Restore or Not to Restore

From Paul Minogue

You raise some interesting points with your questions concerning restoration of vintage guns in Hammers Back issue 41 "Restore or Not to Restore?"

I suppose the first issue to be addressed is to examine the reason for owning a vintage gun. You might be a Collector. Collectors tend to acquire the most original examples and rarely, if at all, use their guns. They admire the aesthetics, the engineering excellence and the unusual Patent. They collect the rare, the examples from the prestigious maker or those that have special provenance. For them, all that is necessary is to prevent rust and allow their guns to grow old gracefully. These collectors provide a valuable service as they, like museums, protect the best examples for future generations. Sometimes they are eccentrics; Scotsman Charles Gordon amassed 300 Dickson guns and never fired a shell through any of them, but most are just avid enthusiasts who may, occasionally, take out a vintage gun to the field or the range.


Conversely some owners believe guns are designed to shoot, not to be looked at. For them all modifications made to improve the, fit, accuracy or usability of the gun are permitted, even necessary. This could include modifying the choking, sleeving or lining the barrels and modifying or replacing the stock. Others like their guns to iook good as well as shoot well. For them, deeply blued or browned barrels, "as new" case colouring and new, improved walnut aii contribute to their experience of owning a vintage gun. Arguments about "destroying the gun's charm" will rarely interest them.

So is there a "right" way? The great English writer, Geoffery Boothroyd has said "Increasingly, careful restoration is saving guns from destruction (for in years gone by they would have been placed on the anvil in the workshop and clouted with a hammer) and allowing those with discriminating taste to own a gun of quality". So what constitutes a careful, restoration? My definition is as follows; any well executed and sympathetic restoration that allows an owner to possess a vintage gun that can be used for day to day hunting and target shooting and still retain the essence of the period in which it was made.

Sympathetic restoration might address any safety issues such as removing barrel dents or bulges or re-laying a loose rib but also should allow for functional alterations to improve the fit and use of the gun. The sort of functional changes could include altering the degree of choke, re-bluing or re-browning the barrels where rusting frequently occurs (I recently came across a set of H&H barrels that, prior to being re-blued, would commence rusting when the sun went behind a cloud), lengthening, shortening or changing the cast on the stock, re-checkering where worn checkering affects the gun grip and lapping out badly pitted bores.These sorts of alterations have been carried out on vintage guns for the past 150 years. As guns changed hands, were damaged in use or simply wore out, they were subject to sympathetic restoration.

I believe there is room for all manner of loved old guns in the broad Church known as the Vintagers.

Paul Minogue


From Terry Hartmann

Re. Issue 41 Hammers Back - Restore or not to Restore. This question does raise my pet interest. May I comment:

1. Any vintage gun should not be the owner's to do with as he wishes. He only 'owns' the gun until he passes it on to the next generation of collectors or shooters.

2. There is nothing historically wrong with caring for or having a gun cared for by a competent gunsmith.
In England, one hundred years ago and possibly even to date, it was not uncommon for an owner at the end of the season to return his shotgun or shotguns to his gunsmith to be prepared for the next 12th of August.
The gunsmith would be expected to clean, tighten, re-blue or re-brown, even to sleeve or otherwise repair the barrels, to refurbish the stock, or even restock the firearm, regulate it, carry out any other repairs, and possibly store it, retaining it in storage until the next 12th of August.

3. Thus there is historic precedent for care and restoration of guns. This is different from "tarting up" or "upgrading".There is a difference also between careful restoration of a potentially serviceable firearm and complete rebuilding of a firearm which has come to the end of its serviceable life.

4. Finally, all firearms whether original or restored should oniy be used with the ammunition they were intended for. To do otherwise is sacrilege, notwithstanding that those who subscribe to the double Gun Journal will know that Sherman Bell has tested good quality Damascus barrels and established that they will withstand pressures comparable to those of modern steel barrels.

Terry Hartmann

A further letter was received from Terry Hartmann after the March Newsletter went to print and it reads:

I find the contributions to date of great interest. The thrust of the contributions to date appears to be that there is no objection in principle to sympathetic and restrained restoration but each gun must be looked at on its merits.
I would like to turn from a philosophy of restoration to encourage practical comment and tips in the correspondence, and perhaps to get amateur restorers in communication with one another.

To provoke correspondence and criticism, I make the following comments about restoration:
1. My first step is usually to dismantle the fore-end, even though it looks to be in good order, because experience has shown me that rust develops between the back of the fore-end iron and the end grain of the fore-end wood. This can extend to badly corroding the screws. The rust from the corroded metal in turn eats into the wood of the fore-end.
2. I suspect most shotgun owners are familiar with the practice of using a damp cloth and a hot iron to raise superficial marks on stocks. This will raise bruises and minor scratching but is not effective for more severe lacerations.
3. I consider the most important preliminary step in restoring a stock is to get any accumulation of oil out of the head of the stock. Accumulated oil darkens and weakens the stock at its most fragile point. Heat will release the oil from the head of the stock and no doubt many have noted that when a shotgun is left in direct sunlight oil tends to ooze from around the head of the stock. To remove accumulated oil I use an electric paint removing heat gun (carefully) and also acetone which is highly effective provided the user can withstand the fumes.
CAUTION: Acetone should never be used unless the stock is at room temperature. Acetone is highly inflammable and fumes can be explosive. The heat gun and acetone should never be used together.
4. In my experience it is usually difficult to repair damaged finish on an old stock, with the result that to achieve a satisfactory result all the finish must be removed and the stock refinished. A solution of ordinary household ammonia will remove most old finishes, but care must be taken using this method, as the ammonia opens up the grain and if used on the head of the stock can cause the wood to expand and make it difficult to refit the action.
5. If the stock is damaged beyond repair, I strongly prefer to replace the stock (or the fore-end if necessary) with a good second hand stock or fore-end because new wood lacks the patina of age and evidence of the passage of time.
6. If the bores look to be in poor order, try vigorously cleaning with any commercial nitro solvent. The result is often very pleasing.
7. Sad experience has shown me that one must be careful about hot dip rebluing of barrels, I had this done by a competent gunsmith and the result has been that rust spots have come up through the top rib. For this reason I prefer to use cold blue wherever possible and clean up afterwards myself. (No doubt a contentious comment).
8. My comments above relate almost entirely to restoring woodwork. If a firearm is loose or there are parts missing, I prefer that the repair work be done by a competent gunsmith.
9. If you have a screw that is refusing to release, try tightening it. It sometimes breaks the grip of corrosion or age.

Terry Hartmann


From Annonymous

Restore or not to restore?
There are three levels of answers to this question:

RESTORE: "To bring back into existence, to bring back to a former, original or normal condition" etc.
REJUVENATE: "Restore to youthful vigor or freshness" etc.
PRESERVE: "To keep or save from harm or destruction" etc.

It also depends on other facts; The maker; it is a rarity and/or unique in its design or function? Its age and/or is it historical? And lastly what needs to be done to achieve any one or combination of the above categories?
It is up to the owner to decide what to do; to what lengths to go in his own labour and ability or how many dollars to spend with somebody who can do the work.

Restore: If you inherited your grandfather's Holland & Holland and went out on duck opening, tripped and fell breaking the butt off at the wrist you would restore it.

Rejuvenate and/or Preserve: You come across a breech loading gun in the country. The right hammer is snapped off, the left just flops around - broken main spring! Barrels and body have patches of rust, and tired wood. There are ways of removing rust to stop pitting without leaving bright shiny patches and so maintains the patina. A matching pair of hammers are found and a replacement main spring for the left lock.

If needed the woodwork is washed with warm water and detergent, then allowed to dry for two or three days. Damp cloth and hot iron may be used to help pop out dents and scratches. Followed by a light rub with steel wood may be needed to smooth any roughness. After another two or three days linseed oil may be hand rubbed into the wood, may need two to five applications to bring out the grain, stop cracking and give protection.

It all can be a lot of fun watching a wreck come back from the brink.

From Russell Wilkin

Any attempt to formulate a policy as to whether or not to restore guns requires so many qualifications as to render the task impossible.

We can therefore only consider one gun at a time as the many variables will dictate one's actions...
Remember, high quality guns have always relied on the attentions of highly skilled craftsmen. More damage is done by the attentions of well-intentioned gunsmiths than by normal usage.

The nearer a gun is to its original condition, whether a London 'Best', a nice crisp Parker - or a 'mint' Colt revolver - try to avoid repairing or replacing outwardly simple items, such as screws and pins with foxed slots, unless you are 100% confident of the outcome. Not done properly this apparently humble task, like so many others, can start a progression of problems that will rapidly compromise the gun's condition. Dismantling such a gun is beyond all but a very few with the skills and tools to do so.

Regardless of design or build-quality any gun that has seen honest use will show signs wear and tear. There is no shame in this as it is inevitable and has to be expected. By all means repair or replace whatever needs to done to keep the gun safe and in workable condition but do not start a programme of work to attempt to return it to 'as new' condition. It is very rare for this to work out without it becoming obvious and that all is not as it appears. Whether for financial gain or for pride of possession attempting to reverse the clock does not produce a satisfactory outcome.

Older or heavily used guns need to be judged on a different basis. We all harbour wishes for objects that are a little beyond our means be they guns, cars or whatever, that makes it very tempting when a gun bearing a famous maker's name is offered for sale at an affordable price. You might ask why this is so.

Older guns will have passed through many hands and scrapes and bumps. Barrel condition becomes paramount; be very careful. For instance are there pits in the bores at 3 and 9 o'clock that have started as corrosion under the ribs..The older the gun, the more wear it has had and the more prudent to buy such a gun from a reputable gun shop as above all they will wish to remain reputable. They will point out the various shortcomings but they will also be able to assure you that although a little tired there's still some life in the old dog.

Best wishes to Vintagers everywhere
Russell Wilkin