Field & Stream Online Editors
Field & Stream Online Editors

Back when I shot trap seriously, I was always amused at the antics of my fellow competitors. Some guy would break 199×200, or 499×500, and look at his gun as though it had stabbed him in the back by missing that one bird. Then he would go thundering off to trade the offending firearm in for a different one.

This is the same in all sports. We grow dissatisfied with perfectly good equipment, usually because we blame our own failings on it, and sell it at a loss to buy something supposedly better. I have done so many times, to someone else’s great benefit.

The wonderful world of rifles is full of bargains that used to belong to someone else. Mixed in among them, however, is a sprinkling of dogs whose owners ditched them with a song in their hearts. So, just in time for Christmas, here’s how to tell the deals from the lemons.

(1) If the rifle is in poor condition, forget about it, no matter how low the price is. The only reason to buy a clunker is for parts. I know gunsmiths who will buy abused Mausers and Winchester Model 70s and throw away everything but the action. They put many hours of work into refurbishing these actions and then build high-priced rifles around them. Nobody else should spend money on a wreck. If you do, you’re asking for trouble.

(2) If you buy a rifle sight unseen, insist on a trial period, during which you can send it back and get a refund. The same applies to firearms bought at gun shows. You need to have a guarantee that you can inspect the rifle thoroughly (or, if you prefer, have someone you trust inspect it) and take it to the range to see if it shoots. It is a sad fact that there are some guns that will not group worth a damn, which is why their owners got rid of them. Before you part with your money for good, be sure your acquisition doesn’t fall in this category.

(3) Many used rifles are sold on consignment, and the prices asked for them are not unchangeable once they’ve gathered dust. Very often, a gun owner will have an inflated idea of what his rifle should bring and will insist on getting that price. The dealer who takes it in will try to talk sense to him, but no, his mind is made up. If you want the gun, the best thing to do is wait. As the weeks and months go by, and it sits there unwanted, the owner will eventually see the error of his ways. That is when you leap up, checkbook in hand.

(4) A high price is no guarantee that a rifle will not have problems. A couple of months ago, I saw an acquaintance test-firing a pre-1964 Model 70 Winchester Super Grade .375. It was in 100 percent condition, meaning that it had never been sold or fired since it left New Haven 40 or more years ago. The asking price was $4,000, which was $1,000 more than it was worth, but that was not the problem. The problem was that you could not move a cartridge from the magazine to the chamber. That Model 70 was unusable except as a single-shot.

I once laid hands on a gorgeous, custom-made little 7×57 that would not chamber factory ammo. My guess is that this jewel of a rifle had a chamber that was cut for the original owner’s strange handloads, and it wouldn’t digest anything else. I didn’t buy it.

(5) Beware of dirty rifles. Wear is one thing; dirt is another. Nicks, dings, and worn bluing are signs of hard use, which is okay. They won’t affect a rifle’s performance. But dirt-particularly a fouled bore-is a warning sign.

A bore that is fouled with copper is often pitted beneath it, and when you clean the stuff out, you’ll find that you need a new barrel. Whoever owned that rifle didn’t care for it worth a damn, and it is waiting to fail someone at some point in the future. Make sure that someone is not you.

(6) On the other hand, some restoration work can get you a hell of a bargain. Let’s say that you come across a rifle that has a battered stock, or needs to be reblued, but is attractive in alll other respects and offered for a very good price. Don’t automatically rule it out. See if the seller will allow you to take the rifle to a gunsmith and get an estimate on what it would cost to restore the gun. You may be surprised at how little it costs.

Years ago, I came across a Weatherby .340 with a gorgeous claro walnut stock whose finish had “alligatored” (fractured into ugly, scaly patches). Because of its leprous appearance, the rifle was selling for a song. I bought it and had a gunsmith scrape off the original finish and redo it in oil. It was glorious. Then, for reasons that seemed compelling at the time but baffle me now, I sold it.