Buying a used heavy rifle.
Having been involved in the training of learner professional hunters and guides in Zimbabwe for quite a number of years and being in charge of the qualification shoot which the learners need to pass in order to obtain their full license, I've seen a great many rifles being used. Some have been good, some quite sublime, others not so good and some have been complete shockers!
Before the last shooting exam, Cleveland Pistol Club members like Tich Atkinson (a licensed PH) and Chris Pakenham (a former National Parks warden) gave up their time the week before in order to do some practice and training with the learners. Some rifles wouldn't shoot straight, others were unreliable and some just plain didn't work. Resident gunsmith Gary Howard-Beard was kept busy doing the best he could to rectify as many problems as possible. I have noted that the shockers are increasing in number to the point that it is time for a bit of advice as to buying a used rifle. For this article, we'll assume the rifle in question is a bolt-action, which is the overwhelming choice of the learner hunter or guide. This advice should also be helpful to any new shooter contemplating the purchase of a heavy rifle.
The problems involved in buying a rifle locally are largely two in number. Firstly, Zimbabwe has been subject to various arms embargos that have severely restricted even the availability of sporting rifles. New rifles are not generally available, so the used market becomes the only option. Secondly, the average learner doesn't have much money to play around with. Jobs are not easy to come by, and the pay isn't great. This has led to the situation where some learners, not knowing much about rifles in the first place, buy the cheapest rifle available and can end up with a real dog. So, just what does one look for in a heavy rifle that one is contemplating purchasing? Overall condition is an obvious indicator of what you are getting, but one has to be careful here. Many rifles that circulate within the industry have been carried a lot over the years, resulting in much of the metal's blueing and the stock finish largely wearing off, yet the rifle itself can still be perfectly mechanically sound. Things like rust, cracked wood, serious wear and general looseness, though, are indicators that this rifle may not be for you. There is a difference between honest wear and abuse. If you aren't sure about how to tell the difference, try to go with someone who is knowledgeable about firearms when examining a prospective purchase. Beware particularly of "home-made" alterations and repairs. These are generally easily spotted, and have obviously not been made by a competent gunsmith. Often such "repairs" only make things worse, and can be quite expensive to rectify (if they can be rectified at all). Generally, it would have been much better if the "gun-butcher" in question hadn't touched the rifle at all! I have seen an old .303 P-14 with a barrel that had split for most of its length. Goodness knows how this had been achieved, as the P-14 is a strong rifle, but some enterprising bush mechanic had hammered the split vaguely together and then brazed the whole thing closed for its entire length! Needless to say, firing such a thing would have resulted in an instant and fairly spectacular blow-up, but it does show the lengths to which some enterprising, but clueless, repair artists can go.
Have a look through the barrel as well--first making sure it is unloaded! If the bore is smooth and shiny, generally all is well, but rust and pitting show that some serious abuse and neglect has taken place. Some bores that are not too badly pitted can shoot reasonably well, though, and there are techniques like fire lapping that can smooth out a rough bore to a considerable extent. The advice of a professional is necessary here, and be careful--if the bore has been abused, there may be other areas of abuse elsewhere.
Back to the shiny bore--the rifling should be quite visible. If the rifling seems shallow and/or faint, there may be a problem. I've come across a couple of rifles where the rifling has been significantly worn due to the firing of many steel jacketed or monometal solids, although this is rare (these were probably ex-National Parks or Tsetse Control rifles, which did get fired an awful lot). Again, the opinion of a professional is needed if this is suspected. Watch out for bulged barrels as well--a bulge in the bore means that a bullet has been fired through it with some obstruction in the barrel, and a bulge results. This cannot be fixed except by re-barreling. A bulge is seldom unsafe (unless really extreme), but can result in dismal accuracy. Whether or not the rifle will be accurate enough for your purposes can only be determined by test-firing.
An abused or out-of-round muzzle crown will result in poor accuracy, and can affect bullet stability as well (which can badly compromise penetration, a serious matter in a heavy rifle). Happily, damaged muzzle crowns are easily fixed by a competent gunsmith.
On to the stock. Check for cracks, especially in the pistol grip area behind the tang, and also for missing bits--we've come across heavy rifles with chunks missing out of the stock, bits nailed together or bound with copper wire. To a degree, cracked stocks can be repaired, as long as the damage isn't too bad. Gun dealers may have replacement stocks, or could possibly order a new one.
One of the most important pieces of advice I can give to owners of heavy rifles with wooden stocks is to bed them! Meaning, get the stock bedded to the action and barrel with a fibreglass compound, and properly cross-bolted as well if not already done. I've seen cracked stocks on heavy rifles of most manufacturers, and the only way to stop this happening is to bed the stock to the action. This greatly strengthens and stabilises everything, and if you don't have this done you are virtually sure to have a cracked stock sooner or later. The services of a gunsmith will be needed here. The worst example I've seen was during a training exercise at Rifa where one learner was using a custom-made rifle put together in South Africa. The stock had no cross-bolts, bedding, nor any recoil reinforcement of any kind. The stockmaker who had made it reckoned that if properly made and fitted in the first place, such things were unnecessary. Well, after a few shots the learner hunter appeared to be holding two rifles! He had the butt and pistol grip in one hand, and the rest of the rifle in the other. The stock had cracked clean through. Maybe this approach would work with a .270 or a .30-06, but anything .375 on up should be properly bedded.
This is not to say the stock should not fit you as well--that is, when bringing the rifle up to the shoulder it should feel comfortable and the sights should be in reasonable alignment with the shooting eye, without having to move one's head about to line up the sights.
Check that everything is present and in good order. Extraordinary as it may seem, we've come across things like missing screws, loose (and absent) sights, missing extractors and ejectors and various other missing or non-functional parts. I've seen a .375 that had been fired without its forward guard screw, which didn't do the stock any good at all. Check the safety by applying it, and pulling the trigger. The striker should not fall. Now disengage the safety--the striker shouldn't fall at this stage either! I've come across examples of rifles which would discharge in each instance, and this is definitely the time to take it to a gunsmith.
It is also a good idea to cycle (preferably dummy) rounds through die action. Do this quickly, slowly and quite a number of times in order to see if the rifle is a reliable feeder or a chronic j ammer. Fire it at a range as well--you wouldn't buy a car without test-driving it first, so do he same with a rifle. While firing, shoot at a target to see if the sights are reasonably zeroed, because if the rifle cannot be brought to at least a reasonable zero after using all the adjustments available there may be a significant problem with the rifle or the sights. Again, it helps greatly if you have someone knowledgeable about firearms present while you are test firing. Watch for mis-feeding, live rounds popping out of the magazine when the bolt is worked briskly and magazine floor-plates coining adrift under recoil and dumping the remaining rounds from the magazine at your feet. Such misbehaviour may or may not be fixable, but it is now time to contact a professional gunsmith.
The trigger pull should not be too light nor too heavy. If it is overly heavy, the ability to shoot well is compromised and if the trigger pull is too light it can make the rifle dangerous. I've come across some firearms which took roughly twenty pounds of pressure before they would discharge, rendering accurate shooting impossible. On the other hand, I came across a .375 that had a trigger pull of roughly one and a half pounds. This was after a training session at Kariba which had finished, and some informal practice was taking place with various personal firearms, one of which was this .375. It was handed to someone who was obviously completely unfamiliar with firearms who wanted to have a go with it. While fumbling with it, said individual grasped the barrel, which was hot after quite a bit of firing, and promptly dropped it. The rifle landed on its butt pad and discharged, sending the bullet about six inches in front of the would-be firer's nose. He turned a funny colour and departed shortly thereafter. When I examined the rifle to see why it had done this, the dangerously light one-and-a-half pound trigger pull came to light. The owner was advised to have it adjusted!
Regarding trigger adjustment, if this needs to be done, it is an operation that should definitely be left to a professional gunsmith.
Speaking of which, here is another very important piece of advice for you--when contemplating the purchase of a used heavy rifle, have it checked out by a gunsmith! Most firearms dealers are not gunsmiths, although some may have a gunsmith within the shop. Mostly, though, gunsmiths are concerned only with the fixing, repair and modification of firearms, so make sure it is one of these you get your rifle checked by. A good gunsmith wifi spot defects and problems, and will be able to advise you as to whether the problems are fixable. Sometimes the cost of repairing all the defects wifi be more than the gun is worth, which it is definitely better to find out before purchasing the rifle rather than after! The gunsmith can advise generally as to whether the purchase is a good idea or not. Listen to him.
As long as there is a relatively large demand for heavy rifles--mainly used rifles to satisfy this demand--and learner PHs and guides who don't know any better, the bad rifles out there wifi continue to circulate. Some we see repeatedly, generally in the hands of a hapless new owner who soon realises he's been sold a dog. Generally, you get what you pay for, and although money may be short, it is worth saving up and making an effort to obtain the best heavy rifle one can. When dealing with heavy, dangerous game, your life and client's lives, this is not the time and place for an unreliable, unsafe and generally unsuitable heavy rifle. Heed the advice given, buy carefully and as always caveat emptor (let the buyer beware)!