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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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"...the horrifying truth that cheap is not entirely a matter of price." DEP

Thank you, thank you, thank you Dave! I was just about to hock the wife's jewelry to buy one of those Korth revolvers you loved so much a few rants ago! I am saved!

Seriously, Dave is right, inexpensive doesn't necessarily translate to 'cheap' as such there are (with careful shopping) some true bargains out there. The recent issue Savage 110's have their praises sung here often as have some of the Remingtons currently on the store racks; meanwhile you can pay a lot more for a peice of crap if you are a brand snob. Kinda like those AMF era Harley Drippers or the Lear Seigler days at Smith & Wesson!

Gerald Keller

A customer brought in a 700BDL in 25-06 that he bought new in 1999.Shot two deer and couldn't find one of them.The thought that he blew the shot never occured to him,but he wouldn't hunt with it again.I had $600 in my pocket,and when he said he wanted at least $350 ,I relented and bought the darn thing.It shoots inch and a half at 200yds.with 117gr. Hornadys and 115 Noslers.I found a Savage Mod.99H in 250-3000,made in 1935 in the paper one day and picked it up for $185.It had only been shot 13 times when I got it and had the three boxes of ammo that the origional owner bought with the 13 empty cases back in the one box.I bought it from the non-hunting son of the origional purchaser,who had unfortunately passed away shortly after buying the rifle and had only sighted it in and never got to hunt with it.I got it in 1980.As stated elsewhere here,it is important to buy "inexpensive" rather than "cheap".Know what to look for and be in the right place at the right time.Keep your eyes and options open and you will find the pot of gold.


I've come to the same conclusion but boy the gun stores are really declining! Used to have 3 here, now we just have Wallyworld. L.P. has some nice stores, but I'm to cheap to pay bridge toll.
Ithink I know what the problem is. Good guns last generations. Most people want to hunt with something that they've used before (Dad's rifle), and most people I know are inherently cheap. It takes a good population base too support a quality gun store.


I read your post on the Handirifle, I just bought a H&R Handirifle in .204 Ruger. Yes, it's very cheap but I personaly like the single shot tip-up or break-down concept..it cost a little more than the NEF version but same elsewhere. It,s not a benchrest or target rifle, but handi to carry on a fourwheeler. Hunting with a single-shot it is said makes a better hunter out of you because with one shot, you are more careful with bullet placement. I don't think this is true. You still have to take the same quick shots as before. I guess when I bought my Rem. ADL in 1985 , It was considered a cheap Rifle, been a good choice very much as dependable as any more expensive Rifle on the market at the time. I've never wished for any different cal. or model. The Savage's Dave spoke would still please me today. I could buy any gunn I want, ut would never let my Rem. go.


I agree you can find some good deals on the used gun rack, and a few times I almost bought used, but when it got down to it I would rather spend about 200 Bucks more and have New.
For the times when I was cash strapped or just being a miser
I put it on layaway.

Clay Cooper

I have noticed over the years that firearm prices are generally are set at a certain price range regardless of quality like the Ruger Mini-14. I wouldn’t pay over $350.00 for the rifle myself. However, the muzzle loader market has responded to attract those that cannot otherwise pay for a fancy name. Innovation, quality and at a price that one can afford. I must give thanks to the MZ industry for setting their sights on the Sportsman, rather than paying for the name. Are you paying for the name or the quality? There are those that will drool and salivate over a Weatherby, but for me? Give me a Remington! This week I’ll be adding a Remington 11-87 Camo 12ga 3 ½ to my arsenal! I shouldered a Berretta and the pull (distance from the butt pad to the trigger) is too long. Snap the 11-87 to the shoulder and it’s their! If your 6’4” not 5’9”, this Berretta is for you and that the biggest gripe I have over firearms today! By the time you get your winter coat on, it’s an inch too long.

Dean Gilbert

Like Dave, my first centerfire was a Savage 340B in .222. I bought it off a friend back in 1961 for around $50 as well. Unlike Dave, mine shot exceptionally well. It was nothing to pop Jack Rabbits at 200 yards.
I just bought a new Stevens in .243. Can't wait to try it out. And yes, I have quite a few guns. Most of them I bought new yet, some second hand. I figure if I can afford it and it suits my needs, I really don't care if it's new or a used one in good shape.

Thos. B. Fowler

You hit a nerve with this topic...at least, for those of us who have been poor boys. My dad and Russ Carpenter were cut from the same cloth, which was: "quality beats price"...if Dad could find a good old Mauser, or prime old Winchester, he was in Fat City. "Cheap" can often be far more expensive than someone's quality castoff. Most of the gun nut friends that I have found that out long ago.

Thanks for the blog. Keep it up, please.

Tom Fowler


Pawn shops are a great place to find deals on guns. AS for the remark about Government cheese. Many gun owners are getting tired of elitest remarks such as this you deserve a ZUMBO award. Maybe you need to get off the high horse. You sound like the Kennedy's.

WA Mtnhunter

I agree with Clay on the Mini-14. Most of them won't shoot for beans. A good $200 truck gun that sells for $550.

Get yourself a good Bushmaster before Remington beancounters screw them up.


I bought a Mossberg 4x4 in 30-06 a while back. Sub MOA for under $400. Not as pretty as my Model 700, but it gets the job done. And I won't cry if the stock get scratched.


Best "cheap gun" I ever bought was a Norinco JW-15 22LR, cost me all of $79 (yes, new cost) and will shoot cloverleafs at 50 yds with the right ammo (Blazer 22SP's) and about an inch with most others. With a cheap Bushnel 3x9 22 scope ($10 at a flea market) it's my squirrel sniper rifle! I did have to invest some work into it, several hours and half a tube of toothpaste slicked up the bolt travel, and a little more time with Arkansas stones smoothed out the trigger, also sanded, checkered and refinished the stock with Tung Oil as the original finish looked like they dunked the wood in a barrel of varnish and hung it up to dry. (might be how they did it actually)
Also added a wood burning of a Squirrel sitting on a tree limb to the butt of it just for looks!

Never pass on a gun just because it's "cheap"!
Learn what to look for in the used gun section, ALWAYS work the action, even on a new gun, make sure it's tight but smooth because if it needs work that's more money if you can't fix it yourself. ALWAYS check the barrel for erosion and wear (especially at the muzzle!) and look for accumulations of gunk and rust internally as this is a sure sign the previous owner either didn't know how to clean it or didn't care enough to. Either can be a big problem.
And remember if you do get a lemon you can always sell it! (That's what the previous owner did afterall!)

Also a note/question on Thompson Center, they used to be great with customer service, even replaced the barrel on a TC Hawkin Rifle I bought used for free! (I did not expect that, it was buldged when I bought it and I set it in fully expecting to be charged for it's repair or replacement)
How are they since the merger? (I heard they were bought out a while back)

John R

I think someone above said it well in that cheap and inexpensive are two different animals. I still have trouble when the Gun Writer Gods (no offense meant Dave) review a rifle and say it's a steal at $1,100.00. I grew up middle lower class and my first shotgun was a Sears Model 200 12 gauge (actually a Winchester Model 1200 pump) my dad bought me so he could pay for it over time.
I traded a black powder rifle for a Ruger .44 mag carbine which I traded for a Remington 742. I must be lucky because it will shoot any brand of 30-06, will shoot <2" at 100 yds., and I can shoot it all day (well almost all day) in a tee shirt. I still have it.
As far as Wally World is concerned; I bought a synthetic stocked Winchester Model 70 and a cheap Simmons scope several years ago for $300 and some change. The trigger is good and the rifle shoots in the 1.5" range (also 30-06). It feels good in my hands and recoil is pleasant. Therefore I suppose that sometimes, not always, cheap may be good.
Inexpensive defined in my opinion is the used rifle found for a good price like so many have previously ststed above. I recently bought an SA Inc. M1A from an estate sale that turned out to be a Nat. Match rifle that shoots MOA with peep sights and my old eyes.
That brings me to a related topic about how the Gun Writer Gods have been crowing for years that a semi-auto rifle can never be as accurate as a bolt action rifle. That M1A has shot tighter than many expensive scoped bolt rifles. The shooter has a lot to do with it and to be fair the other shooter and I swapped rifles to get a baseline of our abilities. I thought it was interesting that he shot the M1A tighter than he shot his bolt gun. I also did not shoot as well with his bolt gun. I suppose the moral of this is never say never ;-).

John R

Oops, my point above is that I still think $1,100.00 is a big chunk of change for any firearm. Sorry!


I bought a S&W 1500 in .243 from a pawn shop back in the 80's for my son's 11th birthday. Paid $250 for the rifle plus Bushnell banner scope, and hardcase. My son is 30 now and that S&W 1500 is his "go to" rifle for whitetails. He's refinished the stock, parkerized the barrel, and added a quaility Burris Fullfield scope(pre Taiwan days). That rifle shot sub MOA to begin with and still does.
Wish I hadn't parted ways with the Ruger M77 .270 I bought in 1978 when I was so poor I didn't have a pot to piss in, or a window to throw it out of. I do miss that rifle.


I too was once a starving college student. Then I became an employed but still starving young adult! Come to think of it not much has changed now that I am 45...

I agree the used gun rack is the way to go. Older guns tend to come from better times when hand labor and attention were more affordable and employees tended to be true craftsmen that gave a Damn!

When I was in college I worked at a gun store. I kept my eye out for forelorn guns that had been beaten, pounded or ground into submission. I even bought a BLR in 308 for $100. A little elbow grease and Linspeed Oil made her quite a looker. Winchester's, Brownings, High Standards and Remington's all came the same way. I had quite a collection until a band of crack heads needed them more than I did! But that is another story...


Chad Love-

I didn't buy one of the plastic stocked 700's but I did pass the info on to a co-worker who was looking for a deal and they got one. I have a 700 BDL .30-06 my parents gave me for H.S. Graduation back in '87. I've never felt the need to get another rifle. But I do keep my eyes open just in case.


Zermoid -
Tell me how you did the toothpaste job. I have a JW-15 too and the only thing bad is that my bolt also sticks on the slide.


Smith & Wesson bought out Thompson Center Arms a year or so back. From what people working there tell me (I live about 11 miles from TC) the manufacturing end of things is still the same but the business functions have been corporate-ized, what that means in terms of customer service I am not sure. I stop into their retail store from time to time and it seems to me that they are still pretty interested in the customer.



I hear ya. I tried to play the price game when I picked up the Savage and tried a big box first; went to Dick's, thinking I might want a .243. The guy tried to sell me the youth model, claiming it wasn't what it was.

So I drove an extra 20 miles to a real gun shop; there are not that many left in CT, either, so the ones left are crowded in prime time and you stand and wait a while until the man comes to help. But once I got some help, they were very attentive, let me handle whatever I wanted to for as long as I wanted, and I have been very happy.

I bought the pkg, but last Xmas the missus told me my present was any glass I wanted...and in doing the subsequent math, I've got a real good rifle and great glass for about $750. It puts three quick offhand shots within an inch of bull at 75 yards, which is about the longest shot I'll ever get in the Catskills. It should last my hunting lifetime and my boy's.

You should move to the Catskills; it only costs a buck to cross the Hudson in Kingston and Catskill!


$2.50 both ways to cross the Mighty Mac. Sounds like its going to $3.50 or $4.00. I'm trying to think of some of the small stores I've visited in the past ten years. Seems like when you can't afford guns, their all over the place. Now that I'm shopping, I can't find what I want. Probably just too picky.
P.S. When the Mighty Mac was opened in 1957, toll was $3.50. A lot of people would drive 250-300 miles to see it, but they couldn't afford to cross it. That trip across and back would eat a large chunk of a man's daily wage back then!


Ralph the Rifleman,
At that point in time they did not have any of the Savages in stock. I just found out that they were going to close the door and that the next week there was going to be a big auction for what was left on the shelves. At that time I needed a new Deer Rifle and was not going to give my money to a big box store. My favorite gun shop had served me well over the years. The money I saved from buying from them over the years I owed it to them for one last purchase. Their prices were well below the big box stores because it was family owned and ran out of a converted Garage. Besides they could get me anything I wanted all I had to do is ask and they would get one in. They closed their doors because the wife wanted to go back to nursing school and the men were truck drivers and were not home every day. The wifes mostly ran the store.


How do you think I Feel, It cost me $3.00 per Axle and I have a lot of them. When I do come up to Menominnee I am usually pulling a 8 axle trailer. Now they want to charge me $5.00 per axle. So it cost me $110.00 per round trip.


Yeah, I know Thomas. I see those fuel chip vans all the time up here. They come from Grayling, Cadillac, etc. I don't know how they can make that trip to Escanaba, go home and still have money in their pockets. I still think back though, I was 8 when they opened that bridge. I wanted to see it so bad! Crossing the straights was actually an adventure on Nov. 14th
when they used ferries.


Hey Guys,, looked through my gun cabinet, Nothing real expensive, some i would not part with but only one that was not bought new.. I gave my neighbor $10.00 for a little Win. 20ga. single barrel. now my handguns on the other hand are all used when I bought them... I would not object to a used gun, look at them almost every day.. see some I like, some i don't. some one said earlier they only bought new because they knew nothing of the used guns. How did he know all about the new one? Like buying autos , look before you buy, buy if you like..simple isn't it?

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