It's always great to find good deals on nice used revolvers, whether for shooting or collecting. Of course I'll shoot the collectible ones too.
I don't get burned on used revolver purchases. Why? Because I have a lot of revolvers, look at a lot of revolvers, have been burned in the past and because, in my youth, I once submitted a revolver to a reputed "action job" whiz with dire consequences.
I'm no trained gunsmith and it shows, but here's a run-down.
Evaluate overall external appearance of the revolver. Does it show signs of being dropped with deep dings on grip panels, muzzle, corners, or edges or on the cylinder? Note any obvious "Bubba modifications." Look for gouges that were applied through heavy-handed use of improper tools like pliers. Look for buggered screw slots indicating a lack of attention to use of correctly fitted and wielded screwdrivers.
Check bore condition: rust, pitting, odd wear patterns in rifling, excessive leading.
Check for ringed/bulged barrels, both internally and externally: A good light is needed. Within the bore, a ring/bulge will look like a shadow or perhaps even a void against the rifling. Glance along the outside of the barrel from an angle near parallel with the barrel's side as even a slight bulge may be detected in reflected light. Run a snug patch through the bore if possible as rings may be felt when the tight patch skips. Sometimes a ring/bulge may be detected by feel so run a thumb and forefinger over the length of the barrel.
Check forcing cone for excessive erosion, damage, cracks, chunks missing (yep it happens).
Check chambers for condition: rust, pitting, gouges, crud. Also check for non-factory chamber modifications/caliber conversions. (e.g. .38 S&W to .38 Special, .38 Special to .357 Magnum, .44 Special to .44 Magnum, .455 to .45 Colt)
Check for swollen chambers: view in same manner as checking barrel for rings and bulges. Watch even for a potential cracked or split chamber.
Check for endshake: With cylinder closed shake cylinder lengthwise along revolver's bore line, movement is undesirable though the merest hint of movement may be present in any revolver, new or used.
Check for sprung/bent yoke (crane if it's a Colt): A gap between yoke and frame when cylinder is closed is bad. Nitwits who open and close their revolvers with the "Hollywood" styled one-hand flip are good at causing this kind of damage and should be whipped. A dropped revolver may also have a bent yoke. Note if cylinder is hard to open or close. Look for obvious visible cylinder misalignment. Keep an eye out for obvious pry marks from a screw driver blade on the inside of the yoke or on the frame opposite the yoke from heavy-handed nitwits. Pretty commonly seen on used revolvers.
Check for bent ejector rod: Check for smooth operation with no binding. Twirling opened cylinder between thumb and forefinger may reveal a visible wobble at tip of ejector rod.
Check ejector rod and especially the knurling on the tip: for tool marks from pliers. Also commonly seen and not a good sign. Shows nitwits have been at work.
Check thumb piece when opening the revolver for smooth operation and positive spring-powered return
Check that cylinder spins freely on opened revolver
Check barrel/cylinder gap: .003" to .008 is generally considered to be within spec. though Smith & Wesson has apparently revised this to allow much larger gaps on revolvers going out of their door. Too tight and cylinder will drag against the back of the barrel from lack of clearance when the revolver is fouled from use. Too loose and performance is degraded from escaping propellant gases and the revolver may be prone to spit particles. A feeler gauge is nice to have on hand for check. Eyeballing it can reveal much with practice. If no gap is discernible when holding the revolver in front of a light source you can bet it's too tight. If more than a thin line of light is visible then it is probably over the .008" and may have too much of a gap. If a credit card will fit between the barrel/cylinder gap (.022") then there's way too much gap. If a business card just slides through (.008") the gap is on the ragged edge of being excessive. If a dollar bill (.004") won't fit, the gap is close to being too tight.
Includes the following items
Check cylinder stop notches: Look for peening from cylinder stop smacking the off side of the notch due to heavy use in fast double action shooting, excessive snapping in fast double action dry-firing, slinging the cylinder shut one-handed, or just general wear. Worn notches may not allow the cylinder stop to catch.
Check cylinder stop (bolt if it's a Colt): Look for chips and rounded edges denoting wear. An extremely worn cylinder stop may not catch or hold a cylinder.
Check the hand and ratchet on extractor for wear/chips.
Observe the cylinder turn as the trigger is pulled very slowly in the double-action mode. It must not be rotated fast enough for centrifugal force to act as an aid in rotation. What is desired is to observe the cylinder stop fully engage the cylinder stop notches before the hammer falls. It must engage on each of the chambers. If the hammer falls before the cylinder stop engages a notch then the revolver's timing is off.
If the revolver model has an external hammer spur and single action capabilities then slowly cock the hammer while observing the cylinder as it turns. The cylinder stop should fully engage the cylinder stop notches before the hammer reaches full cock. The cylinder stop should engage properly on each chamber. If the hammer is holding on the sear as cocked and the cylinder can be rotated by hand into position so the cylinder stop can engage the notch then the revolver's timing is off. This applies for each chamber.
The revolver must be tested in both single-action mode and double-action mode as the hammer features both a single-action sear and a double-action sear.
A timing issue is evident if the cylinder fails to advance enough to lock up, whether this occurs on all chambers or only a few.
The Smith & Wesson revolver may be checked for cylinder side-play by cocking then releasing the hammer and holding the trigger to the rear. This mimics the trigger's position at the actual moment of firing. A Smith & Wesson revolver will have a dab of side play and will not be completely tight. This is part of the revolver's design and is of no concern. How much is a dab? One will have to just get a feel for it but it's not very much. Too much side-play can cause spitting of particles upon firing. Enough excessive side play could contribute to barrel damage at its forcing cone.
The Colt revolver is designed with a hand system that renders the cylinder rigidly tight when the revolver is fired. Timing may be checked in the same way as with the Smith & Wesson however when the hammer is lowered with the trigger held back on a Colt as in the moment of firing, there will be no side-play at all in a properly adjusted revolver. If a Colt revolver's cylinder can be moved sideways at all or incrementally rotated with the hammer down and the trigger held back then the revolver has timing issues.
When checking timing on a revolver do not place pressure against the side of the cylinder with the thumb as the cylinder is rotating. The thumb pressure is unnecessary and doesn't mimic the dynamics of the revolver in actual use. It doesn't take much side pressure on the rotating cylinder of a revolver to throw the timing out of whack. That is not to say that the thumb pressure will ruin the revolver but it will give a false impression of the revolver's timing. In actual use the revolver's cylinder is not dragged with the thumb. Lots of folks seem to think this thumb technique necessary. It is not.
Check the action of the trigger as it returns forward to rest from the firing position. Does it return smartly or is it sluggish? Sluggishness can indicate a weak rebound slide spring (or one leg of the main spring in a Colt). It also can indicate that someone has been modifying springs in a botched attempt to improve the trigger. It may be nothing more than an accumulation of grime but unless one can remove a side plate for a peek inside he can't know for sure.
Check for the feel of the main spring: This is best done by learning well how a factory spring should feel when operating the revolver. If the revolver seems to have a very light double action trigger pull or should cock very easily, feeling somewhat like wet spaghetti while cocking, then the main spring could have been altered or the main spring strain screw could have been backed out a bit or shortened in an effort to give a lighter trigger feel. Both altered main springs and shortened strain screws are prone to cause primer ignition problems. Backed out strain screws (which simply may be tightened) or altered strain screws (requiring replacement) are the signs of nitwits' monkeying with things they don't understand.
Check the hammer for push-off: If the revolver has single action capability, push-off may simply be checked by cocking the revolver and then pushing forward on the cocked hammer. If pushing on the hammer, even fairly vigorously, causes it to fall then the revolver has sear problems. Some over-enthusiastically done "action jobs" will have this problem which is the most likely reason for such a failure. Less frequently, the revolver may just actually be damaged or worn enough to suffer from this malady.
This concludes the evaluation of the revolver's action.
Inspect the sights: Are they there (don't laugh)? Check for damage or modification. Painted front sights are no problem to clean. Does the front sight appear to be right on top of the barrel (again, don't laugh)? On fixed sight revolvers: make certain that the rear sight notch is of factory dimensions and not wallowed out for some former owner's particular tastes. Make certain that the front sight isn't either built up or filed down. This could indicate a revolver that slipped out of the factory with misaligned sights though it most likely indicates a former owner who blamed the revolver for his poor shooting and who monkeyed with the sights. Most Colt and Smith & Wesson fixed sight revolvers shoot very close to point of aim at 15 yards with ammunition of "standard" velocity and bullet weight. Learn what this bullet weight is for the cartridge for which the revolver is chambered (e.g. 158 grain bullet for .38 Special, 246 grain bullet for .44 Special). If the revolver has adjustable sights, check for mechanical adjustment, damage, or modification.
Original grips (stocks) are a plus in my view. One can always acquire after-market grips to suit his personal tastes but having original grips with a revolver can mean more value and interest later if it is sold. This one is only my opinion.
This takes far longer to describe or to read than it does to actually evaluate a revolver which may be done in a moment or two. While I don't personally own any Ruger, Taurus, Rossi or other double action revolvers with swing-out cylinders they mostly may be checked in the same manner outlined above. Single action revolvers may also be similarly checked so far as their single action features allow. Cylinders won't swing out on a yoke or crane and there are some features unique to single action revolvers such as barrel mounted ejector rods contained within a housing and a loading gate on the revolver's right side for retaining cartridges in the cylinder. Both of these features should be checked for smooth operation.
After learning all of the above then you too can purchase revolvers like this...