Though there’s nothing like shooting that “new gun smell” right out of a factory-fresh firearm, there’s a lot to be said for finding a solid deal on a used gun. Like a good deal on a used vehicle, you let someone else take the depreciation hit and, depending on what you’re after, you get all of what you wanted for less. There are, however, some universals that you’ll need to keep in mind.
Plenty of used guns are almost new. That said, whether it had a single magazine run through it and was put away for a decade or it was someone’s boat gun, you need to know whether the bore is still in good shape and whether the previous owner maintained it properly. You need to know whether the crown is still undamaged or whether there are dings that will impact accuracy. Rust isn’t always necessarily a reason not to buy a firearm, but if the previous owner allowed it to rust on the outside, he or she may have (or likely did) similarly neglect the gun’s interior.
Unless we’re talking about fresh-off-the-boat military surplus caked in cosmoline, a retailer will run a patch or two down the bore of any used firearm it’s looking to sell just like you’d wash a car before trying to sell it. The firearm in question will likely be looking as good as it can while it’s sitting on the rack, which is important to keep in mind when you look down its bore. If the bore looks dirty, that probably isn’t dirt you’re looking at.
Broken parts, such as sights, sling mounts and stocks, don’t necessarily make a used gun a no-go, but make sure you’re knocking as much off of the price as your time and money are worth. I’ve bought rifles and shotguns with broken sights for peanuts that, once repaired, were and are excellent shooters. Speaking of which…
With pump-action shotguns, you’re basically going to be looking for barrel bulges, rust and other damage and running an overall function check. What this means is that the action locks closed when you run the slide forward, the safety works and that pressing the trigger releases the hammer. Very few security-oriented shotguns will have high round counts, though plenty of them will look like they do.
Pump guns are pretty straightforward, but autos can be a little trickier. For a semi-automatic shotgun, you’re going to want to see the condition of the gas system and how the rings are faring. If you don’t know what any of that means, then you’ll want to hit up YouTube before buying a used semi-auto. Otherwise, the assessment will be like that for a pump.
With any kind of shotgun, if the seller will not allow you to remove the barrel for inspection, be very careful; suspicious, even. You clean a shotgun — pump, auto or double-barreled — by removing the barrel or barrels from the action, so asking to remove the barrel before buying isn’t a big ask.
The “lock-up” is the first property to check on a revolver. After ensuring the firearm is unloaded, hold the gun in a firing grip, grab the cylinder between your thumb and index finger and gently see how much you can turn it. Gently cock the hammer all the way back and then — gently — lower the hammer all the way and hold the trigger all the way back. Try the cylinder again. The less movement the better, and some excellent specimens will have absolutely no cylinder movement when the trigger is held all the way to the rear.
If the revolver in question has an exposed hammer, you will want to draw it all the way back and then press forward on the hammer with your thumb. If the hammer drops without you pressing the trigger, that gun is in dire need of serious repair and is not safe to carry.
As with other firearms, you’re going to want to look down the bore, which is exceptionally easy to do with a revolver. Open the cylinder (or remove it, if we’re talking about a single-action), and if you don’t have a bore light, place your thumbnail or a small piece of white paper below the forcing cone at the base of the barrel to reflect light and look down the bore from the front. While it may feel a little odd to be literally looking down the barrel of a gun, give the radical-fundamentalist-safety-ist part of your brain a rest. You confirmed the firearm to be unloaded, and it is impossible for the revolver to discharge with the cylinder out of the frame. If someone gives you static about pointing a gun at yourself, ask him how he checks a revolver’s bore where he’s from.
Pistols Are Almost as Easy
The first step in assessing any used pistol is to 1) remove the magazine and 2) lock the slide to the rear if possible. Plenty of slides do not lock to the rear without a magazine in the mag well. If this is the case, not to worry. Your primary concern is to ensure that the firearm is completely unloaded, because you’re about to do what I described with the revolver above. If the seller will allow you to disassemble the pistol, great. Everything just got even easier. If not, after visually and physically confirming that there is no ammunition in the firearm or the magazine, put your thumbnail or a small piece of white paper in the chamber to reflect light and get a peek at the bore’s condition. As with all other rifled firearms, you’re looking for clean, defined lands and grooves. As with all other firearms of all kinds, if it’s in a gun shop and the bore looks dirty, that’s almost certainly as clean as you’ll be able to get it.
This Is Still a Crapshoot
Unfortunately, you’re always taking a chance whenever you buy a used gun. Even reputable shops let lemons slip through now and again. I once purchased a used Colt-slide, Essex-frame 1911 from my favorite local shop that was, for all intents and purposes, haunted. The shop was embarrassed, and they comped me all manners of extended guide-rods and what-have-you in attempts to get the gun running properly, but it was clear that someone had taken a Dremel to certain parts of the frame in an attempt to “optimize” the pistol and it was just plain out of spec. The chances you take while buying a used gun are part of why used guns cost less than new guns.
Selling Used Guns
Depending on where you live, if you’d like to sell a gun to another private party, you may do so as long as you and that party meet your state’s requirements (which will vary wildly depending on where you live). I live in Wisconsin and, as such, I’ve bought used guns at garage sales, from friends of friends, from co-workers, from a Boy Scout camp, from people who call in to local “swap shop” AM radio programs … heck, I’ve sometimes even bought used guns in gun stores. Many of you reading this, however, will experience a different reality. What is most important is that you follow your local and state laws.
You may notice something of a pattern here: You absolutely, positively must know and follow all applicable laws. If you are looking to sell a gun, you may have no other reasonable choice than to do so in a gun shop. This is going to entirely depend on where you live, and not everyone gets to be from Wisconsin. (Sorry.)
Even if it is not required by law, you may feel more at-ease taking down the name and driver’s license number of the woman or man who is buying your gun. Some folks will be amiable to this; some will not. Either way, if you have even the slightest feeling that you shouldn’t sell someone a gun, don’t. As with everything else, this will vary by where you live, but the last thing you want to do is get crosswise with the law.
Buyer (and Seller) Beware
Buying used guns can be an excellent way to expand your armory and save money. And if you win some hippo-cannon hunting rifle at the next Ducks Unlimited banquet but have no interest in owning it, selling or trading it in at a shop can be an excellent way to get some extra money to put toward exactly what you do want. As long as you keep your ear to the ground with regard to what should cost how much where, you can get some truly excellent deals on anything from almost-new pistols that were only released a year ago to heirloom-quality classics.
Either way though, I always encourage those with guns to keep them rather than sell them. Almost no one who sells a gun is ever able to get it back, and almost a majority of CCM ’s editorial staff has sob stories about guns they never should have let go, myself included. Whenever possible, do what you can to avoid being the other half of someone else’s story about what a great deal they got on a used gun. You’ll sleep better.
Or, if you simply insist on getting rid of whatever it is you have, let me know. I pay cash and seem almost incapable of passing up a good deal.