How to buy vintage shotguns without getting burned: The 2nd most important questions to ask a seller

Boss & Co. 20 bore SLE ~ Simply outstanding! This is a chance to own the very best of the best real estate in the double gun world! Super investment
Boss & Co. 20 bore SLE ~ Simply outstanding! This is a chance to own the very best of the best real estate in the double gun world! Super investment

So I’ve had tech issues with Dogs & Doubles, and it has taken me a while to get things sorted out. Sorry for the trouble. But now I’m back. So here’s the next part of How to buy vintage shotguns without getting burned.

A few weeks ago, I talked about the first of the three most important questions you need to ask a seller before you buy a gun:

Question 1: Is the gun all original or has it been redone?

This week, we’ll cover: Question 2: What’s the condition of the barrels?

One thing I learned quickly in my gun-hoarding days was that bad barrels equal a bad gun. I know this sounds extreme, but it’s true for 2 reasons.

This gun was intentionally destroyed with a gross overcharge of smokeless powder. Pic from MidwayUSA website
This gun was intentionally destroyed with a gross overcharge of smokeless powder. Pic from MidwayUSA website

1: Safety. If the integrity of the barrels is compromised in any way, you can’t count on them to constrain the forces that are unleashed when you fire a gun.

16g Parker CHE SxS Shotgun
16g Parker CHE SxS Shotgun

2: Barrels are never worth replacing. OK, almost never. But on an old Parker or Fox, a new set made from scratch will cost your $8,000+ — if you can find someone to do it and do it right. You can send a British SxS or an OU back to the UK for new barrels, but you’re talking at least $10,000. European stuff can be just as pricey.

So when you’re buying a vintage shotgun, you need to figure out the condition of the barrels right away. Here are 5 questions to ask the seller.

Are these barrels their original length? I hope so -- I own the gun!
Are these barrels their original length? I hope so — I own the gun!

1. Are the barrels their original length? Back in the day, gunsmiths used to hack off a couple of inches from shotgun barrels all the time, usually to open up the chokes or to remove damage at the muzzle end. Unfortunately, this can affect how the barrels shoot and how the gun balances. It also lowers a gun’s resale value and can look lousy. So if the barrels are no longer their original length, the smart move is to pass on the gun.

Ouch. A nasty dent in a set Parker barrels. Image from the PerlicanParts forum.
Ouch. A nasty dent in a set Parker barrels. Image from the PerlicanParts forum.

2. Are there are any dents, dings, or bulges in the barrels? If so, you may be able to fix them. But depending on where they are, how bad they are, and the overall quality of the gun, it may not be worth doing. Determining the severity of a dent, ding, or bulge requires a gunsmith. The moment you consult one, you’ll start running a tab that could go to $200+ if you move ahead with any work. BTW: Check out this article to read more about dents what goes into repairing them: The Ins And Outs Of Shotgun Barrel Dents

Bad pitting inside a shotgun barrel
Bad pitting inside a shotgun barrel

3. Is there any pitting or corrosion, inside or out? Rust is never good. But some pin-pricks and small blooms of it can be easy to deal with if they’re on the exterior of the bbls. The same is true with a little light frosting inside the tubes. But thick rust and pits can only be removed with honing and polishing. These fixes aren’t cheap and they can create thin spots in the tubes. None of that is good.

4. Are the ribs tight?  Shotgun ribs are fastened to the barrels with soldering. When this soldering comes loose and falls away, moisture works underneath and rust follows. While loose ribs can be relayed, you don’t know how extensive the rust damage is until you remove the ribs. Plus, relaying ribs is expensive and you’ll have to reblue the barrels once it’s done.

5. Are there are any signs of repairs? Barrels get dented and fixed. Sometimes they bulge and are repaired. When they rust, people clean them up and reblue them (but won’t always reblue them the right way). While minor repairs aren’t a huge concern, major fixes are. If a set of barrels has been repaired, you (or more likely a gunsmith) will have to inspect them to see if the repair was done correctly and if the area around the repair has been compromised. And you know what that means — $$$$.

So that’s a lot to ask — I know. Later this week I’ll go over the rest of the things you need to find out about a set of shotgun barrels before you guy the gun, including chamber lengths, bore sizes, and minimum wall thicknesses. Stay tuned.

Shotgun barrels – how thin did makers really make them?

Shotgun barrel wall thickness gauge, from Connecticut Shotgun
Barrel wall thickness gauge

I was up at the James D. Julia Auction Company a few weeks ago looking over the shotguns in their March 11 & 12 sale. A lot of doubles caught my eye – from this great 16 gauge Woodwards O/U to this fantastic, 12 gauge J.P. Sauer Deluxe.

There were lots of nice American shotguns there, too, and I spent a while looking over the 20 gauge Parker and the 12 gauge Lefever shown below. Both guns impressed me with their crisp, original condition. Wanting to know about them, I looked them up in the auction catalog and I was shocked to see how thin the barrel walls were on both side-by-sides.

20 gauge Parker AAHE Double Barrel Side-by-Side Shotgun, owned by Fred Gilbert
20 gauge Parker AAHE Double Barrel Side-by-Side Shotgun, owned by Fred Gilbert

INCREDIBLE, ATTIC FOUND, 20 GA. PARKER BROS. AAHE WITH CASE. SN 161999 “It is absolutely original..Cal. 20 ga. 2-9/16” Chambers…Bbls retain 70 – 80% orig blue….Bore diameter: left-.617, right -.616. Bore restrictions: Mod, Cyl. Weight: 5 lbs. 14 oz…Wall thickness: left -.018, right -.020.

12 gauge Lefever Double Barrel Side-by-Side Shotgun, Special Order
12 gauge Lefever Double Barrel Side-by-Side Shotgun, Special Order

EXCEPTIONAL SPECIAL ORDER EARLY STYLE LEFEVER HEAVY GAME GUN. SN 16438. “Cal. 12 ga, 2-3/4″ Chambers… has 30”. Excellent, as found.  Bbls retain 80 – 90% orig blue. Bore diameter: left-.732, right -.732. Bore restrictions: left – Full, Mod. Weight: 7 lbs. 9 oz. Wall thickness: left -.020, right -.016.”

Afterwards, I went back to both guns and took a long look at the barrels. After a lot of close looking, I couldn’t find any signs of repairs to the barrels. They had to be original. That means the barrels left the factory with those thin spots.

To learn more about bbl wall thickness and it’s importance, check out this article: Thoughts on Barrel Wall Thicknesses from the Parke Gun Collector’s Association. It’s interesting to see what people think today, and what the gunmakers thought back when they were putting these shotguns together.

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