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Under the hood; you wouldn't buy a car without kicking the tires; don't purchase a pistol without checking just as carefully.

I once saw a bumper sticker that read, "All cars run on used parts." This is true--the money spent for the new flivver is not the best of investments. As soon as the tires hit the road, the vehicle is used and may lose 40% of its value.

Handguns are much the same. Sure, some of the better makes and types keep their value, but any appreciation is a gamble. Most of us purchase plain vanilla working guns and hope for the best deal. I estimate a drop in value of 40% or so is average on any new gun as it leaves the Showroom.

The dealer must make a profit, and he isn't going to allow the same price on a used gun as new one. If he has a 20% markup on a $400 gun, he pockets about $80. If you wish to sell the pistol back in a hardship a few weeks later, he's going to offer something well below his wholesale price.

Certain features are desirable, and if you must have these, then shopping for a bargain used gun will be tougher. If you simply wish to own something that goes bang reliably, the task is far easier. Quite often, a handgun manufactured 10, 20 or even 40 years ago may serve your needs. You may find a quality stainless steel handgun for about the same price as a new matte-finished gun. I have certainly made my share of errors in the past, but most were easily rectified. Others were nearly insurmountable.


If you purchase a used handgun from a reputable shop, you should have some type of warranty. As one shop owner told me many years ago, concerning my first Walther P.38, "It shouldn't jam but all automatic pistols are subject to jamming." In other words, I needed to do my part, clean and lubricate the pistol and use good ammunition.

The best bet is to find a good handgun in the first place. Sometimes shooters trade dogs, but there are often good quality handguns on the used market. High quality used guns are often traded for an even more desirable handgun. As an example, I traded a very nice Belgian Browning High Power 9mm in on a Springfield Loaded Model 1911. The High Power had less than 500 rounds on it and had been treated very well. You also have the knowledge that the fellows at the gun shop attempt to check out handguns as they are brought in. These men are often knowledgeable but not infallible.

Sometimes a pistol with a glaring fault gets past the guys behind the counter. During the past year, I ran across two handguns with firing pin problems. One was a modern 9mm 1911 type. The firing pin often would stick and, fail to fire the cartridge case.

In another instance, an Astra 600 suffered a firing pin that was stuck forward. I missed this one on the initial examination and thank God I had the pistol pointed in a safe direction on the range. When I racked the slide, the pistol fired! Always follow strict safety procedure. Most of us won't be looking for hoary old Astras but well worn police trade-ins are always worth extra scrutiny.


On another occasion I was looking for a used Beretta to teach a class composed primarily of military personnel. I found one and should have spent a little more cash on a better gun. The pistol was well worn and the little spring that wraps about the trigger mechanism was missing.

As the pistol was fired, the trigger pin worked loose. I had to tap it into place every 20 rounds or so. Well, it was a good learning experience for all involved. Scrutinize every purchase and be certain that all parts are in order and appear normal.

A used CZ pistol was brought into the shop that seemed OK but the magazine occasionally stuck. When grasped in a strong grip, the pistol did not allow the magazine to disengage! The culprit was a grip screw that had been over-tightened. When new, the pistol probably had a spacer in the grip panels to prevent this but our example was a mind racker until figured out.

Accessories sometimes make a. deal sweeter. It isn't I unusual to find a used handgun complete with a spare magazine and even a holster. I recently purchased a vintage Smith & Wesson .38 complete with a Smith & Wesson marked holster, the predecessor of the modern, respected, Gould and Goodrich company. This was a satisfying find. I also purchased a Walther PP .32 ACP with two spare magazines. One was defective, however, but with the other on hand the blow was lessened.


As rule, it is best to purchase the best example of a used gun you can afford. In the case of the Beretta there were better examples in the case for a few more dollars, but I went cheap.


On the other hand I purchased an A-grade Heckler and Koch P7 from the same shop. These used German police trade-ins are offered in A, Brand C grade. The A grade was a good investment. I have seen B grades at gun shows and the finish is often marred. I would hate to see a C grade!

My A grade has honest wear and performs well. I have added Nill grips and completely trust this used but not used up handgun. I couldn't justify the nearly $2,000 price of a new P7M8.

An excellent resource is a good used gun guide such as the Blue Book of Gun Values. These books often feature clear illustrations of the various conditions of used handguns and how to rate them. You may get a good idea of handgun condition, although it takes years to become a good hand at the game.


The first thing you will learn is that there are very few. handguns in shops that make an honest 98%. If you purchase a handgun that needs refinishing, be certain you are aware of the costs of refinishing. The same goes for replacement grips. Gun shows are a great place to buy grips. Ordering a new set from Hogue is fine, but this adds a considerable percentage to the price of a used handgun.


Kicking the Tires

Before purchasing a handgun, I perform a number of simple checks. Some are more involved than others. The first thing is to see if the handgun is loaded. Don't laugh--it happens more often than some, would care to admit. My acquaintances that work gun show security catch one or more at every show coming in the door loaded.


The next step is to obtain an overall impression of the condition of the handgun. There are certain tip-offs of a used versus abused handgun. Some folks lovingly store their handguns in gun rugs. They will exhibit little wear if treated so gingerly.


The average handgun will show holster wear on the high points or bearing surfaces. Even stainless steel handguns will exhibit this wear. When looking for such a handgun your first impression should be, "Well, it's used but looks good."

Shops sometimes clean a handgun and sometimes not, but a smart seller will clean the handgun before he trades the piece in. I look closely for any hint of corrosion. Rust isn't normal. Corrosion is a sign of neglect. A particular red flag is a stainless handgun with rust spots. Stainless will pick up red rust and pit like mad. A stainless handgun allowed to rust may have been neglected in other ways.


If the handgun's overall appearance shows use but not abuse, I continue to give the handgun a chance. There are two main areas of concern, the bore and the action. With some form of illumination I look down the barrel with a white reflective paper at the other end of the barrel from the light source.

If there are heavy lead deposits, the handloader has used an alloy too soft for the caliber. He may have been negligent in other ways, such as using loads that were too heavy. An extreme example is a handgun with a bulged barrel. I have seen quite a few over the years, usually older revolvers.

Next, I check the action. Unless you are on a first-name basis with the shop owner, you may wish to ask permission before checking the trigger action by dry fire. Some 22 rimfire handguns and a various Spanish center-fire autoloaders may be damaged by dry-firing, but most handguns are perfectly suited to it.

The slide is racked, the hammer cocked or the double-action trigger pressed through the normal trigger travel. The action should be smooth if not light. With an exposed-hammer handgun I press the hammer forward when at full cock to test if the hammer will travel forward.


Sometimes a poorly done action job will play hob with the hammer and sear mating surfaces and result in an unsafe handgun. If the hammer falls forward; the piece is unsafe. An unqualified someone has been monkeying with the action. Actions vary, and after you have felt your way through a few, you will have a good idea of how they are supposed to feel.

Match your expectations with the handgun. The Glock should feel like other Glock pistols and the double-action revolvers should be smooth with no stacking at the end of the travel. I have occasionally purchased otherwise excellent handguns that were in need of a little action work.


But I also happen to know a very good action man who works reasonably. You must have your ducks in a row before the purchase and know where to turn for such work, or you may invest in a money pit.

Revolver Specific

Revolvers tend to exhibit problems springing from use while automatics have problems linked to abuse. Revolvers are timed. In other words each step in the action cycle requires the mechanism to perform smoothly through each part of the action. I am continually surprised at how rugged these actions actually are.


When you pull the trigger, the hammer of the double-action revolver begins to rise. The bolt--the part that holds the cylinder steady as the revolver fires--should lock into the cylinder bolt notch securely before the hammer reaches full cock.


The hand moves the cylinder in rotation. The ratchet and hand may show wear. If they show eccentric wear rather than a light polish, I will pass on the revolver. Once the hammer is reared back to full cock, I attempt to move the cylinder.


If the cylinder is tight, we are in good shape. Often we see excess play, both forward and to the rear and lateral play as well. I have even found cylinders that break right off the bolt and rotate--and I have even seen this problem on new revolvers.


While I have fitted Power Custom end shake shims to older revolvers as a cure, I do not care to do this if it can be avoided.


An old hand may eyeball the barrel and cylinder gap for a proper gap. Too much and the piece will spit lead and jacketed material, too little and the cylinder may bind.

A set of feeler gauges is best for the rest of us. Over .008" is disastrous, while .002" just may be too tight. Even the major manufacturers have had occasional runs of revolvers with too large barrel cylinder gaps. End shake, the back-and-forth motion of the cylinder on the frame, often produces excess barrel and cylinder gap.


While most common with Magnum revolvers, any revolver may develop end shake. A key word when examining the revolver is normal wear. The revolver cylinder moves on its axis, the crane. The ejector rod contacts the recoil shield during recoil. Thousands of rounds of heavy loads will produce eccentric wear. Once this wear begins it accelerates rapidly.



I gauge the. automatic by its appearance. If it looks good, with even wear, I may give it a chance. The slide is often a good indication of the overall condition of the handgun. If the lettering is unreadable or the cocking serrations marred or well worn, the handgun has been around the block the hard way.

When racking the slide, you will find if the slide glides over the frame and if the springs remain at full power. If the slide is more difficult to rack than other similar handguns there is a tip-off of a problem. Similarly, if the hammer cocks too easily, someone may have fitted a low power hammer spring to attempt to refine the action and this may give trouble.

It is imperative controls and the safety features work as designed. The slide lock should lock the slide to the rear when there is a magazine in the pistol. The safety should work as designed and snap briskly in place. The decocker on double-action pistols should work as designed. After many years of experience I do not trust any decocker save for the SIG and CZ types that lower the hammer short of the firing pin.

Lock the slide to the rear and use a pencil or pin to test the firing pin block or drop safety. Press on the firing pin, If it moves forward in a handgun equipped with a drop safety, the safety is defective. It isn't well known but in some designs, brass shavings have blocked the drop safety. I suffered such a problem myself and upon lowering the hammer with the decocker, the pistol fired. Again, I was at the range and the muzzle was pointed downrange. The previous test is also a good test for a broken firing pin tip.


If the trigger action seems too light, particularly on a 1911 or High Power, then drop the slide on an empty chamber. The hammer must not follow or ride down to half cock. If it does, run, don't walk, away! You will need a complete new action and this will run several hundred dollars. The slide window, the barrel bushing and other surfaces should be free of excess wear. A few bright spots are OK.

A veritable encyclopedia of information may be gleaned from a pistol magazine. If the magazine is beat up or damaged, the previous owner may have been ham-handed. Bent feed lips may mean the pistol was not feeding well and the owner attempted self-correction. Or it may simply mean the magazine was dropped. 1911 men often stick a poor quality magazine in the piece they trade, so be on the look out for gun show magazines in quality handguns.


Polymer magazines tell a story, as they may have chips and even cracks. Look for corresponding cracks in the frame as a sign of over enthusiastic handloads. Unsupported chambers and heavy handloads are a poor match.

Take a look at takedown points--the slide lock is a good tip-off. If the frame was dinged in an attempt to beat the part out without holding the slide in the proper position, you may have a troublesome gun. Poorly fitting grips and buggered up screws are another indication of a 10-thumbed owner who may have done more damage to the handgun than is readily noticeable at first glance.


As I write this report, the economy is tight. Just the same, gun sales are riding high. You cannot rush to judgment and choose the first used handgun that roughly meets your criteria. You may carefully inspect each handgun and find a very decent buy at perhaps 40% the price of a similar new handgun.

Sometimes, you will find a bargain in a special edition no longer offered for sale. An example is a Lipsey's exclusive Ruger Competition Target I recently purchased, complete with Ultra Dot sight. I was very pleased, although it is the most I have ever paid for a .22 rimfire handgun. With the price of a quality modern handgun often reaching $1,000, the savings in a used gun are significant and satisfying.
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Title Annotation:Be Sure to Check
Author:Campbell, R.K.
Publication:Shotgun News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 10, 2010
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