December 1998

Evaluating Used .22 Handguns And Rifles Before Buying

All too often, what looks like a bargain can become a nightmare of additional expenses. Here’s how to avoid a bad dream.

Without question, there are more pre-owned .22 rifles, pistols and revolvers occupying table space at guns shows, rack and counter case space at dealers and house space than any other caliber firearm. Based on the popularity of the cartridge, the guns that shoot it and the number of years both have been around, such abundance isn’t in the least surprising. Due in part to that abundance, the prices attached to other-than-collectable .22s can be irresistible to the uninformed. All too often, many of these “bargains” become nightmares of additional expense once its discovered they don’t function very well or not at all. You can be reasonably certain of one thing. A used .22 rifle, revolver or pistol offered for resale will have been spruced up to look as close as possible to a dream come true. Don’t be fooled.

For example, that shiny gem of a bolt-action single-shot rifle lying on its bed of green felt at a gun show. It still has 80 percent of its original finish, nice wood and clean bore and can be yours for only 25 bucks. Tempting indeed. You look at the barrel. It reads: “.22 Short-.22 Long-.22 Long Rifle.” There’s little doubt all have been run though it, but how many Shorts as opposed to how many Long or Long Rifle? Unfortunately, you may never know until you chamber a Long Rifle cartridge and have trouble extracting it after firing. The reason for this trouble was that an unknown, but large, number of .22 Shorts had been used by the rifle’s previous owner and cavitated, or enlarged, the chamber. When you fired the .22 LR, its brass case expanded to fill the cavity and caused the hard extraction. If the cavitation is severe enough, the Long Rifle case can actually blow out its sides.

Cavitation can occur in any rifle chambered for .22 LR in which a .22 Shorts have been used repeatedly. It isn’t easy to detect without a really good bore scope. “Really good,” means a bore scope derived from surgical instruments utilized to observe the interior of a human body through a tiny incision. Cheap they are not and you are not likely to be carrying one around with you. Which leaves you and the seller with a choice. Either you’re allowed to test fire the rifle before you buy it — or — you arrange to get your money back if cavitation is evident after you first fire the gun. The cure for severe cavitation is the same as it would be for a barrel with a worn out or pitted bore: relining and rechambering the barrel.

Dummy Rounds
Of course, hard extraction, or no extraction, could also be caused by a rough chamber, a worn extractor or a weak extractor spring. But you checked those possibilities out with dummy rounds while still considering the purchase. Didn’t you?

Why on Earth not? A half a dozen dummy rounds are your best friend when it comes to buying a used .22— be it a rifle, pistol or revolver that strikes your fancy. (Come to think of it, they’re your best friend when considering any caliber used gun.) First, they are made to SAAMI specifications. In a magazine-fed rifle, you can run them through to check for feeding, extraction or ejection problems. Second, third and fourth, they’ll serve the same purpose in a semiauto pistol. In a revolver, any interference between a cylinder fully charged with dummies and the rear of the frame is instantly apparent and serves to confirm the presence of excessive cylinder play, better known as end shake. Anything in the way of a malfunction turned up through the use of dummies can usually be corrected if parts and/or a good gunsmith is available. It would be nice if the cost of both could be deducted from the purchase price. In the real world, however, such arrangements are seldom, if ever, made. The best you can hope for when dummy rounds tip you off something’s amiss are haggling points.

Dry Firing and Muzzle Damage
We’ve never understood the apparent craving .22 owners have to dry fire their guns. Nor do we understand why they persist in doing so knowing full well the practice can, and does, damage the firearm. They seem to forget the .22 is a rimfire: the firing pin strikes the rear rim of the case instead of its center and the only thing preventing the pin or hammer nose from impacting the edge of the chamber is the very presence of the cartridge rim.

You can visually inspect a .22 rifle or pistol for excessive dry firing by examining the barrel breech. What you’re looking for are burrs. If present, they won’t be hard to spot. The same type of burrs will be present on an abused revolver, but will appear at the edge of the cylinder chambers. Furthermore, where there are burrs, there is likely to be damage to the firing pin in a rifle or pistol and to the hammer nose in a revolver. If the damage isn’t too severe, it may be possible to have the burrs ironed out and the firing pin or hammer nose replaced by a gunsmith. Consider the cost of such repairs as additional haggling points.

While not related to dry firing, dents or dings at the muzzle are other sure indications a gun has been mishandled and, if they insult the rifling, are just as sure to negatively effect accuracy. A less than honorable reseller might go to the trouble of smoothing them up, giving the exterior of the firearm a more pristine appearance. What should be more important to you is whether the damage extends to the interior of the bore. Take a close look at it. A very close look.

More About Revolvers
Except for the fact that it won’t be subjected to overheated handloads and suffer from harsh recoil, evaluating the condition of most used .22 revolvers differs little from evaluating any used revolver. In our November, 1997 issue, we provided ten checkpoints to observe. We suggest you re-read it or, lacking it, order a reprint. Those same points apply to a double-action .22 with a swing-out cylinder. Some of them, such as hammer push off, which indicates improper sear/hammer engage-ment, can be applied to break-open or single-action models. What we didn’t mention in 1997 were specific things to look for with break-open, double-action or single-action .22s.

Break-open revolver designs are hinged at the frame and lock at the upper rear of the top strap. Check the lockup. It should be positive and should firmly secure the barrel/cylinder assembly to the frame. Excessive slop will alert you to a wear problem that may or may not be correctable. Next, open the action fully and check for excessive play in the hinge area. Same problem, same possible solution. While the action is open, apply enough pressure to the ejector rod to move the ejector clear of the cylinder. Any drag? The rod could be bent. Release the rod and spin the cylinder rapidly with two fingers. See any wobble? If so, the ejector rod is bent.

With a single action, test the action of the loading/extraction gate. It should open smoothly and snap smartly closed. While the gate is in its open position, operate the extractor rod to see if there’s any binding. And, the center pin securing the cylinder in the frame should be checked for straightness. You can do this, even at a gun show, by removing the pin and cylinder assembly. Hold the pin down firmly on a table’s edge, then install and spin the cylinder. By now, you know what to look for.

Bent extractor rods or center pins are like bent cranes. They do not allow the cylinder to rotate concentrically, usually causing binding between the cylinder and the frame. One sign this is occurring shows up when the revolver is cycled through in the single action mode and you notice it takes more thumb muscle to move one chamber into position under the hammer than it does another.

Now, if you’ll excuse us, we just heard about a really neat .22 owned by a little old lady from Vermont who only fired it the last Sunday of a Leap Year. Seems like too good a deal to pass up.