|March - April 2004
Volume 36, Number
The Tikka Model T-3 Hunter .25-06 Remington features a Burris 6x Fullfield scope with Tikka rings and bases. Photo by Stan Trzoniec.
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 its 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
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. Lets say we have an 1890s 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 isnt
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, its 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 doesnt 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 wouldnt 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, dont 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
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 dont 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 wont 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.