Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Shopping for and Inspecting Used Revolvers

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So, I'm heading out to the local gun show Sunday, and I'm looking for some bargains on revolvers. I'm pretty picky when it comes to purchasing used handguns, and revolvers are no exception. Many people attend local gun shows looking to find a bargain. But how do you know that Smith & Wesson Model 60 laying on the table there is a great deal and not someone else's problem they're trying to unload on an unsuspecting buyer?

Smith & Wesson Model 60
The first step in finding a a good deal on a used revolver is to know what you are looking for. Do your research before hand and have an idea of potential makes and models you want. Not all revolvers are good investment pieces. Some retain their value extremely well while others continue to lose value. There are differences in the quality of the components and the quality of the build, as well as consumer demand. Choosing a cheaper model may mean that down the road you have a $50 paper weight instead of a $800 collectors piece. The Blue Book of Gun Values is a great place to start researching if you're looking for a collector revolver. If you're simply looking for a quality revolver for concealed carry or personal defense, try searching Google and find out what makes and models are recommended. It's hard to go wrong with some of the major manufacturers; Colt, Ruger and Smith & Wesson stand out as long time favorites, but Taurus has recently become known as a quality revolver manufacturer as well. Taurus' Judge revolver is one of the hottest selling revolvers on the market right now.

By now, you've got an idea of what you're looking for. How do you determine whether the pistol you're looking at is at the end of it's service life and in need of serious repair, or is a gem that just needs a little cleaning and polishing? To begin with, check the overall condition of the pistol. Is it dirty? If so, that should be your first major red flag. A dirty revolver is not just difficult to inspect for cracks or gas cutting and erosion, it's indicative of the care and maintenance that the pistol received. If the previous owner didn't care for it enough to clean it before selling it, what condition is the rest of it in? Just walk away from a dirty revolver. A clean revolver should be much easier to inspect. Check the top strap for structural integrity by looking for cracks in it, especially just above the forcing cone. Some erosion from hot gases escaping in this area is normal for a magnum revolver, but be cautious if you see signs of gas cutting or moderate to extensive erosion.

By the same token, be wary if the 200 year old collector piece you are looking at looks as if it may have just rolled off the factory line. It may be a fake, or worse, a refinished antique. The best collector pieces have their age worn proudly. Small nicks and dings are like marks of honor for antique revolvers, and almost all antique collector pieces have a well worn patina. Refinishing an actual antique ruins its value and eliminates the rich history worn by the piece.

Ruger GP100
I carry a small Mini MagLight flashlight with me to help inspect for flaws; the additional light helps illuminate any cracks or deformities. A bore light is also great for checking out the condition of the rifling. When inspecting the rifling, start by looking for any chips, dings, or cracks in the crown of the muzzle as these can affect the accuracy of the revolver. Next, with your bore light illuminating the rifling, peer down the bore. You're looking for rust, dark spots, or pitting in the barrel. A good looking bore will be shiny and have sharp edges on the lands and grooves. Some grit and dust in the bore is normal, but again you should be cautious if it looks like it's been ages since the barrel has been cleaned.

Now it's time to move on to the cylinder. Check the cylinder latch for tightness. The cylinder release should not be loose or sloppy, but neither should it be too tight. It should have a crisp release and be easy to operate with just the thumb while maintaining a positive grip on the revolver with one hand. With the cylinder out, begin inspecting the crane. The crane is the arm that the cylinder swings out on. It should fit tightly to the frame while closed, and should smoothly swing out with little effort and very little play on the hinge. Looking at the cylinder, check that it turns smoothly on the shaft. Inspect the cylinder stops - these are the notches on side of the cylinder towards the back. Make a note of any excessive wear. Also check the ratchet on the back of the cylinder and ensure that the teeth are in good shape.

The ejector should operate smoothly and have significant spring tension behind it. If it binds up, be aware that the binding will only get worse as the frame of the gun heats up from firing. Shine your bore light into each cylinder and check for any dark spots, rust, or corrosion. If the seller will allow it, test the cylinder bores with unfired ammunition, snap-caps, or dummy rounds. The cartridges should slide in smoothly, fit flush, and be able to be dumped out without using the ejector. Make absolutely sure to remove any live rounds before proceeding with your inspection. Having emptied the cylinder, gently close the cylinder (never swing a cylinder closed like you see in the movies!)

With the cylinder closed, turn it until the first cylinder stop catches and cock the hammer. While holding the hammer, pull the trigger and gently lower the hammer and keep the trigger pulled all the way back. This completely locks up the internals of the revolver. With the trigger still pulled back, check the cylinder for any play. Any forward and backward movement is a very bad sign, as is any excessive side-to-side rotational movement. The cylinder should feel like it is a part of the revolver frame but some slight rotation is OK. Hold the light that you brought behind the revolver and check the cylinder gap. There should be a sliver of light between the cylinder and the forcing cone, giving you a gap between .002" and .006". Any less than .002" and the cylinder will not spin freely due to fouling, and any more than .006" and you will lose too much velocity from escaping gases. Ideally you should have a set of feeler gauges with you to inspect the gap. If you're just trying to eyeball the gap, if it looks like you could fit a credit card in there the gap is too big; if it looks like a business card won't fit the gap is too small.

Colt Single Action Army Revolver
After checking the cylinder gap, we need to check the timing. With the trigger still pulled back and the unloaded revolver in full lock up, shine your light from the back of the cylinder and peer down to ensure that the cylinder bore lines up perfectly with the barrel. If the cylinder bore does not precisely line up with the barrel, the timing is off and the revolver will need to be serviced by a competent gunsmith. Perform this same test with every cylinder by locking up the action as described above for each chamber and then shine a light from the back of the cylinder to check and see that it lines up properly.

Moving on to the trigger, it can be difficult to effectively test a trigger if the seller does not want you to dry fire the pistol. Ask the seller if you can use a snap cap to test the trigger. Single action triggers, or double action triggers with the hammer cocked should break crisply and cleanly. A very small amount of take-up in the trigger is acceptable, especially if the revolver is a Ruger or some other revolver with a transfer bar action. While single action triggers should be light, they shouldn't have a "hair trigger". If the trigger is so light it feels like the slightest breeze could trip the sear, you may consider passing on that purchase. It takes some significant work on a sear to get a trigger that light, and you don't want a gun that's the result of a backyard gunsmith stoning too much off of the sear. To check for an overly polished sear, with the hammer back gently wiggle the trigger from side to side; the hammer should not fall. If it does, your sear is possible irreversibly damaged and will need to be replaced.

Evaluating a double action trigger is really a matter of personal preference. Some people like a smooth pull with no sticking point that indicates that the hammer is about to drop. Other people prefer a double action trigger that takes just a little bit of extra pull to trip the sear at the end of the pull. However you like your double action trigger, it should not be gritty or awkward.

Many dealers don't have the time to individually inspect each and every revolver they buy used. By knowing how to inspect the firearm you can avoid purchasing a nightmare that costs hundreds of dollars to repair and position yourself favorably when it comes time to haggle over the selling price.

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