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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.