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Propellant Profiles
Rifle Magazine
March - April 2004
Volume 36, Number 2
ISSN: 0162-3583
Number 212
On the cover...
The Tikka Model T-3 Hunter .25-06 Remington features a Burris 6x Fullfield scope with Tikka rings and bases. Photo by Stan Trzoniec.
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In the past decade or so, there has been a continual growing interest in nineteenth-century rifles, particularly leverguns, as well as a variety of fine vintage single shots such as the Model 1874 Sharps, 1885 Winchester, Remington rolling block and several others. This has pleased me, and it’s been interesting to watch a new generation of shooters (and in some instances older generations) discover how much fun and just how good many of these old guns are. Along with these rifles, many cartridges have been brought out of the grave and put back to use in cowboy competitions, black powder silhouette matches and even in the field.

The problem is there are many honest antique guns that are falling “victim” to customizing, refinishing or some trendy or silly modification. This can be tragic as it often destroys value and a piece of history that cannot be replaced.

A few days ago, I walked into a gun shop and a SASS shooter had just plunked down a thick stack of $100s for a Winchester Model 1887 lever-action shotgun that was unaltered and still retained about 95 percent of its original finish – a beautiful example. He commented to the effect he was on his way to a gunsmith to cut the 32-inch barrel to 20 inches, making it better suited to cowboy matches! I about croaked and suggested he not do that, explaining several reasons why not. My pleading fell on deaf ears, and he went on his merry way. Likewise many fine vintage rifles are being chopped or altered in some way in hopes of making them better suited to competition.

Those anticipating a restoration or modification to an antique or classic firearm might first consider a few guidelines. Let’s say we have an 1890’s vintage Winchester Model 1886 rifle that is in “gray” condition, or has little to no finish left, but has never been modified. It has not been refinished, the barrel has not been cut, and the stock isn’t cracked, cut or modified with a pad. Certainly we wish that our gun were in better condition, but it is original and represents the fitting and good metalwork performed by Winchester during this era. It also reflects what life was like during this time. I would suggest leaving it as is. Many of our best nationally recognized gunsmiths agree and often refuse to reblue or refinish antique guns that are original or unmodified. Once a gun has been refinished, the original work and character is gone forever. And many performing this work offer a less than satisfactory job, which we will discuss in a moment.

Some antique guns have had modifications that are relatively easy to correct by finding original (or reproduction) parts. For example, it’s common to see rifles with shortened magazine tubes, non-original sights or poorly fitted after-market wood. The object here is to find parts that will bring it back as close as possible to its original form and avoid a complete restoration or refinishing. The finish of the “new” parts can be made to blend with the overall condition of the gun. If your gunsmith doesn’t know how to do this, find one that can, as this is becoming a rather common practice.

If a firearm has had major modifications, such as a cut-down barrel, extra holes drilled in the receiver, a poor refinish job or some form of severe damage, it is then completely ethical to restore it or turn it into a custom rifle. A junker can be transformed into a beautiful rifle and, if done correctly, will probably become a better shooter than it was originally.

A friend took a Winchester Model 1886 rifle (with octagonal barrel) that had the buttstock broken off, the barrel and magazine tube had several inches crudely cut off, and there was no finish remaining. Other than being “gray” with typical light pitting, the receiver and lockwork were in good working condition. Nonetheless the action was overhauled replacing any worn parts, then fitted with a new, premium 22-inch octagonal barrel (chambered in .45-70) and a half-length magazine tube installed. A three-leaf folding express rear sight was fitted, while a factory-style base with ivory bead was mounted for the front sight. The receiver was flat filed and polished by a top-rate metalworker, who kept all edges sharp and flat areas perfectly flat, just like it left the factory more than a century ago. A high-grade fancy walnut stock was crafted (by a specialized stockmaker) with absolute perfect inletting and fitted with a shotgun-style buttplate. The receiver was lightly engraved with a game scene copied from an original factory engraved Winchester 1886. Doug Turnbull Restorations case colored the receiver, lever and forend cap with brilliantly contrasting colors and rust blued the barrel and remaining parts.

The end result is a gorgeous Model 1886 that displays fabulous workmanship and shoots around one inch at 100 yards. Obviously this configuration is along the lines of the Winchester Extra Light Rifle but with special order features, such as octagonal barrel, engraving and extra fancy grade wood. If this rifle were an original with these same options, its value would be many times what it cost to have this one built and probably wouldn’t shoot any better. And this custom 1886 can be used and hunted with, without taking a chance of hurting the value of a rare and prized original Winchester.

With the exception of minor repairs or attempting to put back original parts, don’t customize or alter original antique firearms, as they are a piece of history. For firearms that have already turned the corner, so to speak, we live in a golden age of firearms restoration, and work can be accomplished that was not possible just 10 or 20 years ago. Nowadays original style roll markings (with company name, address and caliber) are available that duplicate the markings on most Winchester or Marlin leverguns. Correct case coloring and rust (or carbona-style) blueing are available to make them look like new, and there are several sources offering reproduction parts and sights to help bring them back to their original form.

Today there are many capable craftsmen who offer exceptional work on vintage arms; but not all firearm restorers are up to par, so be selective. Quality work is worth paying for, so if someone quotes a ridiculously low price, the finished product will probably reflect this! Generally speaking, most quality restorers don’t do general gunsmithing or repairs, as they are specialized. If dealing with an unknown restorer, ask to see a sample of his work and ask for references. Ask details about his restoring process or methods. If this makes him uncomfortable, or fails to put your mind at ease, keep looking. Odds are you won’t find a quality restorer within convenient driving distance, so plan on shipping the gun, which can be done through the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx or UPS.

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