Complete How-To-Guide For Buying Used Handguns

by Skeeter Skelton


Shooting Times Magazine

September 1979

Are you frustrated because you canít get your hand on that new sixgun youíve been wanting for several years? If you know how to spot a good used handgun from one thatís seen its better days, you can stop looking and start shooting! Speaking from experience, Skeeterís valuable tips for examining a used handgun will help you determine whether it will last two weeks or give you years of dependable service.

NEW HANDGUNS are hard to come by these days. Desirable models and calibers are heavily backordered, and when your dealer gets one, he probably has a long waiting list of eager buyers. And then there are the prices. Most good handguns fetch prices so outlandishly high that the services of a loan shark could be required to buy one!

A new car with 100 miles on the odometer becomes a used car-worth substantially less than when you bought it. Guns are the same. Fire a handful of rounds and you have a used gun worth less than what you paid for it.

A booming market exists in used handguns, and real bargains can be found if you know how to sort out the lemons. Itís not as difficult as you may think to check out a used revolver or automatic and come up with a solid, serviceable arm at a considerable savings.

Properly discounted for age and appearance, a used handgun almost always constitutes a better buy than a used car. The truth is that maybe one out of 1000 pistols or revolvers is ever fired extensively.

The average handgun owner may neglect his gun by never cleaning it and letting fine rust supplant its handsome blue. He may throw it thoughtlessly in a glove compartment or under a car seat and let it bang about until itís covered with nicks and gouges.

He might dryfire and toy with until a warm line appears around its cylinder. The blue might be worn away where the slide rides against the receiver, or the blue may be worn by carrying it in a holster. Yet, no internal wear is present because the gun is carried daily but almost never fired.

If youíre willing to accept the idea of a worn-lloing gun and can afford to put a few bucks into a minor gunsmithing job, youíll find most used handguns will serve you as well or better than new ones.

This concept was borne out to me years ago when thousands of Model 1917 Colt and Smith & Wesson .45 ACP revolvers were dumped on the market by the U.S. Postal Service. For the most part, these big double actions had seen little use, lying dormant in post office safes 40 years after being retired from the military. Some were in new condition and some had suffered neglect and abuse, but all were worth much more than the $22 to $35 price tags put on them by retail stores.

The neophyte sixgun man who faced a row of these look-alikes was hard put to choose one. I assisted several friends in selecting the best of these fine bargains.

First, we examined the bores, looking for bright, shiny ones with sharp, distinct lands and grooves. Some were lightly pitted, probably from using corrosive GI ammunition, and a few had rings or bulges in them. While light pitting doesnít necessarily affect accuracy when jacketed bullets are used, these guns would be used with lead bullet .45 Auto Rim ammunition and probably cast bullet handloads.

A ring or bulge in the barrel is not necessarily a detriment to accuracy, but it can be, so guns with such faults were rejected. The lands near the forcing cones of all the barrels were also examined to see if they had been flattened by excessive use of hardball loads.

Such wear would indicated the barrel had a short life ahead.

The butt end of the barrel, where it extends through the frame and meets the face of the cylinder, was carefully inspected for cracks or belling; either was cause for immediate rejection. Front sight blades showing heavy damage or alteration were reasons reject a gun. Slightly bent to one side or the other, a sight blade may straightened if caution is exercised. And burrs and gouges can be cleaned up with a file and a dab of cold blue. But if the sight had been cut to less than normal height, the sixgun got kicked back. It would shoot high unless a new sight or new barrel was installed.

The lockwork was checked out. Heavy trigger  pulls, both double and single action, were acceptable since factory-new revolvers tend to have heavy pulls. This is doubly true for sidearms turned out for the military because heavy pulls have always been looked upon as a safety measure. Any good gunsmith can work up a good pull on a handgun that hasnít been otherwise mistreated. If the 1917ís pull felt very ďgrateyĒ or if one bound up in its cycle, we passed on to the next revolver.

With the revolver cocked, Iíd push against the hammer to see if it would fall without the trigger being pulled. This would mean a faulty sear, a recutting job on a Colt or a new hammer on a Smith, and perhaps a new trigger.

Cocking the revolver to each chamber, we made certain that the cylinder came into line and locked up for each of the six chambers, even when the gun was cocked very slowly. If after the hammer was all the way back, the cylinder had to be turned a bit farther manually before the locking bolt fell into itís slot, the hand was worn too short. This meant replacement of the hand or stretching itóa job for a gunsmith which would add to the cost.

A check was made to see if the extractor, or ratchet, correctly fit into its recess in the back of the cylinder, that it worked freely, and that it wasnít badly worn or beat up. Extractor rods were checked for straightness and ease of movement, and the front latches on the S&W guns had to lock positively.

The chambers were given a critical scanning. A bulge or any serious roughness would mean difficult extraction of fired cases and might indicate a weak spot that would give way under pressure of a heavy load. The cocking process showed whether the cylinder had enough relief between its face and the back of the barrel to revolve freely. Excessive clearance, in excess of .006 inch, or a cylinder that had substantial fore and aft play meant the gun failed to pass. Bolt cuts in the cylinder were minutely inspected. A lip thrown up on the ďstoppingĒ side of the cut, along with cylinder looseness while the gun was cocked, meant a new cylinder stop (locking bolt) was needed; it the notch was excessively widened, the cylinder needed replacing. A broad line worn in the blue around the circumference of the cylinder meant that the bolt fell prematurely, but this didnít cause us to discard the gun if it locked up tightly.

Looseness of the crane was the most common fault on these old swing-out sixguns. This ailment is easily spotted when the cylinder is closed, showing a large gap between the yoke and the frame. This allows sideward play of the cylinder and canít be tolerated. Chambers are misaligned with the bore, causing lopsided, mutilated bullets as they shove their way to the barrelís forcing cone, destroying accuracy.

The checklist for these old 1917 revolvers applies to just about any quality double action. In general the same points apply to Colt and Ruger single actions and their copies, with several other items to be considered.

Colts, older three-screw Rugers without the transfer bar safety, and copies of these single actions have a weakness in their hammer notch/sear arrangement. The hammer has three notches: a ďsafetyĒ notch providing no real safety, a loading notch which holds the hammer in the correct position to permit the cylinder to rotate while loading or unloading, and the fullcock notch.

Any of these can be broken or so worn that they allow the hammer to slip from the sear (which is simply the top of the trigger). Itís a very dangerous condition and one that demands a new hammer. The top of the hammer sometimes breaks off from abrupt contact with one of the notches. Usually, the single action damaged this way will function fairly well, but the trigger will be sprung forward in the trigger guard, and the hammer will engage on fullcock before being drawn fully to the rear..

If your Colt SA cylinder has back-to-front looseness, it can be corrected with an inexpensive cylinder bushing (but they are too long and must be fitted). One the very latest Colt SAA guns, the bushings are staked into place. Ruger cylinders have a thick, integral collar instead of a bushing and donít wear out.

 If your single-actionís cylinder wonít revolve when you cock it, you need a new handspring. If the bolt doesnít fall to lock the cylinder when the hammer is back, you might need a new bolt, but more often only a new bolt spring is required.

On the Colt and some other guns, the bolt and trigger spring are one, and sometimes the half that returns the trigger breaks off, leaving you with a gun that canít be left on cock. None these flaws are serious or expensive to correct.

The problems in checking out a used automatic are not so easily defined. I donít often buy one unless the seller will allow me to shoot it in a functioning test. Given satisfactory ammunition, most malfunctions in automatics are traceable to faulty magazines. The easy way to tell if your pistolís magazine is causing problems is to try another one or two that work correctly in another pistol of the same model.

Safeties, including the grip safeties on guns equipped with them, should be absolutely positive. Test a used auto by cocking it, then try forcefully to pull the trigger with the safety on and the grip safety (if it has one) not depressed. If the hammer falls, forget it.

Watch for excessive looseness of the slide and other moving parts. Some shooters have told me that if they shake an auto and hear it rattle , they turn it down. This is a bit too strict. If an auto pistol, especially a falling-barrel type such as the 1911 Colt .45 ACP, is so tight that it wonít rattle at least a little bit when shaken briskly it is too tight to function reliably. However much of this tightness increases accuracy. But if a selfloader is so loose it sounds like a bucket of bolts, you donít want it. Nor do you want it if it binds during movement of the slide.

If you must buy the auto before firing it, load the magazine, insert it, then work the slide back and forth until the magazine is empty. For safetyís sake, this is best done with dummy ammunition. But if you donít have any, point the gun at the ground for this exercise.

Try to imitate the sharp, positive action of the slide as it moves in actual firing. The loaded rounds should completely chamber without hang-ups. When the slide is drawn sharply back, the cartridge should stay butted up against the boltface until it hits the ejector, then be thrown briskly from the ejection port.

Failure to feed might simply mean a bad magazine, but it can suggest that the loading rampís or chamberís dimensions are abnormal through wear, abuse, or faulty manufacture. Failure to extract usually denotes a bad extractor which isnít too serious. When the cartridge is extracted but isnít kicked clear of the gun, the ejector is faulty. But again, itís nothing to worry about if the gun has a low enough price to spend a few bucks on repairs.

Semiautomatics have an advantage in that many of the parts can be replaced-with little or no fitting-at home without the services of a gunsmith.

I work my guns, and I do not mind if they come to me with a little blue worn away. Iíll just wear away some more. When Iím offered a recently blued gun for sale, I canít help but wonder what the fancy blue job was meant to cover up. Condition of the grips means little to me-I almost always fit custom grips shaped for my hand.

You can save a lot of money by buying used guns. Most new guns need a little gunsmithing to smooth them up. Frequently, this is already done on a used one. If you insist on a new model, you just might have to wait two to three years for delivery.

Used guns are where you find them. Just make sure you heed these suggestions before you buy.



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