I have purchased a fair number of pistols in my day. As such, I can confidently say that I have had fewer issues with the functionality of used revolvers than I have had with used semi-automatics … as long as I paid attention to certain details. The truth is, it is easier to determine the reliability of a revolver, new or used, than that of a semi-automatic pistol — and without live fire.
This determination can be made because the cartridge-firing mechanism of a revolver is totally controlled by the physical manipulation of the shooting hand. Unlike a semi-auto, operating a revolver does not rely at all on the power generated by firing a cartridge. Semi-automatic pistol operation — which includes chambering a live round, firing that round, ejecting the empty case and bringing a fresh round to bear — relies on either blowback energy, recoil energy or gas energy.
A double-action revolver requires only repeated manipulation of the trigger to mechanically rotate the cylinder. This single action brings a fresh round into position and then rotates the spent cartridge out of the way so that another live round, if available, can be fired. A single-action-only revolver requires the additional use of a thumb to cock the hammer and cycle rounds. The trigger functions solely to fire the rounds. Thus, checking a wheelgun for functionality is easy, even at the gun-shop counter.
However, before deploying any sidearm for protection, be sure to test it with the self-defense handgun cartridge you intend to carry.
Inspect the exterior of the unloaded weapon for indications of abuse. Signs include excessive surface rust and major dings, dents or scratches — blemishes that go beyond simple neglect or lack of regular cleaning. While this surface abuse is more likely to be found on older, blued-steel revolvers, stainless-steel guns can also rust. If you find rust on a stainless-steel revolver, be aware of what may be going on inside. True external abuse can indicate potential operational problems; the cylinder operating system is a relatively delicate mechanism. “Delicate” doesn’t necessarily mean the parts are weak. It’s just that a lot goes on in terms of timing in a revolver.
Timing Is Everything
When it comes to revolvers, proper timing is the most important aspect of operation. Timing refers to synchronization between the cylinder locking into proper alignment with the barrel and the hammer landing on the cartridge to be fired.
The process begins when the cartridges are loaded into the smooth revolver cylinder chambers. When a revolver is properly timed, the trigger pull rotates a fresh round up into direct alignment with the barrel. When fired, the bullet exits the cylinder and passes through the “flash” or cylinder gap, which is the narrow gap between the cylinder face and the forcing cone. This minute gap is necessary in order to allow proper cylinder rotation. If the gap is too big, excess powder gas is lost, resulting in lower bullet velocity. If the gap is too tight, the cylinder face drags across the forcing cone, and the cylinder won’t rotate properly.
The forcing cone is slightly larger than the actual bore of the barrel and allows for some very, very minute alignment imperfection in a properly timed revolver. The forcing cone funnels the bullet into the barrel and allows it to engage the rifling. This results in a safe and accurate shot getting sent.
Abused revolvers, or older guns that have had thousands of rounds run through them, can fall out of timing. This means that the forcing cone cannot compensate for increased misalignment. Portions of the bullet are shaved off against the cone and ejected out the sides of the revolver. These flying pieces of lead can injure hands or even strike the face of anyone careless enough to be standing to the side of the gun. Accuracy is also degraded. Further, if alignment is bad enough, the firing pin may not strike accurately — dead center on the cartridge primer of a centerfire round or the edge of a rimfire round — and misfires may result.
Shake Things Up
To check for timing and alignment of an exposed hammer that is capable of single-action operation, cock the hammer back, then jiggle the cylinder side to side. If the cylinder notch latches into place while being jiggled, then the timing is in question. If a revolver has a hammer that is concealed or that can’t be manually cocked, pull the trigger until the pistol dry-fires and then hold the trigger to the rear. Without releasing the trigger, jiggle the cylinder. You should not feel it latch into the notch because it should already be locked in place. If it notches in either case, the timing is off, and you may want to take a pass on that particular unit. The latching of the cylinder notches should always occur as part of the trigger operation — not by jiggling the cylinder.
It is also important to be aware of cylinder lockup, as certain revolvers may lock up more tightly than others at the point of firing. A little bit of play while the cylinder is locked in the firing position is normal with Smith & Wesson revolvers, for instance. The movement is very minor and does not affect operation. Colt revolvers, on the other hand, lock up bank-vault tight. My old Colt Cobra, produced in the ’50s, still locks up as though it were new. Colt claims this is due to the cylinder rotating clockwise into the revolver frame instead of counter-clockwise away from the frame.
Safety Mechanism and Firing Capability
Since the beginning of the 20th century, all modern double-action revolvers from U.S. manufacturers have featured various forms of automatic safety mechanisms to prevent them from being fired unless their triggers are held to the rear.
Dry-fire the gun in question and hold the trigger to the rear. Looking through the latch-release side of the revolver window (the opening for the cylinder in the frame), you should be able to see the firing pin popping through the firing pin bushing. You should see the firing pin — whether hammer-mounted (old Colts and S&Ws) or frame-mounted (current production revolvers) — between the rear cylinder gap and the frame. When you release the trigger slowly on a gun with an external hammer, you will see it move back into its normal “standby” position and the firing pin retract.
If you don’t see this happen, the weapon has serious issues. I have never seen it not happen on an operable revolver. In writing this article, however, I noticed that the new S&W M&P Bodyguard .38 automatically pops the firing pin back into place even with the trigger held to the rear due to the new, and very smooth, operating system. The firing pin poking out of the bushing in the frame and the hammer returning to its starting position are good indicators that the revolver you are considering will fire properly. On guns with the older hammer-mounted firing-pin system, check to make sure the pin is secure.
Pull the Trigger
Those of you who live in restrictive locales where guns are zip-tied to prevent in-store dry firing are obviously disadvantaged here. The same goes for those who purchase at gun shows where zip ties are also required. But don’t lose hope. Many handguns are traded back to gun shops for other “guns of the moment” in like-new or unused condition. If you are buying a revolver made in the 21st or late 20th century, you are unlikely to have problems with your purchase. Problems arise more often on guns produced in the 1970s or earlier.
Those of you who are allowed to pull the trigger before purchasing should look for a smooth pull without obvious hitches or grittiness. One of the advantages of buying a good used revolver is that the trigger should be smoother (assuming average use) than one out of the box. Keep in mind, handguns with stainless-steel lockwork are naturally rougher than revolvers with carbon-steel lockwork, so don’t think anything is wrong when comparing the two types. Oiling the action on stainless guns and engaging in extensive dry firing will eventually smooth things out. I have a very well-used stainless S&W Model 65 that is just as smooth as its carbon counterparts from many years of use. Its finish is so bright that it appears to be nickel-plated.
Smith & Wesson Offers Options
Smith & Wesson offers great advantages to the used-revolver purchaser. It is likely that more holsters and accessories are produced for S&W than for any other brand on the market. S&W simply makes more revolvers than anyone else. Speedloaders for all frame sizes abound, and replacement grips are easily obtained — including Crimson Trace Lasergrips and Hogue LE enhanced grips.
I have only had trouble with one used wheelgun from S&W, purchased some 37 years ago: a Model 28 Highway Patrolman. It had an odd tendency to lock up on every fourth or fifth shot. I took it back to the gun store and got a refund. That’s a pretty good record of reliability. Atop that, S&W’s five-shot J-frame .38 snub-nosed revolvers are the most concealable double-actions available, especially in the “Airweight” line.
If you can find a used six-shot Smith & Wesson 332 in .32 H&R Magnum caliber, buy it. The .32 Magnum packs the same punch as a standard-pressure .38 Special but with less recoil. It is an outstanding carry revolver. Make sure any used aluminum-frame .38 S&W snubs you are considering will accept +P .38 Special ammo (all .357 Magnum models will). Many models produced through the 1980s won’t.
Colt revolvers are probably my favorite larger snubbies. They provide an extra round of security with their six-shot cylinders. Additionally, S&W K-frame .38 speedloaders work fine in any D-frame Colt — the Cobra, Agent and Detective Special, for example. While the new Cobra .38s are excellent guns, the Colts produced from 1950 to 1981 are more, for lack of a better word, elegant. The actions are smooth, and their looks hearken back to all the great detective shows and movies of days gone by (Bullitt being one of my favorites). The aluminum-frame Cobras and Agents from 1972 to 1981 were approved for limited +P ammo use, which is why I preferred them over the S&W J-frame Airweights.
True external abuse can indicate potential operational problems; the cylinder operating system is a relatively delicate mechanism. ‘Delicate’ doesn’t necessarily mean the parts are weak. It’s just that a lot goes on in terms of timing in a revolver.
Ruger revolvers are a particularly great value, especially the SP101s, Speed- and Security-Sixes, and the GP100s. These guns are built from solid stainless steel and feature Ruger’s solid-frame construction and takedown system. Unlike any other brand of which I am aware, they can be field-stripped down to the frame, hammer assembly, trigger assembly and cylinder for cleaning. It is also easy to smooth out the action in any of the Rugers by swapping out the original springs for a set of lighter units from Wolff; I did just that on a Security-Six. Further, the solid-frame design means that it is darn near impossible to ruin one of them, even with lots of .357 Magnum loads. I would recommend any of these models for a lifetime of service. Any of the LCR snub-nosed revolvers would be a good used choice, but the aforementioned stainless guns are tops in my book.
Taurus has greatly improved the quality of its revolvers over the last 20 years. The Model 85, for example, is a solid gun sized in the range of S&W J-frames. In fact, the 85s tend to fit holsters and speedloaders made for those S&Ws. The trigger is remarkably smooth, not just for a Taurus but for any snub. You can get a good used Taurus for less than just about any other make and carry it with confidence. I carried a Model 85 off-duty for a time and had no problems with it.
There are many reasons to buy a used revolver, and if you follow the tips above, you can purchase with confidence. Make sure you purchase from a reliable dealer or a trusted friend and see if you can get a warranty. Test-fire your purchase before the warranty (often 30 days) is up. If you are careful, you can purchase a used revolver that shoots “as good as new” — and save big bucks doing it.