The shooting world has been largely overtaken with the Tacticool craze.
That’s OK and probably inevitable to some degree. Why? Because these kinds of trends have always taken hold in the shooting world. Prior to World War I, the hunting and outdoor rifle trade was dominated by lever-actions. Following that Great War, thousands of returning doughboys found they had become accustomed to their 1903 Springfield and Pattern 17 Enfield bolt guns, and so the manufacturers responded to their new preferences with great pieces like the Winchester 54 and the Remington 720/722.
Now our military uses arms crafted of aluminum and black plastic, with detachable magazines, pistol grips and the other “evil” accoutrements of the modern “assault rifle.” The shooting community likewise largely prefer these types of arms, and in truth I have a couple of AR-15s myself. They are versatile and a hell of a lot of fun.
But my first love remains with walnut and blued steel. Holding a Curio & Relics (C&R) license allows me to buy arms over 50 years in age and have them shipped to me directly, and I have made heavy use of that license over the last decade or so. Well cared for, a gun can easily last over a century, and there are many, many fine old arms on the various auction sites. Some are high-priced collector’s pieces, but others are slightly worn or refinished guns that won’t excite hardcore collectors but will still give first-rate service and many can be had at bargain prices.
I’ve been shooting and hunting for about forty-five years now. Over those years, I’ve played with a lot of older firearms, most but not all now being C&R eligible. So, while the Tacticool craze continues, in this article we’ll set the black plastic aside for a while and instead, examine some of these fine old examples of the gunmaker’s craft.
I can tell you about an interesting… well, intersectionality, in this category. My very favorite hunting rifle crosses the gap between C&R and Tacticool. Sort of.
Thunder Speaker (yes, I name my favorite guns) was built on a 1908 DWM 98 Mauser action, qualifying it as a C&R arm. But that’s due to the legal definition of a firearm’s action as the defining, serialized portion of the total piece regulated as “firearm,” as that action is the only piece of Thunder Speaker that isn’t modern. Why? Because it’s a hunting rifle. That 100+ year old action wears a Douglas heavy sporter barrel in .338 Win Mag. My philosophy in such matters being that you can shoot little stuff with a big gun but you can’t shoot big stuff with a little gun, and Thunder Speaker will let daylight in both ends of a moose, the long way. The rifle also has a Bell & Carlson Kevlar stock and a Simmons Aetec scope. It’s a good, solid rifle–accurate, powerful, and bank-vault tough. So why choose a century-old 98 Mauser action for this rifle when the rest of it is as modern as next week?
Because of the nature of the older Mausers. These older guns are made of relatively soft, mild steel, which is case-hardened. This results in a slightly softer action with a hardened “shell.” Modern rifles are manufactured of hard, high-carbon steels, and the structure of that steel is homogeneous throughout. There are advantages to this. Modifying the action doesn’t result in dangerous weakening unless minimum specs are invaded. Also, the tolerances of the machine work in newer guns is typically better.
In older Mausers, modifying the action, say to open the feed ramp to allow for longer magnum cartridges, can break the case-hardening and dangerously weaken the action. However, the older actions have two advantages, both seen in the event of a failure of the gun in an overpressure situation: a case-hardened action has a lower yield strength but a higher ultimate strength, and in the event of a catastrophic failure will split or balloon rather than explode. In a hunting rifle, where there is always the slight but ever-present chance your barrel may become obstructed without you noticing, that’s an important point.
But mostly, I use old Mauser actions because I love them. Back in the 1990s, there were huge carload lots of surplus Mausers being imported from the newly liberated eastern European nations, and a lot of them were the tough, desirable 98 actions. You could pick up one of these guns for a hundred bucks or so. Lots of them were converted into affordable, reliable, powerful sporters.
And for a few more bucks (OK, quite a few more), you can get the ultimate expression of the Mauser design, a pre-64 Winchester Model 70. The ubiquitous Remington 700 is another great bolt-action gun, but run the serial number before buying. The best Remington guns were made when the company was still owned by DuPont, which means prior to 1993.
But enough about bolt guns. Are lever actions your thing? There are tens of thousands of old Winchester 94s out there. This John Browning design is the rifle that predated the AR-15 as America’s Rifle; find yourself a pre-64 gun, with the beautiful old Winchester deep blue finish and a hand-fitted walnut stock, and you’ve got yourself a true American icon. If something more unusual appeals, there are tons of old Savage 99s out there, typically at lower prices than the Winchesters. The Savage 99 is a neat old piece, a hammerless, streamlined lever gun firing powerful cartridges like the .250-3000 and .300 Savage. The Savage has a rotary magazine and older examples have a neat little magazine cartridge counter in a window on the left-hand side of the frame, so you always know how many rounds you have available. The Marlin 336 is also a great piece and affordable but again caution is in order; find yourself an old New Haven gun, built when Marlin was still Marlin (prior to 2007) and, preferably, before the addition of the idiotic cross-bolt safety.
How about semi-autos? The scary-looking tacticools aren’t the only game in town. The great old Winchester 100 is functionally identical to an AR-10, right down to the detachable magazine (although the Winchester’s capacity is 5 rounds), but the pre-64 guns are, again, nicely appointed with fine walnut and polished blued steel. The post-64 guns are a little rougher, with rolled basket-weave patterns on the stock instead of cut checkering and slightly lower quality finish, but they are still good solid arms. The Remington 742 is another vintage semi-auto, this one available in long, full-power rounds like the .30-06, and there are even old Remington 81 Woodsmasters, the old “Piano Legs” around, although those command pretty high prices if they are in good shape.
I could go on about rifles at considerable length, but let’s move on to…
If there is such a thing as history’s most versatile firearm, it’s probably a 12-gauge pump shotgun. If you can only afford one gun, you could do a lot worse than to buy a 12-gauge pump shotgun. With light shot, they are great for quail; with slugs, they’ll kill a bear. Fortunately, there are a lot of good old used guns available. These fine old used pump-guns fall into four broad categories: 1) Winchester Model 12, 2) Remington 870, 3) Mossberg 500, and 4) everything else.
If you’re considering an 870 (or, indeed, any Remington) again, run the serial number before buying. You want a pre-1993 gun if possible. There are plenty of 870s available that meet this standard.
As for Mossbergs, there doesn’t seem to be a cutoff date. Mossberg remains as it has been, the oldest family-owned firearms manufacturer in American history, and that’s not the worst reason to choose a Mossberg shotgun if you’re looking to buy new.
But when it comes to fine old guns, you just can’t beat the pre-64 Winchester Model 12. It’s the gold standard against which all other pump shotguns are measured. Based on the John Browning-designed Winchester 1897 pump-gun, the Model 12 saw almost ninety years of production in one form or another, ending with the Browning-built carriage trade guns. Field-grade guns may be had for reasonable prices, but there are a few cautionary notes with the Model 12: the very early nickel-steel guns are safe to shoot but are not easy to refinish if restoration is your goal, and some of the very early 16-gauge guns still have 2 9/16” chambers, which could cause problems with modern ammo.
I have two Model 12s in the rack, a 1940 12 gauge and a 1941 16 gauge, both field grade guns with solid ribs, both bought as project guns, refinished and cut for choke tubes (Briley or GTFO). They are great, solid, reliable guns, either on the trap range or in the field; the lighter 16 gauge is my favorite gun for mountain grouse.
If semi-auto shotguns are your preference, again, there is an iconic piece of gunwork that stands out and, again, it’s a product of John Browning, the DaVinci of firearms – the Browning Auto-5. Not the new “A-5,” but the long-recoil original. Examples of the Auto-5 abound, and, with a few exceptions, don’t command huge prices; the Belgian-made guns run a little higher and, for some reasons, Belgian-made Sweet Sixteens can’t be had for under a grand. During WW2, the Auto-5 was made by Remington as the FN plant in Belgium was occupied by the Germans, and those American Brownings for some reason sell for lower prices. Ditto for the Remington 11 and the Savage 720, both American-made Auto-5 clones made under license.
Don’t investigate the Auto-5 if you’re worried about weight, though, as 12-gauge examples run nine pounds unloaded, with the Sweet Sixteen and it’s 20-gauge counterpart running almost a pound lighter. Again, I have two examples of this gun in the rack: a WW2 American 12 gauge and a Belgian Sweet Sixteen made in 1964. I love them both, weight and all.
There are other options. The excellent Remington 1100 was made for a long time, and there are many available at reasonable prices – again, you’ll want a pre-1993 gun. There are many, many others. Look around!
Prefer doubles? There are so many varieties of C&R-eligible double guns out there it isn’t funny. A Winchester 21 will run you no less than five figures, while an old Savage/Stevens 311 can be had for a couple hundred bucks. Surf any of the online gun auction sites and you’ll find tons of double guns at every level in between these extremes. Over-and-unders tend to be a little costlier than side-by-sides, until you get to the top-end guns, then the rule reverses for reasons I’ve never been able to ascertain.
Break-open single shots can be had for under a hundred bucks; some years back I bought an old H&R Topper 12-gauge single for $75, whacked the barrel off at 18” and stuck a fiberglass stock on it. Now named the Ditch Witch, it generally resides behind the seat of my pickup when I’m bumming around in the mountains. If someone were to want a gun for shooting rabbits out of the truck window… Well, I’m not saying I’d do such a thing, but if I were, I’d have the gun for it.
Speaking of light and handy weapons, let’s move on to…
My thoughts on sidearms are something of a mixed bag. I prefer modern semi-auto pistols for concealed carry, almost always relying on a Glock 36 for that role; although, I occasionally tote a full-size 1911 or sometimes a Walther PPK in .380ACP. So, modern stuff for that task; but for target shooting, woods-bumming and general outdoor stuff, I’m a wheelgun guy. Since concealed carry is a topic unto itself, I’ll talk about recreational and holster guns here.
A holster gun should meet three criteria: it should be light enough to carry easily holstered on a trouser belt or gun belt all day, short enough to clear leather quickly if you need it in a hurry, and powerful enough to handle any serious task you might undertake. Most major-caliber handgun rounds will do this, but personally, I’m a fan of the .45 Colt. My favored load, a 255-grain Keith-style hard cast semi-wadcutter over 8 grains of Unique, will blast a fist-sized chunk of wood out of the far side of a railroad tie and will lengthwise a cow elk. That’s plenty of power. Not surprisingly, it was a gun in that caliber that was one of the first real combat magnums.
Most shooters know of the old story of the U.S. Army in the Philippines and the genesis of the Colt/Browning 1911 and the .45ACP, which replaced the anemic .38 Long Colt in service sidearms. But what a lot of folks don’t know is that stocks of the old 1873 Colts weren’t sufficient for deployed troops, so the Army hurriedly contracted with Colt for a run of their New Service double-action revolver in .45 Colt for issue to the troops until the new automatic could be fielded. This gave us the 1909 Army Colt, a big, heavy revolver that packed a pretty good wallop. Smith & Wesson wasn’t slacking off in this time frame either; in 1908 they brought out the .44 First Model Hand Ejector, the famous “Triple Lock,” again a big, heavy revolver chambered for the .44 Special.
These two guns changed the way the shooting world looked at sidearms. None other than Elmer Keith described the Triple Lock as the finest revolver ever made, and samples of both the 1909 Colt and the Triple Lock command high prices today. But fortunately, there are other options.
My personal woods-bumming sidearms are a 1974-vintage Smith & Wesson 25-5 in .45 Colt, with a 4” barrel. Those guns run around a grand, but my other is a new-purchase (2012) Ruger Vaquero in .45 Colt with the 4 ¾” barrel, and those guns can be had new for about five hundred bucks. Mrs. Animal’s outdoor sidearm is a 1979 Ruger Security-Six, which is unique in having the smallest grip frame I’ve ever seen in a .357 Magnum, perfect for her tiny hand. Security-Sixes run about four hundred and their fixed-sight counterpart, the Speed-Six, a tad less.
Whatever caliber you fancy, there are plenty of old wheelguns available. The single-action Ruger Blackhawks have been in production for a good long time and available in rounds ranging from the .30 Carbine to the .44 Magnum. In double-actions, there are lots of K, L and N-frame Smiths in various calibers. You can even find good used Colt Detective Specials showing some holster wear at good prices, and that’s still a damn fine CCW piece.
If you prefer autos, 1911s are great but there are occasional prizes such as the Smith & Wesson 39, a solid, reliable 9mm auto that goes for around three hundred, when you can find them. The ultimate design of John Browning, the 9mm Hi-Power, still commands a fair price but there are plenty of them available; a military surplus example with some holster wear can be had at a good price, and they are still good reliable guns.
Bargains are where you find them – and while we are on the topic of bargains, let’s move on to…
I put these in a category of their own, mostly because rimfire rifles and handguns are uniquely useful for low-cost practice shooting, plinking and small game hunting. And the options here are, very nearly, without limit.
When I was a kid, I almost never went anywhere without a .22 rifle in hand. I learned to shoot with the old .22 Mossberg auto that my Mom bought my Dad for their 3rd anniversary in 1950 (and I still have it), but when I was about 13, I used a good chunk of a summer’s haying and de-tasseling money to buy a Marlin 783 in .22 WMR. I proceeded to use it to kill a small mountain of squirrels, crows and woodchucks around the Old Man’s place over the next few years. The old Marlin is still in the gun rack and it still shoots as good as ever. Growing up in Allamakee County, Iowa, was awesome. I wandered the woods all summer, hunted in the fall, and ran a trapline in the winter–and that old Marlin was my constant companion.
Bolt-action Marlins, Mossbergs and various other makes of rimfire rifles in this vintage typically sell for between a hundred and two hundred bucks. Lever guns such as the Marlin 39 and the 9422 Winchester command higher prices but can be had for under a grand. The semi-auto Marlin 60 may be the most popular rimfire firearm ever made, with over eleven million produced to date, and you can get these used for around a hundred bucks if you shop around.
Listing all the .22 rimfire rifles available would burn up more bandwidth than I can afford in this article, but whether you like bolt guns, autos, levers, or anything else, there are nice old C&R-eligible guns out there. Want a lightweight old single-shot? Find an old Stevens Favorite. Serious target rifle? Decent old Winchester 52s can be had for under a grand. Plinker? The Marlin 60 or the reliable Ruger 10-22 are available by the thousand.
And don’t overlook rimfire handguns. Brand-spanking new Ruger Single Sixes run under five hundred bucks, and you can get a vintage model with a better trigger for around three. The original Ruger Standard Auto has moved into C&R territory now. I have one, a 6” version the Old Man bought mail order (!) around 1960. I’ve run a lot of rounds through that and my other .22 sidearm, a 1930s-vintage Colt Officer’s Target. Great guns, cheap and easy to shoot, reliable and solid.
As with rifles, there are too many types of rimfire handguns around to list. You couldn’t go wrong with Smith & Wesson K-22 or the smaller J-frame Kit Gun. The old Rugers are great but don’t pass up a High Standard auto; they are in big demand as target guns but there are many available. The Colt Diamondback was available in .22LR, as was the old Ruger SP-101, if double-action revolvers are your preference. The old Harrington & Richardson break-top revolvers in .22LR were made in the thousands and can be had for a couple hundred bucks.
Shop around! The possibilities are nearly endless.
Now, if they would just bring back the .25 Stevens rimfire…
The world of fine old guns is so great, I couldn’t possibly list even a fraction of them in the space the Glibertarian editors would allow me. I could write an entire article on old shotguns, another on big-game rifles, one on centerfire sidearms. But in this segment, I necessarily gave you all the broad strokes, leavened with my lengthy experience in the shooting world.
The Tacticool world will always be with us now, and that’s fine. But I suspect there are plenty of folks who still appreciate walnut and blued steel. If you are one of them, great! My advice is this: get a C&R license. Make note of all the various auction sites. Drop in to your local gun dealer and even pawn shops on occasion; you never know where you’ll find a prize. Try the unusual old guns.
And remember this: antiques, guns made before 1898, are exempt from even the C&R regulation, and can be bought, sold, traded and shipped directly with no paperwork.
But that’s a subject for another day.