I am all about buying a good, serviceable sixgun at a decent price and the used gun market is where you will find them. Buying used guns has its advantages- but a junker is never a bargain, at any price.
This checklist is relevant if you’re buying a new handgun, too. The government has, in certain localities, made buying a handgun an outright nuisance and shipping one back to the factory for repairs is no small inconvenience. Quality control problems are not uncommon regardless of the manufacturer. It’s better to avoid those problems entirely and a careful pre-purchase examination can go a long way toward preventing them.
To avoid misunderstandings, commit this procedure to memory and explain to the prospective seller before buying the gun. Most will accommodate your request as long as they are convinced that you will conduct yourself safely, and not damage their gun. Explain what you are doing as you go along; the procedure will be over in just a few minutes. You will impress a few people with your understanding of sixgun mechanics. Resist the urge to ‘blurt out’ any deficiencies that you discover. This will work to your advantage in the long run.
Take these things along on your revolver-shopping safaris-
- A US dime (usually mics about .050 right behind Roosevelt’s head)
- A small flashlight
- A straight, non-retractable pen with a capped end opposite the writing point. A Bic “Round Stic” is just about perfect. This item may be excluded if you are shopping for a rim fire revolver.
SAFETY- FIRST, LAST and ALWAYS
About 95% of these pre-purchase evaluations are going to occur in a public place, usually a gun shop or a gun show. People will be coming and going, so watch what you’re doing. You can bet that they will be watching you and The Four Rules definitely apply here. Always remember to keep that muzzle pointed in a safe direction. Check the gun as soon as the gun handed to you, confirm that it is unloaded.
Then check it again. I know of an incident where a man walked into a gun shop with an “unloaded” 12 gauge riot gun, which he was trying to sell. In 30 seconds flat the front window was gone, people were cussing and the owner’s new Toyota pickup had a nice 00 buck pattern on its rear quarter-panel. It was not a happy place, and the two squad cars that rolled up didn’t make it any happier. This stuff happens, but it never has to happen.
A good portion of our examination can be conducted with the cylinder open or removed, depending on whether the object of our desire is a double or single action revolver. We will begin with the gun in this condition.
The “Once Over”
- Begin by confirming that the cylinder opens freely upon activation of the cylinder release (double actions), and without hesitation or further manipulation. The cylinder should swing freely and easily from the frame, and it should also close without undue effort. It’s a good idea to check this function with each chamber aligned with the barrel.
- Look at the grips and grip frame if it is exposed. You are looking for evidence that the gun may have been dropped or inappropriately altered- and these will be major concerns throughout the examination. The grips should be tight on the gun, unless the screw that secures them is simply loose. A simple turn of that screw should correct this.
- Look at the hammer, and the edges of the frame surrounding it. The hammer should be centered in the opening, and there should be no gouges or pry-marks present- as if someone had pried around in there with a screwdriver. There should be very little side to side play in the hammer itself.
- Look at the rear sight, whether it is fixed or adjustable. Again, we are looking for evidence of the gun having been dropped. In either case the notch should centered in the frame. If it’s adjustable, it shouldn’t be adjusted to its limit in any direction- except maybe down. Check it for snugness by wiggling it with your fingers.
- Proceed down the top of the frame, toward the front sight. Pay particular attention to the juncture of the barrel and frame. Many modern revolvers have a ‘rib’ of some sort on the barrel, and the frame is squared to match it. The barrel should be ‘square’ in its relationship to the frame, and there should be no gap whatsoever visible between the barrel and frame. On barrels that have a ‘shroud’ covering the extractor rod, a tiny (barely perceptible) gap is acceptable between the shroud and the frame.
- Look closely at the front sight; it should be of normal height compared to similar caliber revolvers, with a similar barrel length. Check it for evidence of dings and dents. It should stand precisely vertical when viewed from the rear, using the top of the frame or rear sight as a reference. If either sight is bent or grossly out of perpendicular, don’t expect it to print a bullet anywhere near them.
- Look over the rest of the outside of the gun, including the cylinder. The locking-bolt cuts should have edges with clean lines, and show no battering. On a double-action revolver, turn the ejector slowly rod with your fingers. Be advised that Ruger’s “GP-100”, “SP-100” and “Redhawk” series guns have ejector rods that do not turn with the cylinder. The cylinder should rotate freely, making sure that it is not rubbing against the frame. Then turn the cylinder itself, while closely watching the ejector rod. There should be no ‘wobble’ evident, which is often indicative of a bent ejector rod. Most ejector rods that screw into the cylinder have a knurled circumference at their end; this knurling should be intact and sharp, and show no evidence of damage by vises or pliers.
- Everything should be square or symmetrical, and the trigger should fit its frame opening as well as the hammer does.
- By now you have had an opportunity to evaluate the overall finish of the gun. A light ring around the cylinder of a blue gun is of little consequence, and a small amount of blue worn off at the muzzle just indicates that the gun has been carried some. Beyond that, it is up to you to decide how important its appearance is. Just keep in mind that anything beyond a touch-up with cold blue, is going to going to add significantly to your purchase price. Stainless guns can usually be spiffed-up with a little careful polishing. Nickel-plated guns need to be in very good condition, unless you want to spend an additional couple hundred bucks for a re-plate job. Decide from the outset whether you are looking for a “shooter”, or something with a perfect finish. The condition of the gun’s finish will certainly affect how much you’ll get for it, in any subsequent sale or trade.
- If the gun is fitted with a side-plate, examine the area where it fits into the frame. It should fit flush. Look at the screw-heads on the gun and see if they are burred or damaged. Screws can often be replaced, and a loose side-plate may simply need tightening. A damaged or sprung side-plate is reason enough to pass on a gun.
A Look Inside…
- Look closely at the muzzle. The edges of the rifling should be sharp and square. With the cylinder opened or removed, shine a light into the rear of the barrel and look at the bore. In good light, a white business card held in the frame opening may suffice. The rifling should be uniform throughout its length. This is also a good time to look at the sides of the barrel, checking to see if any bulges are obvious. If you see a “ring” inside the barrel or a bulge on its outside – pass on the gun.
- While the cylinder is out of the way, look at the forcing cone at the rear of the barrel- where it extends through the frame. Think of it as a ‘funnel’ that controls how well the bullet starts its journey down the barrel. The condition of the forcing cone is absolutely critical to accuracy and safe function. First, make sure there are no cracks or chips evident in the forcing cone itself. Then, take a close look at the bevel inside the forcing cone. It should look like a very mild countersink and should be of an even depth, and well centered in the barrel. There should be no ‘steps’ and it should flow smoothly from the rear of the barrel extension, into the rifling itself. If you note significant traces of lead or jacket material in any one portion of its circumference, there is likely a problem. Remember that the forcing cone’s job is to start the bullet as gently as possible into the rifling, and if the bullet starts off-center, the gun will never shoot to its potential. It may also spit particles of lead and jacket material, which can be just as dangerous as well as annoying.
- Look at the cylinder again, with particular attention to the individual chambers. Each one should be glass smooth with no scratches or wavy lines evident and there should be no dings or burrs at the front or rear of any chamber. You should see a slight ‘bottleneck’ at the front of the chambers- this is the throat. Ideally, it sizes the bullet to match the groove diameter of the barrel upon firing.
- Press on the ejector rod gently, and make sure that the extractor star moves freely throughout its full range of travel; and returns firmly and squarely into its seat. Look closely at the cylinder ratchet, and the individual gears that facilitate rotation of the cylinder. They should be evenly-spaced and free of peening, burrs or significant machine marks.
- Before you close or replace the cylinder, take a good look at the inside of the frame, where the firing pin comes through and strikes the primer. The firing pin hole should be round; its edges should be smooth and without burrs. A gun that has been shot a lot will show the imprint of many cartridge heads. This should be apparent by finish contrast only.
- While the gun is still open, place it in the “moment of firing” condition. Most double-action revolvers have an over-ride that prevents the action from being cycled while the cylinder is open, so you will have to overcome this feature by manipulating the cylinder release mechanism. Once you have accomplished this, hold the trigger to the rear and apply light thumb pressure to the hammer. You will have to be sure and hold the trigger fully to the rear, to allow any transfer–bar safety mechanism to fully disengage. This will permit the firing pin to protrude to its maximum reach, inside the frame.
- Now slide that dime right up against the firing pin, and check its protruded length against the thickness of the coin. Industry specification for firing-pin protrusion on revolvers is .050-055”- and the firing pin should protrude, at the least, about the thickness of the dime. If it is obviously and significantly short, pass it up. Guns with frame mounted firing pins must nearly always be returned to the factory for repair- which can also include refinishing the entire frame. Avoiding a trip back to the factory is exactly why we are doing this in the first place.
- Insure ONE MORE TIME that the gun is unloaded, and then close or re-install the cylinder. Make SURE it is pointed in a safe direction. With double-action revolvers- hold light finger pressure against the cylinder, and pull the trigger slowly while controlling the hammer. When or before the hammer falls, the cylinder should lock into firing position. Repeat this for each individual chamber, insuring that each chamber passes this test. For single-action revolvers, use the same light finger pressure against the cylinder while cocking the hammer. The cylinder should lock into the firing position when or before the hammer reaches the full cock position. This also applies to the single-action mode of double-action revolvers.
- As you let the hammer down on the last chamber, hold the trigger in the rear-most position and try to rotate the cylinder, side-to-side. A very small amount of perceptible play is acceptable here. Now, try to move the cylinder front-to-back in the frame window, along its axis. There should be little or no free-play evident here.
- With the gun is unloaded and pointed in a safe direction, cock the hammer while keeping your finger away from the trigger. Now- press on the hammer with your thumb, applying no more than ten pounds of pressure. It should stay cocked, and if it doesn’t- thank the nice man and pass on the gun. Somebody has fiddled with something they shouldn’t have. The gun is dangerous.
- Confirm that the gun is unloaded and pointed in a safe direction. Make sure you are not standing under any bare light bulbs or glass fixtures. Assuming that your prospective purchase is .38/.357 caliber or bigger, point it skyward, cock it, and drop that Bic pen down the muzzle, with the ball-point protruding from the muzzle. Now pull the trigger. If the springs and firing pin are healthy, the force of the firing pin should propel it skyward for at least three feet above the muzzle. Really healthy specimens will bounce it off a 7 foot ceiling.
- While still holding the gun in the upright position, pull the hammer back just far enough to allow the cylinder to rotate. Single-actions have a mechanism to facilitate this, either by placing the hammer on “half-cock” or by opening the loading gate. With double-actions you will have to hold the hammer back just far enough to free the cylinder. Hold the gun up to a light, so you can observe the gap between the barrel and cylinder. It should be between .004” and .009”, and remain constant throughout the full rotation of the cylinder. Less is better here, and a small set of feeler gauges is the only way to be certain of this dimension. If the barrel-cylinder gap changes visibly as the cylinder rotates, something is out of whack and the gun is a lemon.
- A word on trigger pulls- by now you will have cycled the action several times, and be familiar with the trigger pull(s) the revolver. Some, like the Colt Single Action classic old Smith & Wessons, have very light single-action pulls by today’s standards. Others, like post-‘73 Rugers, feel considerably heavier than they need to be. You want a trigger that is SAFE and SMOOTH, but not light to the point of being unintentionally fired when the gun is handled in a responsible manner. Four pounds is plenty light. Anyone can learn to shoot a four-pound single action trigger well, if they are willing to apply themselves.
Congratulations! You have avoided about 90% of the pitfalls that plague a new or used revolver purchases. You also accomplished something a lot of people never quite master- including the final inspectors of some major firearms companies.