Buying A Used Rifle
By Chuck Hawks
This article is concerned with the purchase of used rifles by the recreational shooter and/or hunter. Rifles that will be used for their intended purpose, which is shooting, not with collectors' rifles or wall hangers.
The common reasons to purchase a used firearm are to save money or acquire a model no longer in production. Guns hold their value very well, so if you later decide to trade or sell the gun, you should be able to get pretty much what you paid for it, minimizing any loss relative to buying new. This matters to those of us who have bought and sold a fair number of firearms for our personal use.
Buying used also allows the person of modest means to purchase a better or higher-grade rifle than might otherwise be the case. For example, In 2002 I purchased a used .257 Magnum Weatherby Mark V Deluxe rifle for the princely sum of $725. This was a fair amount of money (at least to me), and for about the same price I could have purchased any one of several excellent brand new bolt action rifles. But $725 was a lot less than the 2002 list price of $1699 or the retail price (in my area) of about $1499 for a new Weatherby Mk. V Deluxe.
This particular rifle shows some scratches in the stock and considerable bluing wear at the muzzle, bolt knob, and magazine floorplate. It has obviously been hunted and carried quite a bit. But the rest of the bluing is in decent condition, the checkering is in good shape, there are no cracks or splits in the walnut stock, the bore is in excellent condition (the previous owner probably put about 200 rounds through it), the action is tight, the trigger pull is as adjusted at the Weatherby factory, and everything works as it is supposed to. It is still a handsome rifle, particularly after I took it home and gave it a little tender loving care.
And, as it turned out, that rifle is capable of excellent accuracy with factory loads. It delivers 3-shot groups averaging less than 1 inch (25mm) at 100 meters with Weatherby 100 grain factory loads (using Hornady Interlock bullets). And it will shoot into 1.5 inches or a little less with Weatherby 120 grain factory loads (using Nosler Partition bullets) at the same distance. This is good performance in the real world for any rifle, new or used. I am confident that I can develop handloads using 120 grain bullets of another type that will shoot into 1 inch or less at 100 meters.
Buy from someone that you trust
If you are not an experienced used gun buyer, perhaps the most important thing is to buy from someone you trust. A reputable gun shop is not looking to rip you off, they are looking for repeat customers, and they should have already inspected the rifle for condition and safety before putting it on the rack. They should be willing and able to give you an honest appraisal of the gun. Most will allow you to return a used gun for a refund or exchange within a reasonable period of time (like a week, not a month!) if it doesn't meet normal standards of accuracy and function. Obviously, a rifle being returned must come back in the same condition it left the store.
Always test any rifle for function and accuracy with factory loads. If there is a problem, you want to be sure that reloaded ammunition cannot be blamed.
I purchased the Weatherby rifle mentioned above from a local gun shop where I have done business for years. The owner was familiar with the history of this particular rifle, and assured me that he had seen the previous owner shoot consistent 3-shot groups of less than one inch at 100 yards with handloads using Hornady Interlock 117 grain spitzer bullets. We looked-up the rifle in the current issue of Fjestad's Blue Book of Gun Values and agreed on a price we could both live with. Had there been a problem of some sort, I could have returned the rifle without any hassle. This is the way a used gun sale is supposed to work, and it is entirely dependent on dealing with honest people.
Buying through the mail or Internet
My advice to the novice used gun buyer is to avoid doing so. Don't buy any firearm you cannot inspect first. Not that there is a problem with most mail order sales, but should there be a problem you are entirely dependent of the good offices of a stranger. It is better to deal face to face with the seller.
Trust but verify, or how to check the condition of a used rifle
Before handling any firearm, always open the action and verify that both the chamber and the magazine are empty (remove the magazine if possible). Every time a firearm changes hands it should be cleared.
1. Look at the overall condition of the rifle. Notice the condition of the bluing, stock finish, checkering, butt plate or recoil pad, pistol grip cap, forearm tip, and so on. Check the crown at the muzzle end of the barrel. There should not be any obvious dings that might affect the accuracy of the rifle. Look for rust pitting on external metal surfaces. The rifle doesn't have to be perfect in every area, but it should show care rather than neglect. A rifle could be rough on the outside, yet perfect on the inside, but the chances are that an owner who didn't care for the external parts of a gun also didn't care for the parts you can't see.
Look carefully down the external length of the barrel to see that it looks straight and there are no subtle bulges. Don't buy any rifle if you suspect that the barrel has been bulged, no matter how slightly, or is not straight.
2. Ask the seller if the rifle's headspace has been checked recently. Don't be surprised if it hasn't been, since practically no one ever does. Headspace is a critical measurement, but in modern rifles from the major factories it is usually not a problem. In old, collector, military, or custom rifles, particularly if they headspace on the shoulder of a rimless cartridge and lock at the rear of the bolt, headspace is more likely to be a problem. A set of headspace gauges for the caliber of the rifle, which most buyers do not have, are required to check headspace. So it might be wise for the novice used gun buyer to stick with relatively modern (at least post WW II production) guns of major brand name.
3. Check the bedding of the barrel. The action, trigger guard, and forearm screws should be tight and the screw heads clean. The barrel band screws on traditional lever action carbines should be tight.
If the barrel of any rifle is supposed to be free floating you should be able to slip a strip of paper or a dollar bill between the forearm and the barrel. When you slide it up and down the barrel it shouldn't catch or drag on either side.
Many fine rifles have barrels that are solidly bedded in the stock. Check that the forearm to barrel fit is tight and even on both sides. You should not see the sort of gap necessary with free floating barrels. Any rifle that is unevenly inletted along the barrel channel or around the action should be rejected.
4. Check the condition of the stock. There should not be any splits or cracks in the stock or forearm. Pay particular attention to the top and trigger guard tang areas, where recoil can cause hairline cracks to develop. Reject any rifle that shows a crack or split in the stock. Verify that the sling swivels (if present) are tight. Scratches in the finish, worn checkering, and nicks in the stock will not affect the rifle's function, but should lower the price.
Also look for discolored wood at the back of the action, top and bottom. This is a sign of an excessively oiled rifle, and the oil has softened the wood. This is bad if it seems extensive and may eventually require replacement of the stock. Ask permission to remove the stock from the rifle to check this condition, or if hairline cracks are suspected.
Carefully check a synthetic stock for flex. It is very undesirable if you can warp the forearm so that it bears unevenly against one side of the barrel. One way to test for forearm flex is by assuming a "hasty sling" shooting position. Forearm flex is a common problem with synthetic stocks, and it definitely affects accuracy; it is one of the reasons I generally avoid synthetic stocks.
5. Check the action. Cycle it to verify that it operates smoothly and properly. See that it is tight and free of any looseness when closed and cocked. Make sure the safety works correctly--the rifle should not fire with the safety on, and should fire with it off. If the rifle has a hinged magazine floorplate, see that it opens correctly and closes securely, and that the latch has plenty of bite to keep it closed under recoil. See that the receiver screws in traditional lever actions are tight and not marred.
6. Inspect the bolt face for erosion and a clean firing pin hole, which should not be larger than necessary. Look at the body of the bolt, it should be smooth, rust free, and free of any marks that might indicate binding. Look at the wear on the locking lugs of a bolt action rifle--it should be even.
7. Get permission to dry fire the gun and check the trigger pull. Whatever the pull weight, it should be consistent from shot to shot. If it feels like a stock factory trigger (too heavy with some creep), fine, you can adjust it later. If it feels crisp and breaks at about 2.5-3 pounds it has probably been worked on or adjusted. This is even better if done properly, but make sure that it will not jar off. To test this, get permission to bump the butt of the cocked rifle against some hard but padded surface--a carpeted hardwood floor is good. If the rifle has a recoil pad there is little danger to the stock even if bumped on a hard surface like concrete. Likewise, the cocked firing pin or hammer should not drop when the action is closed smartly. It you can make the firing pin or hammer drop by bumping the rifle or closing the action briskly it is unsafe. Don't buy it!
8. Check the inside of the barrel. If it is dirty, ask that it be cleaned or for permission to clean it yourself. Do not oil the barrel after cleaning, and be suspicious of any barrel that has been oiled. The shine from the oil can hide minor barrel pitting and imperfections.
Once the barrel is reasonably clean, dry, and oil free, open the action or remove the bolt and look into the barrel from the muzzle end. Use a bore light. The lands at the muzzle should not look damaged or nicked--which can happen with careless cleaning from the front.
Look down the bore from the breech end. The lands right in front of the chamber end are the first to erode. Ideally they should be sharp and clean. It is not unusual if they show a slight frosting (early erosion), particularly on a high velocity rifle, but it should not extend more than about an inch up the bore, and should not look as if the edges of the lands are seriously rounded. A small amount of rust or pitting inside the barrel will ordinarily not seriously degrade accuracy in a rifle with a fairly fast twist, but it should lower the used price.
Quality firearms are built to last for generations. This makes used guns a much better investment over time than most consumer goods. Buying a used rifle can be, and usually is, a rewarding experience. I have bought the great majority of all of the guns I have ever owned used, and I can't remember ever being burned.
What I do remember is greatly increasing my shooting fun and gaining valuable experience at low cost. Sometimes I have even made a slight profit when it became necessary to sell a gun I had originally purchased used (usually because I needed the money to purchase some other used gun I just could not resist). Buy used, save money, and shoot more!
Copyright 2002, 2007 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.