Last time, Miss Euphemia Fitz, the madam... er, headmistress of Miss Fitz's Young Ladies Academy, talked about the relative advantages of revolvers and semi-autos. Now, in Part II of her four-part series, Miss Fitz reveals the scoop on how to shop for that sidearm without shooting yourself in the foot.
Ready to shop?
Before we hit the gun malls, check some prices. GunsAmerica is the spot. A click or three there and you'll see what every sort of common handgun in the world is selling for.
At this point, make a list of four or five firearms that sound good and that you can afford. Don't narrow your choices down to just one "perfect" gun yet. That gun might not be as right for you as it sounds on paper. Keeping options open also means we can grab a great deal on a good gun when one comes along, without wearing the soles off our shoes searching for one gotta-have-it gun.
The smart thing is to test-fire at least one revolver and one semi-auto in our serious calibers before you buy. (More if you can.) Do it with a friend who knows guns – or even hire a local firearms trainer to come with you for an hour or two. Do not do it alone!
Big shooting ranges – especially ones connected with gun stores -- often have handguns you can rent. Otherwise your shooting pal or trainer can loan you a couple.
Firearms training is Part IV. But you'll need some basics for test-firing. Again, your friend or trainer is there for that. Whatever else that person tells you, make sure it includes:
- The four rules of firearms safety. Really, really know and use those rules -- always.
The Four Cardinal Rules of Firearms Safety
All Guns Are LOADED
Point the muzzle in a safe direction (Safe meaning "at something you are either willing to destroy OR at something that can effectively stop the round)
Keep your finger straight along the frame until you are on target and ready to fire
Be sure of your target and what's behind it
- Wear ear plugs or sound-reducing shooter's ear muffs. Wear clear goggles or some other wrap-around form of eye protection.
- If you're going to be shooting semi-autos, also wear a baseball cap. (Semi-autos throw their used brass into the air with each shot; you don't want that brass hitting your head. Revolvers keep their used brass inside the cylinder.)
- Do not wear a low-necked or open-necked shirt or blouse. And I'm not just telling you this to keep the guys from staring. Brass comes out of semi-autos firecracker-hot. If you don't like the idea of ejected brass in your hair, trust me, you really, really, really do not want hot brass in your bra!
If your shooting buddy doesn't tell you these things (especially the first two) ... get a different friend.
Where to test-fire
There are two good places to do your test firing: at a shooting range or at some safe "plinking" spot your friend might take you to.
The shooting range is set up for safe, controlled shooting. But the atmosphere there can be mucho macho. Very intimidating to some newbies. (Me, I find the smell of gunpowder mixed with male pheromones to be tres sexy.)
The plinking spot – an old quarry, maybe, or the side of a hill – is just fine – so long as you're able to judge whether that spot is truly safe for shooting. Your shots must go harmlessly into the dirt behind whatever target you set up. There should be no chance of a poorly aimed shot flying into the distance and hitting a person. Or a cow. Or a car. Or a house.
Where to buy
So now you've tested a few guns. You know whether you're happier shooting a .357 Magnum or .45 ACP. You know whether a SIG-Sauer fits your hand better than a Colt 1911, and whether a Ruger fits your budget better than a Glock. At least, you have some idea, even if you didn't get the chance to test every gun on your list.
Next, where to buy?
Gun store: Local gun store is an easy choice. They often sell both new and used firearms and are staffed by helpful experts.
But every gun store is also an "FFL" – a federal firearm license holder. And that can be bad news.
FFL = paperwork. And a big, sticky paper trail right from you to the FBI and (sorry for the bad language, girls) from you to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, the ugliest, meanest agency of the federal government.
(See the sidebar below So you think you want to buy from an FFL for a description of what you'll go through.)
Gun show: Gun shows are fun. Think of them as flea markets for all things gunnish. Like shooting ranges, they can deliver Total Macho Overload. But get in the spirit and they're great. (All those lovely men roaming around ...)
But aren't gun shows bazaars of death, where the infamous "gun show loophole" lets murderers and thieves evade government gun-buying rules? Surely you've heard that.
Some people who set up tables at gun shows are FFLs – gun dealers. Buy from them and you still have to go through paperwork and FBI BS.
Other people who set up at gun shows are private parties – the same folks who might sell a gun via a classified ad or to a friend at a gun club. Buy from them and (in most states), the exchange is private.
It's not the gun show that made it private. There is no "gun-show loophole," no matter how many politicians scream about it. What made the transaction private is the fact that you're buying from a private party.
To find out whether a seller is an FFL or not, just ask. Quite often non-FFLs will have signs on their tables, telling you that.
Private citizens will also often walk around with rifles over their shoulders or signs on their clothes, advertising a handgun for sale or trade. And those sales, too, are private if your state allows it.
Private party (friend or local classified ad): Sometimes you can find guns for sale in the classified ads. Pity, a lot of big city newspapers have gone all chickenpoop and stopped allowing gun ads. But ads are still out there, in rural and gun-friendly areas. In most states you can buy from a friend or relative, legally and privately. Know the gun laws in your state.
Internet or gun publication: If you buy a gun over the internet or from an ad in a gun publication, and if that firearm is shipped across state lines, it will have to be shipped to an FFL and you'll still have to go through all the federal nonsense before being "allowed" to buy.
If you buy from an ad placed by a non-FFL in your own state, you might still be able to keep private. Again, know your state laws. I'm not a lawyer, and the lawyers I know usually aren't talking shop during their visits to my young ladies. So don't screw up, then say, "Miss Fitz told me so."
How to inspect a gun prior to purchase
When you spot a gun that looks good at a price you can afford (or can bargain down), the next thing is to perform some simple checks on it.
If a gun is new in the box, you probably don't need to inspect extensively – but you'll still want to get a feel for handling it. (And there's a possibility it will have manufacturing defects.)
If a gun you're interetested in is used, definitely give it some scrutiny.
But never fear! The basic tests are easy, and merely by doing them, you'll let the seller know that although you may be a babe, you're not a babe in the woods.
(Before going further, take a look below at the sidebar on gun-handling etiquette.)
Overall condition of the firearm
Once the seller hands you the firearm or gives you permission to pick the gun up off his table, the first thing you do (being careful not to point it at anybody) is check out its overall condition. You're looking for the easy and obvious. Is there any rust on the metal or places where rust might have been covered? Cracks in plastic, rubber, or wooden surfaces? Any scratches or obvious signs of wear? If so, as a newbie you probably don't want that gun.
If you like the look of the gun, ask the seller if you can dry fire it. Dry firing is pointing the unloaded gun in a safe direction (toward the floor, or in a jam-packed gun show, over the heads of the crowd) and pulling the trigger to check its action. A few sellers will say no. Most will say yes.
If you get a yes, grip the gun as your plinking friend or trainer taught you, point it in a safe driection, and slowly, steadily, calmly squeeze the trigger.
Is the trigger too hard for you to pull comfortably? Don't get that gun. Is the trigger so easy to pull that you could fire it by accident if you flinched even a little bit? Don't get that gun, either. As you pull the trigger slowly, you'll notice that at first, you're simply taking up slack. The gun doesn't fire until you reach a certain point. On some guns (Rugers, notioriously) that slack period is long, long, long and feels "sloppy." On others, it's short and tight.
You probably want it medium. You certainly want it smooth, not jerky. You want to be able to fire the gun by putting steady, even pressure on the trigger.
Trigger action can be adjusted, to a certain extent, by a gunsmith after your purchase. But if you're not comfortable with the basic action, don't get that gun. If the trigger action is comfortable for you, go to the next test.
Inspecting the barrel
This is also simple. But it'll tell you a lot about the condition of a used firearm.
Pull your penlight out of your pocket. (A penlight is a must-have accessory for used-gun shopping; if you don't have one, the seller likely will.) Hold the gun in your left hand with its action open (see that handling-etiquette sidebar!). Hold the penlight in your right. Gently place the penlight into the open action – that is, into the firing chamber of the gun. Angle the penlight until it shines into the barrel.
Now turn the gun to point straight at your face, keeping your finger off the trigger (this is about the only time you'll ever, ever point a gun at yourself). Look down the lighted barrel.
Here's what you should see: An ultra shiny, slick metal surface with a smooth, spiraling groove running through it. That's all that should be inside that barrel.
If you see dust or little black flecks of gun powder, ask the seller to clean the barrel and look again. (Crud in a barrel isn't a great sign; it indicates somebody hasn't been cleaning the gun. But it's not necessarily fatal.)
Now, do you see a smooth, shiny surface? Or do you see pits, dull spots, scratches, or other flaws? If you see a single flaw in the barrel of that gun, put it down and walk away.
(Actually, my friend Rick has an even simpler test. Just watch the seller's face when you go to shine a light in the barrel: "If there is anything wrong you'll see it at once BEFORE you'll peep through the barrel; the seller gets nervous.")
By the time you've checked overall condition, dry-fired, and inspected the barrel, you can fairly well judge whether you're holding a sound firearm.
But you may want to ask the seller to disassemble and reassemble the gun for you. This not only lets you inspect its innards for signs of rust, wear, or other damage, but gives you some idea of how difficult it'll be to clean the gun after your shooting practices.
If you have any remaining doubts, you might also ask the seller to allow you to take the firearm to a gunsmith for a more thorough check. He might let you return it in X days if it doesn't check out.
And there you have it. You've just bought yourself a sidearm and a little bit of security.
But what ammo do you load it with? Oh, girl, that's another question! We'll get to that in Part III.
Special thanks to Rick, Chris, and Bug of TCF. And, as always, to Misfit.
So you think you want to buy from an FFL?
Buying from an FFL -- a licenced gun dealer -- can be a PITA.
You have to show your drivers license or other state-issued ID. You fill out an ATF Form 4473 that contains a record of the gun you're buying (complete with serial number) and asks ridiculous things like what race you are – as if that matters. The form also asks for your social security number, but that's optional. Don't give it unless you just love blowing your own privacy.
The 4473 stays at the gun store until the store goes out of business – at which moment, your information goes off to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, where they still pretend they're not making a permanent registration file on you (since federal gun registration is illegal). The ATF also shows up sometimes and inspects (and even copies) 4473s in the store.
Anyway, it doesn't much matter what happens with the 4473. Because what happens right after you fill out the form creates another government "paper trail."
The gun dealer calls the FBI and gives them your name, sex, birthdate, state of residence, and race (there's that racial business again!).
If you're lucky, the FBI tells the dealer, "Proceed." And you go home with your gun.
If you're unlucky, the FBI says, "Denied." And you go home empty handed (and in rare cases, go straight to jail). This is supposed to happen only if you're a felon, a mental patient, under a restraining order, or otherwise ineligible to own firearms. But people with unpaid parking tickets, and even a man who didn't renew the license for his (dead) dog have been denied the right to buy guns.
I am not kidding. You see why some of us avoid FFLs?
The FBI might also say, "Delay." In which case, you come back in three days. If the FBI hasn't given the dealer further bad news about you, you get your gun then.
When a seller hands you a gun, he'll hand it to you with the action open. If it's a revolver, that means that the cylinder that holds the ammo will be pivoted outward from the frame. If it's a semi-auto, that means that the slide (the top of the gun) will be locked back.
In both cases, an open action enables you to look into the firing chamber and the ammo-carrying parts of the gun and verify for yourself that the firearm is unloaded.
Someone hands a gun to you, it's open. You look for yourself. Every time.
Then after you've inspected the gun, dry-fired it, or whatever else you do with it, you re-open the action and hand the gun back.
You hand the gun back to the seller open. He looks for himself. Every time.
If you hand the firearm to your companion, you hand it with the action open. Your companion looks for himself to make sure it's empty. Every time.
If you put the gun down on a table, you do it with the action open.
Pick it up from the table, you look and make sure it's empty. Every time.
Any time that the firearm has been out of your control, even for a moment, you check it again when you pick it up to verify its loaded or unloaded condition.
If this little dance seems ridiculous to you, bear with it. Nobody, not the biggest Macho Man in all of Gundom, scoffs at these rules if he expects others to respect him. There is no such thing as being too scrupulous about safety when handling a firearm.
If this little dance seems so ridiculous to you that you absolutely refuse to bear it, then don't buy a gun. Don't even borrow one. And don't ever carry one around. Because you're not a safe gun handler.
Same with the four rules of firearms safety listed in the main article. If someone repeats them to you at the range, or in a firearms training class, and your response is, "Yeah, yeah, get off my case," then you're not grown-up enough to use guns. If you've already heard the safety rules 100 times, then be ready to hear them for the 101st. Or the 1,001st. And really hear them, every time.
Guns are amazing, life-saving tools when you're willing to use them properly. But one screwup could destroy your (or somebody else's) whole life.
So observe gun-handling etiquette at all times. It's one heck of a lot more important than using the right fork at dinner.
Next time: Ammo You Can Bet Your Life On