Buying A Used Shotgun

By Chuck Hawks

This article is concerned with the purchase of used shotguns by the recreational shooter and/or hunter. Shotguns that will be used for their intended purpose, which is shooting, not with collectors' guns or wall hangers.

The common reasons to purchase a used shotgun 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 gun than might otherwise be the case. For example, I own a used Trap Grade Winchester Model 21 double gun with fancy wood and 21-4 engraving, for which I paid some $3000 several years ago. (It is probably worth twice what I paid for it as I write these words.) The new price of such a gun would have been well into five figures, and totally out of my reach.

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 gun 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 shotgun being returned must come back in the same condition it left the store.

Always test any shotgun for function and pattern with factory loads. If there is a problem, you want to be sure that reloaded ammunition cannot be blamed.

I recently purchased a used Weatherby rifle 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. It checked out functionally perfect. 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 (there wasn't, the gun was exactly as advertised), I could have returned the gun 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.

How to check the condition of a used shotgun

Before handling any firearm, always open the action and verify that both the chamber and the magazine are empty. Every time a firearm changes hands it should be cleared.

1. Look at the overall condition of the shotgun. Notice the condition of the bluing, stock finish, checkering, butt plate or recoil pad, pistol grip cap, and so on. The action, trigger guard, tang, and forearm screws should be tight and the screw heads un-marred. Look for rust pitting on external metal surfaces. The gun doesn't have to be perfect in every area, but it should show care rather than neglect. A shotgun 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 or dents. Don't buy any shotgun if you suspect that the barrel has been bulged, no matter how slightly, or is not straight.

2. The stock fit is the most important feature of any shotgun. It should be long enough to keep the thumb of your grip hand away from your face under recoil, and short enough not to snag under your armpit when you shoulder the gun.

When you mount the gun it should come up aligned with your shooting eye, and your shooting eye should be slightly above the rib or barrel so that you are looking slightly down on the barrel. You should see the barrel foreshortened in front of you. If there are two beads on the rib, they should form a figure 8. If you are looking exactly down the rib or barrel with the front bead appearing like the front sight of a rifle, or two beads exactly aligned, the stock has too much drop at the comb. The reason for this is that birds or clay targets are usually rising when shot at, and if your shotgun shoots perfectly straight you will shoot under most of them. Having the gun naturally aimed at a slight up angle gives you some built in lead on rising targets.

3. 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, and at the rear of the sideplates of sidelock doubles, where recoil can cause hairline cracks to develop. Reject any shotgun that shows a crack or split in the stock. Scratches in the finish, worn checkering, and nicks in the stock will not affect the gun'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 gun, and the oil has softened the wood. This is bad if it seems extensive and may eventually require replacement of the stock.

4. Get permission to dry fire the gun and check the trigger pull. Use dummy rounds or snap caps to protect the firing pin(s).

The Browning O/U (and other similar guns, such as several Charles Daly models) uses the recoil from the first shot to "set" the trigger to fire the second barrel. To simulate recoil after dry firing the first barrel, you can thump the butt plate against the floor (on a soft carpet), and it will usually set the trigger to fire the second barrel. Or, you can reset the safety to fire the second barrel. In any case, make sure both barrels of any double can be fired.

Whatever the trigger 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 get it adjusted later. If it feels crisp and breaks at 3-4 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 gun against some hard but padded surface--a carpeted hardwood floor is good. If the gun has a recoil pad there is little danger to the stock even if bumped on a hard surface like concrete.

Likewise, the cocked hammer(s) should not drop when the action of a repeater is closed smartly. If you can make the gun fire by bumping it or closing the action of a repeater briskly it is unsafe. Don't buy it!

5. Check the action. You will need a couple of dummy rounds and/or snap caps of the proper gauge to do this. Double guns should be tight when closed and the opening lever should be centered or to the right of center (when viewed from behind or with the gun at the shoulder). Top levers to the left of center indicate a worn action. Some actions can be adjusted to take up wear (the Winchester Model 21 and Lefever doubles, for example).

Hammerless doubles should cock when the barrels are lowered. Some have automatic safeties that move to the safe position when the action is opened, and others do not. Either type is satisfactory.

Check the selective ejectors on double guns so equipped to insure that they eject the fired shell, but not the unfired shell. Ditto the single selective trigger on double guns. Again, use dummy rounds or snap caps for this purpose.

Cycle a repeater to verify that it operates smoothly and properly. See that the bolt is tight and free of looseness when closed and cocked. Make sure the safety works correctly--the gun should not fire with the safety on, and should fire with it off. This is true of all types of shotguns.

On pump guns the slide should remain locked while the gun is cocked, after the trigger is pulled you should be able to cycle the action. When the gun is cocked, pressing the action release (bolt release) should allow it to be cycled. Make the action pumps smoothly, without binding.

Check that the gas seals on gas operated autoloaders and the friction rings on long recoil (Browning) designs are in good shape. Also see that the action has been kept reasonably clean for proper functioning.

6. Check the inside of the barrel(s). 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 barrel and look into it from both ends. Use a bore light. A small amount of rust or pitting inside the barrel will ordinarily not seriously degrade performance in a shotgun, but it should lower the used price.

If the gun has interchangeable chokes, make sure that they can be screwed in and out, and that you get a full set. Usually this includes Full, Modified, and Improved Cylinder tubes. If the choke is fixed, see that there is some and that it at least roughly matches the amount of choke marked on the barrel. It is a Very Good Thing if extra barrels can still be purchased for a used repeater.


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 shotgun 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 a lot of fun owning and shooting guns I could not otherwise afford. Sometimes I have even made a slight profit when it became necessary to sell a gun that I 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 have more fun shooting!

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Copyright 2002, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.