September 23, 2010
Taking the President's advice, I decided against saving my economic stimulus check, thinking that blowing it on a ridiculous gun project might help the country fend off a looming recession.
This Savage Model 99 and Weaver K3 were purchased in 1976 and have proved a lethal and dependable combination. Though modern scopes certainly outperform classic optics, a well-traveled combination like this earns big points for nostalgia and class.
My great-uncle Jimmy's rifle had been hiding in the back of the gun safe, and it was high time to dust her off and put her to use. But it was going to take some work.
The takedown Savage Model 99 was in perfect mechanical condition, but at some point during the rifle's past, a film of rust had covered the barrel and action. Some well-meaning soul with a wad of steel wool did the unthinkable and removed the rust and most of the factory bluing with it.
Some years back, my dad and I shot the rifle, chambered for the perfect .250 Savage, with 100-grain factory loads, and accuracy was abysmal, leading us to believe the twist rate was more suited for lighter bullets. That would steer me into the business of handloading the .250 Savage. Refinishing the rifle and purchasing new dies and components would leave me with a little cash left over, so it was only sensible--as ST's optics editor--to go into debt and pair the rifle with a period riflescope. How many more medical-school books does my wife really need anyway?
It was here that I discovered that "classic glass" is a microcosm of weird old scopes and eccentric people who love them. My first call to Malcolm Addoms did not produce a Lyman Alaskan or Weaver K 2.5 because Addoms likes scopes from the '50s--the 1850s, that is. However, he did have some fascinating information to share.
Many older scopes, like this Lyman 438 target scope, had external adjustments. The system worked then and should still work today. This Low Wall Winchester is chambered for .22 K Hornet. The scope is worth about $350.
"William Malcolm of Utica, New York, started putting scopes on guns in the 1850s as well as supplying scopes to Morgan James and Massachusetts Arms," Addoms said. "Plenty of people made scopes, but he was the first to do it commercially."
Oddly, grinding the lenses was not the hard part. Rather, producing the long, metal tube in which they were held was the key. This was Malcolm's specialty, and his steel tubes were the favorite of target shooters. The lenses were glued into cardboard and paper cells with wax and Canadian balsam, and the cells were then glued into the tube. Reticles were sometimes made from horsehair. Some of these early scopes still exist and bring thousands of dollars from collectors anxious to build correct period rifles.
A few more calls and an Internet search turned up a gent named Nick Stroebel, who authored several books that deal with classic optics, scope mounts, and metallic gun sights. Two titles, Old Rifle Scopes and Old Gun Sights and Rifle Scopes: Identification and Price Guide, are particularly valuable since they can tell you what you are looking at and what it should cost. Stroebel, in the middle of restoring a classic 1937 Piper J-2 Cub, took a few minutes to explain the finer points of purchasing a classic scope.
"First, shake the hell out of it and see if it rattles," Stroebel said, serious as the day is long.
This Winchester Model 1903 is paired with a Rudolph Noske in Redfield one-piece Junior mounts. The scope has lost most of its finish at the ocular and objective; it is worth around $125 — a price that would skyrocket to $350 if the condition were new in the box.
While most makers abandoned cardboard as soon as technology allowed, there are still numerous parts in a riflescope, and over time, they can easily rattle loose or break, rendering the scope useless to a fellow who actually wants to use it to shoot stuff. The ever-practical Stroebel then passed on another important secret: "Next, look through the scope."
The reticle should be in focus, and the image should be sharp from edge to edge. Condensation and fogging obviously could pose a problem in the field. Variable scopes should produce a sharp image throughout the power range, and the crosshair should not shift around on a distant target when zooming. Stroebel pointed out that some brands and models develop specific problems over time.
"Weaver and Bausch & Lomb used balsam to hold the lens groups together and reduce the loss of light, and you often get small, black spots where the cement has gone south," Stroebel said. "The lens groups in Weavers sometimes separate and chip, and that produces a halo effect around the sight picture."
Since old scopes are, well, old, many of them have seen hard use over the years and have the finishes to prove it. Buggered-up screws, scratched lenses, and dented tubes are almost guaranteed. Scope condition is the biggest factor in what you can expect to pay. A Lyman Alaskan, my second pick for Uncle Jimmy's rifle, will usually bring $150 to $175. Stroebel recently ran across one at a gun show in Denver that was new in its original box, complete with paperwork, for $550. Stroebel suggested Stith mounts since they did not require drilling and tapping the Savage's receiver. A used pair would run $150, and a new-in-the-box set would cost around $250.
A quick look through Stroebel's book revealed that over the years, there were quite a few makes and models from which to choose, and some went so far as to include rangefinders and ballistic drop-compensating reticles. I was sticking to simple and hoped to find a fixed-power Weaver or Lyman.
"Believe it or not, the demand for the scopes and sights is pretty high," Stroebel said. "The Internet is one of the best places to find things. I'm not a big fan of their politics, but eBay has a ton of stuff. Gunbroker.com is another great source for this stuff. Past that, a gun show is probably your best bet."
The old Savage is now in a million pieces and on its way to be refinished, and I have been beat out of scopes twice by a last-second bid. But soon enough, my classic rifle will wear vintage glass set in classic mounts.