One TTAG commenter recently wrote: “For those short on cash for a new 1911 or Sig, TTAG should complete an article on buying used guns. Being a veteran college student living off a government stipend, I could offer some real-world tips.” Being perpetually short of cash myself (at least when it comes to buying a new SIG or 1911), I can identify. I am not living off a government stipend, but if the feds can get people free phones, maybe they should give out vouchers for guns…okay, now that you’ve stopped laughing, let’s talk about used guns . . .
There are plenty of ways to get quality firearms at bargain prices, and they don’t differ much from bargain hunting for any other product. If you have to have a new-in-the-box gun, one trick is to look for display models or old stock. I bought my Gen3 Glock 19 after the Gen4s had just come out. Gun shows to be okay for snagging bargains, but they’re hit-and-miss.
Online gun stores (Bud’s Gun Shop and Hyatt’s to name a couple of popular ones) offer deep discounts, but they also have drawbacks. One major minus is having to pay a local FFL dealer to receive the gun and run you through state and federal background checks. They charge a fee for the service – as low as $25 and as much as $75 or more – so you have to take that cost into account. Sometimes the discount you snared from the online store is eaten up by the shipping and FFL fees. On the plus side, you don’t have to pay sales tax if you buy from an out-of-state merchant (yet).
The most obvious strategy to getting an affordable gun, though, is to buy used. If a good piece isn’t abused, it will serve you just as well as a new gun. Of the dozen guns I own, fully half were bought used. Here are a few tips I’ve accumulated during my short life as a used gun buyer:
Where do I find used guns?
Pawn shops, gun stores, gun shows — even chains like Gander Mountain and Cabela’s carry used guns. Online, there’s J&G Sales, Summit Gunbroker, AIM Surplus, CDNN Investments and the auction sites GunsAmerica.com and the big daddy of them all, Gunbroker.com. The auction sites work a lot like eBay. You’ll find some fixed price sales, some “true auctions” (where there’s no reserve price) and a lot of reserve auctions where nobody gets the gun if the bids don’t cover a pre-determined minimum.
Some states allow sales between private individuals. In my great Commonwealth (Virginia), I can and have dealt face to face several times, exploiting the dreaded “gun show loophole.” How do you find private sellers in your state? Try Armslist.com or the Equipment Exchange on AR15.com. Many of the gun boards have classifieds as well. No, don’t look on Craigslist. They hate guns (yes, that’s their official policy).
What do I look for?
Well, what do you want? If you want a SIG, search for a SIG. If you want a 1911, search for that. Just be aware that on Gunbroker not every seller is a marketing expert, and some of them put very little thought into listing their gun. If you want a great deal on a Browning Hi-Power, make sure your search includes “Hi Power,” “High Power,” “P35” and even “FN 9mm.” I’ve seen Marlin Camp Carbines listed as “Marlin Camper 9,” “Marlin 9mm Carbine, “Marlen Camp Rifle” – you get the picture.
Condition is all-important, especially for a gun that may stand between you and death at the hands of a predator. Look at the pictures. Pay special attention to the bore and muzzle condition. A rusted, pitted exterior says something about how the current or previous owner(s) maintained the gun. A few scratches and scuffs, on the other hand, usually don’t affect operation. In fact, they help drive the price down.
How much of a gambler are you? Because I’ll be straight with you – not everyone likes Gunbroker. In fact, some people absolutely despise it. I suspect the problems are mainly with individual sellers or buyers (My dealings with Gunbroker have all been positive). That’s why it’s important to examine a seller’s feedback and rating. A seller with lots of positive feedback, especially one who’s obviously a dealer, is probably a safer bet than an individual with no rating. On the other hand, sales by newbies sometimes don’t get bid up as much. So if you’re willing to chance it, you might land a better deal buying from a less experienced seller.
My rule is to not bid on an auction with no pictures and a cursory description. If someone can’t be bothered to type anything more than “Springfield .45,” will they bother to send me the gun once they receive my payment?
What Should I Pay?
What you pay depends on what you’re buying and whom you’re buying from. You may not get much traction haggling for that new Smith & Wesson Shield at Sportsman’s Warehouse. But a used or consignment sale at your local gun shop or at a gun show? Give it a try. The worst that can happen (short of them laughing at you) is they say no.
The big surplus and discount dealers occasionally run some monster sales. A month ago, J&G Sales was selling VZ2008s (Czech-made AK-style rifles) for $399. The price is now back up to $499. Once again, he who hesitates is lost.
What about the auctions? Well, auctions are insidious. They suck you in with the glowing hope of paying $350 for a Les Baer Custom 1911, only to see the price skyrocket in the final minutes. The next thing you know, you’re bidding a C-note more than you originally intended – or worse. Just as with eBay, fix your limit, be willing to wiggle a little, then know when to stop.
Some auctions on Gunbroker are listed with a “Buy It Now” feature. I advise scoping out all “Buy It Now” fixed-price sales, because you never know what you’ll find. Jump on a deal — quickly — if it’s good.
Many buyers don’t look at Reserve Price auctions because, frankly, they’re a pain – you watch a gun, bid what you think is a decent price, then the auction ends because you didn’t bid high enough. It’s a bummer. However, I have a Smith & Wesson 640-1 in my collection I got for $300 – because that was the reserve price and no one else was watching the auction but me.
Completing the Sale
If you’re buying from a private seller, negotiate before you meet. Write up a bill of sale and ask the seller to sign it, explaining it’s only for your records. You want to do this to record the date you took possession of the gun. (I probably don’t have to explain why this is important.) If the seller balks, don’t be afraid to cancel the sale. (If you’re at a gun show and you buy from a guy or gal walking the floor, you may not be able to do this, but obviously use your judgment and always be ready to walk away. No bargain is worth a trip to the police station.)
On Gunbroker, once the auction is over, you’re on your own. You have to get in touch with the seller and work out how to pay and take delivery. You’ll be required to pay before you get your gun. Many sellers require guaranteed funds of some sort – a certified check or money order, usually. Some merchants will take a credit card, and individuals may choose to use “discreet PayPal” because PayPal (drumroll, please) doesn’t like guns.
Establishing good communication with the other party goes a long way toward a pleasant sale. I recently sold a rifle on Gunbroker to a first-timer. He was nervous about sending payment first, and suggested I send the rifle before he sent a check. As if! I suggested he use a credit card with buyer protection, and if he covered the PayPal fee, I would accept payment that way. After all that, he went ahead and sent a check, but I think my willingness to deal put him at ease.
If anything about the sale feels wrong — for any reason — don’t send payment. You may get dinged on feedback, but it’s better than losing a few sawbucks into the great unknown.
As mentioned before, you’ll need to find a local FFL to take delivery of your gun. Keep in mind that unless you’re buying an antique or rare gun, this dealer is essentially helping you buy from their competitor. Be considerate and patronize his or her establishment when you can. Sometimes you can find a pawn shop or gunsmith with an FFL. You may feel a little less guilty having your purchases shipped to them. Of course, some gun sellers don’t mind collecting the fee for doing almost nothing. Those that do will let you know by either refusing to take a transfer or charging you the price of a Hi-Point to do it.
Any other tips?
Read the description carefully. I almost bid on a gun before realizing the Walther PPK was chambered in “9mm Police” instead of “9mm Kurz.” That would have smarted, as 9mm Police (also called 9mm Ultra) is a readily available cartridge…so long as you’re a West German police officer in 1972. Sometimes the description covers a flaw in the gun. Maybe the magazine is missing. Ask questions and be informed.
Ugly guns can make great bargains. Collectors hate blemishes, scratches and importer stamps. Bargain hunters love ’em. Learn which “problems” affect the performance of the gun you want and which do not, then shop accordingly. I’ve observed collectible guns go for cheap because they had the dreaded CAI import mark on the frame. Finish loss, muzzle damage, dark bores and cracks in the metal can be real problems, but a chipped handguard can be easily repaired and probably won’t affect your shooting in the mean time.
Consider the manufacturer and model. A Kel-Tec with 5,000 rounds through it is not equal to a SIG with 5,000 rounds through it. And a SIG P250 with 5,000 rounds on the odometer is not equal to a SIG P226 with the same mileage. Plus, a used Kel-Tec PF9 on Gunbroker will rarely go for much less than a new one, whereas I recently purchased a SIG P229R for $400 ($460 when you factor in shipping and FFL fee). That’s almost half of what a new P229 with a rail will run you. (As with cars, resale value is a consideration should you decide to sell your gun.)
What about law enforcement (LE) trade-ins? If you want a duty-class pistol, carbine or shotgun, LE trade-ins are great deals. Currently, the auctions and surplus dealers are lousy with Glock 23s and Beretta PX4s in .40 S&W. A few years ago, every police agency was trading in their Ruger Mini-14s for ARs. You will likely get a gun that’s been “shot little and carried a lot” and maintained by an armorer. If you don’t mind “BIG CITY PD” etched on your gun, you can make out like a bandit.
Do your research. Many great deals aren’t so great once you look into them. When I see something attractive on Gunbroker, the first place I look is…Gunbroker. What are similar guns going for? Are there any bids? What about the no-name manufacturer of that AR-15? Are they still in business? Can you get service or parts? Before you plunk down your green, know your machine.
You can always re-sell. I like buying guns. My wife and bank account hate it, but everyone’s cool because I’ve yet to lose money buying and selling guns, even considering FFL and shipping costs. Services like Gunbroker and Guns America exist because people change their minds, outgrow guns, want to trade up, need to liquidate or just want to stay happily married. As mentioned before, some guns hold their value better than others.
Bargain gun hunting isn’t much different from shopping for bargains on clothes or shoes. You just have to know where to look and take the occasional chance. If you’re new to the game, seek out a venue where you can examine, handle and possibly even fire the gun before you buy. This would be a gun store (especially one attached to a range), a pawn shop or a gun show. Don’t discount friends and relatives, either. If you’re more adventurous, give the auctions a try. And good luck. Everyone deserves the opportunity to exercise the right to keep and bear arms. That’s what the free market is for.