—By Phil Bourjaily
Taking an old gun into the field connects you to waterfowling's past. You might carry a family heirloom, your first gun, or just an older model that caught your eye in the used gun rack. Many of those old guns can still hunt. Here's what you need to know to get them ready for their comeback.
Any gun has to be in safe, working condition before you take it hunting. If it hasn't been shot lately, check all aspects of its operation thoroughly. Make sure no pieces are missing, especially rings and seals for semiautos. The gun may shoot without those parts, but you'll damage it over the long term. If you have doubts about the gun, or if its insides look worn or rusted, take it to a gunsmith.
Look down the barrel for pitting. If pits aren't deep—say, they are more freckles than pits—you can shoot the gun as is, but you'll have to clean it often. Deeper pits can be polished out by a gunsmith if the barrel walls are thick enough. Check the barrel for dents or bulges. Shooting a bulged barrel risks bursting it, and a good way to bulge a barrel in the first place is to shoot it when it's dented. Dents are easy for a gunsmith to raise; bulges are expensive or impossible to fix. If a single-barreled gun is bulged, look for a new barrel. Bulged barrels in double guns often need to be replaced or sleeved to shoot a smaller gauge. Both are costly propositions. You'll hear different opinions, but the prudent course with very old guns that have Damascus, twist, or laminated steel barrels is to retire them.
Many older shotguns have chambers shorter than 2 3/4 inches, especially 16-gauge guns. It's possible to have chambers lengthened if they have enough steel in the forcing cone area. Some will require additional alteration to cycle longer shells. Incidentally, some 2 3/4-inch receivers, like those on Remington 1100s and 870s, can be converted to handle 3-inch shells with the appropriate barrel.
Full choke used to be the standard constriction for a waterfowl gun, but it is better suited for lead shot than for steel. If a gun is rated for steel shot, full chokes can work with size 2 steel and smaller shot. A gunsmith can open the choke to approximate a modified constriction, which will reduce the chance of damage and create more effective patterns for shooting over decoys.
Unless a gun has collector value, don't be afraid to add modern accessories. Recoil pads have become much more effective than old, hard rubber pads. I believe swivel studs belong on almost any duck gun. Also, it's no crime to unscrew the original bead, save it, and screw in a fiber-optic sight instead. If there's sufficient barrel wall thickness at the muzzle, you can have a barrel threaded for interchangeable choke tubes to give your old gun modern versatility.
Nothing makes a gun look new like fresh bluing. Many shops let you choose from shiny-blue, extra-polished-blue, and matte-blue finishes. The gunsmith will polish the metal before it's blued, removing small pits and rust scars. Parkerizing, a phosphating process that produces a dull-gray finish, is more often seen on military guns, but it makes a practical finish for a duck gun as well.
Examine the stock and forearm for cracks. Fortunately, a gunsmith can easily repair a crack with epoxy. Guns that have been over-oiled sometimes have dark, spongy wood at the head of the stock where the oil has run down into the wood, and the stock will have to be replaced. There's no question that refinished wood makes a gun look great, and you can opt for a satin or oil finish that's more practical for waterfowling than shiny gloss. Unless you're handy enough to do it yourself, refinishing stocks is expensive, especially once you add the cost of recutting checkering. If the finish isn't horribly dinged up, I skip refinishing because I'm going to ding the gun anyway.
If your gun isn't rated for steel shot, you'll need to spend the money for bismuth, tungsten-matrix, or, if you reload, Nice Shot or ITX. For short-chambered guns, RST sells 2 1/2-inch 12- and 16-gauge bismuth loads.