Shotgun buying advice from Richard Atkins

Richard Atkins offers a few purchasing pointers for novices that even experienced shooters would do well to remind themselves of.

Purchasing a shotgun often creates a dilemma: should you buy a budget-priced new gun or an older gun from an established brand? There are good arguments to support either approach.

A new gun will come with a guarantee and hopefully the back-up of a good dealer and UK distributor in case anything goes wrong, but when shopping at budget prices you should consider an older, pre-owned gun. Many such guns, especially those from established brands, provide excellent build quality for the price.

They may not be as fashionable, but their standard of fit and finish can exceed the quality of a new budget gun. After all, they’ve stood the test of time.

Remember that fashions change too. Take the Schnabel fore-end: it was the latest trend until recently, but it is now giving way to the styles of years ago – like the beavertail design that was popular on Skeet and Trap guns in the 1970s, itself a variation of the slimmer London-style game gun fore-ends.

A colour case-hardened finish was fairly standard for many years, but gave way to brushed silver on many guns. Now black actions are in vogue, but some black finishes are proving less durable, so this trend is on the wane. Now the colour case-hardened effect is making a comeback, albeit not always produced by the time-honoured but laborious traditional methods.

Informed choice

The name of the game in today’s gun trade is ‘marketing’ and every gun maker knows it. New guns have to be attractive to new customers and persuade existing customers to ‘upgrade’. Therefore, new budget guns often come with bling that the discerning buyer will look beyond.

Most engraving on guns today is etched by laser. It can look good, especially in combination with above-average-looking wood. But remember quality walnut blanks can cost several times more than the price of some guns. How much money did the makers leave in their production kitty to manufacture a gun with sound internal design and well-engineered components?

Whether buying new or used, don’t allow yourself to be bedazzled by looks. We all like a well-figured walnut stock, intricate engraved scenes, and ‘gold’ inlays. But remember that these do not make a gun handle or perform any better. When buying guns by the big names,  higher grades cost more not only because they have better wood and higher grade engraving, but also because more time  has been spent on perfecting the fit of their component parts.

That is why some very old guns still represent very good value today. Modern manufacturing methods simplify things; investment casting (the lost wax process) and metal injection moulding (MIM) have enabled complex parts to be made at a fraction of their former cost. Whether these components will stand up to long-term use as well as those made the traditional way is yet to be seen.

We can at least be sure that all guns sold in the UK are safe; CIP Proof marks guarantee this, as well as telling us what lengths of cartridges they are safe for and whether the barrels are proofed for steel shot. However, what proof does not tell us about is wear.

It is not unusual to see a gun advertised as ‘little used’. This is worth checking for yourself. A car with worn control pedals and a steering wheel highly polished from use is not a low mileage car. Similarly some things will tell you when a gun has had more than a few boxes of cartridges through it.

This Miroku demonstrates how older guns can still be great quality if they’ve been well looked after

Experienced shooters usually know something about how guns operate, how they feel, and how they might show signs of wear or damage. For the newcomer this is not so easy.

What follows is a broad overview of things to check when buying a used shotgun. Over-and-unders are by far the most popular gun choice for clay shooting, so that is what this article will concentrate on, although many parts will be more broadly relevant.

Top lever

The lever used to open a gun is mounted on its top strap. On new guns, this is fitted to sit a few degrees to the right of centre when the gun is fully closed. This allows the wedge or taper on the locking bolt or pins to settle into the mating recesses in the barrels’ monoblock over time. For many years, a well-made gun action will ‘wear in’ rather than wearing out, but eventually parts will need adjusting or replacing.

Accordingly, when looking over a second-hand gun, look to see if the top lever is approaching – or already at – a closed position that is in-line with the top strap when viewed from above. If it is, it’s not the end of the world, but it indicates that the gun has done a great deal of shooting; it may also betray that it has not been cleaned and lubricated as often as it should have.

Lastly, bear in mind that the top lever will need the attention of a gunsmith, pushing up the cost of the gun, assuming you want it to be serviceable. Continuing to shoot a shotgun when its locking mechanism is wearing out will lead to more rapid wear, and can ultimately prove dangerous. A gunsmith can repair the problem more easily and cost effectively if they are contacted before the wear becomes too great.

When checking over a gun, check that tapered locking pins still tight and not damaged

The classic way of checking for looseness in a closed action is the ‘headache test’. This is done by removing the fore-end, firmly gripping the pistol grip or wrist of the stock, and gently shaking the gun with the barrels vertical. If play is present then movement will be felt coming back through the gun to your hand. If this test gives a positive result, do not use this gun until it has been repaired by a qualified gunsmith!

This condition, informally known as ‘headache’, is more precisely referred to as being ‘off the face’. This means that, when closed, the breech end of the barrels is not in full contact with the standing breech face. This can be further checked by closing the gun on a cigarette paper at the top of the breech. If the gun fits closely enough that the paper tears when you try to remove it, all is well. If the paper can be removed then work is required.

Foul play?

There are tricks that can be used to mask signs of action-to-barrel looseness. It is possible to ‘peen’ the front edges of a flat locking bolt, or the sides of tapered locking pins, creating a new raised area. This can make the fit feel better and move the top lever back closer to its ‘new’ position.

But this is a bodge and not a fix! The raised areas will soon wear back down under the stresses of firing and then the job of the gunsmith may be more difficult. I have seen (thankfully just the once in my life) where small ‘centre pop’ marks had been applied to a locking bolt on an old side-by-side shotgun (the owner’s own bodge). I would like to think this sort of thing is unlikely to occur, but I mention it so you can look closely to be sure.

Looseness is not only caused by wear in locking bolts and pins; it can also indicate wear on the mechanism the gun’s barrels hinge on. Most guns open and close using one of two methods: the Browning-style full-width hinge pin that runs completely through the knuckle of the receiver, or the method used by Beretta in their 680 and 690 series guns, which employs a much shorter pair of ‘trunnions’ set into the inside-front of the receiver’s side walls. Check these parts as a matter of course, as they offer an indication of overall wear.

Both methods are proven by long use. The Browning system is massively strong and capable of providing more than one lifetime of shooting. The trunnion system usually provides less bearing area to absorb stresses, but it has still proven capable of long service when kept clean and lubricated. Trunnions are also fairly easily replaced in most decent over-and-unders.

Sometimes the join between the action and barrel can be tightened simply by rotating the trunnions half a turn to present the side that has not mated with the barrel hinge recesses. This is another tell-tale sign to look for on a second-hand gun: do the trunnions show wear marks on the side that is not in contact with the barrel hinge points?

If so, it could be that the trunnions have already been turned. This means it may not be too long before tightening becomes necessary again, because wear on the barrel hinge recesses will still be present.


A cracked fore-end needn’t necessarily be a deal-breaker if you go into the transaction with your eyes open

A gun with few marks, scratches and dings has probably been well looked after. Check the chequering on the pistol grip and fore-end. The diamond patterns are sharply pointed when new, sometimes even uncomfortably so. Close inspection will reveal how flattened the chequering has become; if the flattening is pronounced then the gun may have had more use than it first appears.

If the chequering is crisp, but further below the surface of the surrounding wood than on a similar gun, then it may have been re-cut. This might also indicate where damage has occurred and been repaired.

Repairs to the wood work, especially the stock, are a common potential concern. Some gunsmiths can re-build a totally broken stock in ways that are both strong and hard to detect. If the stock has been so repaired and you are not told this by the vendor, you might be upset when you discover the fact later.

Take a jeweller’s loupe and closely inspect the grip area. If you have any doubts, ask to take the butt plate or pad off and look down into the stock bolt hole with a torch. Any lines with glue oozing from them indicate a repair. This is difficult to spot, but it’s hard to get right down in there to hide the repair, while the outside can be easily re-chequered and re-finished.

Personally, I would walk away from a gun with signs of serious stock repairs, as I would have no guarantee that the repair was sound. Minor cracks in a fore-end, on the other hand, would not put me off.

Crisp chequering could be the sign of a well looked after gun – or a repair to the stock in the guns past

A gun that I bought new back in the 1970s has a crack in the fore-end that appeared within a few months of purchase. I contacted the maker, Winchester, and they posted me a new fore-end. The split never got any worse, so I still have the replacement ready!

Check for darkening of the wood where the stock mates with the receiver. Discolouration here can be a sign that an over-enthusiastic cleaner has applied plenty of oil to the bore after cleaning and then neglected to store the gun barrel down.

Unfortunately, oil applied in this way does not defy gravity; it slowly but surely runs down the bores, through the firing pin holes and into the action. From there it migrates into the wood of the stock, initially discolouring the wood and eventually softening it and causing deterioration. This weakens the stock, making it more easily breakable.

If the problem is not too severe there are ways to save the stock, but when buying a gun there is no easy way to determine what stage the problem is at. I would therefore suggest avoiding stocks with oil damage.


Many older gun have fixed chokes. This means that you won’t be able to change the amount of choke in each barrel as you would with multi-chokes, but do not dismiss a nice, older gun just because it has fixed chokes. There are still ways to control your patterning using cartridge selection, as my cartridge tests in these pages have often shown.

If your interests lie in Trap or Skeet then fixed chokes can actually be an advantage. Not having to allow for interchangeable chokes will leave the barrels lighter and better balanced, and you can have them adjusted to suit your discipline, shooting style and cartridge choice.

Multi-chokes can be a great advantage when used properly, especially for Sporting where clays can vary from quartering-away midis to driven grouse that knock your hat off to 45 yards. However, there are many shooters who do not bother to change chokes. This, they often claim, is because ‘you only need half-and-half for everything’. I guarantee that many who make such statements have never pattern tested a gun. You can follow this advice and still succeed, but knowing how to select better options can really help.

When buying a used shotgun with multi-chokes, always check that they are not stuck! If the chokes do not readily come out when inspecting a used gun, just walk away. Some shooters who don’t change chokes do not even take them out and clean them after shooting. Over time, gas escaping behind the choke tubes can cause carbon build-up and rusting.

When the top lever closes in line with the top strap it’s time to get a gunsmith to take a look at your locking pins

If left too long the choke tubes become impossible to remove without a gunsmith’s help – and sometimes some really robust tools – which can ruin the choke tubes, meaning more expense. The threads in the barrels will need cleaning up too.

Chokes should screw out fairly smoothly but with some resistance. If they can be rotated very easily, especially if looseness can be detected, this gun too may be best avoided. This can be due to wear and tear, or owners failing to grease the chokes’ threads after cleaning. It can also be worse. I am aware of an instance where choke tubes weren’t screwed in properly and were literally blown out of the barrel!

Afterwards the owner found that one of the chokes that they seldom used could be screwed in tight and made to appear OK. They took it to a dealer and part-exchanged it for another gun without mentioning any of this. Hopefully the dealer spotted the problem before selling the gun on, but if they missed it they might well have thought that the new owner had done something wrong themselves when they returned with a blown out tube – a very awkward situation.

So make sure you check the chokes and threads of pre-owned guns very carefully!

Most modern guns have chrome-lined bores that are resistant to corrosion, but bores that have been worked on may have lost some of this protection. Some owners fail to detect even heavy fouling in their guns’ bores, which leads to corrosion. Get into good light, and inspect the forcing cone area for dull patches or slightly different shades on otherwise clean and shiny bores.

Relying on bore-snake type cleaners without also using quality cleaning kits with phosphor bronze brushes can lead to this condition. Insist that any bores or cones that you detect such fouling in are properly cleaned so that you can see what the clean bores look like.

There are other features to check on a pre-owned gun, but the ones we’ve covered should give enough cause for thought for now. We’ll resume this topic next month. See you then.

More advice and tips from Clay Shooting Magazine

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