Just cradling a 100-year-old military rifle in your hands -- staring down the cool blued barrel and feeling the warmth of the aged wood -- has its own rewards for the shooting and hunting fan.
Air Force Maj. Kent Christen, a vintage firearms collector, explained: "I suppose the greatest reward actually comes in finding the piece. I've scoured gun shows for specific firearms and come up empty for months and then found a great bargain, such as an early M1 Garand for $700."
Both Christen and retired Army Lt. Col. Ed Thornton said there is no substitute for research before jumping into the collector's game.
Professional firearms dealers at gun shows can quickly size up a prospective customer. Most dealers will shoot straight, but knowing what you're looking for helps ensure a reasonable deal on a serviceable product.
Christen recommends buying Shotgun News and Gun List magazines for ideas on how much dealers are paying for guns. Some Web sites, such as www.auctionarms.com, www.gunbroker.com and www.gunsamerica.com, can also help you research pricing.
For example, Thornton and Christen said that right now, many SKS variants, from Russian to Yugoslavian, can be had for prices ranging from $125 to $250. Non-German Mausers are usually under $200.
Good deals are sometimes available by finding people attending gun shows who want to sell one or two firearms from their collections, Thornton said.
"When they try to sell to a dealer, they'll usually get a lowball offer that will hurt their feelings," he says. "You can often get a great deal just by offering a little more than the dealers."
Christen said he shoots all the surplus weapons he buys, so knowing about the availability of replacement parts and ammo components is critical to him.
He also closely inspects prospective purchases.
"I bore scope the weapon, looking for pitting, rust, obstructions, cracks, bulges, etc.," he said. "I work the action and pull the trigger. If the weapon passes these tests and I'm interested, I look for cracks or repairs in the stock and do a detailed look at the muzzle's crown. A bad crown will kill accuracy."
Christen touts surplus as a good way to get people involved in the shooting sports.
"The weapons are interesting in and of themselves, and finding out their history just makes it more fun," he said.
Ken Perrotte is a freelance writer in King George, Va.