There is nothing wrong with buying a used pistol. Assuming, of course there is nothing wrong with the used gun you are buying. But how to tell?
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The first thing to do is buy from a reputable shop, one with a clear return policy. The best chance of buying a good used gun is from a shop with a gunsmith in residence. With a ‘smith on premises, you can be pretty sure every used gun in inventory went through his hands. And any you buy can be returned for an inspection to see if the problem you are encountering is real or caused by an outside force.
The process is simple: look, feel and listen. Look for things out of place; wear that is odd, or signs of abuse. Feel for the way it functions compared to a new model or a known-good used one. Listen to the noise of the springs, the clicks, the slide cycling. They’ll all tell you something.
And ask what the owner/merchant knows about its history, previous owners, performance, or reputation? Buying a competition gun can be good, and it can be bad. Was it the backup gun of a Grand Master that spent most of its time lounging in his range bag waiting its turn? Or was it the experimental subject of an aspiring gunsmith or competitive shooter? Be careful, ask, listen, and get the return policy in writing.
Etiquette Of Buying Used
There are a few things you have to know about buying a used firearm. First of all, remember that until you hand over the money, it is someone else’s firearm you’re handling. It is entirely within the performance parameters of many handguns to be dry-fired from now until the end of time and suffer no damage. However, some people don’t believe it, and will be very grumpy if you dry-fire their handgun. Ask before you dry-fire. If they refuse, then you have to either move on or do your pre-purchase due diligence without dry-firing.
Ask before you disassemble, as again, some people just don’t like having their handgun yanked apart. They may be cranky, and they may simply have had too many bad experiences with people who didn’t know what they were doing.
Properly done, negotiation and a resulting purchase is a mutually pleasurable social event, not a dental visit.
Buying A Used 1911
When you’re considering a used 1911, start with a good visual inspection. Has the exterior been abused? Hammer marks or rough file marks on the outside should make you wonder how careful the previous owner was with the inside. If the original blued surface is now gray from years of use and carry, but the owner never dropped it and fired it seldom, you have a great opportunity. The looks are likely to bring the price down, but mechanically it can be just fine. If it is a pistol used in competition, you might be able to find some answers by asking about its history with other competitors. Did the previous owner have a reputation of always shooting unreliable guns? Or were his pistols always reliable, just ugly?
But also be aware history, or rarity, might overwhelm the other factors. I was just looking at a nice 1911. It had most of its bluing. It had dents and dings and a mildly stained fingerprint on the slide. The wood grips were worn down past the checkering, where it had been exposed outside of the holster. Actually, it is worth the price of a small used car because it was made in 1912 and remains unmolested though honestly worn, and it came in a USGI holster issued with it in WWII. Age and rarity elevated the price far beyond the price-lowering variables of its condition.
After visual inspection, check operation. If you haven’t already done so, make sure the pistol is unloaded, and tell the clerk at the store you want to perform some safety checks. Cock the pistol and dry fire it. Was the trigger pull very light? A very light trigger pull will have to be made heavier to be safe and durable. Or was it very heavy? Did it feel as if it was crunching through several steps before it finished its job? A very heavy or gritty trigger pull will have to be made smoother and lighter.
Execute a “pencil test.” Cock the pistol and drop a pencil down the bore, eraser end first. Point the pistol straight up, and dry fire it. The pencil should be launched completely out of the pistol. If it isn’t, something is keeping the firing pin from its assigned duties.
You must perform a mechanical safety test. Cock the hammer again and push the thumb safety on. Holding the pistol in a firing grip, press the trigger a bit harder than you would to fire it. Seven or eight pounds of pressure is sufficient. Let go of the trigger, and push the thumb safety off. Now hold the pistol next to your ear and slowly draw the hammer back. You should not hear anything. If you hear a little “tink” when you draw back the hammer, the thumb safety is not engaging fully.
If you heard the “tink,” here’s what happened. When you pulled the trigger with the safety on, the sear moved a tiny amount until it came to a stop, bearing against the safety lug. It shouldn’t have moved at all. The hammer tension kept the sear from moving back into its start position when you pushed the safety off, leaving the sear partially bearing on the hammer hooks. When you held the pistol close to your ear and drew back the hammer, the tension on the sear was removed. The sear spring pushed the sear back in place, causing the “tink” you heard. If the hammer stayed cocked, the sear only moved a tiny amount. The fix is easy. What if you never got to the “tink?” If the hammer fell when the safety was pushed off, before you even tried to listen, the thumb safety fit is very bad and you will have to buy and fit a new safety. In the worst case, the hammer falls even when the safety is on. These also need a need thumb safety, and perhaps some other new parts inside as well. Considering the amount of work needed, and the possibility of other things being badly fit, you might just want to pass on this particular 1911.
Next test the grip safety. Cock the hammer and leave the thumb safety in the down position. Now, holding the frame so you do not depress the grip safety, pull the trigger. Release the trigger, and, now grasping the pistol so you do depress the grip safety, hold the pistol up to your ear again and draw the hammer slowly back. If you hear that “tink” again, the grip safety is barely engaging. Look at the grip safety. Because some competitive shooters don’t feel the need for one, they grind the tip of the grip safety off where it blocks the trigger. If this has been done to the 1911 you’re thinking of buying, you will need to have the tip welded back up, and fit it to the trigger. If the tip hasn’t already been ground off, or otherwise altered, you’re looking at an easy fix. It is probably just a simple misfit, which you can correct with careful peening.
The last test you need to perform is a hammer/sear engagement or hammer flick test. There’s a good way and a bad way to perform this test. In the caveman days, we would lock the slide open empty. Then we would release the hold-open lever and let the slide crash home on an empty chamber. This is more abuse than test, especially since it doesn’t fairly test the hammer sear engagement. Continued “testing” this way can actually do harm to your hammer and sear and abuses the barrel, link, and slide.
In the modern, improved “flick” test, you cock the hammer, grip the pistol so the grip safety is depressed, and hold down the thumb safety. With your other hand, flick the hammer back against the grip safety, and let the hammer go forward to sear engagement. This non-destructive test can be performed until your fingers bleed, and will not harm the sear and hammer hooks. If, however, during this test the hammer falls — even once — the hammer/sear engagement will require work. You cannot depend on this pistol to stay cocked when firing. The pistol may simply require re-stoning the engagement surfaces, or it may require a new sear, or both new sear and hammer. Until you look at the engagement through a magnifier, there is no way to tell.
Buying A Used Glock
What with every police department on the planet going to the Glock (or so it seems) there are large numbers of used Glocks for sale everywhere. Every wholesaler flyer I get has used Glocks listed, sometimes pages of them. So, you’re peering through the glass at your local gun shop or cruising a gun show, and you see a used Glock offered at a good price. What to look for?
First, give it a good visual external inspection. Look to see if there are any signs of abuse, neglect and/or experimentation. External abuse would be things like the corners of the slide being chewed up and or dented from being dropped. Dropping the slide when it is off the frame can bend the recoil spring retaining tab. Neglect would be rust (rare) or a cracked slide from too many hot reloads (even rarer). Experimentation would be something like the slide being machined to take some other sight system than factory, or milled for ports other than factory. The good news is that the cracked slide might be replaced by the factory for free or at little cost. The other cosmetic problems or experimentation done by previous owners are items that Glock will likely leave you on your own to cover. Don’t worry about what sights might be on it; sights are cheap and easily replaced. At the current pricing, an armorer’s cost for a new set of sights is only $5! You can get good replacements other than Glock polymer for around $20 to $30.
A scarred and chewed-up frame can be cleaned up, but Glock won’t be replacing it just because it got scraped along a curb during a fight. Glock will replace it, regardless of condition, if it is one of the E-series Glocks that were made from September 2001 through May 2002 that they deem needs replacing. If you aren’t sure, give Glock a call. One way to tell is the serial number of the frame. The E series will be marked (as an example) EAA123US. If the frame has been recalled and replaced, the slide and barrel will still have the original serial number while the frame will be marked “1EAA123US.” The “1” indicates replacement.
With the permission of the owner, cycle the slide and dry fire it. Try firing it without depressing the trigger safety. It should not fire. Try pulling the trigger normally and then hold it back and cycle the slide. Does the trigger return? If not, it may be due to a broken/bent trigger spring or a “trigger job” gone awry. The parts don’t cost much, so bargain the price down as much as you can but don’t expect the owner to budge much.
Disassemble and inspect the slide and barrel. Is the barrel clean? Un-marred? Look down the bore. Do you see dark rings? “Smoke rings” are bulges in the barrel from lodged bullets being shot free. A new barrel costs money. At the armorers cost, a Glock barrel runs $95 to $125, with compensated barrels running up to $140. Aftermarket match barrels can run up to $200. If the barrel is bulged, bargain hard; a replacement won’t be cheap.
Look at the slide, in the breech face area. Inspect the area around the firing pin slot. In a very high-mileage 9mm, fed many rounds of +P or +P+ ammo you may find the area around the firing pin slot eroded or even peened back. The erosion comes from blown primers jetting hot gasses back at and through the firing pin slot. In those, you should check the firing pin to make sure it is in good shape. The peening comes from the high-pressure setback of the primer. The wall between the breechface and the firing pin tunnel isn’t thick (it can’t be) and the repeated hammering from a steady diet of hot loads can peen it back. The Tenifer makes the slide hard, but the substrate isn’t hard. If the area is too hard, it may break. If it is too soft, it may peen.
If a Glock with a peened or eroded breechface still works fine (you won’t know until you test-fire it) then you can use it. But the drag on an empty case from the primer expanding into the bulge or erosion can create malfunctions. Glock may or may not replace the slide. If they do, and they charge you, it can get expensive. The old armorer’s manual listed slides and frames as parts that could be ordered. The new manual does not, so I cannot look up the expected price. You will know only after you ask Glock. Aftermarket slides can cost up to $200. Check the underside of the slide for peening from impacts with the locking block. A small amount is OK, but very heavy peening indicates something is wrong. Peening happens mostly with the .40 Glocks, as they have a relatively high bullet mass/velocity ratio. 9mms rarely have it, and the 10m/.45s do not show it much at all.
Other parts of the Glock may have been stressed. Look at the front of the slide. Excessive recoil from hot loads may have stressed the front of the slide where the recoil spring assembly bears on it. A crack there is very bad and cannot be repaired. The slide must be replaced. Bargain the price down. Also, the slide is thin on the ejection port side, and a steady diet of +P or +P+ loads may have cracked it there. (If you’re lucky, a peened breechface also has a cracked slide, and Glock will likely replace it at low or no cost.)
We also face a new wrinkle these days – lead-free ammunition – but the bullets aren’t the problem; it’s the priming compound. Traditional non-corrosive primers use a compound called lead styphnate. There is also a pinch of other heavy metals in there, too. Lead is bad for you, there’s no doubt about that, but the exposure can be controlled. The problem is with the new compounds. They have a higher brisance or shattering power, so the primer gets hammered by a sharper, higher-pressure combustion. This is directed at the breechface, which is not the strongest point of Glock’s design.
Glock now tells everyday shooters not so use lead-free ammunition, but what about law enforcement shooting Glocks who are required to train with lead-free ammo?
If you have a Glock with a cracked slide, I suggest a letter and some photos first. If Glock is willing to replace the slide for free, ship it. If they want to charge you for it, find out how much. A replacement Caspian slide can be had for $140 for a G-17, and you may want to go that route if Glock will charge you more. But if they already have your pistol, and won’t ship it back without repairing it, you won’t be able to exercise the Caspian option.
Check the firing pin safety for function. Press the striker back, then try to push it forward. If it goes forward past the firing pin safety, the firing pin and its safety need inspection and replacement.
The extractor needs a look. A chipped extractor may not function 100 percent, but a replacement isn’t very much. What you may need is the armorer to replace it, as Glock needs to know the serial number and caliber to use the correct one.
Look at the trigger parts. Black? Silver? Black is really old, and must be replaced, but Glock will do it for free. Check the trigger safety engagement. With the slide off, press the trigger bar forward and listen for the safety clicking in place. While still pressing forward, pull the trigger and ease the bar back. If there is a problem, it may be very dirty. Then again, it may have been polished, ground, filed or otherwise experimented on. Internal parts for Glocks are inexpensive, easy to replace, and common. At a good enough bargain price, you can replace all the guts and still be in for not much money.
Inspect the frame forward of the locking block. Gently flex the recoil spring housing right and left, up and down. Some guns, especially the major-caliber compacts and subcompacts, have been known to crack near where the serial number plate is inserted. A cracked frame will be replaced by Glock but gives you an opportunity to bargain the price down. It also gives you an opportunity to create a collector’s piece. If Glock returns the gun with a new serial number, keep the paperwork. You have a factory mis-match, and it may bring a bit of a premium at some future time.
Recoil springs on Glocks don’t give up the ghost very easily, so looking at the spring won’t tell you much. Unless you have a Glock so old that it pre-dates the switch to the captured recoil spring assembly. (It probably has the old trigger parts, too.) A new recoil spring assembly is inexpensive, so don’t worry about it, but keep bargaining.
Magazines are almost always part of a handgun purchase. Pistols don’t work very well without magazines. Inspect the magazines to make sure they are as stated. Old-style or drop-free? If they are drop-free, do they? Insert them in the Glock in question and see. Make sure they are Glock, especially if you are paying a premium for honest to goodness Glock mags. Check the feed lips to see if the polymer is still attached. We’ve been seeing more Glock magazines delaminating, that is, having the polymer separate from the steel feeds lips. Glock won’t replace magazines that have delaminated, but are still functional. The internals and base plates can easily be replaced, so your main concern is the tube itself. If it is in good shape and correct for the pistol you’re buying, then shake over a price and have fun with your new toy.
The inspection and test process is the same for all striker-fired pistols.
Buying A Used Beretta 9mm
The first thing you must be careful of are military “surplus” parts. As a relatively controlled item, there are no surplus items released from government stores. Second, it is current government policy that no useable parts are allowed out for civilian sale. Yes, that’s right, they torch everything.
Buy government-marked items with caution or not at all. A manufacturer may well have deliberately made a production over-run, to have “surplus” items for sale. Then again, they might be parts that were spirited out of government ownership.
Check a used Beretta to make sure the safety operates properly. Make sure it is unloaded. Cock the hammer. Drop a pencil (eraser first) down the bore and use the safety to drop the hammer. If the pencil does more than bounce, the safety is not blocking the firing pin. Check that the trigger returns smoothly when released after dry-firing. Check that the magazines drop free. Look down the bore for bulges. You could easily drop another $150 on a replacement barrel, so if you see a bulge, bargain the price down accordingly.
Remove the top end and look at the locking block seat. That is where the locking block cams down and ramps to a stop in the frame. The block, barrel and slide are steel. The frame is aluminum. It is not unheard-of for high-mileage frames to crack at the locking block seat.
A heavily used Beretta should have all the small springs and some parts replaced. A high-mileage Beretta may need a new locking block. If the block shows as much wear as the barrel does, and the finish on both is heavily worn, get a new block. You could even use the need for a new block as a bargaining lever. However, if you’ve already bargained down from everything else, you may find the seller is at his or her price limit.
The above process works for any other traditional DA pistol, be it Sig, S&W, Taurus, etc.