Buyer Beware: Lessons from Online Gun Buying

Buyer Beware: Lessons from Online Gun Buying

I’d been looking for a certain shotgun for waterfowling for some time. Circumstances never seemed to line up to make it happen. Finally, I found the gun, the price and the geographic convenience that brought it all together. I contacted the seller and we arranged to meet so I could look over the merchandise. But in my mind, I was convinced this was the gun. We met and I immediately succumbed to the gun-buying equivalent of buck fever. Rational decision-making went out the window. I soon was driving home with my new baby.

When I got home and started ooh-ing and awe-ing over my new duck blind companion, I realized that the deal of the century was not quite what I had assumed.

If you’re like me, you’ve tried to save a few dollars in your firearm purchases by searching the Internet and buying used guns online. The purchases I’ve made have been positive experiences except for the above recent buy. However, the lessons learned from that exchange are valuable and had me thinking about how to go about an Internet purchase with the best chances for a positive outcome.

There are different kinds of online/Internet purchase scenarios. Buying through an established retailer such as Cabela’s, Sportsmen’s Warehouse or Scheel’s is a straightforward affair. Pick the gun, pick features and click. You may have to pick up the gun in person and there is no flexibility in price, but you get the reputation, customer service and fulfilment system of a huge company. It’s similar with online presences like Brownells, Optics Planet, Midway USA,, GunsAmerica and others.

One of the disadvantages of the above options is that you don’t get to hold the gun in your hands before purchasing it, but when buying a new gun that is usually not an issue. Then you have online auction portals like You search for the firearm you’re interested in and enter a bid. But, as in the above scenarios, you are only looking at pictures and you are relying on the description and the honor of the seller.

Finally, you have sites that list guns available in your locale that create opportunities for face-to-face purchases—like the one I made. Being able to handle the actual gun makes a huge difference. I did some things right and some things wrong. Let’s look at the process and, hopefully, you won’t make the mistakes I did.

Do Your Homework
This applies to any firearm purchase but is even more critical when working the Internet. There is so much information available that you easily can learn all there is to know about the gun that interests you. Reviews, user videos, manufacturer websites—the sources are endless. Most importantly, try to shoot the particular model of firearm you are considering. Ask friends if they have that model. Many shooting ranges will rent firearms. There’s no substitute for hands-on experience. I shot several examples of the gun I wanted. Each time, it mounted well, fit well and shot well. I even had the chance to borrow one for my swan hunt last year, so I had no doubt this was what I wanted. I even knew how to take the gun apart to check the internals of the prospective purchase. The Internet has innumerable videos on the subject so there is no excuse not to know.

Set Boundaries
In face-to-face and auction purchases, know your limits. Decide what you’ll spend before you engage. Decide what you can and can’t live with in terms of features. Like my dad always said with used cars and girlfriends, “Another one will always come along.”

Agree on a Price
I always ask if the seller will consider a lower price. There may be flexibility. The seller has every right to set the price, but you also have the right not to pay it and to look elsewhere. In my case, the seller assumed we had agreed on a price though we had not discussed it. I asked for a better deal and he was willing to come down a little. So, I was happy and the seller was comfortable with it.

Choose the Proper Meeting Place
Always in public. Always in daylight. I haven’t had problems with my face-to-face experiences, but we all know the horror stories. Better safe than sorry. Pick a parking lot of a sporting goods store or other place where you can examine the merchandise without raising eyebrows (harder to come by these days). Your own municipality may have a zone designated for face-to-face sales. Even better, arrange to meet at a shooting range so you can run a few rounds through the gun to see if it functions properly. I do not recommend meeting at your home or place of business. If the seller is a bad guy, you don’t want to expose yourself.

Examine the Gun
Closely. This is where all those YouTube videos come in handy. Is it clean? Is there unusual scoring or buildup? Is there rust? Are there cracks in the gun’s furniture? What does the barrel look like? Bring a flashlight and peer into the action and breech. Even a well-used gun with accumulated years of buildup normally will function for seasons to come. Sometimes all that is required is a good cleaning. But sometimes there are serious issues. A proper examination can save you much frustration and additional costs. Here’s where my enthusiasm for my purchase was my undoing. Read and learn.

close-up of Savage Renegauge shotgun

If I’d been more aware, the fact the choke wrench was broken would have told me something. But it didn’t register in my excitement for the upcoming waterfowl season and my new duck slayer. When I got home and decided I’d try all of the chokes, I found out why the wrench was broken. The choke in the barrel would not budge. They were pretty much fused together. I couldn’t believe that in my haste I’d neglected to check such a simple issue that had huge ramifications. What if the stuck choke was not to be used with steel shot? Then the whole reason for the purchase would have been defeated. So began many hours of searching the Internet … “freeing a stuck choke.” Eventually I did remove the stuck choke and all is well—that’s the subject for another article.

Ask Questions
Now, did the seller of my stuck choke know he was selling me a deficient gun? I don’t think so. Why? Because of an additional element to a successful sale—building a quick relationship with the seller. While examining the firearm, talk to the seller. Ask as many questions as you can about the gun: Why is he or she selling? Has anyone ever had problems with the gun? Does the seller have any specific knowledge about the gun that would be helpful for you? If everything goes well, you may have found a new hunting or shooting resource. If the seller of my shotgun knew of the problem, he should be playing poker in Vegas because he betrayed no tell of any kind. My impression was that he would’ve been as surprised as I was by the stuck choke.

Make Your Decision
It’s up to you. Don’t be pressured into buying something you really don’t want. Don’t be as starry-eyed as I was. It may take patience, but you can say, “No thanks.” When you find the gun that checks all the boxes, you’ll be glad you waited.

Sign a Bill of Sale
It protects both buyer and seller against possible fraud issues after the sale is completed. It should list the gun’s make, model and serial number, the condition, what accessories were included, the price, the date and the names of the buyer and seller. Bring two copies, sign them both and make sure you keep one. Or take a cell phone pic of the document.

Most modern-day firearms are built so that they will last a long time. Purchasing a used gun is a great way to expand your gun library and save a few bucks for more ammo. Online resources provide many opportunities to find just the right one, but remember: Let the buyer beware.

About the Author
Alan Peterson is a filmmaker living in the paradise between the Wasatch Range and the Great Salt Lake in Utah. He loves shooting over his pudelpointer, Trigger, casting dries for cutthroats and seeing cupped wings over decoys. He says all of this is possible thanks to his very patient wife. Peterson is currently working on a documentary on the history of duck hunting on the Great Salt Lake and one on the life of fishing innovator George Gehrke.