Modern factory rifles are amazing, complete, reliable, and more accurate than ever before. In today’s dollars, basic bolt-actions, are more inexpensive than ever before. There are dozens of good models under $600, and some excellent new bolt-actions available for little more than half that. Almost invariably, most basic bolt-actions wear synthetic stocks, free-floated barrels, rust-resistant metal, and push-feed actions. No problem, they work and shoot well. And, of course, I shoot them, hunt with them, and write about them.
However, my personal tastes run much more to good old walnut, mated and carefully fitted to blued steel. These features are available in new rifles of all action types. But you’ll pay more for them. It comes down to manufacturing costs. Synthetic is less costly than wood…and requires less hand-fitting and final finishing. Other action types, whether lever, semiauto, etc., are generally more expensive than basic bolt-actions; and controlled-round-feed (Mauser-type) bolt-actions are costlier than push-feed actions. Again, manufacturing costs: Number of parts, raw materials, and both machining and assembly time. Just the way it is!
The good news: There are plenty of good older rifles on the used gun market. It has been estimated that there may be 300 million legal sporting firearms in the United States. With minimal care and normal use, a firearm should provide good service for decades, if not for generations. So long as you’re not a collector and don’t insist on pristine condition, many good once-owned (or perhaps twice or thrice-owned) rifles are available at reasonable prices. Often, for much less than a new rifle with similar features.
Here’s where I get into trouble. I’m left-handed, and I made a conscious shift to left-hand bolts and ambidextrous actions nearly 40 years ago. The impetus was a bad burglary that cleaned me out. The continuing rationale is safety: Where escaping hot gases and shrapnel go in the event of a catastrophic failure, such as a ruptured case head. Right-hand actions send bad stuff to the right, away from the right-handed shooter’s face…but toward the face and right eye of a lefty firing a right-hand action. Such failures are rare, but worthy of consideration by southpaw shooters. Of course, I shoot right-handed actions, and I write about them. Business is business, but personal guns are left-handed or ambidextrous.
I worship classic bolt-actions: Mausers, Springfields, pre-’64 Model 70s. I’d love to own a bunch of them but, sadly, they don’t do me much good because none were left-handed. Even so, I’ve owned quite a few. But that brings up another problem: Since the Eighties I’ve maintained a strict house rule: All firearms are securely locked away! Fortunately, I’m not a collector. There is a limit on space, so when we run out of room we “cull the herd,” adding to that rich used firearms market!
As much as I admire them, the only pre-’64 Model 70 I have right now was my Dad’s, a 1953-manufacture Featherweight 308 Winchester. His rifle still produces marvelous groups, but Dad’s rifle wears a rollover cheekpiece that is impossible for a lefty to shoot comfortably. I could find an original stock, but I’d rather keep it the way Pop liked it. I won’t sell it…but I’ll never shoot it much.
The used-rifle market is funny and fickle. “Custom” rifles, by definition, make a statement about the original owner’s preferences. However, absent a famous maker or major embellishment, it’s difficult to get original cost from a custom rifle…which means there are bargains out there, waiting to be found. Provided you can live with the original owner’s tastes! The only classic Mauser I have right now was built for John Batten, a great sheep hunter and mentor to me. A Batten’s rifle is chambered to .30-.338. Regardless of all else, non-standard “wildcat” cartridges drop a rifle’s value…. which, in part, is why I now own it. The .30-.338 cartridge dates the rifle: After the 338 Winchester Magnum (1958); and before the 300 Winchester Magnum (1963).
It’s an interesting rifle, and such rifles teach much about the shooting culture of their time. By 1960 scopes were in common use…but not universally trusted. Like his close friend Jack O’Connor, Batten started mountain hunting in the 1930s using aperture sights. Batten’s rifle is fitted with a 2.75X Redfield in a Griffin & Howe detachable side mount. There is no open rear sight, but the rear receiver ring wears a base for a Williams aperture sight. The actual aperture is stored in a buttplate trap. When hunting, you could choose either scope or aperture…but in order to install the aperture the scope must be removed (and vice versa). This rifle is also not for sale!
My friend Tony Lombardo stumbled upon an early Griffin & Howe Springfield in 30-06 Springfield, great wood and some engraving. Because it’s a G&H it wasn’t inexpensive…but nothing like what it would cost to replicate it today! Made in 1924, it has a Lyman 48 receiver-sight as the primary sight. A G&H side mount was added later, as was a Bear Cub 2.75X scope. Same deal as Batten’s rifle: You could mount the scope or the aperture, but not both at the same time!
The Springfield, a Mauser clone, was our service rifle from 1903 until replaced by the Garand during WWII. Original military Springfields are collectibles, but when I was a kid surplus Springfields were available for a song. Jillions were “sporterized,” both fancy (like Tony’s G&H); and plain, like the ’03 Springfield I butchered when I was young. My sporterizing including poor bluing and a drop-in Bishop stock. I should have kept it; it was my first centerfire. Such rifles are still common and inexpensive, but mine shot well and probably still does.
The only other Springfield I have ever owned was beautifully converted to left-hand bolt by R.F. Sedgley, Philadelphia contemporary of New York’s G&H, but more of a blue-collar gunsmith. It wore aperture sights only and shot very well. That rifle I really should have kept and regret that I didn’t. Remembering the house rule, we were low on space, but the main problem: I was having trouble resolving iron sights. Angry at myself, I cleaned out several iron-sighted rifles, but that Sedgley Springfield is the one I regret most. Should have gone to a good eye doctor first; prescription glasses fixed the problem!
Since most vintage bolt-actions are right-handed, most of my buying, selling, and swapping of older rifles has been lever-actions which, depending on make, are at least almost ambidextrous. Note that if it ejects to the right it has the same slight safety issue for left-handed use as any other right-hand-ejection firearm. But lever-actions are at least ambidextrous in operation, they’re fun, millions were made, and there are lots of them on the market.
All older rifles in top condition with low serial numbers and/or original special features and embellishment can fetch high prices. However, perhaps because we’ve all watched too many Westerns, older Winchester lever-guns tend to command higher prices.
Marlin and Savage lever-actions, on the other hand, are deemed not as “desirable” and are often reasonably priced. Depending on your purposes, Marlin and Savage lever guns are just as good as Winchester, and in some ways better. With side-ejection, all Marlins are suitable for scope mounting. Likewise, all Savage 99s, with the added advantage that the Savage rotary (or later box) magazine can utilize sharp-pointed, aerodynamic bullets.
In indulging my fetish for older rifles, in recent years I’ve picked up (and probably paid too much for!) a couple of older Winchesters. In the same period, I’ve purchased several very serviceable Savage 99s and Marlins, usually at less than half the cost of Winchester lever-actions of similar vintage and condition!
Although they’re not my “thing,” friends have had equal fun buying and swapping older slide-actions and semiautos, which have also generally escaped the inflation of the serious collectors.
There’s just one thing: Regardless of make, model, or action type, a used rifle is a bit like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: You never know exactly what you’re getting. There are always reasons why a person sells a perfectly serviceable rifle, and they aren’t always lack of funds or space. There may be hidden reasons why it seems such a good deal! Inspection periods are useful, but not always practical. Reality: You won’t always know what you’re dealing with until you get to the range. Most problems can be fixed. A gorgeous old Westley-Richards .318 Mauser had a worn extractor, simple fix. Broken springs and even sights can be replaced, though not always with originals.
Right now, I’ve got a vexing problem I’m not sure how to deal with. I bought a lovely Savage 1899 .250-3000 from a friend’s widow. Shoots great with 100-grain lead-core bullets, but I wanted to use it on California hogs, where unleaded bullets are required.
They tumble out the muzzle, scattering sideways into the target. I feared the bore was shot out, and then I was reminded: Early .250 Savage rifles had a slow 1:14 twist, intended for the initial 87-grain load. Copper bullets are longer. That twist won’t stabilize them and they keyhole. Rebarreling with a faster twist is really the only option. Replacing a worn barrel is not expensive, and always an option with older rifles…but you have to weigh the disadvantage of destroying the original condition. This rifle, with tang-mounted flip-up factory aperture and the barrel tightly bedded in a slim fore-end, is not a candidate for simple rebarreling. So, I opened the box of chocolates and this one wasn’t the flavor I expected. But it’s still a “keeper.” I just won’t be able to use the bullets I intended to use!