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Buying a quality (pre-owned) revolver

January 17, 2013


Used wheelguns, especially ones manufactured by top-of-the-line American manufacturers such as Smith & Wesson, Colt, Dan Wesson and Ruger (and a handful of others) can make wonderful home defense or carry guns, often at affordable prices.

While the days of $129 police trade-in Smith and Wesson revolvers is largely over, you can still find them for about half of the new-gun price (under $300 or so if you look around) and frankly, the used guns will perform just as well as the new guns.

Here’s a “how-to” guide to evaluate a used revolver to make sure you’re not buying someone else’s problems.

But first up:  A sample of something you would be better off taking a pass on…


Buying a quality (pre-owned) revolver

By Jim March (edited)

So you’re buying a revolver. New, used, doesn’t matter, you want a good one, right?

How do check one over without firing it, right at the dealer’s counter or gun show table? We’re going to tell you how. These steps work with both double action (DA) and single-action (SA). First, make sure the gun is unloaded, then “close the action.” On most DAs this means swing the cylinder in, on SA types, close the loading gate. On break-opens, close ’em.

WARNING:  Most of these tests require violation of the “finger off trigger” rule. Therefore, be extremely careful about safe muzzle direction and making sure the gun is unloaded ahead of time, PERSONALLY, as you begin handling it.

Note: Bring a small flashlight, something small and concentrated. A Photon or similar high-powered LED light is perfect. You also want feeler gauges if you’re not used to eyeballing cylinder gaps; at a minimum, bring a .002″, .004″ and .006″.

Note 2: No dry firing is required or desired at any point. It often just irritates the gun’s current owner.


Cylinder play

1) With the gun unloaded (verify for yourself!), close the action.

2) Thumb the hammer back, and while pulling the trigger, gently lower the hammer all the way down while keeping the trigger back – and KEEP holding the trigger once the hammer is down. (You’ve now put the gun in “full lockup” – keep it there for this and most other tests.)

3) With the trigger still back all the way, check for cylinder wiggle. Front/back is particularly undesirable; a bit of side to side is OK but it’s a bad thing if you can wiggle it one way, let go, and then spin it the other way a fraction of an inch and it stays there too. At the very least, it should “want” to stop in just one place (later, we’ll see if that place is any good). The ultimate is a “welded to the frame” feeling.


Cylinder gap

4) Still holding the trigger at full lockup, look sideways through the barrel/cylinder gap. If you can get a credit card in there, that ain’t good…velocity drops rapidly as the gap increases. Too tight isn’t good either, because burnt powder crud will “fill the gap” and start making the cylinder spin funky. My personal .38snubbie is set at .002, usually considered the minimum…after about 40 shots at the range, I have to give the front of the cylinder a quick wipe so it spins free again. I consider that a reasonable tradeoff for the increased velocity because in a real fight, I ain’t gonna crank 40 rounds out of a 5-shot snub.

If you’re eyeballing it, you’ll have to hold it up sideways against an overhead light source.

SAFETY WARNING: This step in particular is where you must watch where your muzzle is pointed. Part of what’s happening here is that you’re convincing the seller you know your poop. It helps the haggling process. If you do anything unsafe, that impression comes completely unglued.



5) You really, really want an unloaded gun for this one. Double check for the third of fourth time to ensure the gun is unloaded. With the gun still held in full lockup, trigger back after lowering the hammer by thumb, you want to shine your little flashlight into the area at the rear of the cylinder near the firing pin. You then look down the barrel. You’re looking to make sure the cylinder bore lines up with the barrel. Check every cylinder – that means putting the gun in full lockup for each cylinder before lighting it up.

You’re looking for the cylinder and barrel holes to line up perfectly, it’s easy to eyeball if there’s only a faint light source at the very rear of both bores. And with no rounds present, it’s generally easy to get some light in past where the rims would be.

Bulges are a clue that something terribly wrong has happened.


(You can let go of the trigger now.)

6) Swing the cylinder open, or with most SAs pull the cylinder. Use the small flashlight to scope the bore out. This part’s easy – you want to avoid pitting, worn-out rifling, bulges of any sort. You want more light on the subject than just what creeps in from the rear of the cylinder on the timing check.

You also want to check each cylinder bore, in this case with the light coming in from the FRONT of each hole, you looking in from the back where the primers would be. You’re looking for wear at the “restrictions” at the front of each cylinder bore. That’s the “forcing cone” area and it can wear rapidly with some Magnum loads. (Special thanks to Salvo for this bit below!)

Someone had a squib and then fired a second shot or some other barrel obstruction existed when this specimen was fired.


7) To test a trigger without dry-firing it, use a plastic pen in front of the hammer to “catch” it with the off hand, especially if it’s a “firing pin on the hammer” type. Or see if the seller has any snap-caps, that’s even better. Flat-faced hammers as found in transfer-bar guns (Ruger, etc) can be caught with the off-hand without too much pain.

SA triggers (or of course a DA with the hammer cocked) should feel “like a glass rod breaking.” A tiny amount of take-up slack is tolerable, and is common on anything with a transfer bar or hammer-block safety.

DA triggers are subjective. Some people like a dead-smooth feel from beginning of stroke to the end, with no “warning” that it’s about to fire. Others (myself included) actually prefer a slight “hitch” right at the end, so we know when it’s about to go. With extensive practice, you can actually “hold it” right at the “about to fire” point and do a short light stroke from there that rivals an SA shot for accuracy. Either way, you don’t want “grinding” through the length of the stroke, and the final stack-up at the end (if any) shouldn’t be overly pronounced.


Detecting Bad Gunsmithing:

8) OK, so it’s got a rock-solid cylinder, a .002″ or .003″ gap, and the trigger feels great. Odds are vastly in favor of it being “tuned” after it left the factory.

So was the gunsmith a bad gunsmith? Let’s find out. First, cock it, then grab the hammer and “wiggle it around” a bit. Not too hard, don’t bang on it, but give it a bit of up/down, left/right and circular action with finger off trigger (watch your muzzle direction!).

You don’t want that hammer slipping off an overly polished sear. You really don’t want that. This can be fixed by installing factory parts but that’ll take modest money (more for installation than hardware costs) and it’ll be “big time” unsafe until you do.

The other thing that commonly goes wrong is somebody will trim the spring, especially coil springs. You can spot that if you pull the grip panels, see if the spring was trimmed with wire cutters. If they get too wild with it, you’ll get ignition failures on harder primers. But the good news is that replacement factory or Wolf springs are cheap both to buy and have installed. Then there’s also the legal problems Massad Ayoob frequently writes about regarding too-light triggers. If that’s a concern, you can either swap back to stock springs, or since you bought it used there’s no way to prove you knew it was modified at all.


In perspective:

Timing (test #5) is very critical…if that’s off, the gun may not even be safe to test-fire. And naturally, a lousy barrel means a relatively pricey fix.

Cylinder gap is particularly critical on short-barreled and/or marginal caliber guns. If you need every possible ounce of energy, a tight gap helps. Some factory gaps will run as high as .006″; Taurus considers .007″ “still in spec” (sigh). You’ll be hard-pressed to find any new pieces under .004″ – probably because the makers realize some people don’t clean ’em often (or very well) and might complain about the cylinder binding up if they sell ’em at .002″.

The guns in a dealer’s “used pile” are often of unknown origin, from estate sales or whatever. Dealers don’t have time to check every piece, and often don’t know their history. These tests, especially cylinder gap and play, can spot a gun that’s been sent off for professional tuning…like my snubbie, the best $180 I ever spent.

As long as the gun is otherwise sound (no cracks, etc) a gunsmith can fix any minor problems. These tests can help you pick a particularly good new specimen, or find a good used gun, or help haggle the price down on something that’ll need a bit of work.

Hope this helps.


Reprinted with permission in the Feb. 2003 issue of GunNews from SWATmag.com.


2 Responses to Buying a quality (pre-owned) revolver

  1. MrApple on January 18, 2013 at 4:48 pm

    Stick to Smith&Wesson or Ruger and you can’t go wrong. Their stuff is made to last several lifetimes.

  2. Huck Finn on January 31, 2013 at 10:28 pm

    I’m so glad that I traded in my Glock and went back to wheel guns.