Shooting: Armed with knowledge & tools for buying guns used
By Chris Batha
My father ran an antiques and curio shop in an old coaching inn called The Fighting Cocks in my hometown of Oswestry, in Shropshire, Wales. Growing up, I spent hours and hours in what was, to me, a historical toyshop. I was most fascinated by the swords, armor, flintlock pistols and rifles, and this experience ignited a lifelong passion for shotguns and shooting. But the most valuable lesson I learned was: As in any solid business, the profit is in the purchasing. You need to know your market. Buy low, sell high. But to do this successfully, “knowledge is king.”
Every successful gun dealer knows the selling price of every shotgun he considers purchasing. He then has to factor in his overhead expenses: renovation and repair, the rent or mortgage and upkeep, advertising, insurance, staff, and so on, plus a reasonable return on investment. Without these considerations, a dealer would not remain in business very long.
The online revolution has completely changed the face of shopping, regardless of the product being sold. The gun trade is no exception. With dedicated online auctions, gun-sales Websites, and bulletin boards where the answer to any question regarding maker or mechanics can be found, buyers have access to unlimited information (a lot of it good).
Individuals can now research and learn how to inspect and buy nearly any shotgun. But can they really . . . ?
I had a client who was looking for a small-gauge hammergun in very good condition by any of the “best” makers—the gun-buying equivalent of the quest for the Holy Grail. There were not that many of these guns made, and the surviving examples, now more than 100 years old, typically show the trials and tribulations of time. I inspected several during the gun-show season that were nice but not “very nice.” Then I chanced upon the Holy Grail: a small-gauge hammergun that had actually been properly restored!
To inspect a shotgun correctly requires specialized equipment to check that the barrels are “in proof.” A bore gauge is used to measure each barrel and compare the results to the nominal boring stamped on the action, and then a wall-thickness gauge is used to measure each barrel’s wall thickness.
That is as far as I got on this particular quest. The wall thickness on the gun was less than the UK margin of .020", which is a self-imposed British gun-trade margin. Some vintage guns were made with wall thicknesses less than this, and such guns can always be sent to the proof house for testing.
Personally, I prefer a minimum of 25 thou, but I can live with 23 thou if the gun is otherwise in great shape. The reason for this is that guns take knocks and dings that result in dents, and older guns often have been pitted because of the corrosive powders used. Repairing dents and pitting both require that the bores be lapped out (polished), which removes metal from the barrels and hence reduces wall thickness. When considering an investment in a shotgun, the barrels should be the first consideration. If a wall thickness is close to margin or less, a dent in the future could render the barrels beyond repair. In a best gun, replacement “barrels by maker” could cost more than the gun is worth, and replacement barrels from another source or sleeving, while allowing the gun to be shot and safely enjoyed, will devalue the investment as an original collectible.
I pointed this out to a dealer recently, only to be told that “one does not buy a gun by its barrels anymore but by its condition.” And the gun was in lovely condition. This is a fair observation, but I always buy barrels first. Buyers may like a gun partly for its condition and collectible value, but it is lipstick on a pig to me if the barrels are near the end of their safe use.
Pitting needs to be assessed for where it is in the barrels—especially if it is in the chambers or the forcing cones, where the pressures generated are highest and the chances of failure are increased. An experienced gunsmith should examine the depth of pitting by measuring barrel-wall thickness at that point. I know many guns that have passed London proof with pitted barrels and have been shot safely, but they really should be looked at.
Sleeving is an evocative word, but it has saved many a good gun from the scrap heap. If you consider that nearly all of the mass-produced over/under and side-by-side shotguns are of sleeved construction—aka monoblock—I do not know why such a stigma is attached to this cost-effective way to give an old gun a new lease on life.
New barrels that are not made and fitted in by the original maker are referred to in the trade as “spurious,” and they result in reduced value—compared to a gun with original barrels or new barrels made by the original maker. Once again, I would challenge this, as oftentimes the barrelmakers who are producing barrels for many of the big companies are supplying the replacements as well.
While working with my old friend Ken Duglan at Atkin Grant & Lang, a gentleman brought in a Webley & Scott boxlock as partial trade for a Lang sidelock. I briefly inspected the gun—it was of 1970s vintage and appeared to be in good shape—and after we agreed on a price, he left with the Lang. Only later did we discover that the Scott had a cracked and previously repaired stock. What do they say? “Act in haste; repent at leisure.” I tell this story only to emphasize that careful inspection of the stock and forend is as necessary as the inspection of the barrels.
The characters in this next story shall remain nameless. In my early excursions to US gun shows, I often was asked to examine and give my opinions of various guns. Being a little naive, I offered this service and advice without consideration for the dealers involved. I soon learned the error of my ways when a client who I had shot with in Scotland asked me to look at a pair of Boss shotguns at the Antique Arms Show. He brought them to the AG&L booth, where I looked them over. They were tired, to say the least, with barrels off the face, chewed-up screws and pins (usually a sign that someone unqualified had a go at fixing something), and barrels under margin.
I asked the client what he would like to do with the pair, and he said that he was going to restore the guns to “as new” condition. I advised him that the cost would be such that, if he added the cost of restoration to the asking price, he would be better advised to buy a pair in superb condition. I went on to say that the Boss pair could be used with a little work, but the guns were not worth the price of restoration to “as new.” I believed that our conversation was in confidence, but no! The client promptly took the pair back to the dealer and told him that I had said they were scrap metal. You can imagine the fallout from that . . . .
I had a good friend who brought me a Purdey boxlock to look over. The barrels were so badly pitted that I said I would be worried to shoot the gun. He replied, “But it’s a Purdey!”
“Yes,” I replied, “but it has scrap barrels!”
When he went ahead and bought the gun, I asked him why. He said that when he told the seller what I had said, the seller had replied that I was wrong. It was just lead and plastic fouling in the barrels, and if they were given a good soaking in Hoppe’s, the fouling would dissolve and the barrels would gleam! I am afraid my friend would have believed anything, because he had his heart set on buying a Purdey. This is a fine example of letting emotions overpower common sense.
I recount these tales to show that even experienced shotgun buyers make mistakes. The “desire to acquire” can cause temporary deafness and blindness. But further, there is etiquette to be observed when asking if you can have a gun inspected. Most dealers and sellers at gun shows and online are more than happy to allow an inspection. Once you have consulted on an independent inspection, remember that the seller also has a good knowledge of the gun and its condition. Take the independent advice offered, and explain it to the dealer. Ask him his opinion and whether he has some room in the price to cover any remedial work or if he’s prepared to have the work done before delivery. A good deal is achieved when both parties are happy with the outcome. If you decide that a gun is not for you, just return it and thank the dealer for the opportunity to view it. Do not regale him with a full explanation of the gun’s faults. If you do not want it, those faults are not your concern.
- If you are inspecting a gun on your own, start by checking that the serial numbers on the barrels, receiver and forearm match. If they do not, it could mean that one or more of the parts has been replaced or that the gun was built from a collection of parts. Be very wary of such a gun, but if it is in good condition at an acceptable price, this is not a deal-breaker.
- Check the stock measurements. I suggest a minimum LOP of 14 inches, allowing the installation of a recoil pad to fit the shooter’s LOP. Drop and cast should be checked as well, and they should be close enough that a simple hot-oil bend would make them fit.
- Look for overall signs of wear and tear. Is the bluing worn off the barrels? Case coloring will wear with time, as it is only a few thou thick, but you need to be sure that no one has “touched it up” with a blow torch. Is the woodwork scratched, dinged or dented or the checkering worn smooth? Closely inspect the stock for any cracks, particularly around the head of the stock and through the grip. Inspect the head of the stock to see if it is soaked in oil, and then do the same with the forend. Look for chewed-up screws and pins and wear marks on the action hinge pin and knuckles. Check the forend iron for same, as these areas can provide indications of good or poor maintenance.
- Inspect the barrels by holding them up to a light. Check the insides as well as the outsides of the bores—looking for pitting, dents or bulges and paying particular attention to the chambers. Running your fingers gently along the barrels can often reveal dents and bulges.
- Hold the barrels by the lump and gently “ring” them using the wooden handle of a screwdriver. The barrels should chime like a bell, indicating that the ribs are correctly attached. If there is a dull thud, this means that the ribs are loose. Inspect the ventilated ribs of O/U barrels for dents, and look for signs of any corrosion at the joint of the ribs and barrels.
- Check the amount of choke in each barrel, and make sure it is the proper constriction for the type of shooting you want to do.
- If multi-chokes are installed, check that they are easily removed and reinstalled. Inspect the threads of the chokes and barrels for wear or corrosion.
- With the barrels on the action and the forend removed, grasp the action with both hands, barrels erect, and gently shake the gun from side to side. This works the same for side-by-sides and over/unders. If there is even a slight movement of the barrels, this indicates that the gun requires re-jointing. Another telltale sign is if the toplever is left of center when the gun is shut.
- Check that the “safety,” whether it is automatic or manual, is working correctly and that the trigger pulls are crisp. A trigger-pull gauge will help determine correct pulls of 31/2 to 4 pounds. Check to see if a single trigger is working properly by using snap caps to test that the trigger fires both barrels and ejects. (With some guns you need to bump the butt of the stock to move the inertia block to the second trigger pull.) Check the barrel selector by reversing the firing order and running through the cycle again.
- Using snap caps, fire the gun and observe that the ejectors trip at the same time, then fire one barrel and be sure only one ejector trips. Switch the firing order and repeat.
- And last but most important: Confirm that the gun has been nitro-proofed, is in proof and is in a safe condition to shoot. If you are unsure about how to do this, ask a qualified gunsmith or firearms dealer.
After four decades of gun trading, repairs, alterations, and more sales and evaluations than I can recall, I know I am still capable of missing a fault and buying a lemon. So follow the centuries-old advice of caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”) when purchasing your next shotgun.
Chris Batha’s latest book, The Instinctive Shot, can be ordered by visiting www.chrisbatha.com.