How To Buy a Used Classic American Shotgun

11 steps for evaluating second-hand field guns so you don’t get ripped off

Classic American shotguns
Classic American shotguns were made to be used in the field.Matthew Every

My eider decoy string consists of a Danforth anchor, a hundred feet of line, and a series of recycled bleach bottles. I find a tide seam, pitch the anchor overboard, and keep my feet out of the way of the flying line. I don’t want to pull a Captain Ahab and get dragged overboard. My spread is set with one simple toss so I can easily retreat to my coffin blind set on the beach above the high-tide line.

New hunting buddies expect me to extract a rusty beater from my shotgun case. They give me crap when I pull out a Parker.

“That’s some fancy stuff right there.”

“Your beater gun?”

“Didn’t bring the Purdey today?”

Ask Lars Jacob of Lars Jacob Wingshooting, a gunshop in Dorset, Vermont, and he'll tell you that classic American shotguns were made to be used. Production runs of lower-grade models were affordable to all gunners and were originally sold in hardware stores. Sure, most every firearm company strutted their stuff with high-end custom jobs that resembled British bespoke guns, but if you're an American hunter and shooter, then the odds are, you favor quality firearms for bird hunting, waterfowling, and on clays courses.

Hunting season is upon us, so if you find yourself frequenting gun shops and drooling over listing websites, here are 11 considerations for evaluating a used classic American shotgun before you buy it.

1. Measure the Stock

gunsmith measuring shotgun stock
Be measured for stock fit and then measure the dimensions of your prospective shotgun purchase for comparison.Jack Jacob

What to Look For:
Stock dimensions on classic American shotguns can be very different from modern models. Older shotguns tend to have a shorter length of pull (LOP), a staggering amount of drop-at-comb (DAC), and even more drop-at-heel (DAH). I measured one classic that came in at 13 ¾ LOP with 2 ⅛ DAC and 3 ¼ DAH. It resembled a hockey stick.

Wingshooters need dimensions that produce rock-solid mounts with their eye looking down the rib. Too short of a stock and you’ll roll your shoulders forward. Too much drop and you’ll be looking at the safety instead of the bead. It’s impossible to hit a bird if you can’t see it. Today’s off-the-rack shotguns typically measure 14 ½ LOP x 1 ½ DAC and 2 ½ DAH. They’re a touch longer and much flatter.

What to Do:
First, be measured by a professional gun fitter. Then take a tape measure to your prospect to see how it compares to your dimensions. You'll immediately know if it's a winner, winner, chicken dinner.

2. Check Chamber Length

measuring chamber length
Chamber length should be measured for adequate ammunition fit.Jack Jacob

What to Look For:
Older classics were designed around lower compression shells of a shorter overall length. Common-to-the-era chamber lengths measure 2 ½, 2 ⅝, or 2 9/16 inches. If you drop an unfired 2-¾-inch shell in the chamber it's a fit. But here's the problem; modern shells have full crimps which expand to 2 ¾ inches upon discharge. Short chambers won't allow that extra ¼ inch to unfold, and that extra pressure damages forcing cones and hinge pins.

What to Do:
Lengthen chambers to 2 ¾ inches, or just load or buy shorter, low compression shells. Companies like RST Shotshells and Polywad have great assortments.

3. Mic the Barrels

micrometers measuring shotgun barrel wall
Micrometers help measure barrel wall thickness.Jack Jacob

What to Look For:
Safety first, so measure the barrel-wall thickness with a micrometer. Barrels sometimes are reamed to remove rust or pitting, and that process removes steel from the walls. If too much is removed, the compression can cause a bulge if not a burst.

While you’re at it, measure your chokes. Most older shotguns had tighter chokes, a by-product of old-school shell designs. Hit a grouse at 20 yards with a modified choke and you’ll eat feathers for dinner. Odds are you’ll miss, but both are frustrating.

What to Do:
Compare the candidate's wall thickness with those from the factory for safety, and determine if the choke constriction suits your needs. Chokes can always be opened by a competent gunsmith.

4. Check Barrel Length

oddball barrel length measurements
Oddball barrel length measurements indicate that they might have been cut.Tom Keer

What to Look For:
Back in the day, utilitarian hunters desiring more open chokes often took a hacksaw to the end of their shotgun's barrels. Most American classics came with barrels measuring even-lengths of 26, 28, and 30 inches. Measure your barrels, and if their length includes a ⅛-, ¼-, or ½-inch measurement, the odds are that the barrels have been cut. Some companies had specific scrolling on the top rib completed with an ivory or metal bead. If all are missing it's an indicator that there has been a hack job.

What to Do: Provided that you're looking for a shotgun with open chokes for grouse and woodcock, or ducks over dekes, this shotgun may be for you. Negotiate the price down for sure, and know that you'll have a tougher time reselling the firearm. If you need barrel constriction then it's an easy pass.

5. Check for Barrel Dents

checking shotgun barrel for dents
Barrel dents are often superficial, but serious damage should be assessed by an experienced gunsmith.Jack Jacob

What to Look For:
Older classic shotguns can be subject to a loss of barrel integrity. Barrels weaken through impact, and those dents often come by an honest swing stopped by a tree or a slip while crossing a stone wall. "The most important area to view is the 10 inches beyond the breech," says Jacob. "That is the most pressurized area in a shotgun. If it's a creased dent that has been caused by a significant impact, then there will be a thin spot that is difficult to raise. That area should be inspected for rust and pitting. If the dent is superficial, the gun can be fine, but if it's severe the wall thickness may be reduced."

What to Do:
Have a gunsmith measure the specific area with a micrometer. If the wall thickness is fine, then shooting low-compression shells is an easy fix. Pass on the gun if the dent broke through to the interior barrel wall.

6. See if You Can Shoot It

man holding shotgun in gun store
Mounting a shotgun in a gun shop should always be followed by a trip to the clay field.Tom Keer

What to Look For:
The best part of buying a new-to-you shotgun is being able to hit with it. See if the seller will allow you to take his shotgun for a round of skeet or clays. Not only will you know if you can hit with the shotgun but you'll also see if you enjoy handling the firearm. "I take serious buyers to a clays course and allow them to shoot previously-fired shotguns," says Jacob. "It gives them a sense of confidence that they are making a solid decision."

shooter with shotgun emptying barrels
By the end of a round of clays, you can better assess whether or not your potential purchase is a good fit.Tom Keer

What to Do:
Evaluate how easy it is to mount the shotgun. Check if the stock fits, if your eye lines up on the rib, and if the shotgun's barrel length and type of stock offer a responsive and balanced feel. Struggling to mount a shotgun is no fun, and that's particularly common with longer-barrels or full pistol grips.

7. Check the Hinge Pin

shotgun hinge pin
If there is any play in a shotgun’s hinge pin, consider negotiating the price downward.Jack Jacob

What to Look For:
Weak hinge pins can come from shooting modern, higher velocity shells that are longer than the chambers' length. They can also come from normal shooting. "Barrels meet breeches in what is called 'on face or off face,'" says Jacob. "An on face means the barrels are tight to the breech face and do not allow blowback or gases to escape when fired. Off face means there is a gap, sometimes big enough to allow light to shine through. The hinge pin may be worn but the lump hook may be as well. Either will need to be replaced prior to shooting, and there is a cost to that repair. Sometimes it can be expensive."

What to Do:
Hold the pistol grip or the wrist, open the barrels, and rotate your wrist from side-to-side. The barrels shouldn't move, and if there is any wiggling or play then the hinge pin might need replacing. Negotiate the price down so as to accommodate the cost for repair.

8. Buggered Screws

mangled screws on a shotgun
Mangled screw heads might indicate that a gun has been worked on by an unskilled craftsman.Tom Keer

What to Look For:
Screws need to be removed in order to get in under the hood for cleaning or repair. If the screw heads are chewed up, then the odds are high that an unskilled craftsman worked on the gun. There is no telling what, if anything, was done. But the purchase price should come down as there may be major issues at hand. Common problems are with hammers, springs, and forcing cones.

What to Do:
If you're serious about the firearm, have a reputable gunsmith disassemble the shotgun and provide a thorough inspection of all internal parts. If possible conclude your transaction before he reassembles the shotgun. That way you can get a thorough cleaning and lubricating job and replace defective parts.

9. Get a Professional Inspection

gunsmith inspecting shotgun pieces
Before pulling the final trigger on a purchase, consider a professional assessment.Tom Keer

What to Look For:
I know a good amount about classic American shotguns and evaluate a few dozen options every year. But my experience pales in comparison to professionals in busy gunshops; they might inspect my year's total in a week. And they know a lot about a variety of manufacturers. "Take the Winchester 21, for example," says Jacobs. "The shotgun used two types of bluing, and the frames were hot blued while the barrels were cold blued. That's why frames are a shiny blue and the barrels are a flat color. You can tell if they were improperly finished by hanging the barrels from the barrel lump or hook from your finger. Tap the barrels with a pen and listen to the sound it makes. If there is a wind-chime ring they were correctly refinished. If there is a thump then they may look good but were improperly restored."

What to Do:
The fee paid for a professional inspection is worth every penny. If the gun passes, you'll have additional confidence. If it fails you'll avoid a lot of heartburn.

10. Price Out a Total Refurbishing Job

limit of birds
Check the price on a total refurbishing job should one become necessary.Tom Keer

What to Look For:
If you're a collector, refinishing stocks, browning barrels, and re-case-coloring receivers is a no-no. It'll devalue the shotgun. But if you're a hunter and want to spruce up your gunning iron for use, you ultimately may invest in a new custom stock, perform mechanical work, or spiff up cosmetics.

What to Do:
To avoid being underwater on the gun, rough out costs for potential future repairs/refurbishments. The market is what it will bear, so add the cost of the gun plus the repairs to see where you would stand. If you don't care about being upside down on the deal, that's fine. But you don't want to put a lot of coin into a gun that isn't worth much. Throwing good money to fix a low-grade gun with major issues is a buzz kill.

11. Compare Pricing

comparison of shotguns
Do your homework with price comparisons before negotiating.Tom Keer

What to Look For: Anything done in moderation shows a lack of interest, and that applies to pulling the trigger on a gun purchase. It's easy to lose your head at a gun show just as it is to come unglued at a live auction. When it comes to buying a classic American shotgun, keep calm.

What to Do: Do your upfront homework to have a sense of book valuations. Expand on that research by doing a comp search on internet gun sites. My personal negotiation style is to be bullish, not piggish. A different approach is to squeeze blood from a stone. Negotiate however you see fit, but establish a budget with a minimum and a maximum you'd look to pay.

The details of my particular sea duck gunning iron speak to the fact that it was made for the marshes. It is Parker Bros’ second-from-the-bottom-grade VH grade; a 12-bore on their robust #2 frame. The 30-inch barrels have bores choked IC and Modified. I lengthened the chambers to handle 2-¾-inch, low-compression Bismuth shells. But here’s the kicker. I found it in a gunshop and it cost me $500. That’s half of the price tag of some new pump guns, and far less than many semi-autos, too. Caveat emptor, let the buyer beware. Give your prospective American classic a twice-over. Come fall you’ll be locked, cocked, and ready to rock.