A Primer On Buying Used Handguns

The bottom chamber is bulged, right at the notch for the locking bolt.  A hot load that was over pressure has just cost this shooter a new cylinder.

The bottom chamber is bulged, right at the notch for the locking bolt. A hot load that was over pressure has just cost this shooter a new cylinder.

Buying a Used Revolver

Buying a revolver, single- or double-action, involves pretty much the same process as buying a used pistol. First, assess the exterior to see if the revolver shows signs of hard use or abuse.

Look at the finish. Is it heavily worn or scratched? A used blued revolver will show white steel at the corners of the frame and cylinder. This wear is caused by holstering and drawing, and is normal. If the scratches look as if a sidewalk instead of a holster caused them, pass on this revolver. Or if you see scratches down to copper on a nickel revolver, pass again. A used revolver with a shiny new finish may have been re-blued or re-nickeled  and needs close examination to determine its condition. Look at the screw holes. Are they oval? Not good. Incorrectly used, the fabric of a polishing wheel will reach down into the screw hole and dish it out. The proper, factory method of re-polishing requires fitting sacrificial screws to the frame. After the frame is polished, these screws are thrown away and new ones are fitted. Look also at the letters and markings. Do they look as if they are blurry? Blurry letters and markings in an otherwise shiny and good finish with good screw holes tell you that the polisher was careful. While he didn’t dish the screw holes, he couldn’t avoid “pulling” the markings. Blurry markings do not harm function, but should lower the price.

To determine if the revolver was ever dropped, check the muzzle, sights and hammer spur for dents and dings. In extreme cases, the sights will have been bent or broken completely off. A revolver with a dinged muzzle but a new front sight was dropped hard enough to break the sight, which was then replaced. Unless you can check barrel straightness and cylinder alignment before you buy, pass.

Look at the cylinder for these same dents and dings. If you see marks, gently open and close the cylinder. A dropped double-action revolver that lands on its cylinder can end up with a sprung crane. If you have to press firmly with a thumb on the cylinder to get the centerpin to click into its seat in the frame, the crane needs alignment. Straightening it is an easy operation.

To check function on the single-action revolver, first make sure it is unloaded. While holding the revolver with your firing hand, grasp the cylinder with your other hand and try to move it back and forth. A very small amount of movement is okay. If the cylinder moves more than the smallest fraction of an inch, however, you may have to adjust endshake after you buy it. Not a big deal. If the cylinder moves so much you can actually hear it clacking back and forth, buy this revolver only if it is cheaper than dirt, or you like a good re-building challenge.

Gently cock the revolver. In the old-style single-actions, (direct copies of the Colt SAA), you should hear four distinct clicks. Odd, tinny sounding clicks could mean weak springs or modified parts. Muffled clicks usually mean the action is over-oiled or greased. Gently cock the revolver through all six chambers. As you do this you must be sure to move the hammer slowly and deliberately to eliminate any momentum in the cylinder. As an additional test, lightly press a thumb or fingertip against the cylinder, to add drag. Did the revolver fully carry-up, that is, did the cylinder come all the way up and lock? If it did not, the revolver may have a short hand or a worn ratchet. Though these problems are easy to fix, try to bargain the price down.

Do the pencil/firing pin test again, to make sure the firing pin is striking hard enough.

Look at the locking slots on each chamber. If they are burred or chewed up the revolver has probably seen too many sessions of fast-cocking shooting, or god forbid, fanning. Pass on the revolver.

Pull the center pin out, remove the cylinder, and look at the locking bolt. Is it beaten up? Are its edges peened? Heavy use, or just a bit of fanning and fast-draw practice will wear the locking bolt. While the bolt is cheap to replace, the cylinder is not. Heavily worn locking slots on the cylinder mean an expensive repair. Pass on the revolver.

Finally, look at the back of the barrel. If the forcing cone is caked in powder residue and lead, ask if it can be cleaned up. You need to see it. Check that the edges of the forcing cone are sharp. A worn or rounded edge means the revolver has seen lots of shooting. Is the rifling clean and distinct? Heavy use erodes the rifling as well as the edges of the forcing cone. Setting the barrel back and re-cutting the cone can rectify a barrel with heavy wear in the forcing cone.