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January 28, 2008

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On Cheap Rifles

I recently got a plaintive letter (it smelled strongly of government cheese) from a young man who asked me to write something about cheap rifles that ordinary people could afford. Very well.

During my formative years as a shooter, I was as poor as a church mouse (actually, a church mouse was too wealthy to be me) and could only afford cheap rifles. The first centerfire rifle I bought was a Model 340 Savage in .222, and it was a true inanimate hideosity. It cost something like $50 used (in 1961), but it shot acceptably and went bang when you pulled the trigger.

My next rifle was also a Savage--a new Model 110 left-hand .22/250. It was a  better than the .340, but not much. It had a soda-straw barrel with a rear-sight bulge (but no rear sight), a stock that would have doubled nicely as a canoe paddle, and a 15-pound trigger with lots of creep. But it was cheap.

Eventually I replaced the stock and had the trigger stoned down to a dangerously light pull, but I still had a cheap rifle.

It was about this time that I met John Dewey, Larry Koller, and Russ Carpenter who, along with their other talents, were fine gunsmiths, and took the trouble to explain to me that a cheap rifle almost always had something major wrong with it, and would not allow you to do your best shooting (or in some cases, even acceptable shooting), and that no matter how you cobbled on it, it would never really be right.


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Nonetheless a worthy question remains unanswered, but perhaps it should be recomposed:

For cash-strapped students or others just starting out in life, what rifles might you consider to provide the best trade-off between cost and quality?

For example, has the trigger improvement (among other things) on the 110 and the current reputation for accuracy made the Savages one of the best bets for those on a budget? Or perhaps you might direct us towards a
Remington 700 sps? And so on...

Dave Petzal

I will say it with my dying breath: The best cheap guns are used guns. Go to a gun store that has a lot of them and you will see scores of firearms that some mad, sad, worthless, foolish fool has sold for no good reason. Provided it is in good condition, you can then get a non-cheap gun at a cheap price, or at least a greatly reduced price.


I'm one of those "cash-strapped" students myself, and as far as I'm concerned, nothing beats a NEF Handi-Rifle for the money. There is nothing paricularly beautiful about them, and I'm aware that the idea of a single-shot rifle scares some people, but they work, and you can find a new, wood stock .270 for $150 plus tax. Synthetics cost a little about $230 I think. What are you thoughts on the Handi-Rifle Mr. Petzel? I've never had a problem with them, so I'm curious as to what your experiences may be.

Dave Petzal

The thought of a single-shot holds no fear for me, but I have no experience with the Handi-Rifle. My advice to cash-strapped students is to inherit a lot of money while you are still in college. That will save you the degradation of having to work for it, and will allow you to live a more rewarding life.


As a university student im always looking for good cheap guns that i can keep or make a profit from. I like to pick up rifles that nobody wants to use or that look to rough for most people. A good cleaning, a little work and lots of time usally pay off with either a good shooting rifle or some extra cash for your next rifle. Doing all the gunsmithing work yourself helps to make a cheap military surplus rifle into a beautiful rifle. I prefer old enfields (p-14/17) and mausers to play with. The nice thing is that they are cheap casue everybody wants a new rifle.

Chad Love

+ 1 on the excellent advice to go find a used rifle.
I'm 36 and to date I have purchased exactly one brand-new centerfire rifle in my entire life.
This is partly a function of my socio-economic class (extremely low) my innate miserliness (extremely high) and the fact that I appreciate older guns that may have a little backstory to them.
You can walk into any gun or pawn shop and find racks of nice older rifles at bargain prices.
I was looking for a donor action not long ago and came across a pristine 1974-vintage Remington 700 ADL in a pawn shop. I offered an insultingly low price and walked out the door with it.
While I really had no desire for either an ADL or a 7 mag (I just wanted the action) it turned out to be such a nice gun I decided to keep it intact.
I can now put good glass on top of it and still come out ahead money-wise of most of those horrid package guns sold over the discount store counter.

The rest have been purchased used

Chad Love

Whoops, just discount my floating sentence fragment there at the end...

Ralph the Rifleman

I have a NEF single barrel in .243, and I think it is a nice gun for the funds, but Dave P. does make a good point about used rifles.
If one does some homework on retail gun values, and buys it from a reputable gun dealer, some very fine used guns are worth looking into.
I had found a used Rem.700 in .338WIN MAG, with a mounted 1.5-5 power scope for an asking price of $450. Now, this gun looked "used", in the hunting sense, but seemed to function nicely.(The dealer's gunsmith also looks over each gun to verify it is in good working order, as well)
I came close to making a bid on this rifle, until I found my .35 Whelen 700CDL which out the door was a tad over $750.In this case, I always wanted a .35 Whelen so that came home with me instead of .338 Mag.

Nathan Pinney

I too like older guns, something with a little history. You can find good deals in gun stores as has been said above. I found a nice little 28 gauge side by side in a shop for under 200 dollars. Alady had bought it for her husband as a gift. She thought he said 28 but he wanted a 20. It had only 4 rounds fired.


I have found lots of great deals at pawnshops. It's mainly a matter of keeping your eyes open, visiting a lot of shops and being patient. And most pawnshops offer layaway plans if you need them. Sometimes, you can find deals on new equipment. This last Christmas, I saw Remington 700's and 710's at a local Wal-mart "clearanced" for under $300.00. The clerk didn't know why they were clearanced and the Wal-mart in the next town didn't have them at this price. They weren't advertised so it was just dumb luck to find them.

Chad Love

Jason, most of the Wally Worlds were clearing out their stock of the budget plastic-stocked ADLs at that price. Snag one if you still can because I don't think they're coming back
The 710 I wouldn't use to mix paint with but the ADLs, while being soulless, roughly finished and ugly, at least have some potential.
But I'd still rather have my 34-year-old nicely machined and finished ADL than a crude and sloppy new one.
And even at that clearance price, I still paid less for mine...


Most used rifles are indeed good deals. I have personally bought dozens for one reason or another over the years. Normally I drift to the used rack at the gunstores before glancing at what I consider to be mostly ho-hum new ones. I would caution the buyer to check especially the barrel of any caliber which might be routinely utilized for varmint, particularily prairie dog, shooting. The cost of a replacement barrel should be considered prior to the purchase. Generally the larger the cartridge the less the gun is fired...unless you are one of those recoil impervious guys like my kid. Don't buy one of my old guns.


I too am a college student - well recently graduated, but back at the books again (will it ever end?). I don't particularly care for used rifles - not because I don't trust them, but because I don't know anything about them. I prefer new guns, because they're like a blank page, waiting for you to write the story. Sometimes this works, and sometimes you get "writer's block" of sorts, and have to throw it out and start all over again.

The only used guns I like, and I prefer them greatly over any new gun, are the ones that have been passed down to me from my father and grandfather. Those guns already have a story, and everytime I pick one up, I'm reminded of a chapter from the story.


I've told and retold the story of my .30-06 M70 here before, suffice it to say I agree that very good guns can be found on the used rack at attractive prices.
Will say though, one of the first centerfire rifles I ever fired was a Savage 340 also in .222 Rem, a dandy weapon it is; decent trigger, acceptable stock, wearing better glass than most people would say it deserves but it shoots well enough to make that scope worthwhile.
I have been looking at that NEF as well as the Rossi (yes I know; "Mr. Buy American" himself looking at foreign made weapons) combination gun to put in my stepson's hands in a year or so. Kinda think I may hold off there and just get him started with the .30-30.
Cheap guns may be the only workable solution for some people but usually you do get what you pay for.


What a neat blog subject to find during a studio lunch hour!!!!

Being a matriculated college student…or just young….is a drag since in 40-years nothing has changed in the financial hardship. As a college student I bought my first English Setter on monthly payments, and came close to selling my plasma for my first skeet gun [used 1100 for $190] and my first centerfire rifle [a used 257 Roberts built on a Mauser with a stock whittled from fence post w/scope for $125]… I was accused by a history prof of being the leading fuzzy edge of the new barbarian invasion. Too bad there isn’t college credit for creative resource management. BTW the dog and my car ate better than me.

As DP states: ALWAYS buy a good used gun instead of a cheap gun!!!! I doubt most rifles on the used rack have seen 200-rounds fired. I have seen recently many good used pump shotguns on discontinued, but well functioning High Standards and Ithaca’s. A fellow can always find a used MEC loader. These will get you in the target clay games.

In my experience if there are visual, image problems with used rifle it’s in the stock. It wasn’t difficult to work a $35 Bishop or Fajen stock into something rather nice. I think you can still buy stocks inlet’d.

My best wishes to all the new bloods!

Would my $400+ remington in 30-06 be considered a cheap gun?

alberta hunter

I agree with the pawnshop ideas or just looking around in the off season for deals. garage sales can be goldmines as many dont realize the value of older firearms and I have several I found that way including my favourite a 40+ yr old Remington 30-06 semiauto with iron sites that had only shot half the box of ammo it came with. estate auctions can be great places as well for deals.


I have noticed that most of the gun shops in my area have priced their used inventory only marginally lower than the new stuff.

What exactly are we referring to as cheap rifles?

The reason I ask is that I have had positive experiences with three of the cheaper guns on the market right now.

I have a Tikka T3 Lite in 308, and while the gun is admittedly not much to look at, I do not think I could find a gun that is anymore ideally suited for hunting. It is light, just about the right length, and more than accurate enough for hunting.

My father has a Weatherby Vanguard in 270, and it is one of the more accurate production rifles that I have shot. I think this is primarily due to the fact that it has a 24 inch barrell.

Finally, I purchased a Stevens 200 last fall in 270, and while this rifle is about the ugliest thing I have ever laid eyes on, it seems to be sufficient for hunting. This rifle consitently shoots 2 1/2 or less three shot groups at 100 yards. While I know this is not stellar performacne, I think it is adequate for a hunting rifle. I think I might be able to improve these numbers somewhat if I was willing to spend time and money developing a load specifically for this rifle, so far I have only shot the rounds I developed for the aforementioned Vangaurd.


To those who have inquired whether their rifles are considered cheap: Part II of this rant covers that very subject, and reveals the horrifying truth that cheap is not entirely a matter of price.

Chad Love

Mark, anyone who would sell plasma to buy a shotgun or take out a loan to finance a dog is a man after my own heart.

I probably shouldn't admit this, but I used part of one of my legion of student loans to buy my first retriever. It took me a good while at 8.5% to pay her off...

Brian T

DP: Where do you draw the line between "cheap" and "expensive"? For me, about $1k is the line. I look for field shotguns. Of the last dozen that I've bought, mostly 12ga, the $1,500+ guns were dogs. So were the sub $500 guns. Now I have 2 shotguns left, a 12 and a 20, both in the $750 - $900 range (new). Never happier than to head out to the range or the hills with either one of those.


I think that if you go out looking for a cheap rifle that is exactly what you will come home with, a cheap rifle. Shinny and new is no indicator of quality. I will always look for a used gun first. If you keep an open mind and know what to look for you can really find some deals. Gun shows, true gun shops (not chain stores that sell guns)and estate sales are great places to find top quality at bottom prices. If you find a used Browning it is still a Browning. Always examine them closely for major problems but keep in mind that often a little TLC will have an older gun looking very stately and give you a nice conversation piece. I have repeatedly used my great grand dads shotgun to out shoot friends using brand new top of the line guns.

Del in Kansas


That was excellent advice. I can't stand cheap guns and refuse to own a cheap scope. The Cabelas store near my home has a huge selection of nice used guns.

Dr. Ralph

Short of inheriting money while still in school at the very least beg borrow or steal firearms from relatives... this has always worked for me. "Yeah Grandpa, don't you remember you said I could just keep that old Winchester Model 12?"

I was going to say just how cheap is cheap and then Gary listed some excellent arms for what I consider cheap. The Vanguard's pretty too, in a California sort of way. Nothing wrong with the Handi-Rifle, either. I have a hunting buddy who switched to it in a .22-250 this year when Tennessee changed the rules to allow all center fire cartridges and his is scary accurate. Cheap scope too, but we both shot less than a 3/4" group at 100 when he first sighted it in... of course I have never seen an inaccurate .22-250 for some reason.

Dr. Ralph

Does anyone else think it odd that Petzal recommends buying used guns? To the best of my recollection every time someone asks him about a gun that is a piece of shit he says sell it!

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