The Firing Line Forums

Go Back   The Firing Line Forums > Hogan's Alley > Handguns: The Revolver Forum

Thread Tools Search this Thread
Old February 18, 2001, 02:43 AM   #1
Jim March
Senior Member
Join Date: February 14, 1999
Location: Pittsburg, CA, USA
Posts: 7,415
Revolver checkout: how to tell if a particular specimen is any good

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 cyliner gap and play, can spot a gun that's been sent off for professional 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.

Hope this helps.


[Edited by Jim March on 02-18-2001 at 02:58 PM]
Jim March is offline  
Old February 18, 2001, 04:31 AM   #2
Senior Member
Join Date: August 20, 2000
Location: AZ
Posts: 1,363
Outstanding post! Thanks.
krept is offline  
Old February 18, 2001, 08:15 AM   #3
Senior Member
Join Date: August 20, 1999
Location: Occupied Virginia
Posts: 2,777
Jim -- Great post. Thanks. Have kept a hard copy for my files.
RWK is offline  
Old February 18, 2001, 08:51 AM   #4
Senior Member
Join Date: November 24, 2000
Location: Griffin, GA, USA
Posts: 743
EXCELLENT POST!!! WELL DONE!!!....mikey357
mikey357 is offline  
Old February 18, 2001, 11:36 AM   #5
Senior Member
Join Date: December 10, 2000
Posts: 228
Can you say 'informative'?

Thanks a lot. You've done a great service with that post. I know *I* learned something...

Maybe somebody can do a similar post for autoloaders? Or are there just too many variables and things not visible to casual inspection to consider?

tubeshooter is offline  
Old February 18, 2001, 11:46 AM   #6
Senior Member
Join Date: January 15, 2001
Posts: 140
Great post Jim,
And don't forget to check the forcing cone area on magnum type revolvers for any type of erosion, it's a sure way to tell how much one has been shot.
salvo is offline  
Old February 18, 2001, 01:05 PM   #7
Jim March
Senior Member
Join Date: February 14, 1999
Location: Pittsburg, CA, USA
Posts: 7,415
OK, it's slightly cleaned up...

Points #4 and #5 have just had minor edits for clarity thrown in, including a safety warning. They take the form of new paragraphs, in the original each was only one paragraph long. So you can see what's new.

Point #6 related to bore checking has been expanded to include cylinder bores, including the forcing cones - THANK you, Salvo! Seriously...I knew I musta missed something. Any other tips, keep 'em coming, I'll splice 'em in and give credit .

Tubeshooter: I'm not qualified to do this for autos. I suspect that different auto types, 1911 versus Glock fr'instance, would need different procedures?

Anyways, I'll go over to the slidegun forum, post that such a thing is needed, and include the URL for this thread.

Jim March is offline  
Old February 18, 2001, 02:41 PM   #8
Jim March
Senior Member
Join Date: February 14, 1999
Location: Pittsburg, CA, USA
Posts: 7,415
There's some added commentary by a slidegun guy...

...over here:

His point is well made, in that some people take this too seriously. Cylinder play in the "spin direction" is one example, you WILL see some in almost every new gun. A few Freedom Arms may ship totally tight, that's about it. If you check every cylinder bore for timing as in step #5, and they all line up right, you can forgive a bit of "spin play". Gap is another, if the best specimen the dealer has is running .005" on a new gun, and you otherwise want the gun, go for it. .007" is (in my opinion) a bit much, despite the "Bond factor" .

A good gunsmith can tune the trigger, tighten the spin play and reduce the cylinder gap, for prices between $100 and $150 depending on gun type. If that's what you want, pretty much every new gun will need that money spent to get there.

I'm also adding a new Section 8 titled "Bad gunsmithing".

Jim March is offline  
Old February 18, 2001, 03:16 PM   #9
Senior Member
Join Date: January 18, 2001
Location: Kettle Moraine country
Posts: 897
Thanks for the exhaustive instructions. I'll try to implement the lesson at the gun show next weekend in Vallejo. Unfortunately, my experience at gun shows is that booth owners are quite churlish and not too cooperative with even the mildest query...
Romulus is offline  
Old February 18, 2001, 05:21 PM   #10
Junior Member
Join Date: February 18, 2001
Location: North Dakota
Posts: 8
I have two Colt revolvers, a Python and a Diamondback. The Python came from the factory custom tuned and I was told the Diamond back had a action job. My question is this, when you pull the hammer back slowly, the cylinder does not quiet turn far enough to lock into place. As soon as you start to pull the trigger the cyliner goes into place. If you pull the hammer back very fast the cyliner goes right into place from the start. Is this any thing to be concerned about. They both have very nice double action triggers, the Python is unbeleivable. Thanks for the great post.
westendg is offline  
Old February 18, 2001, 08:46 PM   #11
James K
Member In Memoriam
Join Date: March 17, 1999
Posts: 24,383
Hi, Westendg,

Not a problem. Due to the design, almost all the older style Colt DAs do not fully lock if the hammer is cocked slowly or the cylinder is held back. The reason is that the Colt double pawl hand cannot force the cylinder into full lockup and still have room for trigger motion to fire the gun. In other words, your guns are normal.

I would like to add a couple of points on checking out a revolver. Along the lines of the above, a Colt with a worn cylinder stop can actually be forced out of alignment by the hand. This is a point to check on a used gun.

Also, look at the screws. Ideally, they should be untouched, meaning that the gun has not been messed with. If the screw heads are battered and worn, it means the sideplate has been off, probably many times. A gun like that may have a smooth trigger, but the parts may have been polished out of time or (if a S&W) the case hardening cut through so the parts will wear out rapidly. Many guns subjected to amateur gunsmithing turn up on the used gun market when the guy realizes he has messed up.

James K is offline  
Old February 19, 2001, 11:29 AM   #12
Senior Member
Join Date: September 8, 2000
Location: Kennesaw/Marietta, Georgia
Posts: 810
Great post, with some very helpful tips indeed. Thanks
Lightsped is offline  
Old February 19, 2001, 08:02 PM   #13
Senior Member
Join Date: February 19, 1999
Location: Atlanta Georgia
Posts: 591
Solid info, in addition, combat handguns this month has a good article on buying used guns that is pretty informative.
sox is offline  
Old February 19, 2001, 08:09 PM   #14
Old Crank
Junior Member
Join Date: February 19, 2001
Location: Near Phila. Pa.
Posts: 5
What Jim K. said

The screws are the first thing I look at on a used revolver.

Even a good Smith using the correct size hollow-ground bits will leave some marks on the screws. This gives me pause.

If the screws are buggered up that indicates sloppy work/incorrect tools just to open it so what did he do to the insides ???, and unless the gun is cheap/hard to find and in otherwise very good condition I will pass on it.

Just IMHO.
Old Crank is offline  
Old February 19, 2001, 08:47 PM   #15
Senior Member
Join Date: December 14, 2000
Location: NJ
Posts: 169
Thanks Jim!
If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquillity of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, - go from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains sit lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen!
Samuel Adams
Philadelphia Statehouse
1 August 1776
ammoeater is offline  
Old February 20, 2001, 11:37 AM   #16
Senior Member
Join Date: October 10, 2000
Location: Schnecksville, PA
Posts: 188
Thanks Jim for the great advice.

Is there any way to achieve full lock up on a hammerless revolver?
ChrisR246 is offline  
Old February 20, 2001, 12:31 PM   #17
Junior member
Join Date: October 16, 1998
Posts: 234

I've been playing with this on a hammerless S&W. Basically the earlier lockup occurs before hammer release the easier it is to look at full lockup. It takes a strong finger but if I'm careful I've found that I can hear full lockup before hammer release and then carefully, this takes a strong finger hold the trigger at lockup and then examine it.

Not as easy as on a revolver with a hammer but still theoretically possible unless the lockup is so close to the hammer release that you are unable to hold it.

I think this also relates to timing problems caused by a bad trigger job. The smith has removed so much metal that the hammer falls before full lockup has occured by sufficient trigger travel.


The only thing I don't see mentioned is the advice I've heard to examine the extractor, make sure that it is lining up with the chambers properly and that the edges are sharp and undamaged. Others have reported of damaged extractors.

Great post very informative, and useful for those of use getting into playing with revolvers.

Actually, looking at an exploded parts diagram of a S&W revolver is frightening, little parts, little springs, Arghh!
Makes a Glock pistol appear a paragon of simplicity. Would be interesting to know which springs tend to wear out over time and should be replaced.

A friend had an inexpensive revolver, can't remember the name and trigger reset spring broke. Forcing you to have to manually reset the trigger after each shot, this substantially reduces the rate of fire.

Valdez is offline  
Old February 20, 2001, 02:31 PM   #18
Senior Member
Join Date: January 11, 2001
Location: Northern Indiana
Posts: 293
Thanks for the info.
Always identify your target before you shoot.
NRA Member
handgun357 is offline  
Old February 20, 2001, 09:00 PM   #19
Jim March
Senior Member
Join Date: February 14, 1999
Location: Pittsburg, CA, USA
Posts: 7,415
Chris: to put a "hamerless/DAO revolver" into full lockup, you basically do a DA trigger pull but "catch" the hammer on the way down somehow and gently lower it all the way with the trigger still pulled (and held) all the way back.

If the hammer does NOT have the firing pin mounted in it, you can "catch" the falling hammer with the pad of your off-hand thumb. If the hammer has the pin in it, use a plastic pen or similar to catch the hammer with and then slowly slide the pen out, lowering the hammer without dry-firing. You CAN get there just by dry-firing (and holding the trigger back) it but that's impolite unless permission is offered.

It's a very good question, for sure. I prefer hammers on my goodies which is why I didn't think of it.

Excellent advice on both the screws and ejector star. A worn or sloppy star is pretty rare, but certainly happens.

On the screws, if they're mashed to hell and gone, you bet that's a potential issue. But screws that have clearly been turned but professionally aren't a big issue with me if the gun otherwise passes all tests. Especially if things like cylinder gap, trigger smoothness and cylinder play clearly are "better than stock", it means the gun was tuned up and to me, that's a selling point if I think it was done right. Truly buggered screws are a bad sign of "it wasn't done right"...

Later, I'll incorporate the contents of this post into the first, giving credit where due. I'll then probably publish it up on my website as being primarily my own work but with good additions by specific people. Sound OK?

Jim March is offline  
Old January 17, 2002, 12:24 PM   #20
Senior Member
Join Date: October 29, 1999
Location: Dewey, AZ
Posts: 12,858
A timeless reference thread that deserves a bump.

C.R.Sam is offline  
Old January 17, 2002, 03:12 PM   #21
neal bloom
Senior Member
Join Date: March 23, 2001
Posts: 278
May I have your permission to download this information into my PDA? Really informative and written in a style I can understand. Now I might be able to understand what those gunstore commandos are talking about. I might not be so intimidated going inot a gunstore or gun show.

Thanks for bringing this back to the top.
neal bloom is offline  
Old January 18, 2002, 07:17 AM   #22
Jim March
Senior Member
Join Date: February 14, 1999
Location: Pittsburg, CA, USA
Posts: 7,415
No problem downloading it.

John Knutson of asked me in EMail for permission to reformat it and put it online...which I gladly gave, so long as all the other contributors are credited and I get to link to it from my site . John, if you catch this, I think you should also link back to this thread in case more discussion/suggestions pops up here.

Before going shopping to really use this stuff, I'd recommend doing such a checkout on a wheelgun you already own, or a buddy's gun. Once you do it once, the reason for each test will become dead obvious.
Jim March
Jim March is offline  
Old January 20, 2002, 09:11 PM   #23
Senior Member
Join Date: May 12, 2001
Location: Duvall, Wa
Posts: 552
Thanks Jim,
The link back to this thread is in place, maybe we'll get some other valuable tips on what to look for as well. I know there's always something more I can learn!
Molan Labe!
JohnK is offline  
Old January 20, 2002, 10:10 PM   #24
Senior Member
Join Date: February 19, 1999
Location: Atlanta Georgia
Posts: 591
Jim, again strong work man. It helped me today when I traded for a SW 60. Keep up the good work. Thanks again, Dave
sox is offline  
Old January 21, 2002, 02:56 PM   #25
Senior Member
Join Date: January 12, 2002
Location: South Central PA
Posts: 574
Great post!!

I used it when I went in to buy a Taurus .357.

Christian, American, Heterosexual, Pro-gun Conservative. Any Questions?

Molon Labe!
Lets Roll!
nsf003 is offline  

Thread Tools Search this Thread
Search this Thread:

Advanced Search

Posting Rules
You may not post new threads
You may not post replies
You may not post attachments
You may not edit your posts

BB code is On
Smilies are On
[IMG] code is On
HTML code is Off

Forum Jump

All times are GMT -5. The time now is 05:13 AM.

Powered by vBulletin® Version 3.8.7
Copyright ©2000 - 2023, vBulletin Solutions, Inc.
This site and contents, including all posts, Copyright © 1998-2021 S.W.A.T. Magazine
Copyright Complaints: Please direct DMCA Takedown Notices to the registered agent:
Page generated in 0.12089 seconds with 7 queries