How to get a great deal on a used shotgun
By Gregg Elliott • photographs by Terry Allen
Before he passed on, Bob was famous around our gun club for three things. First, he was a great dog trainer. About the only thing he couldn’t teach a pointer or setter to do was say, “Meow.” Second, he loved Parker shotguns. That’s all he shot; and when I joined the club, he was the only guy shooting them or any side-by-side for that matter. And third, he was a huge bullshitter.
So when I asked Bob to teach me something about old shotguns, I didn’t know what to make of his response.
“To start,” he said, “scrape together ten grand. Do whatever it takes: Put off fixing your truck, get a second job, stop going out on Saturday nights. Whatever. Just get the money.
“Then drive down to Gibbons’ place in Pennsylvania and spend it all. Let him pick out some Parkers and Foxes for you, and have him tell you all about them.”
This sort of made sense to me. But I couldn’t say the same for what followed.
“Then on the way home, stop at Big Jim’s place there in Kittery and sell him all your new guns. Jim will tell you everything that’s wrong with them . . . and then some.”
Huh? I thought. “But won’t I lose money?”
“Oh, absolutely,” Bob said. “A lot of it. And you’ll never forget the lessons that teaches you.”
Looking back, I can appreciate Bob’s hard-knock advice. I’ve spent decades buying and trading double-barreled shotguns; and my most enduring lessons have come from being on the bad ends of deals—especially when I was starting out. In those early days information about Parkers, Foxes, Purdeys and other classic shotguns was hard to come by. So were original examples to study and learn from. Today things are different. Thanks to magazines like Shooting Sportsman, books by authors like Michael McIntosh and Vic Venters, and the Internet, information about vintage doubles is everywhere. Just as important is how you now can go online and look at and compare hundreds of side-by-sides and over/unders with just a few clicks. Prices are different today too. After rising for decades, they have leveled off and even slipped. Bargains can be found, if you know where to look. But to figure out which guns are great deals and which are just old and tired, you need to ask the right questions.
Buying a shotgun is like a courtship: The more you know up front, the better off you are in the long run. When you spot a side-by-side online or see a nice over/under at a gunshop, there’s a lot you need to learn about it before you write a check or anyone runs your credit card.
First, is the gun all original or has it been redone? In the world of vintage shotguns, original condition is king. The more original condition an old shotgun has, the more valuable the gun will be—and the more it will cost. But shotguns in all-original condition also have the best chance of increasing in value over time. “Condition” is a generic way to talk about the finishes on a gun’s barrels, action, wood and metalwork (forend iron, trigger guard, toplever and so on). When a gun is “all original,” these finishes are those that were applied by the maker when the gun was new. When a gun has been “redone” or “refinished,” one or more of these finishes have been reapplied by the maker, a gunsmith or a restoration specialist. Of course, an all-original shotgun can be in lousy, unshootable shape; and many shotguns that have been redone or refinished are excellent shooters. If your priority is to collect shotguns, buy the finest all-original examples you can afford. If you are looking for a hunting gun or something to shoot targets with, a gun with some redone and refinished parts is fine, as long as the gun is still in solid, shootable shape.
Once you have established a gun’s condition, you need to look into its barrels (sometimes literally). Most Parkers, Foxes and other classic doubles are 80-plus years old. Like old bird hunters, they’re suffering from decades of wear and tear. To separate a good gun from a bad gun, you’ll need to find out if its barrels have been altered. Ask the seller, “What are the chamber lengths and chokes?” “Have the barrels been shortened?” “Have the chokes been opened?” Then find out if the barrels show problems or excessive wear. “Are there any dents, pits or bulges in the barrels?” “Are there any signs of repairs?” To learn about the overall health of the barrels, ask, “What are the bore measurements?” “What are the minimum barrel-wall thicknesses?” To see how the barrels fit on the action, ask, “Are the barrels tight and on the face?” If the answer to this last question is, “No,” you’re looking at a big bill to fix things (if the gun can be fixed at all).
Some of these questions can be answered with a visual inspection. But those about chamber lengths, bore sizes and wall thicknesses require specialized tools and specialized knowledge. So don’t be surprised if a seller can’t answer them. And one more thing: If you’re looking at a British or European shotgun, ask, “Is the gun in proof?” If the answer is negative, walk away.
The next thing to learn about your potential purchase is the gun’s stock measurements. When you buy a hunting coat, it has to fit. The same is true of a shotgun. Learning a gun’s stock measurements will tell you if the gun will fit and if you’ll have a chance of hitting anything with it. But how do you know your stock measurements? The most precise way is to have a professional conduct a shotgun fitting. This typically takes several hours and costs several hundred dollars. Results vary, and getting things just right can require several tries. The easier and cheaper way to do this is to go to YouTube.com, search for “shotgun fitting tips” and watch the most popular videos. They’ll give you a good sense of how to figure out your stock measurements.
Now that your head is spinning with everything there is to know, here’s some relief: There’s an easier way to learn all this. Unfortunately it starts with another question. You need to ask the seller, “What’s your inspection and return policy?” If you’re buying from a traditional auctioneer (not through a site like Gunbroker.com), be aware that most do not offer inspection and return periods. If you bid on a gun and win, you own it, regardless of whether or not you like it. Traditional gunshops are tricky. While they should allow you to return a gun within a few days if you discover it has issues, be sure to ask about their policies. Gun dealers and people who sell through print publications or online sites like Gunsinternational.com should offer at least three days to inspect a gun and return it for a refund. If they don’t, move on. The sellers are pushing too much risk on you.
“If this gun could talk . . .” is a hackneyed phrase. It’s also misleading. Guns do talk, and good gunsmiths speak their language. In a few hours a good gunsmith can go over your purchase and tell you everything you need to know about its history and condition. You’ll pay for this service, and it won’t be cheap. But it will be money well spent. Even if it costs a couple of hundred bucks, an inspection like this can keep you from wasting thousands of dollars. But no matter how long you’ve looked for a certain gun or how many times you’ve fantasized about carrying it through a grouse covert, if your gunsmith says it has big issues, send it back. Period. Leave the problem guns, restoration projects and basket cases to people looking to discover the meaning of “money pit” and help put a gunsmith’s kids through college.
At this point you’re probably asking yourself why you would want to go through all this trouble just to buy an old gun? Fair enough. There’s a lot to know, and learning all of it can be hard. But there are good reasons to go through the process. Classic shotguns are special. They have endured, as we all hope to do, and part of the pleasure of owning them is uncovering their history and learning how people created them. Classic shotguns also link you to the future and to hunters who will use your guns one day to create memories of their own. On top of all this, classic shotguns can be great deals right now.
“There are more great guns available today than ever before,” said Bill Hadfield of Robin Hollow Outfitters, in Rhode Island. “And many of them are at very fair prices.” During the past five years Baby Boomers, who fueled the surge for collectible firearms in the 1990s and early 2000s and drove up prices, have shifted from buyers to sellers. Every day more nice vintage shotguns are popping up on dealers’ racks, appearing online and showing up at auctions across the country. For anyone hoping to find his or her dream Winchester, Lefever or Dickson, it’s game on. Guns you hardly ever used to see—from Parker .410s to 20-gauge Boss side-by-sides—are coming on the market, and the prices are more reasonable than ever.
Some of the best deals can be found in what was once America’s favorite shotgun: the side-by-side 12-gauge. From the 1880s to the early 20th Century, makers like Fox, Ithaca, Remington and Purdey built thousands of these guns. Today these 12-gauges are as desirable as a Brittany that runs off every time you let it out of the truck. Shooters interested in 12-gauges are buying over/unders for target shooting and modern pumps and semi-autos for turkey hunting and waterfowling. As a result, the demand for vintage 12-gauge side-by-sides has almost evaporated, and this presents one of the greatest buying opportunities ever.
“You’re five lots out,” the woman on the other end of the phone said, and my pulse jumped several beats.
I was sitting at my desk, anxious to bid on a 12-gauge, side-by-side Francotte coming up at auction. I looked at the pictures online and reviewed the description for the zillionth time. I already had asked dozens of questions about the gun, and I had inspected it in person to see if it checked out. It was an unusual Francotte with a scalloped boxlock action and Woodward-style arcaded fences. The condition looked all original except for a buttpad, and the specs screamed, Great grouse gun!
“OK, your lot’s next,” the woman on the phone alerted me, and when the auctioneer called it out as open for bidding, she said, “He has $500 to begin.”
“Bid $550,” I told her.
“Auctioneer has $600,” she replied, noting the counter bid.
“Bid $650,” I responded.
Someone countered, I bid again, countered, I bid, and when the auctioneer called, “Sold!” and his gavel knocked the podium, the Francotte was mine. Hammer price: $850. With the buyer’s premium, tax and shipping, the gun cost about $1,100—a steal for a handmade side-by-side in superb condition from one of the world’s top makers.
Bargains like these can be had today, and to find one you should check all the usual suspects: gunshops; online sites like Gunbroker.com and Gunsinternational.com; and auction sites, including Proxibid.com. Ask a lot of questions and, regardless of the price on a gun, don’t be afraid to offer less. Whenever possible, have a gunsmith inspect the gun, and when you find that treasured collectible or that classic shotgun that’s ready to be taken afield, the experience will mean that much more to you because of all the effort you put in.