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Tips & Tactics

Pawn Shop Pitfalls: How to Buy Used Guns

by B. Gil Horman   |  May 4th, 2012 46

Pawn shopMy hobby of “gun slumming” started back when I was a poor college student. I wanted to shoot more, but my buy-ramen-noodles-on-sale budget kept brand new guns well out of reach. Even some of the larger independent shops, those who had plenty of used guns in stock, were not always affordable. To expand my search for gun bargains, the phone book came off the shelf and every single storefront in the area claiming to stock firearms was identified, including the pawn shops. With more time than money in the budget, I started traveling around after work and on the weekends to see what these off-the-radar gun sellers had in stock.

This sifting of the gun shops proved to be much like the process of panning for gold. Several small stores and pawn shops fell out of my route after one or two visits. They were either too seedy or they lacked the right kind of inventory. But over time, a handful of shops I would not have found any other way proved to shine with golden opportunities for buying good, affordable firearms. Even better, these shops were stocking rare, antique, and even unusual guns typically only seen in books and museums. Best of all, the staff in these little shops sometimes turned out to be the fun, friendly, knowledgeable kind of people that make hanging out in the shooting community a real pleasure.

What started as a money-saving measure became an informal occupation. Whenever I arrive in a new town or city, the small local gun sellers all get at least one visit, and then I swing by the bigger ones from time to time to see what new surprises have surfaced. Whether you are tired of the big-box-store cookie-cutter inventory, on the prowl for the find of the century, or you just want to save money on a gun, then perusing the small mom ‘n pop operations and pawn shops may be for you.

Be Polite
Some small shops may have walls with flaking paint, ancient display cases long past their prime, or a shopkeeper in need of a fashion make over. The odds are high that the guy you see behind the counter is the owner, and telling him that his place needs a facelift won’t get you very far. Be careful not to judge too quickly. Just like the best places in the world to eat are not always fancy, the best gun providers may not always own a multi-million dollar facility. This humble shop could turn out to be the best source of used guns in town if you give it a chance. Remember, you can be polite to a shop owner as many times as you like, but you only get to be a jerk once.

Do Your Homework
We live in the age of information. There’s no reason to start shopping for used guns without some idea of what a reasonable price looks like. Go ahead and cough up the cash for a Blue Book gun values publication or online annual subscription.

If you are working on the cheap, a quick and dirty price-checking guide can be generated by searching for the gun in question on gun sale websites like, or Reviewing the price tags in conjunction with to the condition of the guns they’re attached to will provide a ballpark range of prices. Always run price checks before you buy.

Is the Gun a Find or a Clunker?
Knowing which used guns are keepers and which should be thrown back can be a tricky business. With a bit of research and some hands-on experience, it’s not too difficult to identify the guns at either end of the quality spectrum.

The Finds are pristine, inside and out, and ready to be hung in a museum display. These are the rare firearms that gun hunters dream about. The buyers will, if they’re not stupid, purchase these gems on the spot with a major credit card.

The Clunkers are beaten, worn out guns that will obviously do a better job of anchoring boats or weighing down papers than they will hitting targets at the shooting range.

The two categories of used guns that float between the Find and the Clunker require a more experienced eye to spot. The lemon can look an awful lot like a Find but it has a hidden mechanical problem the previous owner forgot to mention when he sold it. This is one reason why it’s important to inspect any used gun as closely as possible before you buy it.

When examining the gun, always follow the rules of the shop. If you don’t know what they are, then ask questions: Is it okay to dry fire the gun? Could you please field strip the gun? Could we take the grip off of this revolver? If you don’t like what you see for any reason, just walk away and save your money for another day.

The last, and possibly the best, category of used guns often found in small shops could be called the Workhorse. These are the guns that show wear and tear but they are still mechanically sound and ready to provide years of shooting service at a bargain-basement price. They often suffer from neglect, but not necessarily abuse. Their potential is hidden under layers of grime or spots of surface rust. A proper deep cleaning and lubrication, perhaps a new grip or new sights, and suddenly what started out as a “cheap gun” will become a favorite to take out to the range.

Be Patient
Good things come to those who wait – and return. A pawnbroker or small gun store may be empty today, but flush with shooting options tomorrow. These shops often take in sets of inventory from estate sales, police auctions or someone who decides it’s time to clean out their collection a bit.

These deliveries of cool finds are rarely predictable. I’ve been visiting the small gun sellers in search of bargains for years. In that time, only a small fraction of the firearms I’ve examined have come home with me. But the ones that have joined the collection are some of my very favorite guns to shoot.

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