for a time civilized. 

During hunting season, mud rooms became cleaning centers, redolent of Hoppe’s Number 9, fired shotshells and blood-stained shooting vests. For weeks thereafter, feathers defied broomings by the woman in charge of the kitchen.

Nothing scandalous ever happened in mud rooms. They didn’t appeal to lasses who might in other places have fallen for lads who could back a wagon down a row of stanchions, buck 600 bales after lunch and shoot a deer with a Foster slug. Crammed with canning kettles and shelves of mason jars, mud rooms weren’t big enough to shelter bird dogs or other contraband policed by the woman in charge of the kitchen.

Mostly, though, I remember mud rooms as armories, their corners bristling with the barrels of old guns. Nobody then owned new guns.

The farmstead that introduced me to rural life was a working place. Back in the days of $2 wheat, when corn was fed to cows instead of Chevrolets, you could buy a brand-new Winchester 94 for $89 and a Model 70 for $154. Remington priced its M700 at $114. Ruger’s only rifle at that time was a .44 Magnum autoloader listing for $108. But we who kept our guns in the mud room could no more afford a new firearm than we could a new automobile. Ford’s Mustang would debut, a year before I got my driver’s license, at $2,700 per car—about as much as tycoons paid for British double rifles. 

While those days, alas, are forever gone, old guns still abound. In fact, I bought one just last week—an  Iver Johnson shotgun just like the single-barrel that stood in the corner of that Michigan mud room 45 years ago and helped me bag my first pheasant, a very unlucky bird indeed. 

Old guns appeal to shooters like old automobiles to car buffs, as links to times past. They rekindle memories or satisfy an imagination of history beyond recall. Some of these guns see use; many don’t. Used guns include old guns, but also guns with no past. These serve us like axes and shovels. We don’t care where they came from or when. They’re tools, to be bought cheap and put in service. 

I’m always on the lookout for used guns, specifically big game rifles. Those with storied histories have become expensive since the 1970s, when I thought they were expensive. The sad truth is that time and the Internet have robbed us of the good fortune we didn’t recognize decades ago. Now many people with sketchy knowledge of firearms assume that all old rifles are of great value. Online fishing expeditions by brokers and collectors have fueled a run-up in prices—as have the discontinuation of some models and the shut-down of production lines. Inflation plays a lesser role. 

While new rifles cost more now, great bargains come along routinely. Marlin and Mossberg have both fielded affordable bolt rifles, each capable of killing all the elk you’ll find in a lifetime. So will a 110-series Savage. If your budget has a longer leash, you can pick from a wide variety of fine factory-built guns, like Remington’s Alaskan Ti and Weatherby’s Ultra Lightweight, the Kimber 84, Tikka T3, T/C Icon and Ruger 77 Hawkeye. Up the ante a bit more, and you can own a semi-custom rifle from Jarrett, H-S Precision, Ultra Light, The Montana Company or Rifles, Inc. 

But if, like me, you enjoy looking for used guns as much as owning them, or if you like rifles with hooks in history, the new-product market is irrelevant. And if you’re not fussy about models and condition, you can save enough on a serviceable second-hand rifle to buy a first-rank scope.

Caveat emptor (buyer beware) applies to all used equipment, but more so to rifles than to axes. Refunds are at the seller’s discretion unless otherwise agreed. When dealing in collectible firearms, be especially wary. High prices for valuable guns encourage counterfeiting and parts-switching. I recently examined a revolver stored since the early 1960s. It showed the features, plus the expected wear and deterioration, of a rare Colt manufactured more than a century ago. But factory stampings were not evident. The difference in market value between this old revolver and one that could be easily authenticated amounts to more than $100,000! 

Numbers matter even when they’re obviously original and correct. Low serial numbers can boost the price of a rifle over one that’s otherwise identical but manufactured a few years later. The inscription “1 of 1,000” puts a huge premium on a Winchester 1873, as only 136 such rifles are estimated to exist—from a model production total of 720,610.

After-market alterations almost universally reduce the value of a gun to collectors. Exceptions are those made during the era of production and commonly accepted as enhancements. Replacement of barrel-mounted factory sights with period tang and target front sights can boost the value of some rifles. A Pope barrel on an otherwise ordinary Winchester High Wall would probably hike the selling price. Sharps rifles modified by the Freund shop are coveted. Custom-built Springfields by Sedgely and Griffin & Howe bring much more than arsenal-fresh ‘03-A3s.

Be aware of hidden alterations. During the 1940s and 1950s, rifles initially bored to .300 Holland & Holland were commonly re-chambered to .300 Weatherby. I once owned an early Model 70 converted from its original .257 Roberts chambering to .25-06. You can’t know about new chambers unless the barrel is so stamped (it should be). During the heyday of wildcatting, many rifle chambers were reamed to accept “Improved” versions of the original cartridge. A .22 Hornet got more throttle when it became a K-Hornet. 

A .30-06 Improved chased .300 H&H performance without changes to bolt face and magazine. You can fire factory ammo in Improved chambers, but empty hulls will show the difference. Collectors will demur. 

Early bolt rifles not drilled for scope mounts were commonly altered by gunsmiths. A single screw hole in the bridge of a pre-war M70 may not drain much from the rifle’s value. But a receiver punched for a side mount all but ruins the rifle for collectors. Filling them doesn’t solve the problem. A refinished gun is hardly ever as desirable as one in original condition, even if wood and metal show much use. Restoration can enhance the value of a rifle with many scars or a terminal case of rust. But few artisans have the skills to restore firearms, and the cost is high. 

Original dimensions, parts and finish help make collectible rifles valuable. Buying for investment, you must know a lot about that model and examine each prospect carefully. Is the butt-plate correct? Is the barrel the proper length? Does the tube magazine of a lever gun meet catalog specs, or has it been bobbed? Are the sights original? Does blue wear on the floorplate match that on the guard? Has the bolt shank been bent or ground to clear a scope? Has any part been polished or re-blued (check stamped numbers and proof marks for rounded edges)? Is the stock finish original? What about swivels or studs? Has the inletting been opened or glassed? Alterations may have practical merit—you’ll probably use that mount hole in the bridge—but they’ll almost surely reduce the value of your investment and should be reflected in the price you pay.

Condition also influences the price of collectible guns. How much finish is left? Are there dents or scratches in wood or metal? Is the steel rusted? Has it been scrubbed to remove rust? Do screw heads show wear? Not only are mangled heads unsightly; they indicate frequent or heavy-handed disassembly that warn of possible tampering or parts substitution. Check the bore. With the bolt removed—or with a bore-light in the breech of lever-actions, pumps and autoloaders—examine the throat. Not only should it be free of dark places that indicate pitting; the rifling should be sharp. Leading and copper fouling can be cleaned out, but you won’t replace steel. If you cannot distinguish bore damage from deposits, insist on cleaning the barrel before you buy. The muzzle crown can affect accuracy even more than does throat wear. Rifles carried muzzle-down in pick-up cabs get scoured by grit. Frequent cleaning from the muzzle can “egg” a crown. 

Function matters. If you find an authentic Hawken Brothers rifle for $100 at a garage sale, don’t waste time checking the trigger. On the other hand, a firearm priced as if it functions should! I recently examined a Colt Bisley in fine condition. The cylinder spun and locked properly; however, when I pulled the trigger at half-cock, the hammer fell. 

This problem might be easily solved. Or not.

Some firearms have weaknesses that show up only after use. The Henry’s slotted magazine dented easily and collected debris. Improvements gave Winchester a better tube and the Model 1866. The problem of split stock wrists has affected several models and still pops up. Savage M99s closely inletted at the rear commonly developed splits behind upper or lower tang. Winchester 54s and 70s built during the late ‘30s and the 1940s could suffer damage as recoil compressed the wood in the lug mortise and the tang walked back into the top of the wrist. Winchester responded with a spatulate tang that covered a generous opening between wood and tang base. Look closely for small cracks! Incipient splitting can be arrested with epoxy (and by shaving a tomato-skin slice of wood to relieve contact). Badly damaged wrists can be made sound by inserting a threaded steel rod and using epoxy 
to secure it. 

I’ve bought several rifles with split wrists. An early Model 70 in .375 is pinned and glued and as solid as a new stock. A Savage 99 in .250 has not been repaired; but I’m convinced the light recoil of this round poses no further threat. A 99 I bought not long ago was bargain-priced because the stock was split. I’ll fix that because the tang is still too tight in its mortise, and the .308 delivers significant recoil.

Guns stored muzzle-up can become soft and black in the wrist as oil and cleaning solvent seep into the wood. Recoil pads bearing a rifle’s weight for decades become distorted and may check—good reason to store guns muzzles down on a dry board. Some oil can be drawn out with clear solvents, but don’t count on restoring original hue to a blackened wrist. Recoil pads that have taken a set will likely remain that way. Like rust caused by finger-prints or blood left on metal, these cosmetic flaws affect condition. 

A second-hand rifle for elk hunting doesn’t require the scrutiny of a gun bought for investment or resale to a collector. In fact, the best bargains in rifles just for the hunt come from outside the collectibles market. You’ll have to check some fine elk rifles off your list: pre-64 Model 70 Winchesters, early Model 99 Savages, Remington 600-series rifles in .350 Remington, the Winchester M71, the Sako Finnbear and Forester. Forget custom rifles by recognized talent. Focus instead on utilitarian rifles still manufactured or on discontinued rifles of 
common cloth. 

In my youth, the Remington 721 and 722 were such rifles. They were simple, sturdy and accurate. They had better triggers than some rifles today. In the early 1960s, just before they were supplanted by the Remington 700, they sold for less than $100 new. While 721-22 rifles in fine original condition now fetch five times their original price, they have worthy successors. The Remington 788, like the Winchester 670, was built to a price point. Savage has offered plain but solid rifles based on its 1958 Model 110 action for half a century. Ruger 77s, Remington 700 ADLs and Winchester 70s manufactured during the late 1960s and ’70s sell for prices that would make Jack Benny—also of that era—smile. You can still find an occasional garage-shop sporter nicely assembled on military metal. A few years ago I bought a restocked Springfield at a gun show for $175. It had a receiver sight and the original barrel. I carried it in Alaska, where it killed a moose and a Dall’s ram. A Mauser at that show, rebarreled to .308 and cleverly fitted with a Winchester M54 stock also cost less than $200.

Typically, scopes sold with rifles are economy-class optics. Unless you really like the scope that’s on a used rifle, or unless it is widely recognized as a valuable scope, consider it a bonus. Don’t pay more for it than you think it would bring at a garage sale.

A word on gun-buying etiquette. Ask permission to handle rifles. Keep your fingers off the metal as much as practical, even if the rifle is inexpensive or shows hard use. Cycling the mechanism and pulling the trigger will not harm centerfire repeaters, but some people have been told dry firing is bad business and would prefer you not do it. Ask. You’re not out of line to offer a lower price; cash in your hand can help in this regard. But make sure you’ve done all your inspecting first! You can request a function guarantee, but don’t expect it. Forget about an accuracy guarantee. Most people who buy rifles can’t shoot as well as the rifles, and most people who sell rifles know that. 

After you buy a second-hand rifle, disassemble and clean it. Use close-fitting screwdriver bits and pin punches, like those supplied in kits by Midway and Brownells. Reassemble a bolt rifle vertically, butt on the floor. Bounce it gently before cinching the guard screws, to ensure that the recoil lug is seated. Turn the front guard screw very tight, then the rear screw almost as snug. If the rifle has a center screw, cinch it with only your thumb and forefinger on the screwdriver handle. Ditto for a forend screw. 

Examine the cases from your first shots at the range, to check for chamber irregularities and signs of high pressure, which could indicate a short throat. I own a .300 Weatherby rifle with a custom throat that is best limited to handloaded ammunition. 

A few months ago, a rifle a year older than I am helped me kill a fine bull elk. Like the guns from the mud rooms of my youth, it performed as well as any new rifle. I’ll not outlast it.

Wayne van Zwoll has published a dozen books, more than 1,500 articles and 3,000 photos about guns, optics and hunting. One of the Elk Foundation’s first field directors, van Zwoll holds a Ph.D. in wildlife policy from Utah State University. His column has run in every issue of Bugle since 1986.