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Buying Milsurp Rifles

copyright 2001 - Stephen Redgwell

In thirty odd years of buying military surplus rifles, I've never got a bad deal. I guess I've been lucky, but over time I've found a handful of people that I trust and go to first. Even then, I follow a simple set of rules and stick to them. Always, I hear that small voice steadily repeating, "Caveat Emptor - Let the buyer beware!"

If at all possible, don't buy anything without handling it first! I've heard too many horror stories about buying mail order rifles to consider that route on a regular basis. It takes a lot of friend's reassurances (and a good look at their own purchases) before I buy. How long have they been in business? Do they have a return policy? Without examining the merchandise, it can be quicksand. Nothing beats the hands on approach!

Never buy on impulse! This is the classic scenario of excitement overtaking common sense - and is especially true with milsurps. If the price seems too low to believe, then don't believe it.

An educated buyer is a smart buyer. When I'm on the lookout for a particular firearm, I find out as much as I can about it. I ask questions, read whatever I can find and compare ads. I find out who's selling them and what seems to be the going price. What condition are they in? I try to establish a dollar range that fits the rating - Good, Very Good or Excellent.

Carry tools. I always pack a magnifying glass, a pull through with attachments and a bore light. It's my tackle box when "fishing for milsurps". I keep it light because no seller wants you prying and unscrewing things. It's understandable if he doesn't know you. On the other hand, I'm not at all timid when visiting my regular haunts. Because they know me, I'll go for a more rigorous inspection.

Interview the seller. You can find a lot out in pleasant conversation. It costs you nothing and creates a comfortable atmosphere. The key here is to find out more about the store and who's on the other side of the counter. Don't try to impress the staff with stories about you. You must find out more about them!

At gun shows or unfamiliar gun shops, I ask general questions first. Even though I've spotted a specific rifle, I never ask to see it right off! I want to find out who I'm dealing with. Is he the owner? Is he a gunsmith? (and I mean a real gunsmith. Not Barney from down the road with some tools). What (if any) checks are done before they put the rifles on display? If it's the first time I've been there, I tell him, and ask how long the shop's been open. A few minutes of conversation can reveal a lot. I haven't met a good gunsmith yet that minded chatting about his work and experience.

Ask to see the rifle. If my initial impressions are positive, now I'll have a look . After he's presented it, I usually take out the bolt and remove the magazine (if so equipped). I check to see if the serial numbers on the bolt and action match. Is it the right magazine? i.e. matching Long Branch parts.

Next, I look for condition and wear. Is there any rust or cosmoline present? How are the bearing surfaces? Smooth and crisp, rounded, pitted etc. You really don't have to be an expert to recognize a a badly worn finish or rough handling.

Those pieces go down on the counter for a check of the rest. Is the stock clean? Is it beaten up? Are the accessories - nose cap, bands, sights in decent shape?

After this, I look down the bore. As a general rule, the outside appearance can provide clues about the bore's condition. I normally run with this. If the outside is badly beaten up...and that's everything, metal parts, sights, the stock and other attaching hardware, then chances are good that the inside won't be any better. Here's where I make my first judgment. If it's full of cosmoline, do I want to bother asking for a look? If I figure that it's worth a gamble, I'll ask if it's all right to run a few patches down the bore to clean it out a bit. I also ask again about the headspace. Some rifles are purchased from suppliers cleaned up and inspected, most however are not.

Don't be suspicious of the gunsmith because of the presence of cosmoline. A rifle's description is usually based on information as supplied by the distributor. The shipment may have just arrived or be large. It's not dishonesty, but too much work to fully strip, inspect and clean every rifle. Often, they'll just check a percentage. If this rifle is part of a larger shipment, the gunsmith will look through what he has if you're not happy. I believe in giving the fellow a chance! Being nice about the situation can sometimes help lower the price!

For rifles that aren't stuffed with preservative, I'll reinstall the bolt and work the action. Does it operate smoothly and not bind? I put the safety on and pull the trigger. Did it work?

Off with the safety and on to the trigger. For a two stage trigger I feel for a defined 1st and 2nd stage. Be aware that even a tiny bit of cosmoline or crud can inhibit proper functioning. If the two of you are in this far, he may let you clean it up a bit to restore the pull.

Now to the price. You've noted the basic condition. If you want to take it home, it's time to talk. Tell him what you think and make an offer. Remember to keep the conversation light. If you're not aggressive, he won't be either. Generally, I offer about 30% less than the tag price. For example, I'd offer $100 for a $150 asking price. Based on desirability, the competition's offerings and good conversation, he'll make his pitch.

Remember that even when you're browsing, a possible business transaction looms in the air. He wants to sell and you may want to buy. He'll be on his best behaviour and so should you. Conducting yourself appropriately, being pleasant and asking thoughtful questions may increase your odds of a better price, a better condition rifle or both. Be honest with any assessments, but don't take a harsh or aggressive tone.

Never question his honesty! You can always walk away if something about the deal doesn't seem right.

Set a maximum price that you're willing to pay before you walk in.

Remember that he's in business to turn a profit. In this regard, sometimes he'll offer a deal or maybe he won't. If the price is in your range, there can be give and take on both sides.

You're buying a used rifle - expect imperfections.

Determine how much time and work you're willing to invest into the rifle. You may find that he's got damaged or parts rifles in the back. If you've got the talent, consider one of them.

To sum up, before you walk into the shop, learn about what you want to buy! Be prepared to dicker, but don't press too hard for a deal. Negotiation involves compromise. Get to know the people that work there. Set a maximum price. Ask about bargain rifles or damaged stock - if you're willing and able to put in some work to fix things up.

Have fun and remember, every trip to a gun shop is an adventure!