Handgun Service Life: What Does It Really Mean?

Handgun service life is something that’s often misunderstood. A handgun is, like any tool, just a man-made object that has moving parts. While not as simple as an inclined plane, handguns are relatively easy to grasp. In this article we will be looking at what service life is and what it means to the average shooter.

Service life means different things to different people. The basic definition of service life is twofold. The first is the period of time that a product can be used in a given role. The other is the expected lifetime of a product in general. For handguns this means, again, different things to different people. The military has a different set of requirements than your local police department, and you have different requirements than your range buddies.

For the purposes of this article we will be looking at a couple different ideas about service life. The first thing we’re going to look at is normal carry wear. The common carry gun is a friend that spends most of its life in a pocket or a holster and sleeps in the nightstand. It will typically be cared for years, but isn’t often pretty or nice to look at. Most carry guns that are well used have what we creatively call ‘carry wear’.

Wear is a natural part of handling any object. Any gun that is in constant contact with holsters, body oil and sweat, natural humidity, and powder residue will inevitably begin to deteriorate. The act of firing is also hard on guns. Every shot taken and every time the slide is pulled results in microscopic wear. Cleaning is another hazardous time for a firearm. Aggressive cleaning methods are responsible for more gun wear than almost any other activity they are used for. Even if a gun is well maintained, it will still wear on some level, even if it is just the surface finishes.

Example of cosmetic wear. Notice the chipping of the finish and the bare metal underneath.

Cosmetic wear is extremely common. This results from constant holstering and drawing, rubbing against clothing and belts, being dropped or dragged, and just plain being around. Cosmetic wear is usually just on the surface, but it is a big deal to many people. I’ve heard it time and again that ‘the finish goes, the gun goes’, but this is folly. I once owned a GLOCK 19 that was almost silver from use and carry. It went everywhere with me and looked like trash, but it worked every time. I do not see cosmetic wear as a real issue when it comes to service life. Just like a cordless drill, my carry gun is a tool with a job. As long as it functions, it gets to hang around.

Malfunctions in an otherwise reliable gun are an indicator that some parts are on their way out the door. Most problems with a gun can be solved by replacing parts. It is not common that the whole gun crap the bed at once unless you actually blow it up somehow. Accuracy and reliability are go first in an aging gun, but these issues can usually be solved by replacing a few springs or replacing the barrel.

For many people, a gun just isn’t worth the repairs. A GLOCK 19 can be found today for about $400 used. If you pay full price for a Gen 5 G19, you’re looking at about $550 depending on where you buy it. The G19 will easily last 30,000 rounds without touching a thing on it. Even then, all you’ll probably have to do is change the spring, which takes about two seconds. The barrel is not likely to lose accuracy much at all during that span of rounds if you use non-abrasive cleaning methods. By the time such a high round count is hit, many people just sell the gun and buy a new one instead of paying for new parts.

Mechanical wear is present in this photo. Notice the deep gouge from the cylinder latch pin. This comes from a harder metal part scraping against a softer piece. Nothing can be done to prevent it this type of usage wear.

If you balk at a person firing 30,000 rounds, know that number can be reached in just a couple of seasons of shooting for dedicated competition pistol shooters. I asked a number of competition guys I know in my area about their round counts, and most fired about 25,000-50,000 in two seasons of matches and practice. Low end, that’s about 250 rounds a week over two seasons, which isn’t a crazy number.

Even if a person fired 250 rounds a month, they would still be putting 3,000 rounds a year on their gun. Combined with the holster wear and general abuse, many people never end up putting 10,000 rounds through a gun before they decide it has reached the end of its service life, despite the fact that most guns will last far beyond that.

My competition friends end up with ‘frankenguns’, which are often the result of a factory gun being slowly taken over by aftermarket parts. As a spring or barrel wears and reaches the end of its service life, they replace it with a competition grade version and so on until they have replaced most of the gun. One guy I knew bought a new frame to replace the old one on his G34 and found that he was able to assemble a complete factory G34 from all the parts he had replaced over time. (In my opinion, he now has the same gun in two locations. I am curious as to what fellow students of metaphysics will have to say in the comments about this one. Look into the ‘Ship of Theseus’ if you’re curious about this.)

A good case of wear and abuse is the story of my Smith & Wesson Model 642. I got the gun new from a local sports store about three years ago and I’ve carried it every day since. I estimate that this gun has seen about 15,000 rounds since I bought it. Most of these were cheap lead reloads that I crank out by the thousand every month or so, but it does regularly see factory +P loads as well.

The finish of the gun went first. The even grey color wore off in most places. The edges on the gun are highly polished from my pockets, backpack, holster, and general handling. The springs have never been replaced, nor has any part except the grips, but those were installed almost from day one. I have noticed that the gun’s accuracy has not changed in all this time. It still shoots like it did out of the box, but the trigger is noticeably smoother than a factory-new gun.

Even though the gun is secure in a holster, much of it is still exposed to wear.

Despite the fact that it has seen more use and abuse than most pocket snubbies ever do, it is still kicking and is in my pocket as I write this. If I disregard the finish wear, there is nothing at all wrong with the gun mechanically. I may be do for an internal cleaning soon, but that’s about it. I’ve had only two failures to fire in the entire time I’ve spent pulling the trigger on the 642 and they were in reloads. I am very confident that it will go bang when I need it to.

So when would I consider replacing my little blue gun? I don’t know, to be honest. I have not had a problem with it yet and I consider three years/5,000 rounds a year to be too short a time to retire it, but I know guys who have shelved or sold their G43 after only two years of what I consider light use. While they may tire out a spring, I believe it to be safe to say that most people will never successfully wear a handgun out. It is my opinion that most people simply tire of their handguns and want something new, thus ending a particular gun’s service life.

comments

  1. avatar Yarbles says:

    Springs.

    You might want to replace springs on a regular basis. My G32 needed a new recoil spring long before I noticed it. About 5000 rounds.

    They are cheap and will return your gun to like-new performance in many cases.

    1. avatar flynbenny says:

      Glock has a service schedule for their firearms, much like the one for your automobile. If you take the armorer course you’ll get it in the literature package, or you can ask your local gunsmith with an armorer cert or your department armorer. The function checks an armorer is taught are also designed to reveal the condition of wear parts. I would imagine other companies teach similar things in their armorer courses as well.

  2. avatar Ralph says:

    I have 80-year old guns with I don’t know how many rounds through them. They work just fine. I don’t know how well they shot when they were new, but I imagine that they operate more smoothly now than they did when they first came off the assembly line.

    Guns may not be as simple a tool as an inclined plane, but they seem to last almost as long. With a bit of care and maintenance, a decent gun will outlast us all.

  3. avatar Nanashi says:

    “(In my opinion, he now has the same gun in two locations. I am curious as to what fellow students of metaphysics will have to say in the comments about this one. Look into the ‘Ship of Theseus’ if you’re curious about this.)”

    I’m pretty sure most people here know the legal answer (at least from the US prospective) to this. It’s pretty boring: The serialized receiver (in this case the frame) is the gun, everything else is just parts.

  4. avatar Cucamonga Jeff says:

    Like 98% of guns will never be shot to the point of wearing out. Most guns are safe queens or ride in a holsters all day, only pulled out to wipe the pocket lint off.

  5. avatar daveinwyo says:

    I would wager that the average carry gun gets fewer than a 100 rounds in a Decade. Bet some haven’t been shot 10 times after its proof shot. Though not a carry gun I have a .44 carbine made in 1974 that I bought new and hasn’t had 50 rounds.

    1. avatar LarryinTX says:

      Can’t argue. 50 years ago I saved up the bucks for a box of ammo and headed for the woods. Today I have thousands of rounds and dozens of guns, can’t seem to find the time or energy to get off my ass.

      1. avatar Billy Bob says:

        Yep
        I remember how hard it was to come up for the money for 50 rounds of 22, happy to go with shorts, lr was looked upon as magnum to me back then.

    2. avatar William Wallace says:

      Can’t tell you how many guys have taken their pocket pistol out here in KY and then said quietly, “To be honest I’ve never fired it.” Hear this all the time.

    3. avatar Jackass Jim says:

      I’ve got a gun made in 1944 that has never been shot. When I bought it about 10 years ago it most likely had not been out of its holster since it left the Tula Armory.

      There is also a family heirloom in my garage – I call it Great-Grandfather’s Axe of Theseus.

      Great Grandfather used it to earn a living in the 1880’s. Grandpa inherited it and had to replace the axe handle after he built a log cabin in Bayview Idaho. Dad replaced the axe head when he was a boy chopping pulp wood during the Great Depression. Now I have that very same axe – sorta.

  6. avatar Biff says:

    I think the only guns that experience more wear from cleaning than shooting are used by the military. I’ve never seen a civilian gun worn so much at the muzzle that it looked like a cone and could swallow a loaded round to the shoulder, but it isn’t uncommon when sorting through racks of milsurp rifles.

    Guns owned by civilians are rarely over cleaned and I would bet that for guns not in military use more are damaged by neglect. Being shot with corrosive surplus ammo and not properly cleaned and being stored in damp basements are both problems I’ve seen.

  7. avatar Geoff "Mess with the bull, get the horns" PR says:

    “The G19 will easily last 30,000 rounds without touching a thing on it.”

    A decent price on 9mm is about 15 cents a round.

    For 30,000 rounds, that will cost you $4,500 dollars.

    The cost of the gun is the cheapest part of shooting it frequently…

    1. avatar jwm says:

      Truth. I paid 179 bucks for my 500 Mossberg 20 years or so ago. Even accounting for cheap wal mart 100 round boxes I’ve shot enough ammo thru that gun to fill the bed of a pick up.

  8. avatar anonymoose says:

    Take care of your gun and it will take care of you.

  9. avatar former water walker says:

    I don’t shoot a lot. Just enough to maintain whatever skill I have…my gats may last forever.

  10. avatar Daniel says:

    I think a lot of people underestimate how many rounds they put through a carry gun. Most folks probably put around 500-1000 rounds through a carry gun a year. I know I do…and I dont get to shoot nearly as much as I want to….

    1. avatar LarryinTX says:

      I wish! I’m betting 50-100 is closer.

      1. avatar Geoff "Mess with the bull, get the horns" PR says:

        Word…

      2. avatar ACP_armed says:

        I’ve put over 500 rounds though my LCRx 3″ .38 SPL in the four~ish months I’ve had it. And I have the empty boxes with the fired cases to prove it!

    2. avatar JD says:

      Most people do NOT shoot 500-1000 rounds a year. As an instructor and someone who frequents public ranges, I can assure you this is not the case. I bet most don’t shoot 500 a year.

  11. avatar LarryinTX says:

    The bride’s airweight will beat you to death! The Lehigh ammo shown is easier on the senses, but still the gun is vicious. If you can wear that bad boy out, you are more man than me. This is a gun to carry, not to shoot.

  12. avatar Craig in IA says:

    The service life of some is only a round or two before it gets tossed into the river… 🙂 Just sayin’

  13. avatar Bloving says:

    Daily carry wear.
    This is why if a gun I want is available in stainless steel, I will happily pay a little more for the stainless variant. Worn stainless just looks better than worn blue, or worn Cerekote, or worn tennifer, in my opinion.
    🤠

  14. avatar Chris T in KY says:

    The ruger p89 that my wife had before we got married didn’t have 50 rounds through it, in the 17 years after she bought it brand new. Its a great gun. As an all metal gun its heavy. Its hammer fired which I like. No rest or corrosion. I don’t need a newer carry semi auto gun in 9mm.

  15. avatar California Richard says:

    My carry guns have evolved as capabilities have evolved. I used to carry a .45 then, they came out with better .40, then even better 9mm. Went from a 1911 to a lighter glock with slightly more bullets, better accuracy, and faster point. Now a converted glock with even more bullets and faster recovery….. i hate Glocks, but I stake my life on my one-and-only Glock, becasue performance is what matters…. that, and it performs cheap.

  16. avatar Mark says:

    Now do an article on the service life of a rifle. I’m especially curious about AR lowers.

    1. avatar LarryinTX says:

      What component of a lower would you think might *ever* wear out?

  17. avatar Green Mtn. Boy says:

    What it really means is the average shooter will never wear one out in their lifetime,now some competitive shooters all bets are off.

  18. avatar Matt o says:

    I suspect the yearly round count of the average commenter is much higher than the average gun owner. Service life is greatly dependent on quality as well, something like a Jennings or Phoenix will wear itself out faster than you’d expect if you compare it to a glock. Hi point doesn’t fit the pattern though, those ugly things just seem to run forever. I have an unhealthy fascination (read addiction) with junk guns and most will have some sort of safety issue within a few thousand rounds. Obviously most will never see that many shots before evidence lockup or the riverbed but I’m the special kind of crazy that likes to shoot this junk for fun.

  19. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

    Other than .22LR competition pistols, I’ve yet to see a pistol barrel that is “worn out.”

    I’ve seen some revolvers with forcing cones burned up a bit (because the owners were reloaders and they loved to push the limits of what you can burn in the cartridge, esp. .357’s and .44’s), but semi-autos? Pfah. Revolvers can also have some wear on the takedown pin, or the bolt/cylinder stop, and the hand. This wear will happen faster if you’re trying to shoot a revolver as fast as Jerry M. does.

    Some of these parts need to be hand-fitted.

    OK, you think your Glock has a burnt barrel? Go buy a new one and drop it in. You don’t need to bother me (or any other ‘smith). Got a problem with springs? Go to Wolff and get some new springs. How do you know when you need to replace a spring? When you put a brand-new spring next to your spring, and your spring is shorter or more compressed by 10% or more. There, I just gave you the magic knowledge.

    .22 competition guns? Now there are some guns that a) are passed down or resold as a shooter gets older, and b) purchased by someone else and fired for thousands of rounds, and c) usually damaged by excessive cleaning, not bore wear from being fired.

  20. avatar Brian says:

    I own a Smith and Wesson Lemon Squeeze 32s&w. It is 130 years old and still fires as well as it did in 1888 when it was new. In fact I took it to 1 of my pistol clubs zombie shoot last sunday and and we rzn 50 rds thru it. Alot of our members whated to shoot a 130 yr old pistol. We all enjoyed it, so that is probably 1 of the longest inservice pistols arou d..

  21. avatar Fudds McKenzie says:

    Ugh, so much clumsy reinventing of the wheel. It’s necessary though because no other piece of capital has a service life, only handguns, so there’s no cohesive way of explaining it already worked out that someone with as much introspection as a boston terrier might think to look for instead of just making stuff up.

    1. avatar LarryinTX says:

      ‘Zat sposed to mean something?

  22. avatar Neil says:

    I’ve seen Sig P22x’s and Glicks do a decade of range duty retired at 1.5 million rounds. Only springs and barrel replaced.

    My favorite guns wear out by 500,000 rounds. Meh. They are lower priced guns, so $100k of ammo is enough.

    My favorite gun has 22,000 rounds through it and the springs are still good. A little visible wear because I used too thin of an oil. Yawn.

    I cannot trust a gun until 2,000 trouble free rounds. So these people who don’t shoot, I do not understand.

  23. avatar GS650G says:

    I can’t afford to rack up that kind of mileage on my guns except for the .22s

  24. avatar Docduracoat says:

    I don’t understand people who don’t shoot their guns.
    I go thru $300 worth of ammo every month
    The thing is, I have a lot of guns so each one doesn’t get that many.
    I clean them every time I shoot them and I expect my children and grandchildren to inherit them
    Guns should last 100 years or more

  25. avatar FlamencoD says:

    I typically shoot around 3,500 rounds per year not including .22lr. I would shoot more but it gets quite expensive. I go to the range twice per month and shoot 2-3 different pistols, usually 75-100 rounds through each. I also bring a rifle and shoot 50-75 through whichever rifle I bring each range trip. .22lr varies, but I might not shoot any for months, then shoot a couple hundred rounds on a range trip. Most of my practice and shot groups start from low ready, shooting at rotating targets, acquiring targets quickly, etc. To me, for the purpose of self defense, acquiring a target quickly and accurately getting 2-4 shots on target trumps hitting a tiny group in slow fire. The pistol I shoot nearly every time I go is my Kimber 1911 in 9mm. I generally rotate the others.

  26. avatar Gralnok says:

    What noodle head would replace the gun due to holster wear alone? My Big Booma, (Hi-Point JCP 40) has plenty of holster wear and scratches on the slide and grips. As long as it puts the rounds relatively on target, I’m fine.

    Alternatively I have a cheap Davis Derringer I got for $50. The barrel is utterly shot out, but it’s still a giggle when shooting. I won’t be replacing it any time soon.

  27. avatar Chuck Cochran says:

    My Walther PPK/S in .380 ACP is on year 25 of CCW use. External wear is noticeable where the brushed areas on the slide have polished from it’s holster. This “polishing” increased after I traded to an IWB Neoprene and Kydex holster from the old belt slide leather holster I used for so many years. Currently I’m on my third set of springs for the gun. I typically run 150 to 200 rounds a month through the gun. I have other pistols that I swap out and carry during the winter as clothing allows. All are full size however, so concealability is an issue in warmer weather with those guns. Magazines for the PPK, I keep 6. 3 remain empty as 3 are kept loaded. These I change out about every other month, loading up the 3 empty mags and relaxing the 3 loaded mags. I typically give the pistol a field strip and wipe down every other week to remove any dust or debris from carry from the gun. So far, with this regimen, I’ve had no malfunctions during sessions with it. Now that Walther is bringing the PPK/S back, I may in the near future buy another and retire this one to a range gun.

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