Buying usedrifles can offer some incredible deals, but only if you know what to lookfor
The first question you need to ask when you’re considering buying a used rifle is “why?” Not why are you considering buying another gun–the reasons for that are self-evident and forever righteous. But why is this particular gun for sale?
Like a detective, you have to ferret out clues about why the previous owner’s love affair with the gun went sour. Once you’ve discovered those nasty little secrets, you might make the decision to look elsewhere. If not, they can be useful bargaining tools when you’re dealing with a gun shop or a seller at a gun show. Here are some things you should be on the lookout for.
CHECK THE BORE
One of the time-honored rituals of buying a used rifle is peering into the barrel and inspecting the bore and rifling. Look into both ends if you can. With closed-action types (pumps, levers, etc.), put a clean, white reflective surface, or bore light, into the open action so that enough good light comes from the chamber end for you to see what you’re looking for from the muzzle end.
If you wear bifocals, as I do, inspect the bore with and without them, as the difference in your eye’s focal depth might allow you to spot something that would otherwise be missed.
One of the things I learned during many hours of watching legendary barrel maker Bill Atkinson work was his way of inspecting his beautiful cut-rifled barrels. He would take a newly finished barrel outside his shop and hold it vertically so that sunlight reflected from unpainted concrete shone up into the bore. This soft yet strong and steady illumination allowed more critical examination than looking through a bore at glaring light bulbs.
LOOK FOR EROSION
Rifles in varmint calibers merit an extra dose of suspicion, because high-velocity varmint calibers tend to burn out barrels faster. Target-type rifles also call for close inspection, since they get a lot more use than ordinary hunting rifles. Varmint and target shooters tend to be fussy about their rifles, and if you peer only into the muzzles of their guns, the bores might appear bright and shiny. Barrel wear starts at the other end, however, so you want to take particular care when examining from the breech end.
Look for a darkening, or even black streaks of erosion, just ahead of the chamber. With some highspeed calibers this erosion becomes apparent after fewer than a thousand rounds. The longer the streaks, the less accuracy life remains in the barrel. But don’t give up the chase if the rifle looks good otherwise. Some of the best rifles in my cabinet are “burnedout” rifles that I picked up for a song and had refitted by local gunsmiths using quality barrels.
PEEK UNDER THE RUG
After checking out the usual suspects–lock, stock and barrel–it’s time to get out your Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass and start peering into a rifle’s dark corners and secret hiding places. It’s here that the “rule of why” takes full command.
One of the paradoxes of used gun values is that any modifications from the gun’s original factory configuration decrease the value, even if the changes are actual improvements. Fitting a recoil pad to a hard-kicking rifle might be sensible, glass bedding or barrel floating might improve accuracy and rechambering to an “improved” caliber might boost performance. But any of these, and myriad others, will reduce a rifle’s value to some degree. If you spot the alterations, however, you can use them as good cause for reducing the seller’s asking price.
The same goes all the more for cosmetic blemishes such as non-original screw holes that have been drilled for sights or scope mounts, badly refinished wood or shortening of the barrel or stock. The list of such suspects is endless. You have to look closely and original ask the owner why.
A good example of what to watch out for can be seen in a used rifle I found at a gun show a few years back.
To begin with, it was a varmint rifle, which immediately aroused my suspicion. The gun showed evidence of very little use, which, as noted earlier, is a bit strange for used varmint rifles.
FOLLOW THE CLUES
There was no sign of erosion in the throat, which told me that the rifle had probably been fired no more than 300 rounds, 400 tops, a conclusion further confirmed by the absence of gas-cutting pocks on the bolt’s face. Such pockmarks accumulate with use and are caused by the cutting-torch effect of gas leakage around the primer, especially with high-pressure calibers. In addition, the bolt handle knob lacked the shiny look that comes with repeated handling. In each of these respects, including the unblemished wood stock, the rifle appeared all but new, which set my “why” bells clanging all the louder.
The mystery was solved when I took a closer look at the stock inletting and found that the barrel had been free-floated and the receiver glass-bedded. These operations are usually done to improve accuracy or, in dire circumstances, to correct hopelessly bad accuracy.
STRIKE A BARGAIN
It was apparent that the rifle had been a poor performer to begin with and the usual tricks hadn’t worked. Which explained why the owner wanted to get rid of it. He had also recrowned the muzzle, another easily spotted accuracy trick. Surely the rifle was a dog, but wait.
Despite his efforts to make his rifle a shooter, the owner had failed to check the bolt’s locking lugs for uneven contact, a common cause of poor accuracy. When I removed the bolt and checked the rear surfaces of the two lugs, one was shiny, indicating normal contact, but the other still had the original bluing and showed no sign of contact whatsoever.
This is an easy inspection and always worth doing because even or uneven contact can tell you something about a rifle’s accuracy or lack thereof. Uneven contact is easily corrected by a competent gunsmith, which is what I had done immediately after getting the rifle at a bargain price. (The seller really wanted to get rid of it.) The first five-shot group I shot with the rifle after having the lugs lapped measured under an inch, and now you know the rest of the story.
Buying used rifles is a lot like treasure hunting, and there are plenty of treasures out there just begging to be found. Buy wisely and they are a good investment, because good rifles can only go up in value. At least that’s what I tell my wife, and it’s worked so far.
For more shooting information, go to outdoorlife.com/shooting
When you shop at gun shows, carry a cleaning kit. It takes only a couple of quick passes with a brush and patch to clean surface fouling out of a rifle barrel, and doing so can disclose a multitude of sins.
Hoppe’s BoreSnake pull-through swabs are especially handy for this. Carry a few in various calibers in your pocket.