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I imagine that the Colt Walker reproduction in the video above is a lot better built than the original. But there are lots of guns out there, somewhere, that make you wonder if older guns were better guns. While firearms materials quality has soared and CAD-CAM has revolutionized the manufacturing process, some modern gunmakers wouldn’t know quality control if it bit them on the ass. Which, in our capitalist system, it does. Generally speaking (and specifically if you wish), are guns better built than they used to be, or worse?

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  1. I haven’t owned guns long enough to know from shooting experience.I do however own a S&W 3rd Gen handgun and its in another dimension of quality and build from an M&P pistol. Both guns will reliably and accurately shoot, but the 5906 looks and runs better doing it. I wouldn’t mind paying $700 new for one of those, but $500 for a modern poly-frame pistol to me is a joke.That’s like GM making a Cadillac out of plastic and charging $50K for it anyway. The market may bear that price, but that doesn’t mean the product has improved any.

  2. There isn’t a double action revolver made today that holds a candle to a low\no dash # Smith and Wesson or Colt of the same era, in fit, finish, or mechanics. My biggest disappointment at shot 2012? The S&W 586. WITH the lock. What a letdown.

  3. Usually the stuff owned by Cerebus produces questionable stuff for both guns and cars. Maybe they should have Marchionne run the place.

  4. Seems like guns made from WWI to WWII were very well built and finished. Seems like stuff made maybe the late 60s to 70s started going downhill.

  5. A quality comparison would be all over the place.

    Revolvers probably peaked with the Colt Python. However, older revolvers usually lack a transfer bar or hammer block and may not be as safe as a modern edition.

    Pick up a modern bolt action hunting rifle with its plastic and cheap metal, then an older model made with actual wood, and just let your senses tell you what you want to know. The 1903 Springfield was a battle rifle, churned out in quantitites, but was used for hunting between the wars. I don’t think that any modern mass produced hunting rifle compares with it.

    The situation is not the same for autoloading rifles, where WW2 era semiautomatics weighed a ton, were overly complex and offered no advantage in accuracy or quality over a modern autoloader. An exception to the rule is the post-war M14, which is still a great rifle.

    The answer is cut and dried when it comes to pistols. Modern (post-1982)autoloaders are lighter and way less finicky than their older siblings. In variety, price and all-around carryability, modern pistols lead the way.

    So what’s my answer? I guess my answer is, “it depends.”

    • I would not assume all auto-loaders are in the same class.

      Quality control and general build standards seem to have taken a steep dive as of late. Compare a Beretta 92 variant made last year to one made in the late 1980’s and you can *feel* the difference. The problems ive had with handguns have been on new guns made in the last five years. I’m not counting the 5906 made in the 1990’s with a bad extractor, since it still shot 73 rounds with only 3 jams. Ive heard of brand new S&W 1911s having more failures than that.

      Late model Glocks are another example. Had the original Glocks had the same problems new Gen 4s have now they’d never have gotten off the ground.

      Understand that I don’t believe every brand new semi-auto is inferior to older guns, but on occasion one can do better buying a well treated gun made in the 1990’s than picking up the same model brand new off the counter.

      • I have Sig that says “Made in W. Germany” on the slide, so that should tell you about when it was made. Runs like a top. Everything else I own (in response to the original question) runs excellently as long as I don’t use no-name mags made or surplussed just prior or during the so-called AWB. So I don’t really know. I am not meticulous with my straps, as much as I like the smell of Hopps I am pretty lazy. The only non-mag related failure that I can think of was one time when the Sig was dry as a bone. A little 3 in 1 on the rails and it never happened again.

    • Agree with the revolver comments. For bolt action rifles it varies. I’ve found the SC-produced Winchester rifles excellent, so far. In 30-06 the top-grade has decent well-formed and grained walnut. The barrel is good in details and very accurate. The action is flawless at the price level. It has a metal floorplate. The Safari model is accurate and quite strong in design with two steel through-bolts. Neither of them is a $60,000 Rigby, but compares well with a ’58 270 Model 70 at a the equivalent of about $110 in 1958 dollars. Double-barrel shotguns stack up against anything from the old days, but the prices are very high for quality. Inconsistent quality is the problem with most brand, due probably to ownership changes. Does anyone thing a Marlin today is the equivalent of a Marlin 20 years ago? That occurred in the past, too, and it’s always been ‘buyer beware’ with anything other than custom orders from high-end firms, hasn’t it?

    • I bought a Winchester Model 70/243 for Christmas. It is every bit is good as my 30 year old Remington 700/270. It just depends on how much you want to pay.

  6. Gun quality today varies widely all over the place, depending upon the management of the manufacturing source of the firearm.

    Custom and high-end firearms (eg, rifles from $2K and up) are often much better in quality than what was available 100 years ago in similar arms. Revolvers like the Freedom Arms (NOT “Freedom Group”) and other high-end revolvers are using steels and tolerances that allow them to hold up under much higher cartridge pressures than ever could have been contained in revolvers 100 years ago.

    Modern steels and manufacturing technologies (CNC machines, EDM, etc) give us better consistency, increased safety margins, corrosion resistance, lighter weights and increased accuracy. Barrel quality is vastly better than it was 100 years ago, even when made on the same machines. Many custom barrel makers today are still using the same P&W sine bar machines to make barrels as were used before WWI… but the similarity ends there. The steel, the tooling, the QC are all leaps and bounds better.

    Now, at the low end, the CNC and composite material technologies are being used to scrimp every dime of COGS out of the product. A prime example: Look at the modern Remington bolt action rifle and you see but a faint shadow of the quality and safety features designed into Mauser’s original rifles, especially the 98. Since the 70’s, everything Remington does is in pursuit of cutting costs, not building a better rifle.

    The bottom line: The modern MBA, when turned loose in control of a firearms company, is a horrible thing to behold.

    Sadly, too many gun buyers are ignorant enough to fall for this crap, thanks to the relentless torrent of nonsense published in gun rags posing as information.

    Fortunately, for the gun owner who is interested in quality arms, there is a flowering of new custom and semi-custom rifle, pistol, revolver and shotgun makers out there. Quality is the name of the game in the custom and semi-custom market, because there’s no point in peddling bespoke crap. The buyer needs to bring their wallet, tho, and dispense with the silly ideas fostered by Walmart (ie, “the cheapest crap, available 24 hours a day, in nearly unlimited quantities”).

  7. AR-15s seem to be doing better, especially in the past decade. Compare that with a Vietnam era M16, and you clearly see it’s better.

    And if you ever handle an old M1911, you will notice the difference between the steel used on the old ones and the new ones. I can’t explain it, you’ll see how the old 1911s were simply made with better steel. Newer ones may be much better shooters, but I don’t see many 1911s in the shop that I think will last 100+ years.

    • Many of the problems the early M16 had in the field were the result of paper-pushers making bad decisions.

      The lack of cleaning kits, combined with the change to a dirtier powder, resulted in extreme unreliability.

  8. Generally speaking I like the sights on the newer firearms better. Every era seems to have high points, including this one.

    • Good point-it’s just like with cars. Yes there is a ton of electronic crap and stupid plastic engine covers, but a modern Corvette (base, not even Z06 or ZR1) would destroy almost any muscle car you could name on a drag strip (not to mention the ’60s euros) and on road course it wouldn’t be close. By the same token if I had to choose only one car, I might pick a modern ‘vette or 911. However, if I had to pick two cars I might pick a Camry (Glock, no offense) and a ’63 Lincoln Continental (1911).

      • I actually own a ’94 Camry SE and a Gen 3 Glock and I say that is a good comparison to make. Camry’s (V6 SE models, having a V4 is like having a baby Glock as your primary and only carry piece) are like Glock’s in that they are reliable, affordable, and perform well. I believe that both Glock’s and Camry’s price is set in a way to indicate they are at the tipping point between going up and adding more gadgets and/or flash or going down and suffering in quality and/or features.

  9. Older is definitely better as far as handguns. Or at least, you have to spend a lot more now to get the same quality. Budget guns from the past exhibit a fit & finish that rival top-of-the-line models today. I would take my S&W 4506 or Colt Trooper MkIII before many of my more expensive modern pistols. And there is simply nothing on the market to rival a high-grade pistol from the past. Good luck finding something to match a Colt Python, a S&W 29-2, or a H&K P7M8. Even a ’90s SIG P229 vs. a new SIG P229, no contest. You look at a W. German Walther PPK vs. a US-made Walther PPK, and it’ll make you cry.

  10. Im sorry but it seems a lot of the people making comparisons between specific models of older firearms and newer ones are forgetting something, the bad guns that came off those same factory lines were all tossed after a few years of use because they sucked. the simple reality is the question as asked is unanswerable, if you go by fit and finish you will get one answer if you go by accuracy you will get another answer and if you go for a combined approach you will get a third.

    simply put we would not be buying half the guns we buy today if they were priced like they were in 40’2 or 50’s guns were still priced at 2-3 months pay for a white collar worker, where as today a Glock, XDM, M&P ect ect, are priced so that you could get one with your biweekly pay.

    yes fit and finish on some guns aren’t as good as older guns but its also better than a lot of older guns. lets be honest how many of you can name alliterative autoloader pistols to a 1911 that were out around 1910-1920, the simple reality is we dont remember most of them because most guns were unremarkable then just as they are now, with only one or two a generation really standing out.

    • No, old guns weren’t that expensive. Inflation calculators and old price lists and advertisements are readily available, if you’re curious. I was just talking to my father-in-law about this the other day, comparing his weekly wage from his first job just out of school in the 1960s to the price of various guns. They were well within his reach. He would have had to work about the same amount of time to buy a gun as a person with a reasonable income today.

      It makes sense. If guns had been that expensive, very few people would have owned them. But lots of people did own guns, and collected guns.

      • although yes there were $5 Iver Johnson revolvers a Smith and Wesson “.357 Magnum” Revolver was going for $110 or in modern day money $985.18 using the westegg inflation calculator. Im sorry but that is not cheap that is priced at almost 2x what a modern clock costs and its $100 more than the modern Model 586 6 Inch Barrel.

        • Those older guns had a higher level of fit & finish. S&W still makes those guns, as part of their “Classics” line, and a brand new model 27 lists at… $989.

  11. CAD/CAM machining and programming allows the engineers to specify tighter tolerances in the manufacturing process… in terms of speed, repeatability and the cost per part allowance; it is a winner for the consumer. A major improvement in modern firearms is ergonomic design. Consider 15 years ago, the process capability would not be achievable; even for a good machine CNC programmer to attempt.
    I believe the modern manufacturing processes, along with improved materials and coatings offer the consumer more bang for the buck. The problem with quality, typically fails in the supply side of going off shore to subcontractor shops. Look at it like, people who over promises and under deliver… like are politicians.

  12. my remington 11 was made in 1907. it still digests cases of skeet loads and some rifled slugs every year. FTF? FTE? FTF? never seen one it this one. that said most of the model 70’s and 94’s made once wichester hit the skids in the late 50’s werent all that great, but the ons made prior to that are real craftsmanship. you can add leverguns to revolvers as a class of firearms that were made to higher standards in the past.

  13. My observation is that when it comes to more “traditional” designs like revolvers and bolt action rifles, older is indeed better.

    Having said that, Dan makes a good point – the “old” guns that survive to the modern day are the cream of the crop – it’s likely there were just as many crap guns 50 years ago, but since those guns have long been discarded, they don’t factor into our evaluation of old vs. new.

    I have one purchased – new S&W .357 revolver from 1985 (a Model 19) and one purchased-new S&W .38 from 2008 (a 642.) The fit, finish and overall quality of the 1985 gun are much, much better than the 2008 smith, which feels rough and crude. Granted, they are different models, made out of different materials and
    for different purposes, but when it comes to my beloved S&W Revolvers, there’s no gun like an old gun!

  14. On the older S&W revolvers – going back to the 1880s – the big difference was the hand fitting. Each revolver was given the kind of treatment that you only get from custom shops and high-end makers today. This leads to a much smoother action on the older revolver, if the gun hasn’t been used as a hammer or left to rust in your g-granddad’s tackle box. And if you want to see old-time hand fitting on a semi-auto, take a look at the guts of an old broomhandle Mauser pistol.

    On the price comparison side, a Colt Single Action Army and a 1-oz gold piece both “cost” about $20 in 1880. Today, a 1-oz gold piece and a Freedom Arms .45 LC single action revolver (FAR better fitting than even the old SAAs) will, again, both run you around $1800 or so. There’s a true guage of inflation. What was worth $20 (a month’s wage for a cowboy) in 1880 will today cost you $1800 (about a month’s wage for a cowboy). (Food and a bunkhouse included.)

  15. I think if a new make/model is worse then the old make/model it could be a result of a few different practical realities of manufacturing development.

    At some time period, machine manufacturing tolerances may have been 0.0x, and 0.0x was not close enough that you can assemble the gun and have it just work. So an extra by-hand fitting step was conducted to make the gun work, and at the end of the hand fitting step maybe the tolerances on that particular gun would get to within 0.000x. Enter the invention of CAD/CAM. Now the machine manufacturing tolerance for the gunmaker’s chosen process is 0.00x right off the machine, and perhaps you could get away with assembling parts of that tolerance and have it “just work”. You get rid of the whole costly hands on fitting step which used to be necessary to get to the “just works” (and also had the nice side effect of producing a much better fit). You could try to crowd the machine tolerance so you can buy and use a less expensive CAM system in exchange for some acceptable defect rate. Maybe it is cheaper overall to have a good warranty policy and expect some percentage returned for small batch hand fitting. (I think this is what Taurus does.)

    Other thing that could have changed is that safety margins could have tightened up over time due to more consistent materials manufacture, so a gun today may not be as excessively overbuilt as it used to be to meet previous safety margins. Same with the introduction of more sophisticated design tools, perhaps now they can hit the same margin with a more material efficient geometry. This could result in physical changes which are interpreted as a “change in quality” since people seem to like best what they are already used to. In reality it’s just a “change” and in many cases increases quality… but different is bad ;)!

    Material changes could have something to do with it too. New alloys may not be able to be machined the same way or to the same tolerance as older alloys. Given that a new material is… well… new, designers and machinists have less experience and intuition for it, and upon introduction of the new material there may be some growing pains which result in a lower quality “new” gun vs an “old” model… until they become good at working the new material.


    • Preemptively, the tolerances I made up are for illustration purposes only and are only meant to imply “bigger” or “smaller” not actual measurement order…

      Oh, also, a particular gun design could have been created assuming a particular manufacturing process which as a whole was not as good as a modern method, but in some small details had advantages over the modern method. If the design was such that it exploited or even depended on these advantages and minimized the effects of the shortcomings, switching the same design to the modern process could result in a gun of lower quality.

  16. been there, seen that, walked away with my finger in the air…
    the final straw was 11 out of 13 1911’s being defective from a level of nonfunctional to dangerous…
    i have seen more useless dangerous crap since the mid/late 80’s than in all the previous years of my experience…

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