We’ve all been there: You’re perusing the wares at a local gun shop on the way back from “picking up some milk” when a beautiful rifle catches your eye.
“Is it a fair price? Will it shoot? Is it a dud, or a diamond in the rough? And is it possible to intercept and destroy this month’s credit card statement?”
You’re on your own for that last question, but I can help with the first three.
How to Not Go to Jail
First things first.
You’ve probably purchased a firearm from a licensed seller (like a gun shop or sporting goods store), so I won’t cover that here. But searching in the used market opens up the possibility of purchasing a firearm from a private seller.
The legality of this option depends on your state. If you live in a state that does not require private sales to go through a licensed dealer, you can meet the seller and purchase the firearm without any additional paperwork. If not, the process will look nearly identical to purchasing from a licensed dealer (bring your ID, fill out a form, don’t be a criminal). You can find a detailed list here for private gun sale legalities in your state.
How to Spot a Dud
I’m going to focus on bolt-action rifles and pump-action shotguns, but many of these principles can be applied to semi-automatic firearms and handguns as well.
To help me with this, I reached out to Johnny Dury at Dury’s Guns. Dury’s was established in 1959 in San Antonio, Texas, and today they’re one of the nation’s largest used gun sellers.
On bolt-action rifles, Dury told me that the last 2 inches of the barrel should be your biggest concern. Hunters will often shoot a rifle only once or twice a season, which burns the oil from the barrel and leaves it exposed to the elements. If the gun isn’t cleaned and oiled before going back into the safe, those final two inches can become rusted and pitted.
To diagnose this problem, start by looking carefully at the overall condition of the gun.
“Generally, if the outside of the gun is super clean, the inside of the bore is going to be good,” Dury said.
You can also purchase a bore light or a bore scope and learn how to look for pitting. Just like when purchasing a used car, a trusted gunsmith or knowledgeable friend can be invaluable with this process. If you’ve never peered down the barrel of a gun to look for pitting, it’s can be tough to identify.
Dury also encouraged prospective buyers to check for nicks in the crown or end of the barrel, which can significantly affect accuracy.
Finally, on a rifle with a wooden stock, Dury said buyers should make sure the wood hasn’t warped. If the barrel touches the stock on one side of the barrel channel, take a pass.
Pump action shotguns are easier to evaluate. As long as the action cycles smoothly, a rusty chamber is the only major area of concern. A rusty chamber will keep the shell from ejecting during cycling and leave you frustrated in the duck blind.
To check for this problem, simply remove the barrel and check the chamber with a flashlight.
On any gun, the two critical components are the action and the bore. If you can ensure that the action cycles and the bore is in good shape, you’re good to go (generally speaking). In a best-case scenario, you’ll have the chance to test fire the gun before committing for the long term.
How to Find a Good Deal
As I said earlier, purchasing a used gun is a lot like purchasing a used car—the more homework you do beforehand, the less likely you are to get ripped off. Like cars, most used guns have an “official value” determined by the folks over at Blue Book of Gun Values.
But to find out what people are actually paying for a firearm, I recommend two online gun auction websites: GunBroker.com and GunsAmerica.com. Both websites allow you to search for the make and model of virtually any firearm, and access thousands of sellers nationwide selling the exact gun that interests you.
The price of a specific make and model can vary drastically depending on the configuration (stock, barrel, trigger, etc.) and the firearm’s condition. If you can’t find your exact configuration, find the price of a new model and subtract 20-40%.
Where to Look
Searching for used firearms at the websites I mentioned above will give you the most options and, probably, the lowest price. Just be sure the vendor has a three-day, money-back return policy.
Big box stores like Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops have racks of used firearms, but their prices aren’t much lower than a new gun. The prices at local gun stores and pawn shops are usually more competitive. Plus, they’ll often have better advice than the college kid at the Cabela’s counter.
If you live in a state that allows private sales, you can find private listings in gun-specific online forums. As with cars, this is where you have a chance at scoring a great deal. Get in touch with the seller, select a public meeting spot, and look for the stuff I discussed above. Some sellers will ask to see your ID or require that you pass a background check (even if it’s not legally necessary), so be prepared to visit a local gun shop or sign a bill of sale.
Gun shows can offer opportunities as well, but Dury told me that they often attract sellers with questionable guns. Be especially wary of very oily barrels—sometimes a seller will coat the inside of a barrel with grease to hid pitting and damage.
I’ve found that the best option is to purchase from a dealer you trust.
Buying a firearm used is a great option if you’re looking to try out hunting or just save some cash. It takes a little more homework, but a knowledgeable friend can lower the learning curve. Just put enough time and effort in the market, and you’ll find the right gun at the right price.