What to Look for in Buying a Revolver

“What to Look for in Buying a Revolver”

By Kirk Hayes �

Well, here’s a list of some things I look for when buying a used

revolver.� I collect S&W revolvers, so it is, somewhat, specific to


However, most of this applies to any revolver.�

I’ve got 20 years experience buying used revolvers, and, yes, I’ve

bought a dud or twenty over the years.� Remember that it is rarely

worthwhile to buy a damaged gun, thinking you’ll get it fixed.

It’s cheaper to buy new than to buy damaged.�

On the other hand, easily repaired damage can be used as a

negotiating point.�

Finally, don’t be afraid to walk away – let someone else buy the

bad ones.�

Before you start, make sure the weapon is unloaded, and ask

permission to dry-fire it.� Observe all safety rules.�

1.� Is the yoke bent?�

Look at the yoke (aka “crane”) when the cylinder is in the closed

position.� The gap between the frame and the yolk should be very

narrow, and the same width top to bottom.�

A bent yoke can be caused by a number of things, the most common of

which is “flipping” the cylinder closed, as seen in the movies.�

A bent yolk can be fixed, but it is rarely worthwhile.�

2.� Look at the hole in the frame through which the bolt extends.

Is it burred or oversized?�

Again, can be fixed, is not usually worthwhile.�

3.� Look at the topstrap above the forcing cone.� Is it flame cut


I regard flame cutting that is more than 2/3 the width of the

topstrap as excessive.�

4.� Look at the firing pin hole.� Is it peened out?�

This is a minor repair if not too excessive, and not repaired


5.� Point the weapon in a safe direction.� Cock the hammer, and,

with your finger off the trigger, press forward on the hammer spur.�

If the hammer falls, put the gun down and walk away.�

6.� Repeat the following for each chamber.�

������� 1.� Cock the gun using the hammer, slowly.� Does the bolt

����������� lock up when the hammer goes to full cock?

������� 2.� Is the cylinder gap excessive (take feeler gauges)?� Is

����������� it the same for each chamber.

������� 3.� Is there excessive slop fore-and-aft?

������� 4.� Does the hammer move to the rear any further as the

����������� trigger is pulled?

������� 5.� Is the trigger pull identical on each cylinder?�

7.� Repeat six (6) while holding a thumb lightly against the


8.� Repeat the following for each chamber.�

������� 1.� Cock the gun using the trigger, slowly.� Does the bolt

����������� lock up before the hammer falls?

������� 2.� Is the trigger pull identical on each cylinder?�

9.� Repeat step eight (8) with the revolver inverted.� This will

get you strange looks, many times, but shows up problems that might

otherwise be missed.�

10.� Repeat step eight (8) with a thumb riding lightly on the


11.� Is the revolver cylinder scored excessively between the bolt


12.� Is the cylinder star damaged in any way?� Pay particular

attention to the cams the hand pushes on.� Look at the hand for

damage.� Push the ejector rod as far back as it will go – did it

bind, or is it bent?� Are the star locator pins present and

unbent/unbroken?� Is the knurling on the ejector rod unblemished?�

13.� If you are lucky enough to have a timing rod, which is a piece

of precision-ground steel that will fit down the bore, check to be

sure each chamber aligns with the bore, cocking the hammer to lock

the cylinder with the bolt.�

14.� Look at the sideplate screws.� If burred, walk away unless you

feel lucky.�

I generally ask, if the screws are burred, for the sideplate to be

removed, but this is an entire subject area by itself…�

15.� Run your thumb and forefinger down the barrel – you’re looking

for bumps and rings.�

16.� Look down the bore.� Use a borescope if you have it, a piece

of white cloth or your thumbnail at the recoil plate, whatever

you’ve got to get light in the bore.� Be very suspicious if the

bore is dirty, as a dirty bore can cover a multitude of sins.� If

it is dirty, ask to have it cleaned.�

Looks for pits, rust, rings, etc.�

Look at the forcing cone for splits and erosion.�

17.� Examine the chambers for damage – flame cutting, bulges

(particularly under the bolt holes), dents, corrosion.�

18.� Examine the sights for damage – look for “square” with the

rest of the gun.�

19.� Examine the firing pin tip.� A chipped one can be repaired,


20.� Examine the finish, markings, etc.� A non-even surface,

rounded edges where they should be sharp, or washed out markings

can be evidence of a refinished gun.� Ask.�

Revolver checkout:
How to tell if a particular specimen is any good

BY Jim March

So you’re buying a revolver. New, used, doesn’t matter, you want a good one, right?

How do check one over without firing it, right at the dealer’s counter or gun show table?

This is how. All of this works with DA or SA wheelguns…”close the action” on most DAs means swing the cylinder in, on SA types, close the loading gate, on breakopens, close ’em. UNLOADED.

WARNING: Most of these tests require violation of the “finger off trigger” rule. Therefore, be extremely careful about safe muzzle direction and making sure the gun is unloaded ahead of time, PERSONALLY, as you begin handling it.

Note: Bring a small flashlight, something small and concentrated. A Photon or similar high-powered LED light is perfect. You also want feeler gauges if you’re not used to eyeballing cylinder gaps; at a minimum, bring a .002″, .004″ and .006″.

Note2: No dry firing is required or desired at any point. It just pisses off the gun’s current owner.

Cylinder play

1) With the gun UNLOADED (check for yourself!), close the action.

2) Thumb the hammer back, and while pulling the trigger, gently lower the hammer all the way down while keeping the trigger back – and KEEP holding the trigger once the hammer is down. (You’ve now put the gun in “full lockup” – keep it there for this and most other tests.)

3) With the trigger still back all the way, check for cylinder wiggle. Front/back is particularly undesirable; a bit of side to side is OK but it’s a bad thing if you can wiggle it one way, let go, and then spin it the other way a fraction of an inch and it stays there too. At the very least, it should “want” to stop in just one place (later, we’ll see if that place is any good). The ultimate is a “welded to the frame” feeling.

Cylinder gap

4) Still holding the trigger at full lockup, look sideways through the barrel/cylinder gap. If you can get a credit card in there, that ain’t good…velocity drops rapidly as the gap increases. Too tight isn’t good either, because burnt powder crud will “fill the gap” and start making the cylinder spin funky. My personal .38snubbie is set at .002, usually considered the minimum…after about 40 shots at the range, I have to give the front of the cylinder a quick wipe so it spins free again. I consider that a reasonable tradeoff for the increased velocity because in a real fight, I ain’t gonna crank 40 rounds out of a 5-shot snub .

If you’re eyeballing it, you’ll have to hold it up sideways against an overhead light source.

SAFETY WARNING: This step in particular is where you MUST watch your muzzle direction. Look, part of what’s happening here is that you’re convincing the seller you know your poop . It helps the haggling process. If you do anything unsafe, that impression comes completely unglued.


5) You really, REALLY want an unloaded gun for this one. This is where the light comes in. With the gun STILL held in full lockup, trigger back after lowering the hammer by thumb, you want to shine a light right into the area at the rear of the cylinder near the firing pin. You then look down the barrel . You’re looking to make sure the cylinder bore lines up with the barrel. Check every cylinder – that means putting the gun in full lockup for each cylinder before lighting it up.

You’re looking for the cylinder and barrel holes to line up perfectly, it’s easy to eyeball if there’s even a faint light source at the very rear of both bores. And with no rounds present, it’s generally easy to get some light in past where the rims would be.


(We’re finally done with that “full lockup” crap, so rest your trigger finger. )

6) Swing the cylinder open, or with most SAs pull the cylinder. Use the small flashlight to scope the bore out. This part’s easy – you want to avoid pitting, worn-out rifling, bulges of any sort. You want more light on the subject than just what creeps in from the rear of the cylinder on the timing check.

You also want to check each cylinder bore, in this case with the light coming in from the FRONT of each hole, you looking in from the back where the primers would be. You’re looking for wear at the “restrictions” at the front of each cylinder bore. That’s the “forcing cone” area and it can wear rapidly with some Magnum loads. (Special thanks to Salvo below for this bit!)


7) To test a trigger without dry-firing it, use a plastic pen in front of the hammer to “catch” it with the off hand, especially if it’s a “firing pin on the hammer” type. Or see if the seller has any snap-caps, that’s the best solution. Flat-faced hammers as found in transfer-bar guns (Ruger, etc) can be caught with the off-hand without too much pain .

SA triggers (or of course a DA with the hammer cocked) should feel “like a glass rod breaking”. A tiny amount of take-up slack is tolerable, and is common on anything with a transfer bar or hammerblock safety.

DA triggers are subjective. Some people like a dead-smooth feel from beginning of stroke to the end, with no “warning” that it’s about to fire. Others (myself included) actually prefer a slight “hitch” right at the end, so we know when it’s about to go. With that sort of trigger, you can actually “hold it” right at the “about to fire” point and do a short light stroke from there that rivals an SA shot for accuracy. Takes a lot of practice though. Either way, you don’t want “grinding” through the length of the stroke, and the final stack-up at the end (if any) shouldn’t be overly pronounced.

Detecting Bad Gunsmithing:

8) OK, so it’s got a rock-solid cylinder, a .002″ or .003″ gap, and the trigger feels great. Odds are vastly in favor of it being tuned after leaving the factory.

So was the gunsmith any good?

First, cock it, then grab the hammer and “wiggle it around” a bit. Not too hard, don’t bang on it, but give it a bit of up/down, left/right and circular action with finger off trigger and WATCH your muzzle direction.

You don’t want that hammer slipping off an overly polished sear. You REALLY don’t want that . It can be fixed by installing factory parts but that’ll take modest money (more for installation than hardware costs) and it’ll be “bigtime” unsafe until you do.

The other thing that commonly goes wrong is somebody will trim the spring, especially coil springs. You can spot that if you pull the grip panels, see if the spring was trimmed with wire cutters. If they get too wild with it, you’ll get ignition failures on harder primers. But the good news is, replacement factory or Wolf springs are cheap both to buy and have installed.

There’s also the legal problems Ayoob frequently describes regarding light triggers. If that’s a concern, you can either swap back to stock springs, or since you bought it used there’s no way to prove you knew it was modified at all .

In perspective:

Timing (test #5) is very critical…if that’s off, the gun may not even be safe to test-fire. And naturally, a crappy barrel means a relatively pricey fix.

Cylinder gap is particularly critical on short-barreled and/or marginal caliber guns. If you need every possible ounce of energy, a tight gap helps. Some factory gaps will run as high as .006″; Taurus considers .007″ “still in spec” (sigh). You’ll be hard-pressed to find any new pieces under .004″ – probably because the makers realize some people don’t clean ’em often (or very well) and might complain about the cylinder binding up if they sell ’em at .002″.

The guns in a dealer’s “used pile” are often of unknown origin, from estate sales or whatever. Dealers don’t have time to check every piece, and often don’t know their history. These tests, especially cylinder gap and play, can spot a gun that’s been sent off for professional tuning…like my snubbie, the best $180 I ever spent .

As long as the gun is otherwise sound (no cracks, etc) a gunsmith can fix any of this. So these tests can help you pick a particularly good new specimen, or find a good used gun, or help haggle the price down on something that’ll need a bit of work.