November 18, 2021
By Jeff John
Most think “new” when buying a defensive handgun, but used can be just as good—and in some cases better. A semiauto’s break-in period is usually over, for example, and some former owners may have upgraded sights or added accessories like custom grips. Plus, the price is generally 20 to 25 percent less than new.
Here are some things to pay attention to when you’re looking at a used gun. If you’re not overly familiar with handguns, it can be helpful to bring along an experienced friend to help explain some of the finer points, and be sure to take your time and not be pushed into a decision.
It’s best to stay with newer semiautos built in the last 30 or 40 years and revolvers up to 50. Modern semiautos are engineered for reliability across a wide range of self-defense ammunition, whereas older ones are often reliable only with full metal jacket ammo. Revolvers have no such issues.
If the prospect is on the far end of two decades or older, ask if it is still in production and if there are new factory magazines and spare parts available. Pass on fully discontinued models. You don’t want to be scouring gun shows and the internet for used magazines or parts.
Current best buys include the many police trade-ins on the market that show carry wear but have been fired little. Many have been certified by the original maker and come with a good warranty.
If it’s not a former police firearm with that paperwork, ask if the gun has been test-fired and if it comes with a warranty. While you can download owner’s manuals for most modern guns—or have the manufacturer mail you one—it’s not a bad idea to find out if a manual comes with the handgun. Either way, you’re going to want one so you can learn how to disassemble and clean it.
Speaking of cleaning, is the gun clean inside and out? The shop or gun show purveyor should have done this, but if not, a dirty gun shows indifference by its previous owner and also makes it harder to assess the gun’s condition.
Take your time examining any prospective purchase. See if you like the way it feels and that it operates easily for you. If it’s a semiautomatic, the slide should run smoothly, and all the controls should function properly. Magazines should go in and out easily, and the slide should lock back on an empty magazine.
Magazines need a little special attention. Ideally, the mag will be marked with the pistol manufacturer’s name or logo, which usually (but not always) can be found on the base pad or body. Many companies subcontract out their magazine manufacturing, but they purchase quality magazines built to their specifications, and ideally, that’s what you want.
Inspect the magazine. Especially if the gun was used in shooting sports requiring magazine changes, they were likely dropped and possibly kicked or stepped on. Check the feed lips for damage or burrs, but expect the body to show light scuffing.
If the magazine has far more wear than the pistol, it may not be the one that came with the gun originally. Plan to replace it or its spring. Ask if the gun comes with more than one magazine or if there are any more to be had. It would be best to leave the transaction with more than one mag in hand.
When a cartridge discharges, it leaves a mark on the breech face and will polish this area even if it’s stainless steel. The amount gives you a rough idea of how many rounds have been fired through the pistol.
A police trade-in may show little finish missing here, although the external finish may look very worn. A target pistol may show quite a bit of wear to the breech face but exhibit little wear externally. For business, I’d want the former, since the latter may require service sooner than later—but not always. This is where having an experienced friend along for a second opinion helps.
Final points on semiautomatics. Because they cycle faster, subcompacts may require more frequent recoil spring and magazine spring replacement for reliable performance than would a belt-sized pistol.
And if the pistol has tritium sights, check them in a dark room or at least cup your hand around the sights to see if the tritium lamps are functioning. Even if they are, keep in mind they work only about 10 to 12 years, so be prepared to replace them sooner rather than later on a used pistol.
Revolvers are simple things by comparison, since their working parts are always at rest. Because revolver springs aren’t compressed for long periods, they rarely need replacement.
Look at the breech face and see how much wear is present. Look at the topstrap where the barrel protrudes and see if any cutting is present. The amount and depth of cutting shows if the gun was fed a steady diet of magnum loads for those that are so chambered.
You want to check for any play in the crane, which is the arm that allows the cylinder to open and close. After ensuring the gun is unloaded (yes, even in a gun shop or at a show), close the cylinder, and with the muzzle skyward, look down on the front of the revolver and gently press on the closed cylinder to see if the crane moves.
No play is best, but minor play is okay. A lot of play is a sign of abuse. It can be fixed, but if you’re unwilling to wait for repairs or unsure, pass it by.
Lightly rest—don’t press—your thumb against the cylinder and slowly cock the hammer. The cylinder bolt should still lock into place over each chamber.
If it doesn’t, think of passing it up. It will probably lock properly in double-action firing, but this indicates a timing issue and will eventually require a gunsmith’s attention. Ask if any speedloaders are available for that particular model.