Jewel or Junk? How to Buy a Used Handgun


When buying a used handgun, how do you know if it’s a gem, or a problem that someone dumped? Check out these tips to evaluate a used handgun before buying.

Because guns have such long lives, there are lots of them available for sale at any used gun counter or gun show. When buying a used handgun it’s important to be able to determine if it’s a gem, or a problem that someone else dumped on an unsuspecting buyer. Check out these tips for evaluating a used handgun prior to purchase, from Gun Digest Shooter's Guide to Handguns by renowned gunsmith Grant Cunningham:

Safety first! Before checking out any handgun, make sure that it is unloaded, then double-check. With an autoloader, operate the magazine release and take the magazine completely out of the gun. After the magazine is out, pull the slide or bolt back and lock it in the open position. Once the slide has been locked back the chamber is checked. Look in the chamber and make sure it’s empty; many instructors also recommend that a finger be inserted into the chamber to feel for a missed round.

Now the double check: feel and look at the magazine well to make sure that there is no magazine inserted, then look and feel the chamber one more time just to make sure that there’s no live ammunition anywhere in the gun! The entire clearing process is repeated just to make absolutely sure that the gun is truly unloaded.

The barrel ramp (shown here with slide removed for better clarity) should be relatively smooth, even and symmetrical. Any damage here can affect feeding reliability.
The barrel ramp (shown here with slide removed for better clarity) should be relatively smooth, even and symmetrical. Any damage here can affect feeding reliability.

Once the gun is checked and double-checked to be unloaded, lock the slide in the open position and take a look at the outside. Look at the screwheads on the grips; they should be clean and in good condition. Check for any splits or looseness in the grips. Check that the sights, front and rear, are tight on the slide, as it’s not uncommon for them to loosen under the forces of the slide’s reciprocation.

Check the muzzle’s condition. It should be free of nicks, burrs, or any damage. The muzzle is critical to handgun accuracy, so look carefully.

At the breech end of the barrel look at the ramped portion which guides rounds into the chambers; it should be clean and without gouges or scratches, which can affect the feeding reliability of the gun. Check the bore for pitting or rust.

Double check, again, that the gun is unloaded, and gently let the slide down. The gun should now be in battery, striker or hammer cocked, and can be dry fired. Pointing the muzzle in a safe direction, pull the trigger and hold it back. The sear should release, letting the hammer down or the striker to fly forward. Be sure to hold the trigger back – do not let the trigger reset!

As the trigger is being held back, pull the slide all the way to the rear and let it go forward under its own power. If the gun has a visible hammer, it should remain in the cocked position. (If the gun’s hammer dropped when the slide ran forward, it is extremely unsafe and needs immediate attention!) Now slowly release the trigger; it should make a discernible “click” as it resets. After it has reset, pull the trigger again; if the sear doesn’t release, there is likely a problem with the disconnector mechanism and is unsafe to fire.

Again operate the slide to cock the gun. If the gun has a manual safety, put it into the “on” position and try to pull the trigger; the gun should not fire. Take your finger off the trigger and immediately release the manual safety; if the gun fires without the trigger being touched, the safety is defective.

For autoloaders with a decocking mechanism, operate the slide to cock the gun and then operate the decocker. The hammer or striker should drop with an audible sound; pulling the trigger should result in the hammer or striker being cocked and then released to fire.

For guns with a combined decocker/safety, such as some Beretta, Ruger and Smith & Wesson autos, use the slide to cock the gun and apply the decocker. When the hammer or striker has dropped, leave the safety in the “on” position and pull the trigger – it should move with very little resistance and should not fire the gun. Put the safety/decocker in the off position and pull the trigger again; the gun should now fire.

The failure of any of these tests indicates a gun that is unsafe to use, and should be sent to a gunsmith before using.

Finally, gently let the slide go forward (closed) and put an empty magazine in the gun. Pull the slide all the way to the rear; it should lock in the open position. Remove the magazine with the slide locked back; the slide should stay locked. If either test fails either the magazine or the slide lock mechanism needs attention from the gunsmith.

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  1. I found it helpful when you advised us to look at the splits or looseness in the grips and the sights, front and rear, if they’re tight on the side once we have checked and double-checked the gun to be unloaded before purchasing a used gun. I need to purchase firearms to use for self-defense soon, so I’m considering getting a handgun now that I have the permit to carry one. I’ll be sure to follow what you said once I find a sporting goods store that offers used handgun trading.


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