Modernizing Old Guns



Who You Gonna Dance With?

In Texas, there is a saying: “Dance with the one who brought ya.” A literal example: You are on a date. In walks in the most attractive guy or gal that you have ever seen. You’d love to ask them to dance, but you are already on a date, so you gotta dance with one you’re with.

The implied wisdom of this saying is based on the principle that someone should pay proper fealty to those who have gone out of their way to look after them. Although it implies to stick with the people who have made you successful; it could also be construed to mean go with the what has brought you this far.

A prepping application of the saying might imply that you make do with the gear and equipment that you already possess and use on a daily basis. You may be in a situation where you can’t afford or can’t acquire as nice of defensive firearms as you might like, but you can still make do with what you have. Examples might be:

  • You own firearms to put meat on the table. You own a bolt-action or lever-action rifle for deer hunting, or a shotgun for bird hunting and sporting clays. You aren’t a big fan of traditional defensive firearms, but are curious how to maximize the defensive potential of the hunting guns that you own.
  • You are on a budget and don’t have the money to buy the latest and greatest (and expensive) firearms to protect yourself. A $100 break-open shotgun or an old deer rifle from a pawn shop is all that you can afford.
  • You only have Pop’s old revolver or double-barrel bird gun to defend yourself.

You can still effectively use them for defensive purposes. There are some accessories and modifications that will help you load and shoot faster and more accurately, and make “the one that brought you” more effective in the defensive role.

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First Things First: Is The Gun Safe?

If Granddaddy’s pistol, rifle, or shotgun has never been fired in your lifetime, or has been sitting in the corner for the past several decades without proper maintenance, it is a very good idea to have the firearm thoroughly inspected by a competent gunsmith. You will want them to make sure that it is safe to shoot, and to make any necessary repairs. Seek out an owner’s manual so that you can learn how to safely operate the firearm. You can use Google to find many owner’s manuals online. (We are continually adding new links to firearms manuals to the Firearms Manuals section of the sidebar or this website.) Thoroughly clean and lubricate the weapon.

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When Is Ammunition Too Old?



There isn’t a danger of the gun “exploding” from old ammunition (unless it received a double dose of gunpowder when it was manufactured). Gunpowder does not gain explosive power over time.  Instead you may find that the ammo is weaker, or that the primer or gunpowder will not ignite. A danger might be that you get a squib load (primer fires but gunpowder does not ignite and properly propel the projectile out of the barrel). Squib loads may leave a bullet lodged somewhere in the barrel. An indication of a squib round will be a significantly different sound when the gun is fired, and of course a lack of impact on the target. DO NOT FIRE THE WEAPON AGAIN! If you do the barrel will burst, destroying the gun and probably injuring or killing you.



Corroded AmmoInspect any old ammo. You may find old ammunition that has corroded and weakened the cartridge case which might result in case rupture or split when fired.  Throw it away if it has any corrosion showing, such as seen in the photo to the right.  If it is clean then it should be safe to shoot.

Older ammunition may have been manufactured with corrosive primers. The gunshot residue (GSR) that this ammunition leaves behind in the chamber and barrel is corrosive and will eat into the metal of the gun and will pit the chamber and ruin any rifling if not thoroughly cleaned after each shooting session. There is an old saying: “Don’t let the sun set on a gun that was fired today.” Hopefully the firearm was properly cleaned by its former owners and there isn’t any damage from neglect.


New Ammo:

Semi-automatic firearms can be finicky about the types of ammunition that they will cycle. Many older semi-automatic rifles and pistols will not cycle hollow-points or ballistic tip ammunition. Test a few hundred rounds of the type of ammunition that you intend to use in the weapon to make sure that it will cycle. It is far better to discover that the ammo isn’t compatible when you are on a one-way gun range rather than on a two-way gun range. If it doesn’t work then try another brand. If you can’t find a hollow-point that will work then buy a bunch of good quality full metal jacket rounds.

Revolvers, bolt-action rifles, and pump-action shotguns are going to be much less finicky. Never the less, I would still run a few boxes of ammo through them to verify that they will run well with the ammo and to verify the accuracy with the ammo.

Don’t run +P rated ammo out of old guns. You will certainly wear them out faster.


Ammunition Summary:

If the ammunition is clean, and has been stored in a cool, dry environment, then it is safe to shoot. If it is older and you can not verify that it is non-corrosive, be sure to clean the chamber and bore after each shooting session. I would only use the old ammunition for practice sessions. In a defensive situation you do not want to trust your life to old ammunition unless you absolutely must. Purchase new ammunition that is intended for self-defense or big game hunting. Buy as much modern ammunition as you will need to routinely practice, and to defend yourself with during an extended emergency. is a great place to start your search for ammunition. Their listed price includes shipping. Depending on the obscurity of the caliber of ammunition you may only see it offered only every once in a while. Purchase as much as you can afford when you see it available so that you will be able to weather the dry times when it may be harder to find.

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Handgun Holsters:

Get rid of the original holster if the leather is worn out. Soft, worn out leather can fold down and fire a chambered semi-automatic pistol when you insert the pistol into the holster.

Dangerous Leather HolsterAfter inspecting and cleaning the revolver, and purchasing plenty of new ammunition, you will want to buy a new holster for it. Many holster manufacturers may still make holsters to fit your revolver. If not, there are generic size holsters that will do. You can either order several, see what fits the best, and then return the rest, or you can take your revolver to a gun store and ask the sales person to help you find one that is the closest fit.

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Carry Spare Ammunition:


Speed Strips and Speed Loaders for Revolvers:

tuffstripsTaurus44Special009You will also want to find a way to carry spare ammunition. If the revolver isn’t too old of a design there may be speed loaders that are compatible with it. If not, Bianchi Speed Strips (shown right) are a great way to carry spare ammunition. They are offered for several calibers, including 38 Special/357 Magnum, and 44 Magnum/45 Long Colt.  Like the speed loaders, if your revolver’s caliber of ammunition isn’t too antiquated you can most likely find a speed strip that will work. You may also opt for an old fashion ammo belt with loops for individual rounds. These are made of both nylon and leather.


Magazines and Clips for Pistols and Rifles:

Magazines and clips for older semi-automatic pistols and rifles may be more problematic to locate. When you find them they may be new, never used, and still packed in the manufacture’s packing grease. Buy a bunch, clean them thoroughly, and test fire them a bunch before you trust your life to them. If you have to buy older, used surplus magazines and clips then buy a bunch. Clean them up and thoroughly test them. I would expect a certain number of them to not perform well. Return the bad ones and get your money back. Do not trust your life to untested magazines! You will easily find matching magazine pouches to match the holster that you bought for your pistol.


Rifle & Shotgun Ammo Sleeves:

Regardless of the type of rifle or shotgun that you have, having a way to carry extra rounds on the gun will increase your reloading speed.

668092Shown to the right is the easiest and least expensive to carry an extra five shotgun rounds on the stock of your shotgun. It’s simply a black elastic band with elastic shell holsters stitched to the side. They can usually be found at Wal-Mart in the hunting section. There are models for both shotgun and rifles. I’m not a big fan of these as they tend to slowly migrate forward on the stock. If you are handy with a need and thread you could probably stitch on a rear elastic or nylon band to go around the butt of the stock to keep the shell holder from riding forwards.

674423Shown to the right is a leather stock ammo carrier. The all leather and brass construction looks great on an older shotgun or rifle and gives it an old cowboy look. There are both models for rifle and shotgun. Depending on the quality of manufacture and your level of maintenance the leather will probably last longer than elastic bands on a nylon model.


Rifle & Shotgun Stock Ammo Pouches:

IMG_0323Shown right is a slightly more expensive stock pouch. It too carries extra ammunition on the stock, but it also has a pocket where you can carry a little bit of extra ammo, or a small cleaning kit, or some basic survival items such as a compass and lighter. There are models for shotguns as well as rifles.


Rifle & Shotgun Ammo Bandoliers:

GLB80Bandoliers are a great way to quickly dawn and carry a large amount of rifle or shotgun ammunition. There are cheap ones make that are sometimes sold at Wal-Mart. There are nicer, higher quality models that can be ordered online that will last much longer. You can find high quality bandoliers made from leather, or nylon and elastic. Blackhawk shotgun bandoliers hold as many as 55 shotgun shells. Galati rifle bandoliers (pictured right) hold as many as 80 rounds of .308, 30.06, 7.62×54 rifle rounds or .410 shotgun shells. Is this much ammunition required for a hunting trip? Of course not, but it will be in a survival/self-defense situation.


Shotgun Shell Ranger Bands:

Shotgun Shell RubberbandRanger Bands“, bicycle tubes cut into one inch lengths, are perfect to carry seven rounds clustered together in your jacket pocket. This is a dirt cheap way to carry shotgun shells (pictured right).


Rifle & Shotgun Ammunition Load Bearing Gear:

dsc_1714aSurplus load bearing gear for your particular surplus military style rifle, such as a SKS or Mosin Nagant, can be found through a little internet research. There are also modern load bearing systems for your older style rifles, such as this chest rig made by 762Tactical that is intended to carry 10 SKS stripper clips for a total of 80 rounds.

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Weapon Upgrades & Improvements:

Fiber Optic Sights:

Probably one of the easiest and most effective modifications or accessories to an old shotgun or rifle is to add a simple front Truglo fiber optic sight, or a set of front and rear fiber optic sights. Rather than the old fashion bead or post sight you will now have bright dots to help you line up on target. The brighter the ambient light, the brighter the sights.

TRG94It is very easy to mount a front and rear sight to a shotgun with a ribbed barrel. This will greatly increase the shotgun’s capability as you will not be able to accurately shoot rifled slugs. Be sure to use Loctite or some other type of thread locker if your sights require screws to hold them in place.

Truglow Front SightIf you don’t have a ribbed barrel there are still fiber optic front sights that attach to the barrel with a powerful magnet. They are held in alignment with the factory front bead sight. It won’t be quite as effective as using a front and rear sight on a ribbed barrel, but it will still be significantly easier and more effective than using just a front bead.


Shotgun Barrels:

As a general rule, the longer the barrel of a shotgun, the tighter the pattern of the shot will remain as it travels away from the shotgun. This is great for hunting, however for close in, self-defense distances you may prefer a shorter barrel. A shorter barrel will make the shotgun more maneuverable and easy to handle when you have to “run-n-gun”. It will also allow your self-defense buck-shot load to space out and spread the trauma over a slightly larger area on the bad guy. The cost of a shorter barrel is a shortened effective range (less velocity and wider shot spread) and rendering the shotgun less useful for hunting.

If you think that you will every need the shotgun for hunting I would leave the barrel as it came from the factory. If you never plan on using it for hunting and only plan on using it for survival / self-defense situation the you may consider cutting the barrel back to the minimum legal length.

As per federal law, legal length of a shotgun is 18″ (don’t get the minimum shotgun length of 18″ confused with the 16″ legal length of rifles). You can simply do the job by measuring 18″ from the where the chamber becomes the barrel, marking it with a pencil, removing the extra barrel with a hack saw, and artistically rounding off the edges with a Dremel. You may choose to do the job with a pipe cutter that can be purchased in the plumbing section of any home improvement store. If you want it to look really good you can pay a gunsmith to cut it back and then properly drill out and install the bead sight on the shortened barrel.

Two thoughts to keep in mind. Unless you have a ribbed barrel it will be hard to mount a front sight without the help of a gunsmith drilling out a new hole for the sight. Also, if you incorrectly measure and make your shotgun too short you are now in possession of a “sawed off” shotgun and can get into serious federal trouble. I recommend that even if you know exactly where a legal 18″ cutoff point is you should move it up to 18.1″ just to be safe. Bumping it all the way to 19″ would be a very good way to make sure that you stay legal. The extra inch isn’t going to keep you from effectively using the gun to protect yourself, but it might make sure that you stay out of the federal pen.

Don’t even think about trying to saw off a rifle barrel. A good gunsmith can cut a rifle barrel back and then machine and nice crown on the end. If you do a hacksaw job in your garage then the new end of your barrel will be jagged and will destroy the rifles accuracy. Even if you think that you did a great job, you didn’t. Also, the shorter the rifle the less velocity that you will get out of the projectile. DON’T BE STUPID AND CUT A RIFLE BARREL.

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Add A Light:

Do a little internet research and find yourself some type of weapons light mount to add a light system to your long arm. Be sure to use a good quality light, such as those offered from Surefire and Streamlight. Be sure to use a LED type light. They are brighter, run longer on a set of batteries, and can take much more abuse than an old fashion incandescent bulb. Make sure to use some type of thread locker on the screws of your mount so that they don’t back out and loosen up when you shoot your firearm.

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With a few modifications and accessories you can effectively use your current hunting firearms or those firearms used in generations past.

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