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How Do You Buy a Used Gun?

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The nifty thing about firearms is that they’re designed to last a long, long time with reasonable maintenance. I’m not even an antique aficionado but I regularly shoot pistols and rifles in my small collection that were manufactured in 1936, 1944 and 1945. Others shoot guns much older than that.

The longevity of firearm service life supports a robust and intriguing used gun market. There are plenty of finds and deals to be had if you care to look. As with buying any other used product, it’s wise to know and follow some basic rules to make sure you get a fair deal on a product that’s safe and operable.

A Beretta Model 1934 lying on a camouflage background beside a weahered leather holster and a plastic magazine.

Part of the appeal of used gun shopping is the occasional historical find. Check out this Beretta Model 1934.

Used Gun Safety

When buying a used firearm, remember that if you plan to shoot it, you’ll be torching off a cartridge that generates anywhere from 15,000 to 60,000 pounds per square inch of pressure. Keep in mind that you’ll be holding this gun in your hands and often near your face. Accordingly, it’s critical to be sure that the gun is mechanically sound. You don’t want to risk inheriting someone’s sloppy home-gunsmithing project.

There’s no substitute for a real inspection by a qualified gunsmith. If you have that option, take advantage. If not, be sure to perform a careful visual inspection of the firearm. While we can’t cover all inspection points for all firearm types here, there are a few things to evaluate. Be extra sure that the gun is unloaded before checking its function.

  • Is the overall appearance reasonable for the gun’s age? Wear and scratches are fine. Dents and gouges are danger signals. Check the crown of the muzzle to be sure it’s smooth and free of this type of damage.
  • Check any screw heads for damage. Messed up screws often equate to home-gunsmithing work. That’s generally an undesirable sign!
  • If the gun has a manual safety, be sure it works.
  • If you’re looking at a semi-automatic pistol with a hammer, press the trigger and hold it in. Now rack the slide and make sure the hammer stays in the cocked position.
  • Is there a grip safety? Test it.
  • For pistols, be sure that an empty magazine holds the slide open.
  • If you have snap caps available, feed and eject some cartridges.
  • Check the bore to make sure rifling is clean and that there isn’t rust or pitting inside.
  • If you’re looking at a revolver, make sure the cylinder opens and closes properly and doesn’t rattle around. Also check the forcing cone (breech end of the barrel) to make sure it’s not overly worn or damaged. While you’re at it, peek at the interior of the top strap to make sure there’s not too much flame cutting from excessive high-power shooting.
  • Dry-fire the gun (with permission) to make sure the trigger motion is smooth and consistent from press to press.
A Walther PPK/S with wooden grips perched on a white backdrop.

One of my lesser successful deals was this Walther PPK/S. It was in far rougher shape than advertised online. I sent it off for customization and now it’s a keeper.

Value Research on Used Guns

When buying any type of used product, knowledge about fair value is key. As with cars, there are “blue book” resources that help you estimate used gun prices. The Blue Book of Gun Values is a worthwhile resource. You can buy the printed version or subscribe to the online service on a monthly basis. For just a few bucks, you can research thousands of guns and their estimated current values. Do be aware that these figures are guidelines as market conditions change rapidly and vary with location. Don’t get upset if a firearm you’re considering is more expensive than the book indicates. Use it as a guideline to see if you’re in the ballpark.

The Blue Book relies on condition grading to establish price points. Regardless of what you think a gun’s condition is, it’s important to understand and honestly apply the condition ratings to gauge a fair price. To learn more about gun grading, you can also check the NRA Museum’s Condition Resources website.

Support Your Local Dealer

If you’re buying a new-in-the-box Handgun-O-Matic 3000, they’re all going to be the same, no matter where you purchase. If something turns out to be defective with your new firearm, you’ll have recourse with the manufacturer. Used guns are a different story. If you buy a used firearm from a stranger over the internet, you accept a greater degree of risk, even though the transaction still has to go through a local dealer. The seller has your money, and if you’re not happy with the gun, there may not be a lot you can do about it.

Buying used guns from your local firearms dealer is a win-win scenario. Since it’s physically in the store, you’ll get to inspect that gun to your heart’s content. You can check it thoroughly for safety and function. You can take all the time you need to decide if it’s a good fit for you. Better yet, if something turns out to be wrong with it, a reputable dealer will work with you to resolve the issue. Dealers add a lot of value to the used gun market. Besides, the process of perusing the local stores to find hidden gems isn’t a bad way to spend a weekend afternoon.

Two Beretta handguns lying on a wooden tabletop next to a reddish-brown leather belt and a handful of ammunition.

This Beretta 92FS was a great deal. Lightly used and discounted, it was like new when I bought it from an auction site.

As with any new endeavor, it’s important to tread carefully. You’ll almost certainly make a less-than-ideal purchase at some point, but that’s OK. We all have. Later, as you learn the ropes of the used gun market, you can expand your shopping possibilities. Start with established online retailers who have sold used guns over the long haul. As you gain experience, you can start to look for reputable sellers at auction sites with positive user feedback.

About Tom McHale

Tom McHale, Certified NRA Instructor for pistol and shotgun, is passionate about home and self-defense and the rights of all to protect themselves and their loved ones. He has completed dozens of training programs and will be completing the USCCA Certified Instructor program in the near future. Tom has published seven books on guns, shooting, reloading, concealed carry and holsters, including two for the USCCA: Armed and Ready: Your Comprehensive Blueprint to Concealed Carry Confidence and 30 Days to Concealed Carry Confidence. He has published around 1,700 articles for a dozen gun and shooting publications. Between writing projects, you can find Tom on the range.

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