A Primer On Buying Used Handguns

The owner of this Colt saved some money on some cheap reloads.  A new barrel will cost many times his “savings.”

The owner of this Colt saved some money on some cheap reloads. A new barrel will cost many times his “savings.”

Cracks in the forcing cone cannot be fixed. Uncommon outside of magnum revolvers, these cracks result from the high pressure of the magnum ammunition stressing the edges of the forcing cone. Unlike wear, you cannot easily set the barrel back enough to fix a crack. With a cracked forcing cone it’s much simpler just to replace the barrel.

With double-action revolvers you do all the same external checks that you did with the single-action revolvers. A significant percentage of the double-action revolvers available on the used market are ex-police revolvers. When police departments switched to automatics, they traded in or sold their revolvers. Pay attention to the details and you can get a good deal on a used double-action .38 or .357.

Many ex-police revolvers have the bluing rubbed off where they rode in a holster, but otherwise have little wear. Since many police departments qualify only annually, your revolver may have had only a couple of hundred rounds a year put through it! The grips, if original, will probably be very ugly. While rest of the revolver was protected by the holster the grips were outside, getting banged by car doors, signposts, and who knows what. Grips are cheap and easy to replace.

To begin your mechanical checks, first release the cylinder latch and swing it open. Is the revolver loaded? No? Good. Swing the cylinder in and out several times. Make sure it swings smoothly, and closes easily. Smith & Wessons binding while swinging usually means the sideplate screws have been switched. In other brands, it means the crane is dirty. If you have to press the cylinder to make it click when closing, the crane is out of alignment.

There are two checks for carry-up, one for single-action cocking and one for double. Single is simple. Slowly cock the action while watching the cylinder, just as you would for a single-action revolver. I do my double-action check very, very slowly, with my left thumb against the hammer, so when the trigger releases the hammer, the momentum of my trigger finger doesn’t throw the cylinder into lockup. You can also use a fingertip to drag against the cylinder. Although failure to carry-up can be fixed, you should bargain for a lower price because of it.

Open the cylinder and look at the forcing cone, on the back of the barrel. Give it the same thorough exam described for a single-action revolver.

Now look into the cylinder. At the front of the chamber is the shoulder. A magnum revolver that had a lot of .38 Specials put through it would have developed a crusty ring just in back of this shoulder. You may also see such a ring in single-action revolvers, where many competitors use shorter cases for lighter loads. It may be that the .357 Magnum you are looking at has been fired extensively with cases not much longer than a 9mm Parabellum, and the forward half of each chamber is sheened with lead. There can be corrosion under the crusty buildup. Ask to have any visible grunge scrubbed out, and check the area for the pits that indicate too much time between cleanings. Pits can make extraction harder when you fire magnum ammunition, and continue to rust if you use Specials. If the revolver has pits, don’t buy it.

Check the back of the cylinder, at the openings to each chamber. If the revolver was used for competition, the chamber openings may have been chamfered to allow faster reloading during matches. Poorly done, however, chamfering makes ejection uncertain. Look at the work closely. Only the cylinder itself should be beveled. If the extractor star is also beveled, ejection may suffer. To check, you need to fire the revolver and eject the empties for at least 100 rounds. Since the cure for a bad chamfering job is fitting a new extractor, an expensive factory job, if you can’t shoot the revolver beforehand or get a warranty pass on it.

During your test-fire you may find that the sights are off slightly. On a revolver with adjustable sights, just crank them over. (Indeed, this is a good time to find out if the adjustable sights actually adjust.) In a fixed-sight revolver a small amount of “off” is OK. After all, you’ll want to be able to adjust your new revolver to you and your ammo. However, if the sights are off more than a few inches at 25 feet, or the groups with standard ammo for the caliber, are hitting high, you may have problems. A few inches is about all you can correct by turning the barrel. A high bullet strike means a low front sight, and it is difficult to add height to a fixed sight. Take a quick look and see if the sight has been filed or machined. If it hasn’t, the frame may be bent, and only the factory can correct that. And not for free. You must make a choice: is this a project gun, for experimentation in fitting a new front sight, or is it a returned gun, for your money back? Only you can decide.

This gun collecting series brought to you by NM Collector Software.

Recommended books for gun collectors:

Standard Catalog of Firearms, 2011Standard Catalog of Firearms, 21st Edition

Gun Digest 2010, 64th Edition

The Official Gun Digest Book of Guns & Prices 2010, Rifles, Pistols & Shotguns