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How to Evaluate a Handgun

February 01, 2006  |  by Mike Detty - Also by this author

Whether you turn these magazines into your armorer for replacement or stick them in the back of your locker, the last thing you want to do is carry them on duty.

Today we have so many good choices for ammunition that if one bullet causes a problem with a subject gun it is often easier to just exclude this particular load from the equation than to pay a gunsmith to modify the gun so that it will work with the problematic load. But if a gun refuses to work 100 percent with a certain type of bullet from a variety of ammunition manufacturers, you have a problem. Most guns will work well with a majority of hollow points with one or two exceptions.

You’ll know when you’ve found a load that your gun doesn’t like; you’ll probably have two or more stoppages per magazine. There are two critical factors here: one is the bullet nose contour and the other is the bullet’s overall length. As I mentioned earlier, oftentimes it’s easier just not to use this problematic load. The exception, of course, is if it is an issued carry or practice load. Then you have a problem that needs immediate remedy.


When testing your subject gun for reliability you’ll want to load each of your magazines to full capacity and make sure that they run during rapid fire. One exercise that I do during an evaluation is set up my steel targets (approximately 18x18 inches) at about 12 yards and fire some double-taps. To measure the time between my shots—or splits, as competitive shooters call them—I use a PACT electronic timer. Guns that have heavy recoil or an excessively heavy or long trigger pull will also have a longer time between shots. The electronic timers measure this time between shots definitively so there’s no guessing whether the shots felt slower or faster. The faster I can put two shots on the steel targets the more controllable the gun is.

This exercise will also tell you whether or not the pistol has handling characteristics that suit you. While you can teach yourself to be proficient with any weapon, some guns will just feel better to you than others and these are the ones that you will shoot exceptionally well. This is an important consideration when you have the ability to choose your own duty weapon and or off-duty gun.

If you find your subject gun lacking in accuracy, reliability, or controllability, avoid at all costs having to trust your life to it. But having the ability to evaluate your own handguns may make the selection of your next pistol an easy one.


Buying a Used Gun

Today’s firearms are so well made that they will last several lifetimes and sometimes it is just impossible to pass on the price of a used gun. But purchasing a weapon with an unknown past can present obvious problems and it’s best to take a few minutes to examine the gun closely before purchase.

Fit and Finish
• Does it have unusual wear?
• Are there any signs of neglect or abuse?
• A blued gun that shows plenty of holster wear but is otherwise clean is certainly a better choice than a gun that shows evidence of rust.
• Look at the screws on the gun.
• Have the screws been buggered?
• Someone may have taken the gun apart without the proper tools.
• The previous owner may have tried to make repairs or modify the gun’s internal parts.

Barrel’s Crown
• If there are any obvious dings or defects there it is likely that accuracy will be affected.
• Sometimes, if the dent isn’t deep enough, a gunsmith can recrown the barrel on a lathe. If it is an autoloader the barrel can also be replaced.
• Deciding to fix any problems will most likely depend on the purchase price being low enough to cover the added expense.

Parts Availability
• The gun you select should be a popular model.
• If you have to have a discontinued model, make sure parts are still available for it.
• I have been able to find replacement parts for my collection of Colt 1903 .32 ACP because they were popular. But what do you do when your gun was made by an unknown European manufacturer that exported in a very small number?

Custom Work
• What is the quality of the work?
• Is the machining well executed?
• Have the parts been properly polished and fitted? Is the checkering straight and even?
• Make sure the work was performed by a known gunsmith with a good reputation and appears to be good solid work.

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