Richard Atkins continues his masterclass on what to look for when buying a second-hand gun.
Recently we covered most of the basics of how to assess a second-hand shotgun with a view to making a purchase. We went over the signs of heavy wear: off the face action-to-barrel jointing; badly worn chequering; bluing or blacking being worn away.
All these are signs that a gun has had rather more than ‘just a few boxes’ through it! Guns from the 1970s and 80s are likely to show signs of considerable use, although on rare occasions a little-used gem turns up.
Should you stumble upon one of these, try not to show too much excitement or the price might increase… but buy it! In fact, some guns from that era are excellent choices. The earlier ones will not have interchangeable choke tubes like most new models do, but as I have often mentioned in these pages cartridge choice can easily alter patterns at least one graduation either way.
I use a barrel with a fixed Imp Mod choke for my cartridge testing, which nominally gives a 65 per cent average pattern density with good quality cartridges. During 40 plus years of pattern testing this barrel has produced patterns from less than ¼ choke (under 55 per cent density) right up to super-full choke – that’s 75 per cent density.
Many shooters change their chokes only seldomly, but if you want the advantage a selection of chokes offers then by selecting a different cartridge you can obtain the equivalent of changing chokes without actually having to! This requires testing different cartridges in your gun to discover which ones do what, but, it can be done.
Do this properly and you will also gain a better insight into how your gun and cartridges function together. The point here is that some of the guns from the 70s and 80s, especially from what we now consider the big brand names, represent exceptional value.
Guns from Browning, Miroku, Winchester, Beretta and Nikko come to mind. The designs of these guns are recognisable even today. Yes, they have evolved and they now have standard features that were rare back then – adjustable trigger positions and combs for instance – but if one of these guns fits you reasonably well, is in reasonable condition and is sensibly priced, then it could provide exceptional value.
Rivelling (a series of rings on barrels) can be bad news. This can result from several things. Once more common than it is today, it was typically caused by over-oiling bores and then not properly cleaning out the gun’s bore with a patch before fi ring it. The wad would then scrape the oil from the bore as it accelerated down the bore, creating a circular ‘wave’ of oil ahead of the wad.
The oil could not accelerate at as fast as the wad and shot load, so the wad would overtake the oil exerting pressure outwards and creating a series of bulging rings along the barrel. This is more unsightly than dangerous, but it is still something to look for and avoid. Do not confuse rivelling with poor striking off of the barrels. Some cheaper guns were less well finished than the majority are today.
Fast production with little time spent on hand checking and finishing barrels meant some appeared to be rivelled from new! It is easy to diagnose the cause of an undulating barrel by looking inside the bores. If there are no corresponding ring bulges visible in the bore, then the explanation is just poor striking off.
You will also notice some dark rings in the bore. These are not faults in the gun. They merely show a change in bore size. In fixed-choke guns the most obvious of these will appear close to the chokes, where big changes in diameter produce several rings close together.
There also may be some rings ahead of the chambers and along the bore. Barrel straightness can be checked by painting a crisp dark line on a skylight or similar. This check is done whenever a gun is made. The black line puts a thin, dark shadow line along the entire bore.
If line is straight, so are the bores; if it’s wavy, the barrels need to be be straightened… or scrapped if the problem is too severe. You may like to check for this too, but it shouldn’t be required. Problems here should have shown up when the gun was manufactured.
All this should have given you an insight into how to inspect an older gun that you’re sizing up as a potential purchase. Discover how the quality of some of the older big name guns stands out a mile compared with spending a similar amount on a new gun manufactured to sell for around the same price.
In my book, there is no real choice to be made; it is, as the youngsters might say, ‘a no-brainer’!
In fixed choke guns the profile of the barrels is not enlarged or thickened to accept choke tubes; this can help keep their barrel weight down, leading to sweeter handling. If a gun is pointable and can be easily guided to where it needs to be then this advantage will more than overcome the downside of sometimes having the wrong choke boring for the target.
If you have your heart set on interchangeable chokes then Teague can modify fixed choke guns to accept their slim-profile chokes. These are offered by Purdey, so their quality is not in doubt! Even better, there are now extended versions of the early Browning/Winchester Invector chokes and Beretta Mobil chokes.
These extended chokes are now offered by several big brand names including Briley, Teague, Gemini and Trulock. They have easy-gripping surfaces for quick and easy removal, but the largest benefit they offer is probably the boost they can give to your performance.
All later chokes types are much longer than the early versions, and their flush variants are plenty long enough to allow a good choke profile to be accommodated. The extra length provided by early extended Invector and Mobil choke tubes gives choke manufacturers even more length to form the internal choke cones in.
You can therefore purchase an early, well-built, top-name gun for a very reasonable price, and get top pattern performance by fitting it with convenient external chokes. It was possible to include a lot of additional hand finishing and fitting when having guns built in this era.
Diamonds in the rough
Besides Mirokus, you may find other bargains from the past too. I recently saw a nice Nikko Shadow with an Airflow rib (the very wide, multi-layered alloy rib) for instance. The Nikko is also based on the original Browning design, as is the Winchester 101.
All these guns were made more simple to manufacture than JM Browning’s original design, but they retained his guns’ massive strength and key areas of function.
Today these options would make them much more expensive, pushing them into a price range several grades higher for anything approaching the same refinement and build quality. This makes the older guns a real bargain today. They have withstood a long service life and, with a tune up by a good gunsmith, they are well able to give a great many more years of fine service if you look after them.
To test the theory presented in this article, I decided to purchase a 1970s gun for myself. I do already have some, but thought it a worthwhile exercise. I quickly spotted an early Miroku 800 Skeet gun from the mid 70s with a modest asking price, so I went to see it. It showed the signs of being quite well used, but it still had a tight joint between the action and barrel, so I knew it had been looked after.
The Browning design that Mirokus like this were based on is well known for being one of the strongest of any gun irrespective of price.
The company manufactured both their own guns and all the non-Belgian over-and-under Brownings. With their prices making them attainable even for shooters with modest bank balances, the Mirokus’ success was ensured. Thanks to that success, there are still lots of them that come onto the second-hand market.
Today they provide an excellent opportunity to buy a reasonably priced gun, of known pedigree, with proven performance and longevity. If you are thinking of going down this route, act now; they cannot make any more ‘old’ guns and their desirability is increasing.
A key feature that just about every gun manufactured in that golden era of Sporting guns had has become a vital factor in them becoming so attractive again; they all have what we now consider to be a tight bore size. These guns were built when plastic wads were in their infancy.
Previously there had only been fibre wads, and gunmakers knew very well that these required tight bores and short cones to seal expanding gasses from burning propellants and produce good quality, consistent patterns.
Some of our modern gun designers appear to have mislaid this knowledge, hence the surging interest in the older guns. The Miroku Skeet I purchased has several blemishes, which is to be expected. The stock has a small indent near the receiver, a black mark inside revealing that this was caused by strike from a flying piece of broken clay.
The mark is typical of this sort of damage. A friend has a gun with a much larger semi-circular indent in its stock where it was hit by a whole clay… while it was still in the gun slip! Judge for yourself how much blemishes like this matter to you, and if needs be take repair costs into account when evaluating a gun.
For me the Miroku’s small indent is nothing more than a minor battle scar on an old warhorse, so I shall allow it to remain as a mark of pride! Another area to check over carefully is underneath the fore-end. Here damp can get in on wet days, and if this is not noticed then the exterior of the barrel can become corroded while a gun is being stored in the cabinet.
Sadly, this was exactly what had happened with this gun. The rust was not too severe, so it should polish out. There was some evidence that this had already been lightly attempted, which drew attention to the problem even more, as did the fact that the gun was greased for protection.
No matter – the gun is otherwise lovely and the price reflected the problems I have discussed (it was comfortably under £300). I may well keep it and have the barrels re-blacked. Naturally the muzzle ends bear clear signs of entering and leaving a gun slip hundreds if not thousands of times since 1974.
A barrel polish and bore black is likely to cost around £120 to £150 and this gun is worth that.
What to look for when buying second-hand guns
- Does it fit?
Some guns have different dimensions to others. Drop at comb and heel dictate much that is important, notably including whether you can see enough of the rib when your head is on the comb.
Cast is less critical and can be adjusted more easily. Don’t dismiss the right gun at a good price just because a small amount of adjustment is needed.
Consider having an adjustable comb fitted; it will make the gun more versatile, help it to fi t you and add value.
2. Basic condition
How does the gun look and feel? Check that the barrel-to-receiver fit is tight (see the discussion of ‘Headache’ in last month’s Clay Shooting).
Also grip the fore-end and try twisting, pushing and pulling the stock to check that there are no micro-cracks lurking in the grip area.
Worn chequering is another strong indicator of heavy use.
3. Be prepared
When you go to view a secondhand gun take a bore cleaning kit with good brushes, and borrow a Magic Bore rod if you’re checking a private sale gun with long forcing cones – that’s what I do these days.
Take snap caps, a spring balance and a piece of strong string to loop around the trigger if you do not have a dedicated trigger weight gauge. Remember to insert snap caps before checking release weights!
4. Bores, chambers and chokes
Older guns are less likely to have chrome lined bores, so they require better, more regular cleaning. Have the barrels thoroughly cleaned and inspect the bores, chambers and chokes very carefully. To do this, remove the barrels and hold them about a foot or so in front of your master eye, at an upward angle of 20 to 30 degrees.
Point them toward a good source of light, but not too bright. An overcast noon sky is perfect. Check the outside of the bores for any rivelling, wrinkles or bulges you might spot. Allow your focus to run down the barrels at a slight angle – by rolling and tilting the barrels in your hands you will be able to see the surface finish well.
Look out for darker areas or small spots that could be pitting (rust eating into bores). Larger dark areas can be leading; this must be removed so that you can make sure that all is well beneath.
Chambers can be neglected too; check them for corrosion or pitting.
5. Trigger pulls
Trigger pulls may need adjustment; on most guns a competent gunsmith can do this easily. If the pulls are too light (possibly because the sear engagement surfaces have been rounded off by wear) these will need dressing to obtain a crisp, clean break of sensible weight (4-5.5lbs is a typical range).
Too light and the gun may double-discharge; too heavy and pulling the trigger could pull your gun off-line at the crucial instant. If hardening is worn through more work will be required.
6. Misaligned screw heads
Older guns often have lower tangs. A clear sign that a these have been messed with, quite likely by unskilled hands, is when the screws that hold them do not have their slots in line with the rest of the gun. The same can apply to some other action or fore-end screws.
Those screwed into metal parts can be hard to undo as they will have very slim slots that require a gunsmith’s turn-screw to turn without damage. Amateur and ‘home bodge’ work often results in damage to these screw heads, which then serves as a permanent indicator that the work took place.
Best proceed with caution when you see butchered screw heads.
7. Metal work inlet into wood
In older guns it’s not unusual for the metal work to become less inletted into the wood, such that the top strap and lower tang may seem almost flush when compared with a new gun. This is normal! It’s a natural product of the wood’s ability to absorb and lose moisture. That is why the wood on guns is often made to sit proud of the metalwork.
Indeed, as the gun stocks of today are given less time to season, some makers have been leaving the wood even further proud to compensate. The result, as a number of new gun buyers have recently found, is that when these guns are stored at home the wood swells enough to jam the top lever, preventing the gun from opening or closing properly.
That is not a concern with an older gun. The opposite issue can arise, however. When the wood is too low, the metal work stands proud of the wood instead of the other way around.
Richard Atkins has decades of experience testing guns, cartridges and accessories, and is our expert on all aspects of ballistics, shotgun performance and technical analysis.