Is an Old Handgun I Inherited Still Good for Home Defense?

That depends on just what kind of old gun we’re talking about. If you don’t have any other options available…

Probably — at least until you can arrange something better suited to your needs.

As long as we’re talking about a cartridge-fed firearm that is in sound enough condition to be safely discharged, you’ve met the first requirement of being able to win a gunfight: you have a gun. But if this “old handgun” is a cap-and-ball revolver, you will want to look into other options.

Along those lines, you may learn the firearm you’ve inherited is worth a decent amount of money as a collector’s piece. I always advise that people keep guns in their families whenever it is legal to do so. But if that “old gun” you find in dad’s desk turns out to be a first-generation Colt Single Action Army that’s worth 5 grand, decisions can get more complicated.

What to Do After Inheriting a Gun

Whether we’re talking about a semi-auto pistol or a revolver, if you don’t really know much about guns, it’s going to be worth spending the money on a gunsmith. Have him or her professionally clean and inspect the gun to ensure it is safe to use with modern ammunition. Some firearms were manufactured long enough ago that they are not necessarily safe to use with modern “smokeless” powder. You need to get that sorted out and be certain the gun is otherwise safe to fire before we go shopping for anything else.

If we’re talking about a semi-auto, it will likely be safe to use with modern ammo. But no heroics. You can buy ammo today that generates far higher pressures than some older firearms were designed to handle. When you take that gun to get professionally evaluated, be sure to ask what specific kind of ammo is safe to use with it. No “plus-P” ammo in old guns is always a safe policy. This gets to be very important with revolvers, especially of certain designs.

Supplying Your Old Firearm

Buffalo Bore puts out some dynamite modern versions of old self-defense revolver chamberings — specifically .38 Smith & Wesson and .32 Smith & Wesson Long. But they’re only safe for use in solid-frame revolvers. The top-break you inherited from dad is probably not safe to use with anything but low-pressure, lead round nose (LRN) ammo. However, the old built-like-a-tank Webleys and Enfields that were brought back to the U.S. after WWII are usually a different story.

Old-timey LRN .38 S&W shouldn’t be all that hard to find; many hundreds of thousands of revolvers have been chambered for it since its introduction in the 1870s. In fact, it’s exactly the kind of ammunition that is often available during panic-buying like we’ve seen over the last two years. It isn’t uncommon to see all of the 9x19mm and .38 Special long gone while the chamberings that were popular back before we lost President McKinley remain in stock.

Speaking of ammo, if this gun really is all that’s in the cards for now, get a box of whatever will safely work. Then, look up some dry-fire drills you can safely run at home and find somewhere you can train with a reputable instructor. Until you can source an improvement, that’s your sidearm. And any gun is better than no gun when you’re trying to mitigate a shooting-level disaster.


NOTE: USCCA Customer Engagement team members get a lot of questions, and they pass a good number of them along to Concealed Carry Magazine Senior Editor Ed Combs. If you have a question, you can either ask it below or email it to [email protected]. We, of course, cannot guarantee answers to all questions — Ed’s a pretty busy guy — but we’d love to help you out with whatever’s stumping you.

Jared Blohm
Managing Editor
Concealed Carry Magazine