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.
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.