Six Tips for Buying a Vintage Break-Action Shotgun

When picking out a vintage shotgun there are so many different things to consider. After all, there’s always some risk/concern when you buy anything used – and shotguns are no exception. These tips will help ensure you get the right gun.

Related Article: History of Colt’s Snake Guns

Fitting the Gun: Length of Pull, Cast, Drop at Comb, Face & Heel

First and foremost, the gun has to fit you. If it doesn’t move and point naturally with you, then you’re not going to hit anything. Because you’re buying an older gun that was made for (or altered by) one or many previous owners, you’ve got to be sure the gun fits you properly.

A vintage shotgun’s cast to the left or right is used to ensure proper placement of the shooter’s eye over the center of the rib. If the cast isn’t right, you’ll notice it right away because your eye won’t line up correctly.

The length of pull on vintage shotguns is often – but not always – shorter than what you’d find on a new, modern shotgun. Bringing the gun to your shoulder will immediately tell you if it’s too long or short. Simply put, it just won’t feel right. 

The gunstock’s drop is equally important and can cause you to shoot too high or too low if it’s not properly aligned. Try out several guns and take measurements at each of the drop points from the barrel alignment so that you can compare guns and know what measurements are right for you.

Fox Sterlingworth

The lever on this 16-gauge Fox Sterlingworth from 1918 sits just ever so slightly to the right of center – and that’s a good thing.

Chamber Length

Vintage shotguns will often have shorter chamber lengths. This is due to the fact that shot shells of yesteryear that were made from paper or metal and used fiber wads that were of different dimensions than the plastic hull and shot cups we have today. While you might be able to fit the same shells you usually use into a vintage gun, there’s a chance it’ll end up stuck in the chamber once fired. You may also experience an increase in recoil due to the extra pressure build-up. It’s possible to have the chambers lengthened, but it’s easier (and cheaper) to buy shorter shells.

Barrel Length

For one reason or another, a previous owner may have cut down the barrels on a shotgun. There are a few easy ways to tell if this has been done. First, measure them. Uncut barrels will always be in whole-number increments. If you come up with a fraction, then they’ve been cut. Also, look for abrupt changes in engraving patterns or truncated words. Cut barrels will often interfere with the flow of rib engraving or any markings that were originally on the end of the barrels.

Fox Sterlingworth

The fit between barrels and frame on this Fox Sterlingworth is nice and tight, making it safe to shoot for decades to come.

Barrel Thickness

Like all things that see repetitive use over the decades, shotgun barrels do wear out. This could have been expedited by the use of older powder that didn’t burn as clean as modern powder, use of corrosive primers, or lack of proper maintenance for years on end. This can cause pitting that, if deep enough, can make the barrels too thin to be used safely. Make sure you give the barrels a good look and ensure that they’re free of any fouling that may be concealing pits or other kinds of damage.

Hinge Pin

Be sure to check the fit between the action and the barrels. A shotgun’s hinge pin can wear out over time, making the fit sloppy and loose. A loose fit between these surfaces can cause gas to blow back into your face. Make sure you take the barrels out of the action and examine the mating surfaces. Be wary of any misshapen spots that could have been created by trying to bend the parts and create a false sense of proper fit.

Locking Mechanism and Lever

Take a look at the lever that’s used to disengage the locking mechanism. A proper lever should be centered or just to the right of the action. If the lever rests to the left, it could be a sign of excessive wear.

Baker Shotgun

The “trade name” New Era shotgun from Baker – like the one in this ad – would have made a great, affordable gun at the turn of the 20th century as well as today.

BONUS: The Finish

Sometimes it’s very obvious that a shotgun has been re-blued. This could be because the markings are no longer as sharp, the color doesn’t look quite right compared to guns you know are original, or the color isn’t consistent for the full length of the barrels or action.

Re-bluing in and of itself isn’t an issue when done properly. Older shotgun ribs were often attached with soft solder. If the person who re-blues the barrels uses the hot caustic method instead of rust or cold bluing, the original rib solder can be weakened, and the rib may eventually separate from the barrels. Test the barrels by hitting them with a soft mallet or your shoe. They should ring clearly; if you hear a rattle instead, then you know something is up with the fit between the rib and barrels.


Without a doubt, this list is not exhaustive; but it’s an excellent place to start. In addition to the things on this list, I’d recommend that you look at a lot of shotguns, bring a friend or family member who has bought a used shotgun before, and have a qualified gunsmith look it over if you have any doubts. If you do all of these things, you’ll be well on your way to breathing new life into an old shotgun.

For more information on vintage shotguns, visit: Contributor: T. Logan Metesh

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