Skip to main content

5 Tips for Buying a Used Rifle

With careful shopping, a high-quality hunting rifle may be found for the same price as a less-quality new rifle.

Purchasing a hunting rifle used can be a great way to get a very good rifle for a very good value. But as you begin your search for the perfect broke-in shooter, keep in mind two things: you don't want a lemon, and you may end up spending more money buying used than new.

As to the first, you can exercise caution by carefully examining the rifle and, if allowed, shooting it before forking over your hard-earned beer money. In the end, there's always some element of risk, though. As for the second, there are an embarrassing number of "Walmart Specials" on the market today that promise premium performance for a pittance in dollars. Don't be fooled: many folks turn around and sell their cheapo rifles for even less than they paid because they quickly learn that they don't work all that well.

With that in mind, I'm going to disregard pretty much all of the sub-$500 budget bolt actions for the purposes of this article. If you really want a great rifle, but have $500 or less to spend, buy a quality used rifle. Sometimes, even if you're willing to spend $800 or more, you can still get more gun for your money by purchasing used.


Nor are we going to discuss collectable used rifles today. That's a topic that has and will fill many books. Today, we're all about hard-working, straight-shooting meat makers.


The two most critical elements to look for in a used hunting rifle are reliability and accuracy. If you can't get the rifle to go bang at the moment of truth, it just doesn't matter how accurate it is, so reliability comes first. However, if you can't hit your target, it's no good either. You need both.

Namibian PH Matheus Theofelus' rifle has seen a lot of miles and laid low literally hundreds of game animals, but because of superb construction it's still reliable and trustworthy.

Reputable Quality

To begin with, pick a model that's got a good reputation and that has enjoyed many years of production, indicating that it lives up to the honorable moniker "deer rifle" well enough to have stood the test of time. Great examples are Remington's 700 (which can often be found used for as low as $400), Winchester's M70, Sako rifles of all description, and so forth. Avoid short-lived models such as Remington's 710. As much as I love Big Green, that was an atrocious assembly that doesn't deserve the name of rifle.




A quality rifle will last longer, work better and shoot more accurately than an inexpensive new rifle of the same purchase price.

Loving Care

Look for a used rifle that, even if it's many decades old (as many of the most interesting used guns are) shows signs of good care. I don't mind signs of honest use indicating long days in the field, such as areas with worn bluing at carry points or scabbard wear from horseback hunting. Even a worn rifle, if cared for, will have a bright, smooth bore and an action free of rust freckling.


As every rifleman knows, the bore is where the soul of the rifle lives, and if it's not kept clean and corrosion-free, the soul departs and accuracy is no more. Good hunters look after the critical parts of their rifle no matter how tired they are at the end of the day.

Sometimes, you'll find a used rifle that shows signs of loving care coupled with years of neglect. That can happen when the original owner passes away and his prized hunting tool becomes the property of someone less conscientious. Sometimes such rifles are still ok, such as when the bore was left well oiled and is, as a result, perfectly preserved, but the exterior of the rifle exhibits water damage from being left in a leaky closet for 30 years. Don't write such a rifle off, since you can likely purchase it for a very good price and get decades of service out of it.

Assuming the rifle functions reliably, the next critical element is the condition of the bore.

Gun Plumbers Strictly Forbidden

Never purchase a used rifle that has obviously been monkeyed with by a gorilla with tools. Good guns are more like fine musical instruments than pickup truck parts, and it takes a careful, knowing hand to work on one properly.

Beware of restocking jobs where the wood appears to have been rasped inelegantly out of a fence post and the action bedded with Bondo. If the fellow with the empty wallet states: "It's got a hair trigger — my cousin worked it over," walk away.

Look for buggered screw heads, mangled spots where dovetailed sights have been aggressively pounded from side to side, tool marks that indicated careless handling and any other signs of abuse. These bring value down. Plus, improper work can often destroy reliability and accuracy.

When it comes right down to it, the only way to adequately test a rifle is to shoot it.

Proof is In the Empties

The only way to know if a hunting rifle is good is to shoot it. No matter the reputation and quality, or how carefully it's been kept, any purchase without shooting it first is a gamble. An acceptable gamble in many cases when test-shooting is not an option, but a gamble nonetheless.

If at all possible, arrange to go shoot the rifle with the owner before handing over the cash. If such arrangements are easily made but the seller stubbornly refuses, walk away — he probably knows something he doesn't want you discovering. If test shooting is possible but inconvenient, offer to pay a premium of the seller will work with you, and bring your own ammo.

Assuming you make arrangements to fire the rifle, you've usually got to be quick and won't have time to test several types of ammo, so you're primarily looking for stellar reliability and watching against really poor accuracy. Load the rifle's magazine completely, and work the ammunition through the action and into the chamber, looking for any hangups or outright jams as the cartridges feed into the chamber, fire, and extract and eject. Watch for erratic groups to signify an inaccurate rifle.

If you're less than confident in your ability to shoot tiny groups, see if you can talk a buddy that you know to be a good shooter along and watch him shoot. As long as a used rifle will print sub two-inch groups at 100 yards with a random box of factory ammo, you can probably find a good load that will do close to an inch, or handload it to do even better.

As long as a used rifle has been cared for, a quality rifle will be sound and shoot accurately, even if it shows honest wear from many seasons afield.

Fall In Love

Unless you've got jingle to spare, don't buy a hunting rifle just because it's a good deal. Even if a used rifle passes all the above criteria, don't buy it if you don't like it. A rifle that you intend to commit to several years' worth of hunting should feel good in your hands and be pleasing to your eye.

Now, it's ok to be a rifle polygamist. You can own all you want. But don't get in a hurry: you should love each of them.

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

New for 2021: Kershaw & Zero Tolerance Knives

New for 2021: Kershaw & Zero Tolerance Knives

Get your first look at the new Kershaw Launch 13, Brace, and Lucha-Blackwash, as well as the Zero Tolerance 0762 and 0357.

Best Whitetail Shot Placement with a Rifle

Best Whitetail Shot Placement with a Rifle

Craig Boddington breaks down where hunters should aim on a whitetail that provides the best possible margin for error.

New for 2021: MEAT! Grinders, Vacuum Sealers, Accessories

New for 2021: MEAT! Grinders, Vacuum Sealers, Accessories

MEAT! Your Maker, makers of quality meat-processing tools for do-it-yourself hunters. The company's commercial-grade products are built "with quality in mind, not price point" for fellow hunters.

Venison Curry Recipe

Venison Curry Recipe

Hearty and flavorful, this curry is simple to make and requires just a few ingredients you can likely find at your local store. The cooking method turns tough cuts tender, making it a great choice for shoulder and hindquarter cuts from deer, elk and other venison. Bonus points if you use axis deer, which are native to India.

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

Check out the new fleet of off-road options for hunters.2020 ATV Buyer's Guide Wheels Afield

2020 ATV Buyer's Guide

Rick Sosebee - June 23, 2020

Check out the new fleet of off-road options for hunters.

We evaluate the 6.5 in a real-life case study. Is The 6.5 The Perfect Hunting Caliber? Ammo

Is The 6.5 The Perfect Hunting Caliber?

Mike Schoby

We evaluate the 6.5 in a real-life case study.

Chances are good that you're not getting the best out of your trail cams.3 Ways You're Using Trail Cameras Wrong Optics

3 Ways You're Using Trail Cameras Wrong

Tony J. Peterson

Chances are good that you're not getting the best out of your trail cams.

See More Trending Articles

More How-To

Your next great adventure is only as good as your hunting rifle. Brush up on your field fixes.Field Fixes: Rifle First Aid Guns

Field Fixes: Rifle First Aid

Joseph von Benedikt

Your next great adventure is only as good as your hunting rifle. Brush up on your field fixes.

Hunting spring gobblers can be challenging enough! Here's how to not beat yourself.3 Run & Gun Mistakes Every Turkey Hunter Makes Other Game

3 Run & Gun Mistakes Every Turkey Hunter Makes

Tony J. Peterson

Hunting spring gobblers can be challenging enough! Here's how to not beat yourself.

A look at the three types of terrain backcountry hunters are likely to find themselves in during fall seasons, and the tactics and gear needed to find success.Backcountry Terrain Types and the Tools You'll Need to Hunt Them How-To

Backcountry Terrain Types and the Tools You'll Need to Hunt Them

Petersen's Hunting Staff

A look at the three types of terrain backcountry hunters are likely to find themselves in...

See More How-To

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save.

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE Arrow

Buy Digital Single Issues

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Petersen's Hunting App

Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Petersen's Hunting subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now