Choosing a Practical Antique Rifle – Part 1, by Tunnel Rabbit

For some background, start by reading JWR’s Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) article, which is considered a standard Internet reference: The Pre-1899 Antique Guns FAQ. Here is an important quote from that FAQ:

Q: What constitutes “antique” under U.S. law?
A: Although your State and local laws may vary, any firearm with a frame or receiver that actually made before Jan. 1, 1899 is legally “antique” and not considered a “firearm” under Federal law. This refers to the actual date of manufacture of the receiver/frame, not just model year or patent date marked. (For example, only low serial number Winchester Model 1894 lever actions are actually antique.) No FFL is required to buy or sell antiques across state lines. They are in the same legal category as a muzzle-loading replica. I regularly ship them right to people’s doorstep via US Mail, with no “paper trail.” Think of it as the last bastion of gun ownership and transfer privacy.

The Author’s Experience, and Objective for this Article

I’ve been passionate about reloading for more than 30 years.  It is more of an obsession than a hobby.  It is a welcomed diversion, yet has a practical application.  It is not an attempt to save money, yet with premium ammunition at $3 and $4, or more per round, the pursuit is paying off as my pile of ammunition grows. Even if I am not actually reloading, I am analyzing data merely for the sake of comparing many different cartridges looking for similarities and differences, and patterns that apply to many different and related cartridges. It is not only about precision ammunition, but in part, an ability to engineer a useful round given limited resources for a particular rifle. I am the type who can become engrossed in a good owner’s manual, or happily pour over data for hours. As a statement of fact, and as another opportunity to take a jab at myself, I realize this is not normal for most people.

Handloading is not ‘rocket science’ that involves factors such as atmospherics, spin drift, the Corriolous Effect, and the math behind the physics needed to compensate and keep the projectile on target. No, we have reloading data and dies to get it done without blowing up the gun. As many of my rifles are over 100 years old, and antiques, the lower pressure cartridges they shoot offer another challenge as one would of course attempt to make their rifle perform as best as it might.  We would like the flattest shooting cartridge, and a precision round of ammunition, yet our powder and bullet selection is limited. Endless testing of all possible combinations is not practical as resources — including our time — is limited.  Fortunately, the process has proven out, and the hours analyzing data, pays at least a meager dividend. It is about getting the most ‘bang for the buck’, whilst conserving resources such as powder, primers, and bullets.>It is a bit like engineering a flight to the moon where one spends an inordinate amount of time in planning, relative to a short and successful flight.

It is best to get it right the first time and every time, and more often than not, it does. How the best results are derived would be long and boring story, so it is best to cut to the chase and offer the reader some advice of substance so that they too can get the most bang for buck out of their old rifle. Be advised that I am only a hobbyist and not an expert.

A benefit of this hobby is that I believe I can offer some advice about how to get the most out of a rifle, antique or not.  This article attempts to provide information that helps the reader select a practical antique rifle and the ammunition it can shoot, be it commercial ammunition, and advice about reloading for the rifle.  The article will likely be long and boring for many, so please review the headings in the article, and read only the nits most interesting to you.  Look for sections of the article that will include in general, selected firearms, factory ammunition choices for these rifles, and reloading advice for each rifle. There is likely little interest in reloading for these rifles, so skip that part. But save that information, and at the very least, buy the reloading dies if you buy the rifle, so that if it ever becomes necessary to reload for that rifle, we would have a starting point, or information that a handloader might use as a guide.

The Hidden Pitfalls of Purchasing Firearms

Using examples readily at hand, I chose two quality rifles to discuss that I would gladly own, and that are currently available from Elk Creek Company.  It is important not to buy a ‘hack job’ from an aspiring “Bubba” gunsmith who lacked the tools and experience to do the job correctly. Elk Creek Company, in my experience, sells only high-quality rifles, and not someone else’s problem.

A bargain is not a bargain if you discover at a later, and usually at a very inconvenient time, that a rifle is not serviceable for any number of mechanical reasons. No less than three brand new name brand rifles that I’ve purchased in the past, malfunctioned right out of the box, and I was forced to learn how to do my own gunsmithing, or lose a sizable portion of the investment. I’ve had many lightly-used rifles that also needed repair.  And I have repaired many rifles for friends.  Fortunately, I have a background that lent itself to acquiring a new, yet similar skill. However, I am limited by the lack of specialized tools needed to perform all the tasks of a gunsmith.  Those without such a background, and for those with a natural desire to avoid learning the hard way, would be best served by wisely choosing a reputable source for their purchase. This choice is particularly significant if the item could be well over one hundred years old, and potentially passed through many hands.

A Closing Window of Opportunity to Exercise Our Liberites

If you are serious about exercising your liberties, then I recommend buying only from reputable and knowledagble dealers. And if you intend to have someone else reload for your rifle, then be willing to pay for the most experienced craftsman that you can find. I will discuss details that might allow others to better appreciate the craft of reloading, and how they might also reload. It is easy to make it go ‘bang’, but difficult to make it accurate, and deadly enough to reliably take game. And we will look at several rifles that have plenty of affordable commercial ammunition available so that we can avoid handloading entirely.

Let’s Look for a Firearm for Home Defense

I personally prefer bolt actions and tend to be pragmatic in my choices. Bolt actions are typcially rugged and reliable. I would use a bolt action rifle for longer ranges as the initial part of a layered defense, and not for the closer ranges usually needed in home defense. To better understand where I am coming from, please see two of my previous SurvivalBlog articles, Boers, Beans, Bullets, and Bear Soup, and The Long Range Game

In an effort to produce an article that is focused, I must necessarily limit the scope, and have chosen only two examples to discuss in detail, later. However, I would not want to cheat the reader by not at least mentioning some of the other options. Of course a lever action chambered in .30-30, .32-40, .45-70, .44-40, .45 Long Colt, and other cartridges, would be excellent for self-defense, yet I cannot afford a fine and mechanically sound example. If you cannot either, then I would look at the antique handgun section. Do not settle for less, if you can afford it.

I prefer to begin the defense of my home at a distance with long-range fire, and not at the mailbox. But eventually, as a layered defense is collapsed, it would be necessary and better to use short-range weapons that have actions that can quickly chamber another round, and lend themselves to continuous carry.  These would typically be lighter in weight, and have shorter barrels.

This rifle would be an outstanding choice for home defense:

Winchester M1894 .30-30 Saddle Ring Carbine — Reblued, Made in 1898.  [Editor’s Update: That antique sold to a SurvivalBlog reader on Nov. 17, 2022.]

There is plenty of factory-made .30-30 ammunition available.

“A re-blued Winchester Model 1894 .30-30 Saddle Ring Carbine (SRC). Made in early 1898, Serial # 12766X. 20″ factory barrel with replacement pinned blade front sight & 3 leaf express rear sight. Top tang is marked “Model 1894”. Full-length tubular magazine. The left side of the action is fitted with a saddle ring. Band fastened long wood walnut forearm & straight grip stock w/ steel carbine buttplate. The metal retains 70% lightly faded reblued finish showing carry wear. Wood finish has age-worn appearance showing scratches & marks. Bore has darkened appearance with worn rifling. It is difficult to find a pre-1899 example of a Winchester Model 1894 Carbine in any condition! (ECPM-112)”

As a lower-cost option for home defense in a rifle is this carbine with a short 18-inch barrel:

Rare Chilean Contract Loewe Mauser M1893 Cavalry Carbine.

“A rarely-seen original Mauser model 1893 cavalry saddle ring carbine chambered in 7x57mm Mauser. This Chilean contract carbine is not import marked. It was manufactured by Loewe in Berlin in 1894 as evidenced by the very faded but still visible crest. Has all matching serial numbers except the cocking piece. The rest of the carbine is serial marked A640X. The wood is about as good as I’ve ever seen on an original cavalry carbine. The metal shows plenty of wear from use, but not abuse. The action and safety function fine, and the trigger pull is typical for a Model 1895. The bore is dark but it still has plenty of rifling and no significant pitting. (CAA-999)”

What if you are an urban dweller? To avoid over-penetrating walls within a home, perhaps the best for home defense could be a 12 gauge shotgun. I love 12 gauge. Even low recoil, lower-pressure 12 gauge shotshells loaded with buck hot will drop an assailant like a sack of potatoes, or cause sufficient injury with only one hit, to stop the fight.  This is an ideal shotgun for the job. A shotgun is the most versatile firearm one can own.

Black Cerakoted Winchester Model 1887 12 Gauge Lever Action Riotgun

“Winchester M1887 12 Gauge Lever Action Riotgun in very good refinished condition. Has a fluid steel barrel that has been shortened to 18.5”, with 2-9/16″ chamber (will not accept 2-3/4″ shells) and a good shootable bore with minor pitting. Bore has no choke (cylinder bore.) Overall nice wood with lacquer finish. The wood has typical handling marks, but is sound, with no cracks, This is a lever-action, magazine-fed, shotgun. Newly-installed brass bead front sight. All metal parts were just recently professionally refinished in high temperature flat black Cerakote. The receiver has WRA logo. There is some pitting visible beneath the Cerakote. Walnut stocks with steel buttplate. Pre-1899 production. Serial number 1979X.  Note that Kent brand 2-1/2″ shotgun shells are now fairly widely available in the U.S., and very reasonably priced. Kent makes a very mild 2-1/2″ load that is perfect for older shotguns with fluid steel barrels. This is a very practical shotgun with one foot in the late 1800s and the other in the early 2000s. (ZZFG-120)”

We would also need arms for different defense situations and different persons, who may be better off with a handgun or .22 caliber pump action rifle such as this .22 rifle

Cerakoted Winchester Model 1890 Takedown .22.

Armed with a small frame revolver if available, or a .22 pump action rifle that is shoulder-fired, and therefore can more easily be aimed accurately, could be the best choice, best combination choice for some folks. In a fight, shot placement, not caliber, is the most important factor that contributes to stopping a bad guy.  The .22 WCF has a bit more power than standard velocity .22 long rifle ammunition, and typically has a flat nose that penetrates deeper.

Please do not let this article — which focuses on long range rifles — limit your options and immediate needs or requirements.  When it comes to home defense, go with what is most familiar, and what best suits you, the terrain, and the situation at your location. I have several miles around my ranch to work with, but you may not.

I would hope to educate the reader, so that they have the information and ability to think for themselves, and make an educated decision.  I cannot know what is best for you.

(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 2.)