How to Buy A Used Gun

A recent commenter asked for some advice on buying used guns. At one point I was frequenting about a dozen gun shows a year, with almost weekly trips to pawn shops, gun shops, secondhand stores, etc. in search of the elusive bargain. I bought and sold close to 30 firearms (all but three were used) in a four-year period, bracketed by the beginning of gainful employment and at the end in marriage. What follows are some general tips on what I look for, with the benefit of hindsight, money under the bridge and years of wisdom.

1. You get what you pay for

Always. A $100 gun will shoot like a $10 gun. If it doesn’t blow up in your hand. Forget the perfect bargain; be prepared to pay a fair price for a decent firearm. If it’s a high-dollar gun for rock bottom price, then something ain’t right about the deal. It’s broke, stolen, fake, used in a crime, something.

A corollary: know the fair price for the gun in question. It’s a pretty simple formula: take the new price and deduct whatever premium you attach to “new.” On a brand new rifle from a gun dealer that costs $500, I’m prepared to pay a $50 premium over used for box fresh. In other words, I won’t pay a penny more than $450 for a pre-owned version of the same gun. Your premium may vary.

While there are plenty of books listing used gun prices, a gun is worth whatever someone will pay for it. The only reliable source for actual gun values are completed sales (check gunbroker.com). Another excellent resource: specialty forums. Join. Ask. Otherwise, it all comes down to this: what’s the gun worth to you?

2. Stick to known commodities.

Always. A Colt .45 automatic will hold its value, a Spanish knock-off .45 auto won’t. The downside: you’ll pay more up front. The upside: you can always recoup your money by reselling it later (if necessary). Sticking with a common caliber also helps the resell potential. You shouldn’t necessarily buy with the intent to resell, but doing so gives you more options down the road. This path also puts you in the fat middle of options as far as accessories and ammo.

3. Be prepared to walk away

Really. You’ll rarely come up on those mythical once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. More often, there’ll be something that tickles your paranoid gland and you should listen to it. Something just ain’t right with the story behind the piece. The guy selling it can’t look you in the eye. The price doesn’t match the piece. I can guarantee it ain’t as rare or as desired as what the seller is telling you. Walking away is right more often than not in those situations.

4. Examine the piece carefully

First things first:always exhibit safe gun handling technique. Verify the gun is unloaded, maintain muzzle discipline, and no finger on trigger. Ask for permission if you want to break it down or dryfire it. Make sure the seller is also demonstrating safe handling. If not, be polite and walk away. If in a store setting, you can request another employee show you the piece. As for the gun itself, you don’t need to be an expert or gunsmith, just use some common sense.

  • What’s the overall appearance? Scratched and dented, finish faded, or like new? Avoid anything that looks abused, but don’t be scared of purely cosmetic issues (unless that’s why you’re buying it in the first place). If you can’t tell the difference, then stick with newish looking no visible damage only.
  • Any modifications? This can anything from scope, laser, grips, light, mag carriers, to trigger jobs and custom barrels. I tend to shy away from modified pieces (scopes excepted). I also tend to run away from trigger jobs. If I want a custom trigger, I’ll buy a stock piece and take it to a gunsmith myself. If you like it pimped out, fine, but don’t pay a premium for it. Sometimes the add-ons disguise the fact that the gun’s a dog to begin with. On high dollar custom jobs, there should be adequate documentation of work done and by whom.
  • Anything loose or rattling? Don’t force anything or put excess pressure on it, but if the stock or grips slide around be concerned. If it rattles or jingles, and various bits and pieces are loose, keep looking elsewhere.
  • Look at the screws carefully. The sure sign an amateur has been tinkering with the insides is if the screw heads are jiggered up. That’s where you use a wrong sized screwdriver and the head slips out of the slot on the screw. What’s left is some knarled up metal on the screw head. Avoid this.
  • Get yourself a bore light and carry it. Again verify the gun is unloaded, then take a gander at the inside of the barrel. In general your won’t be able to tell much beyond clean or dirty, but you can at least avoid glaring problems like bulged barrels or rust. A little dirt isn’t a problem, a lot can cause concern.
  • Work the action and (with permission) dry fire it once or twice. The action should be smooth and lock up firmly. The trigger should be smooth with average pull weight. Avoid triggers that are too light or too heavy. If the action tends to bind up, walk away.

Most modern firearms from big-name companies are solid, well-built pieces. There would have to be blatant abuse to actually screw one up. If all the above looks good upon examination, you’ll most likely have a good gun. Not guaranteed, but most likely.

Buy from mainstream sellers

In general, I recommend gun shops. Most gun shops will deal new and used, and are willing to work trades if the gun in question doesn’t work out for you. Also, they are most likely not going to sell a broken or unsafe gun, assuming it’s a reputable shop.

While gunbroker.com is a relatively safe marketplace, there’s nothing like inspecting a weapon in person [see: above]. Buying a gun from a bricks and mortar dealer using the service adds another level of security, but WYSIWYG always works better in person.

Gunshows allow you to look at a large variety of guns and cross-shop prices among different vendors. They also lead to impulse buys that can work out very badly. The lack of a bricks-and-motar establishment means that all sales are final.

Pawn shops are a big risk. I actually enjoy browsing pawn shops, in the same way other people enjoy going to garage sales or antique stores. But they are the worst at dealing out a fair price, and often have the most shoddy guns on display.

All of the above is nothing more than basic common sense. Don’t be afraid of used guns, but maintain a clear head while shopping. Depending on where you go, you’ll get to see and experience all sorts of nonsense. I’ve heard blatantly wrong information and occasionally dangerous advice. I’ve seen absolute junk marketed as new-in-the-box. I’ve also bought good pieces at good prices, So can you. Good Luck!