How to Evaluate a Handgun

With the right tests you can determine whether a pistol makes the grade as your next duty or off-duty weapon.

Mike Detty Headshot

Evaluating a handgun for use as a service gun or for off-duty carry is a simple, straightforward process. There are no magical formulas, although each agency may have its own guidelines established for the purpose of testing a gun before it is issued. The key is to do your homework by testing the aspects of the gun most important for your job.

When I evaluate a gun, there are three critical areas that I focus on: accuracy, reliability, and controllability. Each of these attributes is as important as the next. Before you trust your life to a gun that you’ll carry, you want to be absolutely certain that your sidearm possesses all three of these critical elements.

I’d encourage all officers to do the simple tests outlined in this piece. There’s very little that is required in the way of special equipment and the range time may give you the opportunity to get to know your pistol a little better. You’ll also find it a handy way to evaluate guns that you may be considering for duty use, off-duty carry, home defense, or even recreational shooting.


I usually start the shooting portion of my evaluation with accuracy testing. For full-size guns, I do my shooting at 25 yards. Though this is much longer than the distance at which a typical gunfight takes place, what I’m looking for is mechanical accuracy. As a rule of thumb, a good quality, full-size gun should be able to hold a five-shot group under four inches at this distance.

There are several shooting rests on the market. I use the Millett BenchMaster when I test a gun for accuracy. The idea here is to hold the pistol absolutely still while pressure is incrementally added to the trigger until the shot breaks. The BenchMaster cradles the gun and makes it easy for me to watch the sights while I press the trigger. You’ll want to make sure that your bench is absolutely wobble free. The bench I use is deep enough that I can extend both arms for a two-handed hold and still have both elbows supported. You’ll want to adjust your seat so that when you look at the sights you aren’t raising or lowering your head uncomfortably.

Remember, the key to good shooting is consistency. When you’re evaluating a gun for accuracy your goal is to remove any external influences that might negatively impact your efforts. You’ll want to use a firm, two-handed firing grip when shooting for groups.

When I’m testing a semi-auto for accuracy I usually load six rounds into the magazine, seat the magazine, and chamber a round. Then I’ll fire the first round into the backstop before shooting the next five at the target. The reason for this is that the first round is hand cycled and will oftentimes shoot to a slightly different point of impact than the following rounds. For practical purposes, that hand-cycled round might impact a half-inch away from the others. It’s enough to screw up an otherwise good group, but not enough for concern for duty use. What we’re interested in at this point is the weapon’s mechanical accuracy.

Rather than use a large diameter bull’s eye for the 25-yard groups, I’ve found that I’m able to shoot tighter groups using two-inch-diameter targets. Using these small targets requires a greater degree of precision. For a sight picture I align the front and rear sights and then carefully balance the full diameter of the target on the center of the front sight.

Ammunition Selection

Keep in mind that your ammunition selection will play a very important part in your accuracy results. Your department may only issue or authorize one round, but if you’re conducting an evaluation on your own try to include as many different rounds as you can scrounge up. You’ll be amazed that two very similar rounds have two very different results.

I was once testing a Glock G22 in .40 S&W and had two 180-grain FMJ loads from two different American ammunition companies. Velocities between the two loads were within 50 feet per second and the recoil impulse seemed identical. One load averaged over three inches at 25 yards while the other grouped consistently under one inch. Every gun will have one load that it shoots better than all of the rest.

Save your targets and make notes on them that include the ammunition maker, bullet type and weight, and velocity, if you know it. You should also keep a notebook while you’re conducting your evaluation. For example, make notes of heavy recoil, bright muzzle flash, or any stoppage. If the gun jams, do your best to describe the problem. Is it a stovepipe jam where the empty casing did not completely eject? Is it a double feed? Was there a failure to extract? Be sure to include which ammunition the stoppage occurred with and also which magazine you were using at the time of the jam.

Stoppages with an autoloader are never a good thing and you should do everything possible to track down the reason. Every once in awhile a manufacturer will let a bad gun slip through its quality control. But more often than not you can trace the reason for an autoloader stoppage to a defective magazine or a bullet that for one reason or another should not be used with that particular weapon.

Whether you’re doing an evaluation or not, any time you fire your weapon and have a jam you should make a note of which magazine the stoppage occurred with. Segregate this magazine from the others and shoot it until you are certain that it is fully functional. If you have continued problems with it, carefully inspect it.

Make sure that the last time you cleaned it you correctly reassembled it. If it’s an older magazine it may be time for its spring to be replaced. This is really important. If your magazine spring has lost some of its ability to store power it will push the rounds up sluggishly and you’ll have a host of feeding problems. Also look closely at the feed lips of the mag. Compare them to the lips of other magazines that have no problems. Note the distance between the lips and any defects or dents. The lips are sensitive and even a small crack will render an otherwise reliable pistol into a “jamamatic.”


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.

About the Author
Mike Detty Headshot
Gun Writer
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