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Gun Buyer’s Guide to Used Firearms

Gun Buyer's Guide to Used Firearms

For the most part, buying a used gun is the same as buying a new one, but there are some unique considerations to be aware of. It's possible to get a great deal on a gun that's been well-cared for, but you'll need to have patience, a sharp eye and some basic negotiation skills.

In this guide, we'll cover where and how to buy a used gun. We'll also review how to assess a used gun's market value and how to inspect it carefully before buying.

Stick to the Basics

Stick to the Basics

Even if you're a longtime gun owner, it can be easy to gloss over the basic reasons for buying one. Be sure to take a few moments to ensure you have good answers to three basic questions:

  • What's my budget?
  • What purpose do I want this gun to serve?
  • Can I handle it comfortably and safely?

It can be tempting to go shopping for bargains or interesting guns, but you'll likely be disappointed with your purchase if you don't have a specific goal in mind. Do you want a used gun for self-defense, sporting, hunting or some other purpose? Once you answer this question, it should be relatively easy to start doing focused research. See our best guns for home defense guide if you're looking for a good gun to keep in the house, or take a look at how to choose a CCW handgun to find a good concealed carry weapon.

As with any other negotiation, you're most likely to get a good deal if you're willing to walk away. Decide what your budget is and stick to it. There are millions of used guns for sale — the one that's too expensive but otherwise perfect isn't actually perfect. With patience, you're sure to find a better match that won't break the bank.

Gauging a Used Gun's Value

Gauging a Used Gun's Value

In terms of market value, guns appreciate and depreciate differently than cars, houses and most other assets. Whereas a car's resale value almost inevitably begins to suffer with age and use, most guns can last decades — even centuries — with proper care (check out our guide to gun cleaning and maintenance basics to make sure you keep your weapon in working order). What's more, individual parts are usually fairly inexpensive to replace (unlike an engine or transmission). For these reasons, a gun's used price often is only a little lower than its new price. In most cases, you'll save five to twenty percent by buying used.

When you fire a gun, its components experience varying degrees of physical stress from recoil, heat and gunpowder residue. Over time, certain parts of the gun begin to perform less well and may eventually stop working, but these are usually the comparatively inexpensive parts: the springs, magazines and certain parts of the trigger assembly. The barrel, frame, bolt and slide are very durable and more or less immune to wear and tear. These parts typically need to be replaced only if they're damaged by an accident or negligence.

Buyers and sellers generally price used guns chiefly according to the answer to one question: "How well does it work?" If the gun has been well-cared for throughout its life, it will retain most of its value, even many years later. If it's clean, cycles smoothly, feeds rounds reliably and has no obvious damage, a discount of $50 or $100 off its original price is probably fair.

For most buyers, the main advantage to buying a new gun over a used one is the manufacturer's warranty. These warranties usually don't transfer to subsequent owners, so if you're looking to buy a used gun, be aware that you probably won't be eligible for warranty service.

All that being said, the market value of a used gun is only part of the equation. It's a good starting point, but ultimately, the real question is: "What is this gun worth to me?" It doesn't matter if it's on sale for 50% of its normal price if it won't fit your needs and preferences.

If you're looking to get an idea of a used gun's market value, the Blue Book of Guns is a pretty comprehensive resource, but it's not free. Good, free resources include GunBroker.com (check the actual sale prices of a particular gun over the past 30 or 90 days) or your local gun shops. Overpriced guns don't sell very well, so with rare exceptions, gun shop owners price their wares fairly, and there shouldn't be a lot of variation between shops.

Note that, in general, used guns are cheaper online than in brick-and-mortar stores because online sellers have less overhead.

Pre-Purchase Questions and Inspections

Pre-Purchase Questions and Inspections

Used gun sales are typically final, so it's extra important to ask the right questions and do a thorough inspection before you buy. If the person selling the gun isn't its owner, they may not know the answers to some of these questions, but get as much information as you can.

  • Are you the only/original owner? When did you buy it? What condition was it in when you bought it?
  • How many total rounds has it fired?
  • Has it ever had any serious malfunctions?
  • How often was it cleaned? What did you use to clean it?
  • Did it ever sit for longer than a day after being fired and before being cleaned?
  • What sort of ammo did you use? (Steel casings are problematic in many guns, so hopefully, they'll say brass.)
  • Did you ever use any hand-loaded ammo? (Ammo that's loaded improperly, especially high-pressure rounds, can damage a gun or accelerate wear and tear.)

As a very rough estimate, guns that have fired fewer than 2,000 rounds can be considered "low mileage," whereas those over 5,000 rounds are "high mileage." Some guns are more susceptible than others to wear and tear, so these numbers may be higher or lower for the gun you're looking at.

How to Inspect a Used Gun

How to Inspect a Used Gun

Once you've got the gun in your hands, check it over carefully. After confirming that it's unloaded, field strip it (ask the seller to show you how or search for a user manual online). Inspect each individual part for damage, dirt, oil, carbon or signs of excessive wear. Carbon (a hard, black substance that comes off only when chipped or scratched away) is a sign that the gun hasn't been cleaned well and regularly. Rust is particularly problematic and may or may not be fixable. If any part of the gun is rusty, be very sure you can remove it before you make a firm offer.

If you're satisfied with the condition of each part, reassemble the gun, cycle the action several times and perform a function test. Does it cycle smoothly and easily? Do the hammer, trigger, bolt, cylinder and/or safety mechanisms move as they should? Again, you can ask the seller to show you how to do a function check or consult the user manual. Also check that, in the case of semi-automatics, the magazine seats firmly, is flush with the bottom of the magazine well, and ejects properly.

Load some dummy rounds and cycle the gun another twenty times or so, verifying that the rounds chamber and eject properly. Dry fire the gun (with the seller's permission) and make sure the trigger feels good to you. Test both the double-action and single-action trigger pulls, if applicable. Check the sights and make sure they're aligned properly (misaligned sights aren't necessarily a problem if they're designed to be adjustable).

If the weapon has a scope, look through it and make sure you don't see any vapor or condensation; this is a sure sign that a seal is broken, which is a serious problem. Check that the scope is firmly mounted and that the mounting hardware is in good condition. Move the elevation and windage knobs to verify that they work (but be sure to put them back in their original positions).

If you have any doubts about the gun's condition, it never hurts to get a second opinion. Bring an experienced shooter along if you know one. Alternatively, if you're dealing with a private seller, ask them if they're willing to have a gunsmith of your choosing inspect the gun before you buy it. Most gunsmiths will do this for $50 or less. Most sellers won't pay for an inspection, but some may be willing to split the cost with you.

Where to Buy a Used Gun

U.S. citizens and legal residents have five options when it comes to where they can purchase used guns: gun shops, gun shows, online stores, private sellers and pawn shops. Each has its pros and cons, and you can maximize your chances of going home with a great gun if you pick the right place to shop.

Gun Shops

Gun Shops

Most shooters think of their local gun store when they start to consider buying a used gun. Virtually every gun store sells used guns, and many offer consignment arrangements as well.

Used guns and consignment guns are different things. A used gun is one that the shop has purchased from its previous owner and is now trying to sell at a profit. A consignment gun is still owned by the person who authorized its sale (the consignor), but the gun store has agreed to sell it on the consignor's behalf. In exchange for access to the shop's advertising and foot traffic, the consignor agrees to pay the shop a commission when the gun sells — usually a percentage of the sale price.

As a buyer, it's important to know the difference between used guns and consignment guns, especially if you plan to haggle. Gun store owners are industry experts who have a pretty good idea of how much they are likely to get for a particular gun, and for this reason, their prices are typically inflexible. Shop owners don't haggle because they don't need to.

Consignors, on the other hand, are private parties who may know a great deal about gun prices, or they may know very little. They also aren't running a business with precisely defined profit margins and price indexes. Many consignors just want the gun sold sooner than later, which means buyers have more negotiating power. Unless the consignor has specified otherwise, you're free to make an offer that the shop will pass on to them.

Online

Online

Some people are shocked to learn that you can buy guns online, but it's not as though you can have weapons shipped straight to your door. Federal law requires that licensed firearm dealers facilitate online sales, so before you buy a used gun online, you'll first need to find a local gun shop willing to receive it for you. This type of sale is called an FFL (Federal Firearms License) transfer.

Most gun shops charge a fee somewhere in the neighborhood of $35 to $50 for this service. There's a certain order in which you'll need to do the required steps for an online FFL transfer:

  1. Contact a local gun shop and get verbal or email confirmation that they'll do an FFL transfer for you.

  2. Once you've identified a gun that you want to buy online, carefully review the seller's return policy and/or quality guarantee. At minimum, the seller should accept returns if the gun is defective or not as described.

  3. Purchase the gun online and remit payment to the seller.

  4. At this point, you'll have a short time (usually 7-14 days) to arrange for the receiving dealer to send the seller a copy of their FFL license. Some dealers will be happy to send the paperwork for you, whereas others will provide you a copy that you must forward to the seller.

  5. Provide the seller with the receiving dealer's shipping address.

  6. The receiving dealer will call you when the firearm arrives.

  7. Inspect the gun carefully before accepting it.

  8. Complete the required background check and any other paperwork.

  9. Pay the receiving dealer's FFL transfer fee.

  10. Take your gun home.

In general, you'll find the best prices for used guns online — just make sure it's still a good deal after you factor in shipping and the receiving dealer's FFL transfer fee.

Private Sellers

Buying a used gun from a private seller in person is legally simpler than buying from a shop, although you're still responsible for ensuring that you comply with all applicable laws. If there's no licensed dealer involved in the transaction, you should do the due diligence that dealers normally do, even though you're not legally required to.

Most importantly, you'll want to check the gun's serial number to ensure it hasn't been stolen or used in a crime. The only legal way for civilians to run these checks is through a law enforcement officer; your local police department or sheriff's office can do this for you. Of course, all firearms must have a serial number. It's illegal to remove or damage the serial number and you should never buy a gun in such condition.

If you feel comfortable with the gun and the seller, request a copy of the seller's ID and an official bill of sale. The bill of sale should include the buyer's and seller's names, dates of birth and addresses, as well as the gun's serial number, sale price and payment method.

Unlike gun shops, where prices tend to be stable, you'll likely encounter much more variance in prices when dealing with a private seller. They may want to maximize their profits or they may simply want to sell the gun quickly. They may not know what it's really worth. These and other factors contribute to a wider range of prices.

Gun Shows

Gun Shows

Gun shows are slightly tricky to navigate for buyers because both licensed dealers and private individuals sell guns there. Buyers and sellers are both responsible for knowing who they're transacting with and for obeying all applicable laws.

Even though private sellers at gun shows are not legally required to conduct background checks on buyers, many do. If you buy from a private seller at a gun show, request the same information and documentation that you would from any other private seller.

Private sellers who set up a booth at a gun show to sell dozens of guns are often somewhere between licensed dealers and "casual" sellers when it comes to their motives and prices. They expect enough of a profit to justify the time and effort of spending a whole weekend at the show, but it's probably not their main source of income, so they tend to be more willing to negotiate than licensed dealers are.

A good tactic is to visit the show on the first day, identify some guns you like, and start politely haggling. You might luck out and score a great deal right away, but more likely, sellers will turn you away in hopes of getting a better price from someone else. Then, come back on the last day of the show and make second offers on the guns that are still there. Many sellers would rather sell the gun at a smaller profit than pack it up and take it home again, and if they remember you from earlier, they now know you're willing to walk away if you're not satisfied.

Pawn Shop

Pawn Shop

It's possible to get a good deal on a quality used gun at a pawn shop, but use extra caution. Many pawn shop owners and employees know little or nothing about guns. Such people may (knowingly or unknowingly) try to sell you an overpriced gun or one in poor condition. They're also not likely to know much, if anything, about the gun's history. Invest extra time and care while researching and inspecting pawn shop guns so that you can be sure you know what you're getting.

Negotiating an awesome deal on a used gun is fun and exciting. Some of the best guns ever made are no longer being manufactured, so in those cases, used is the only way to go. Provided you're willing to do some extra research and legwork, used guns can sometimes be better than new ones. As long as you keep these steps in mind, you shouldn't have any trouble.

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