By: Peter Suciu
For many firearms collectors, one of the most disturbing sights at a large gun show is a nice vintage military rifle that has been “sporterized.” I counted myself among such collectors until recently. While it is still highly doubtful I’d ever actually buy one, my older self can begin to understand why it was done – and instead of only seeing the destruction, I now see the joy these rifles may have brought to a previous owner.
What Does Sporterizing Entail?
We need first to understand why anyone actually sporterized a rifle in the first place, but that requires taking a step back. To many of today’s younger owners of “black guns,” the very concept of sporterizing could be unknown. This is because a civilian AR-15 does, in fact, resemble – at least externally and cosmetically – a military M-16 platform.
With older military rifles, there was no direct civilian counterpart, but with bolt action rifles, no actual need, either. What the military used was little different from a commercial hunting rifle in terms of functionality. Everything else boiled down to comfort.
The concept of “sporterizing” began after the Second World War when vast numbers of military surplus rifles were dumped on the market. This might be hard to understand, because it is rare that such a thing occurs anymore.
Today, when a cache of vintage semi-automatic M1 Garands shows up, there is much reason to celebrate. But in the aftermath of World War II, which was also the beginning of the long-lasting Cold War, many bolt action rifles were relics of another time – despite the fact that the millions of these rifles were produced only 10 or 20 years earlier!
Military surplus included British Lee-Enfields, American M1903 Springfields, German K98 Mausers, and even Japanese Arisakas, as well as plenty of other rifles from around the world.
The rifles were cheap, and in most cases, the ammunition was cheap, too, so sportsmen bought these up. However, these former military rifles were heavy – having far more stock than the average commercial hunting rifles of the era – and apart from specialized models for snipers and marksmen, most of these surplus weapons weren’t fitted for scopes, as soldiers relied solely on the iron sights. The heavy wooden stocks also meant the guns had quite the kick!
Soldiers didn’t have a choice in carrying these, but sportsmen did, so the first thing many of these new owners wanted was to make the military rifle resemble a commercial rifle. Sporterizing was thus the process of taking what had been carried by a soldier and converting it into something a sportsman would carry instead. This meant fitting the firearm with a telescopic sight by drilling holes into the rifle’s receiver, shortening the fore-end, and typically cutting down the stock and including a rubber buttstock to absorb some of the recoil. In some extreme cases, rifles were even rechambered to a more popular hunting cartridge.
Other changes were just as severe. Muzzle devices and integrated bayonets were removed, while barrels were even cut down at times.
Quality and Value Vary
The sporterizing movement was one of the post-WWII individualist spirit, so the quality of these conversions often depended on the skill and time spent by the individual doing the work. As a result, there are examples that look like little more than cut-down military rifles, and some where you can barely tell it was ever carried by a soldier. Thus, it really isn’t so easy to say what the value of a sporterized rifle is today. To most collectors, the price is generally far less than an original version of the same firearm in comparable condition.
There are exceptions, too.
Some specialized companies such as Navy Arms or Gibbs Rifle Company offered commercial versions of what had been surplus. Those rifles have become somewhat collectible, as this was done en mass, as opposed to the average sporterized rifle that is still considered somewhat "ruined" by most collectors today.
Wartime or ‘Minty’ Condition?
Now as a collector – like many collectors – I desire rifles in their original wartime condition, but even this concept is one of debate. Soldiers at the front used their firearms as it was a matter of life and death; it was war after all! So expecting a rifle to be complete with matching numbers in good condition is one thing, but there are those who want nearly "minty" – used as little as possible – rifles. It’s understandable, but only to a point.
I have a British Brown Bess dated to the late 18th century in my collection. It is slightly pitted, there are significant scratches on the stock, and the gun shows the age you’d expect of a firearm that was likely carried during the Napoleonic Wars.
In my mind, this gun was in the Peninsula Campaign or in India before the Mutiny; it certainly saw use somewhere. So when I see a minty Brown Bess in a collection or museum, I do see the beauty in the firearm, but the history seems missing to me. I see the rifle that had spent the ages in an arsenal somewhere before being a collectible. I can’t see a minty Brown Bess and see that it was on the shoulder of a man who marched with Wellington’s troops at Waterloo!
Sporterized rifles take it to another extreme, however. They often lack the wear of battle, unless the soldier who carried it brought it home and decided to use it as a trusted hunting rifle. The more likely option is that the sportizered rifle was lightly used and thus an ideal candidate for being turned into a hunting rifle. In a way, it is sad that what could have been a nice collectible today was "destroyed" – but we must also remember that this was history, too.
An especially well-done sporterized K98 Mauser could be a piece to add to a collection of World War II Mausers to show how after the war, these weren’t just thrown on a pile and burned or dumped into the ocean! These found new life, and since the best ones were often the first choice to be sporterized, these likely didn’t have the rich history of ones that showed wear and could have been through the German Blitzkrieg or defense of Normandy Beach, only to be captured by a brave GI, who then brought it home as a war trophy.
We should also remember that were it not for those sporterized models, these items might not be so collectible today. The good news is, though, that no one is really sporterizing today, at least not to the more valuable vintage firearms.
There are those Mosin-Nagants that came out of Russia over the past decade that are being sporterized, but this involves basically taking a $150-$200 rifle and throwing on some aftermarket products such as pistol grips and sights. It is a far cry from the efforts that were put into some transformations a generation or two ago. What we see today is more akin to efforts to create a modern street racer via a ‘tuner car’ as opposed to the efforts to build a hot rod!
The reason is simple: the art (some call it “butchery”) of sporterizing –– is a dying one. With so many affordable options today, few firearms enthusiasts need to bother buying a cheap military rifle to transform it into a hunting or sporting target rifle.
Peter Suciu is a freelance writer based in Michigan. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.