Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Used Revolver Checklist

With demand for firearms continuing to be high and economic indicators pointing to increased inflation, our gun buying dollars don’t go as far as they used to. One potential solution to this challenge is buying used. However, when looking at a used gun, there are certain issues that need to be considered.

Disclaimer: With these tests we will need to break the “keep your finger off the trigger” rule. Be extra diligent in paying attention to muzzle direction. Confirm the gun is unloaded repeatedly throughout these checks.

Tools and Supplies
You will need a small flashlight, preferably one that isn't excessively bright since we don’t want to blind ourselves, but bright enough to be useful even in a well-lit gun shop. A set of feeler gauges can be helpful if available; if not, a dollar bill can work. I’ll explain later.

Cylinder Carry-Up
The cylinder carry-up test makes sure that the cylinder locks up at the correct position on each chamber.
  1. Place a finger on the side of the cylinder to apply slight drag while slowly cocking the hammer. We’re not trying to stop the rotation, just applying a small amount of additional friction.
  2. Once the hammer is all the way back, try to rotate the cylinder a bit further. If it moves and we feel or hear a click, the cylinder notch had not been fully engaged by the bolt. This usually means that either the hand or the ratchet on the star ejector is worn. 
  3. Ease the hammer forward and repeat for each chamber.

This next test will look at any cylinder movement when the gun is in what’s called "full lockup."
  1. Cock the hammer again then, pull the trigger and ease the hammer all the way down. 
  2. Keep the trigger held back after the hammer is down. In this condition, the action is in full lockup and represents how things are at the moment of firing.

  3. With the trigger still held back, see if the cylinder moves in any direction. Ideally, the cylinder should feel like part of the frame with no movement whatsoever. A slight amount of rotation isn’t unusual; however, if the cylinder moves forwards or back in the frame, that’s not so good. 
  4. Repeat for each chamber.

Cylinder Clearance
Now we’re going to check the clearance between the front of the cylinder and the forcing cone. Too small a gap and the gun will tie up after only a few shots due to fouling; too large a gap and an excessive amount of gas pressure is lost.
  1. Put the gun in full lockup again, and using the feeler gauges or dollar bill, see what fits and what doesn’t. A dollar bill is nominally .004 inches thick; optimal cylinder gap is from .004 inches to .009 inches. 
  2. Repeat for each chamber.

Crane Alignment
This test will have us looking at the revolver from the business end, so check again to make sure it’s unloaded.
  1. With the cylinder closed, look at the front of the frame below the barrel. 
  2. The line where the crane meets the frame should be consistent and very thin. 
  3. If it widens towards the top, that’s a sign the crane is out of alignment or possibly twisted. Not good.

Cylinder Alignment
While we’re looking at the front of the gun, we should also check that each chamber aligns with the barrel. 
  1. Pull the hammer all the way back to full cock and shine the flashlight either through the firing pin hole (if the revolver has a hammer-mounted firing pin), or from the side at the rear of the cylinder. Enough light should come through for this test. 
  2. What we’re looking to see is if the chamber lines up perfectly with the bore. If it doesn’t, at best the revolver is going to spit lead to one side, and at worst a bullet will impact the forcing cone and possibly damage the gun. 
  3. Repeat for each chamber.
Bore and Rifling Check
Speaking of the bore, swing open the cylinder so more light gets through and take a closer look at the interior of the barrel itself. We’re looking for crisp rifling, with no pitting, bulges, or gouges.
Chamber Inspection
Look at each chamber in the cylinder from both the front and rear, shining the flashlight through. Here we’re looking for pitting or other damage, as well as carbon buildup at the forward end of the chambers and excessive erosion at the front of the cylinder.
Ejector Rod 
While we have the cylinder open, give it a spin while keeping an eye on the ejector rod. Does it seem to wobble up and down as the cylinder turns? That may be a sign of a bent ejector rod. This can be a minor issue, or it can tie up the gun after a few rounds are fired.

The next few tests require functioning the action, including dry firing. It’s always polite to ask before dry firing someone else’s gun, so please do.
Firing Pin & Hammer Spring
The pencil test allows us to check both firing pin protrusion and hammer spring tension. 
  1. Once the owner has given the go ahead, cock the hammer, then point the revolver straight up and drop a pencil, eraser end first, down the barrel. If a pencil isn’t available, a short wooden dowel of the right diameter will work. I keep a couple of bamboo chopsticks in my range bag for this purpose. 
  2. Once the stick is in place, pull the trigger. The pencil should launch completely out of the barrel. We only need to do this test once, even though it’s fun.

If the owner doesn’t want us dry firing their pistol, we can still check firing pin protrusion. 
  1. As before, put the revolver in full lockup, hammer down, trigger held back.
  2. Look in the side of the cylinder at the rear. We should be able to see the firing pin extending into the frame space. 
  3. It should extend about halfway between the recoil shield and the cylinder face.
You should also check the trigger in both single and double action. Obviously, if the revolver is double action only, skip the single action part.

If the owner would prefer you not dry fire their revolver, you can use the pencil or dowel to block the fall of the hammer when testing single action. What you’re looking for here is smooth movement without any dragging or binding and a clean crisp break.
Was Bubba Here?
If everything else checks out okay, we should look for signs that Bubba hasn’t gotten his hands on this gun. 
  • Are the screw slots clean and sharp, or are they dinged and torn from using the wrong screwdriver? 
  • Cock the hammer and try to wiggle it around a bit while keeping our finger off the trigger. If the contact points are overly worn or have been polished a bit too much, the hammer may drop.
  • If the hammer spring is a coil spring, has it been clipped to lighten the trigger pull? This can cause light strikes especially on harder primers.
  • Again asking first, remove the grips and take a look. While we’re in there, we can take a look for any signs of rust or pitting under the grips.

While there are more (and more specific) tests that can be performed when looking at a used revolver, these are a good place to start. As long as the frame isn’t bent or cracked, a good gunsmith should be able to deal with any issues from failed tests. However, that will drive up the total cost of the gun, which is something to keep in mind. 

On a related note, are there any good revolver gunsmiths locally? It seems to be a dying art, especially when dealing with the older Colt double action revolvers.

Good luck, and stay safe.

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