gun store etiquette
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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 in search of the elusive bargain.

I’ve 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 $100 gun. Forget the perfect bargain. Be prepared to pay a fair price for a decent firearm. If it’s a high-dollar gun for a rock bottom price, then something ain’t right about the deal. It’s broke, stolen, fake, been used in a crime…something.

A corollary: know the fair price for the gun in question. Within reason. 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 $750, I’m prepared to pay a $100 premium over used for box fresh. In other words, I won’t pay a penny more than $650 for a pre-owned version of the same gun. Your premium and standards may vary.

gun store pistol handgun counter
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While there are plenty of books listing used gun prices, in the end, 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 resale 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 comfortable, fat middle of options as far as accessories and ammo.

3. Be prepared to walk away

Really. You’ll rarely come upon those mythical once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. When something tickles your paranoid gland about a potential deal, 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 gun. 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 gun carefully

First things first: always exhibit safe gun handling. Verify that the gun is unloaded, maintain muzzle discipline, and no finger on trigger. Ask for permission if you want to take it down or dry fire it. Make sure the seller is also demonstrating safe gun handling. If not, be polite and walk away.

If you’re in a store setting, you can request that 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 off by purely cosmetic issues. If you can’t tell the difference, then stick with newish-looking no visible damage only.
  • Has the gun been modified? This can anything from a scope, laser, replacement grips, light, mag carriers, to trigger jobs and aftermarket barrels. I tend to shy away from modified pieces. I also tend to run 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 lemon to begin with. On high dollar custom jobs, there should be adequate documentation of the work done and by whom.
  • Look at the screws carefully. A sure sign an amateur has been tinkering with the insides is if the screw heads are marred. Someone used the wrong sized screwdriver and the blade slipped out of the slot on the screw. What’s left is some gnarled metal on the screw head. Beware.
  • Get yourself a bore light and carry it. A simple pen light can do in a pinch. Again, verify that the gun is unloaded, then take a gander at the inside of the barrel. In general you won’t be able to tell much beyond it being 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 be a concern. Look at the barrel’s crown. If it’d dinged or damaged, you’ll probably have accuracy problems.
  • 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. If it’s a revolver, check to see that the cylinder isn’t loose, rotates smoothly and aligns properly with the barrel.

Most modern firearms from well-known gun makers 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. That’s not guaranteed, but it’s likely.

5. Buy from mainstream sellers

In general, I recommend buying from gun shops, especially if you’re new. Most gun shops will deal in both new and used guns 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, Armslist, Guns.com and others are generally safe marketplaces, there’s nothing like inspecting a weapon in person [see: above]. Buying a gun from a brick and mortar dealer using an online 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 badly. The lack of a brick and motar establishment generally means that all sales are final.

Pawn shops can be a bigger risk. I actually enjoy browsing pawn shops, in the same way other people enjoy going to garage sales or antique stores. But they can be worse 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, just 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 peddled and occasionally dangerous advice. I’ve seen absolute junk marketed as new-in-the-box.

Then again, I’ve also bought some very good guns at good prices. So can you.

37 COMMENTS

  1. In looking at the article’s stock photo above, the very first thing I noticed was that the “buyer’s” finger is inside the trigger guard, and the “gun store owner/employee” is not correcting him.

    In regards to the article, though, the only used gun I ever purchased in my life was the only one that suffered a breakage. I sold it. All my non-new guns in my inventory are inherited. All the rest I assembled myself from brand new parts. I agree with the author…I will be suspicious of a “bargain” price for a used gun, if I ever happen to consider buying one again.

    • “the very first thing I noticed was that the “buyer’s” finger is inside the trigger guard, and the “gun store owner/employee” is not correcting him.”
      Male models usually don’t know much about firearms safety rules.

    • Have you *ever* seen a gun shop employee correct customer behavior though? Hell, they get the guns pointed at them all day long and don’t say anything.

      • Here in CA, you have to take a quick written test on gun safety before you can pick up your gun. So…yes, I imagine gun shop employees would be mindful of that.

    • You get what you pay for
      Always. A $100 gun will shoot like a $100 gun. Forget the perfect bargain. Be prepared to pay a fair price for a decent firearm. If it’s a high-dollar gun for a rock bottom price, then something ain’t right about the deal. It’s broke, stolen, fake, been used in a crime…something.

      Disagree. Recently, in the last 5 years, I got a 1972 Winchester 30-30 for $260. It needed some TLC. Bore was in excellent condition. Was missing a stock screw. Stock was replacement walnut and looked brand new. Needed some slight bluing repair on some areas, which I achieved with a hot rust blue performed in a couple hours one afternoon. One of the best deals I ever got. Got it on armslist.

      In the last 2 years, I got a Marlin 336 30-30 also from the early 70s. The only thing wrong with it – was the buttstock needed repair and handguard and buttstock needed refinishing. 2nd best deal I got at $240. Got it at a pawn shop.

      Last week, got a semiauto tube fed 22LR Winchester 190 for $120 at the Pawn shop. Bore is excellent condition. Also 70s era. Works great. Stock needs to be refinished. That’s all. So there are deals abound everywhere. Some of the best prices I’ve ever gotten were from pawn shops, mostly because they likely bought them from people at such a low price, that the savings carried on to me,

      6 years ago, I got a used mossberg 88 (7+1 model) at the pawn shop for $180. Had another $100 worth of accessories on it, including a nice sling, a folding and extendable stock and 6 shot ammunition carrier, flashlight mount. Also from a pawn shop. Pawn shop probably raked the original owner over the coals for my benefit.

      So… depends on what your idea of “perfect bargain” is.

  2. How to buy a used gunm. Call Tyler or CB they can get you anything you want. Tyler’s is all legit, CB’s not so much

      • I’ve had quite good “luck” with the 3 used gats I got. S&W Sport used but never shot from my favorite pawnshop. Perfect. My 1st gun purchase came from Chucks gunshop in Riverdale,ILL. Also perfect. And a used shotgun. Ditto
        …it helps if you’re not inept!😏

        • I’ve probably bought 20+ used guns (including milsurps) over the years. All but one were fine. With brand new guns, I’ve also had one lemon (and it was a S&W revolver), so used guns seem generally as good as new ones.

          Most of those have been from my favorite local gunship. Buying from a dealer who knows you by name is a good way to go. I’ve done thousands of dollars of business with him over the years, and he likes to maintain a good relationship by selling me good stuff.

          One principle my local gun store owner pointed out to me was that brands with better names (Glock,S&W, Ruger,CZ,) tend to sell for 60-75% of new retail. Lower end guns like Hi-Points, Rossi, and NEF sell for around 50%.

          Depreciation mainly matters on new, not used guns.

          Cheap guns depreciate quickly, and you can sometimes pick up perfectly serviceable guns for a song. I picked up a NEF R92 9 shot 22 revolver for $115. That is a fun and useful little gun. I’ve shot it a lot.

          Sometimes you do get more than you paid for.

          $80 Mosins and Norinco SKS (back in the day) were a bargain.

  3. “1. You get what you pay for. Always.”

    I disagree, in both directions. There are plenty of subjective or temporary factors (we happen to be living through one or two right now) that inflate the prices of some guns well over their objective value to an average consumer.

    “Perfect” is a strong word, but there are also plenty of bargains – usually non-gun-savvy relatives selling off inherited guns. There are also the converses of the subjective factors I noted above, like garish (but easily removed / covered) finish jobs.

    • For that matter, the second point is far from an “Always” as well. Ironically, the author provides a perfect example: Colt has a high-dollar name based on their achievements from 100+ years ago, and a well deserved reputation (in the last half-century or so) for mismanagement and sporadic QA. A shooter (as opposed to a glass-case collector) who does his homework could easily find a 1911 of equal or better quality, minus the firearm equivalent of the “$10,000 hood ornament”.

      • Yep, you are correct. The article author is incorrect on both point one and two.

        “Always” rarely applies

    • Shopping in pawn shops in San Antonio back in the old days I could get great bargains on things that the shop simply couldn’t sell. In the early 90’s there wasn’t a lot of general public interest in early 1900s Savage pistols, or the Stars, Astras, Llamas, and Eibars that I love and collect, but the author doesn’t seem to care for. They could move Glocks and Rugers all day long but a Spanish pistol in 9mm Largo brought in by an illegal and pawned wasn’t going to interest most people.

      • Very Cool! I picked up a $100 Astra A70 (you probably know this already, but a subcompact cross between the best features of the 1911 and modern pistols, 20+ years before Kimber or SIG “invented” that) parts kit that I’d love to build one day.

  4. “bracketed by the beginning of gainful employment and at the end in marriage.”

    Ah, you’re really taking me back……………………………

  5. All good advice but at another time. Right now I am seeing used guns going for much more than what I bought a new one for just in the past year. With the high demand and low inventory all guns have gone past MSRP even used ones. Maybe it will settle out after a year and then some deals will be found. Now that states are opening back up we will also have gun shows once again.

  6. Most of my guns are used, but I buy from a guy who deals with law enforcement and he gets test and evaluation guns back and sells them as used. Though he has to rate them as used, many times they’re NIB. He also sells LEO trade in guns. I’ve bought many that have holster wear on them, but the internals look great and appeared to have not been fired much. Once such pistol is a Beretta 90 Two that looks like it’s been “rode hard and put up wet”, but when I disassembled it, it was pristine and is my “truck gun”. I paid a good price according to its appearance as well. There’s another local shop who guarantees their used guns for 30 days and will ship to the manufacturer for you as well on their dime.

  7. 1. You get what you pay for Always.
    Not Always. My example, bought a 686-4 from a gander mountain 10 or so years ago, it had a 200 dollar price tag. Examined it, only one mark on the cylinder, probably dropped. I asked the clerk how they came to that price and he said they basically just double what they give someone. With their genius pricing strategy, it’s easy to see why they’re no longer in business.

      • Often times they were too high but they really just had no clue about pricing. I picked up some decent deals when they were too low.

  8. My 2 cents…When you order a firearm or receiver online set it up with your seller and FFL for inspection and to ship it back if there is a problem…Once the 4473 is signed it’s your baby unless other arrangements are made.

    Nothing frustrates me more than sellers who use stock photos to sell a firearm. Then you have sellers who do not own a dial caliper to give you item specifics especially when purchasing stripped receivers. Going to begin a build using AR stripped receivers? Roll the dice and see if you can purchase a lower and an upper online that is not loose as a goose once the two halves are joined. For stripped receivers there is loose a bit and there is loose as a goose.
    Unless you are a moron who assumes a gummy bear AccuWedge tightens receivers and magically fixes out of mil spec bore locations you’ve got a big problemo. If you want to proceed to attach a $1000.00 worth of hardware to loose goose trash be my guest. Not happening here.

    Rest assured those “Blems” that newbees cannot find nutin’ wrong with are out there among all the others. Generally once you sign a 4473 on a stripped lower your only option is to return it to the manufacturer and good luck with that. If it does not “look good” on a caliper it does not, “look good.”

    • To determine if an ordered online lower is good at your FFL you need to bring along a stripped upper that has been tested on other lowers and play was acceptable. A pivot and take-down pin is needed along with a set of automotive style blade type feeler gauges. Attach the upper to the lower with the pivot pin. Lay the .012″ gauge across the lower above the safety. Close and hold the receivers together. If the take-down pin cannot enter or pass through the receivers the fit is acceptable. Gradually lower the gauge thickness until exact play is determined by the amount of take-down pin travel. Do not force the pin.

      • Hmm. Coherent line of thought. Decent sentence structure. Spelling and grammar good. No mention of ‘enuf’, ‘DemonRats’, ‘Trump’, or political rants.

        Not sure if this is the real DebbieW.

  9. Hunting Shotguns lose crazy value but not function. Especially when talking about a waterfowl or upland game shotgun. Unless it’s totally thrashed, then hard pass. In Good condition they commonly go for half of MSRP. Most have not been shot much at all, just carried a lot. Since it’s a gun that you are also going to ding up in the field, why not let someone else pay the new premium and then you don’t feel guilty about actually using that Super Black Eagle like it was meant to be used.

    Hell, even a new display gun with a few scratches may be 30% off the others on the shelf. My Performance shop Cordoba was less than the standard version because of two small marks you had to really look close to find.

  10. Easiest way to buy a used gun — go to any street corner in Riverdale in Chicago, ask for Jamari. He’ll hook you up.

    • Actually Chicago is where I got great deals on “used” guns.
      There used to be a no handgun policy in Chicago.
      Friends or friends of friends lived in the suburbs.
      When they moved to Chicago they were scared that they would get busted.
      One had a wife who was an original Karen, no guns or motorcycles.
      I bought five “used” guns this way.
      The LGS’s would beat these guys up so they went low.
      They offered to sell so low that I couldn’t even bring myself to “low ball” them.
      There wasn’t any need to. Of the 5, 4 have the original case and paperwork.
      Two had round counts that were well below 500, two others were well below 1000.
      The fifth one was thrown in as part of one of the sales but I doubt it was beaten on.
      The moral is there can be great deals out there, sometimes you just get lucky.
      The one I regret on passing on was a Colt King Cobra.
      I was there when my friend bought it but he wanted too much for it.
      It had a very low round count but .357 WWB was like $12 a box.
      I already had a 686 and felt it shot better then the Colt IMO.

  11. Always Inspect the barrel bore of a used gun using a bore illuminator. No batteries required. You can keep it in the glove box of your car. So you always have it on hand. They come in clear and different colors. I like this tool because it doesn’t produce a blinding light. Like a flashlight sometimes does.

    Gun Bore Lights
    https://www.proshotproducts.com/Gun-Bore-Lights_c_221.html

    Pro-shot BLCLEAR2PK UV Bore Light Illuminator Clear 2 Pack
    https://www.ebay.com/p/4017732468

  12. I’ve only had one bad experience on GB. The 3” 686-4 arrived in a fed ex box with the barrel sticking out a hole in the box. Took pics and told the guy I was sending it back.

    Then I took it out and examined it. Clearly a garage gunsmith. Timing was terrible. Trigger was awful. It was clearly a different gun from the pics. I lodged a complaint when he asked for positive feedback. Got my money back. That username is no longer on GB. Caveat emptor.

    All other purchases were great.

  13. Recognizing an too-cheap gun that may have a solvable set of issues is a hobby of mine. I once bought a nickel .357 Western Marshall with a big red label that said “Do not fire! Parts gun, bad timing.” for $100. It had a paracord wrap instead of grips, from which piece was in the main spring. $35 set of grips and it runs like a champ. Also, how about a Springfield Ultra Compact .45 $250? Racking the slide sounded lack dragging a steel bar over gravel. Couple hours of cleaning, oil, new grips, spare mag, sold for $500.

  14. Rule #1: If the ad says “$700 firm”, don’t text back “you take $400?” You just guaranteed I will never sell to you.

    • Maybe they just did it for a laugh. I’d do it to you for a laugh, with no intention to buy. What’s the worst that will happen. You won’t sell it to me? LOL.

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  16. The only time I have ever been ripped off has been at gun shows. The good ones are overpriced and the reasonably priced ones are junk. Once I bought a 94 Winchester in .357 for a fair price. Wrote a check for the gun, and the vendor flashed a deputy sheriff badge and told me what would happen if my check was no good. Left a bad taste in my mouth. Even worse, when I took it out to shoot it, it didnt work. Fed 2 rounds at a time.
    Another time I sold a junk .22 to a dealer at a show. I told him everything that was wrong with it and took $15 for it. Later I saw some kid carrying it and asked him about it. He said he bought it for his dad for $100. I asked if the dealer told him what was wrong with it and he said no. I told him everything that was wrong with it and he got his money back.
    I dont go to gun shows anymore.

    • Another time I sold a junk .22 to a dealer at a show… Later I saw some kid carrying it and asked him about it. He said he bought it for his dad for $100.

      Well – yeah. LOL. You should have waited for a gun buyback.

      I told him everything that was wrong with it and took $15 for it.

      $15’s a good deal! I’d have paid $15 for it! Just for parts even.

      I don’t go to gun shows anymore.

      Phhht. Gun shows are a national treasure. A place of wonder, the smell of cheeseburgers and fries, with a tint of rotting wood, cosmoline, and hoppes #9. It’s a great place, but of course, sure, you need to check out in detail what you are buying and being an informed buyer is a must.

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