January 03, 2011
By Jim Wilson
The Sheriff gives insight and advice for purchasing a used autoloader
By Sheriff Jim Wilson
At one time or another, we've all gotten the hots to own a new semiautomatic pistol. And we've all experienced the situation where our desire to own a new gun didn't quite match up to the strength of our checkbook (or to the piddly amount the wife was willing to let us blow on our gun hobby).
When buying a used auto pistol, the Sheriff recommends checking its overall appearance, safeties, feeding, ejection, and extraction. Knowing what to look for before you purchase may save you money and the frustration of ending up with a "lemon."
Fortunately, with some forethought and care, shooters can find good-quality handguns on the used-gun market.
Gun shows, gunshops, and various periodicals like Shotgun News are all good sources for finding that used auto pistol that you just can't live without. However, a fellow can easily end up with a real lemon if he doesn't know what to look for when buying a used gun. Here are some tips that have worked pretty well for me over the years as I shopped for used auto pistols.
Inspect The Finish
One of the first things I do is examine the pistol's general outward appearance. It should show only the wear that is reasonable, based upon the age of the gun, and, if you know it, the use that it's been put to. Today, many handguns are carried far more than they are fired, and a little blueing wear, or holster wear, should not affect your decision to purchase. I once traded for a very nice Colt Pocket Auto in .380 ACP that had lain in a drawer on its left side for years. I know it did because there was a good bit of blueing gone from the left side of the slide. An internal inspection indicated the pistol had rarely been fired. And because I was looking for a shooter and not a collector's item, I bought the gun and thoroughly enjoyed it.
However, a worn finish is quite different from an abused finish. If the gun's metal shows gouges, rust spots, or pitting, I would be much more hesitant to make the purchase. If the gun has been outwardly abused, it may also have been internally abused.
Check The Function
Before going any further in the purchase of a used auto pistol, it is important to check all of the gun's safety features. After checking to make sure that the gun is unloaded (yeah, I know you're in a reputable gunshop--check it anyway), engage the various safeties and then attempt to pull the trigger. If you can pull the trigger and release the firing pin, you've got some real problems.
On 1911 pistols, it is possible to polish the sear so that the pistol will have a really nice, extremely light trigger pull. In fact, you can get the trigger pull so light that a 1911 will double on you, and that is not nice at all. To check the condition of the sear, lock the slide back, with the magazine removed, and then trip the slide release with your thumb. If the hammer falls as the slide snaps forward, you've got a gun that will very possibly double on you when firing live ammo. For sure you've got a gun that needs a new sear before it will be safe to use.
Feeding malfunctions can also be a serious problem in used auto pistols, and the majority of feeding problems in semiautomatics can be traced back to a faulty magazine. The lips of the magazine could have become damaged, or you could be dealing with a weak or faulty magazine spring. If the pistol fails to feed reliably, try it with other magazines that you know are reliable. If it's just a bad magazine, throw that thing away immediately. Don't keep it around with the idea of using it for a practice magazine; you might get it mixed up with the good ones. Malfunctions caused by faulty magazines are a real embarrassment in a shooting match, but they're downright dangerous in a gunfight.
Failures to feed may also be traced to damage to the feedramp or barrel chamber. From time to time "enlightened" souls will grab their trusty Dremel tool and decide to polish the pistol's feedramp themselves, thereby avoiding what they think is an unnecessary gunsmithing expense. Correcting this type of problem could mean having to purchase a new barrel or frame.
About the only other problems that an auto pistol might have are concerned with extraction and ejection. And such failures clearly indicate that a new extractor or ejector is needed.
Examine The Fit
I've seen some prospective auto pistol buyers pick up a pistol and shake it briskly. Their explanation is that the gun should rattle a little or it is no good. This is a common theory, particularly when considering used 1911 pistols. But, quite frankly, I'm not sure what this is supposed to indicate. I've had 1911s, like the Les Baer Thunder Ranch Special, that didn't rattle at all when I first took them out of the box. In fact, the slide was difficult to pull back. However, that gun has never malfunctioned at all. Shaking a gun and listening for a rattle is no way to really determine if the slide and frame rails are properly mated. It is far better to cycle the pistol, by hand, and feel for any burrs or rough spots. A bit of tightness is actually an indication of increased accuracy, but on the other hand, a bit of looseness may not affect the accuracy.
Things To Avoid
One of the things that I try to avoid is the pistol that someone has put a lot of gadgets on. Again, this is especially true of 1911 pistols. Gadgets and accessories often indicate that the previous owner thought of himself as some sort of home gunsmith. A close examination will often indicate that the owner and not a competent gunsmith installed these parts. And it can also indicate that the owner probably decided to do his own custom work on the sear, extractor, ejector, and various other parts. When you buy a gun loaded with gadgets, you are often buying someone else's troubles.
The good news is that most gunshops will guarantee their used guns to work properly and will gladly make adjustments if that turns out not to be the case. Your local gunshop wants you to be a repeat customer, and it would be very foolish to knowingly sell you something that doesn't work. And, regardless of who you are dealing with, it is always a good idea to arrange to shoot the gun before you buy it or make an agreement that you can return it if it doesn't work properly.
Fortunately, most of the parts on autoloading pistols can be replaced pretty easily. You can contact the manufacturer or refer to various aftermarket parts suppliers' catalogs for the parts. However, it's always best to identify problems before you purchase the pistol so that you can adjust your offer to allow for the needed repairs.
Learning to be a careful and cautious buyer of used guns is also a way to learn how the various guns work. I once traded for a Browning Hi-Power at a gun show that had an aftermarket magaz
ine in it. After carefully examining the pistol, that was the only thing I could find to fault it on. Sure enough, when I got it to the shooting range it would repeatedly fail to feed properly. I replaced the faulty magazine with a good Browning magazine and never had another problem with the gun. I'm convinced that the previous owner was experiencing jams, figured the gun was just no good, and got rid of it at his first opportunity.
By making a mental checklist for overall appearance, safeties, feeding, ejection, and extraction, you will soon be able to give a used autoloader the once over and decide on its value and desirability. In cautiously buying used handguns we learn more about the guns and save money at the same time. That sounds like a win-win deal to me.