The Five Ws of Buying a Gun on the Internet

For Sale, on the Internet: Colt Gatling gun on Bronze Mount. Don't tell the media....

For Sale, on the Internet: Colt Gatling gun with Eccles Drum, on Bronze Naval Mount. Don’t tell the media….

It surprised us to learn that a lot of people have not done it. Going over our last dozen or so purchases, we haven’t had a single one that we saw in the Big Gun Shop Over the River® and we don’t buy guns from the gun counter in the Anti Gun Gun Store™. We’ve bought, in quantity order, from:

  1. Online auctions;
  2. Real auction houses, but by online or phone bid;
  3. Consignments brought into our Kitchen Table FFL® who then blasts ’em out by email.
  4. Online advertisements by specialty dealers to collectors.

Of course, our requirements are kind of specialized, so we can’t count on finding what we want in a little State of 1.3 million people. As the collection fills in, the rarities we’re still seeking are likely to turn up somewhere else (maybe not even in the USA, but that’s a story for another post).

If you have yet to pop your internet gun cherry, we’re here to help. (NCO traditions never die). Here’s our recommendation for how to make your first Internet gun buy, structured as a 5W — Who, What, When, Where, and Why — with plenty of How. We’ll do it in almost that order, although the How will always be embedded in the 5Ws, and we’re going to tackle Why first.

5W: Why: Why Buy from Some Guy You Don’t Know?

There are several good reasons to buy a gun remotely rather than locally.

  1. The remote seller has something your LGS does not;
  2. The remote seller may have something exceedingly rare;
  3. The remote seller, especially collectors liquidating or upgrading collections, may have a piece in superior condition or with superior provenance.
  4. Basically, online sales let sellers and buyer both extend their reach.

Most importantly, the internet acts to disintermediate the once very obstructed supply chain of rare and low-density firearms, and to let people cross-level these guns across a wider community. This is good news both for buyers seeking rare guns, and for sellers with rare guns that may need time and a wide net to find the right buyer. (Otherwise, as the degree to which a gun is “specialized” or expensive rises, its buyer pool evaporates).

5wsOf course, local stocking dealers let you find guns by serendipity. In the 1970s, we discovered a cool-looking firearm at a local shop, The Gun Room in Shrewsbury, Massacusetts. (Wonder if it’s still there? We believe the proprietor was a guy named Peter Dowd).  We didn’t know what an ex-Finnish Army Tokarev SVT-40 was, but it followed us home and got us started with Russian and Eastern European firearms.

There’s also a reason to buy online that’s potentially a bad reason: to get a new gun for less than your local guy stocks it for. Some online sellers have such market power vis-a-vis the manufacturers and importers that their advertised price is less than the wholesale price that the local dealer pays to to his upstream, whether it’s the manufacturer or a jobber or distributor. Most transfer dealers will transfer these for a fee, but it makes them heartsick to see someone walking out of their shop with a gun they can’t match price on. The problem with saving money this way (and shopping transfer dealers for the lowest price, too) is that you undermine the dealer system.

Some dealers are considering adding a surcharge for guns from these vendors like Bud’s Gun Shop or KY Gun Shop. Some may already be doing it.

So you want to think about whether a $20 savings is worth injecting some sourness into your relationship with your local guy. Because, buying guns is partly about guns, but it’s also all about people. The better your people skills, the happier you and the other two players in the deal will be.

1W: Who: The Three Players

The good news for our Aspie spectrum readers (you know who you are) is that you can improve your people skills by learning rules, if experience doesn’t work for you. There are three players in any online transaction: buyer, seller, and transfer dealer. All are equally important to a good transaction.

question markThe buyer is you. The seller can do things to increase or decrease the probability you will buy from him, which is a another tale for another day; you will contact him online or by phone. We strongly recommend dealing by both email and phone. Email is asynchronous, which is convenient for the many dealers who work part-time as well as for private sellers, and it provides a permanent record. (In any event, if you buy from an online ad or auction, save the ad or auction to your computer; you may want to refer back to it later). Phone lets you ease the trust barrier between stranger buyers and sellers.

The transfer dealer is vitally important. Your firearm will almost certainly originate out of state. We always establish the relationship with the transfer dealer first, rather that surprise him with, “We won the auction, please send a copy of your FFL to.” There are exceptions, but most dealers genuinely like guns and gun people (and are always surprised by the wide range of us out here), so making sure you and the dealer are on

2W: What: The Firearm, and Your Expectations

5Ws2In an online ad, you have limited opportunity to examine the firearm, and many sellers explicitly disclaim any responsibility for the thing after it hits the carrier. “As is.” We’ve never encountered a dealer who was a crumb about it, but things do happen. Understand that online, you’re no longer dealing with friendly Fred across the counter. You’re in a low-trust environment. The seller does not trust you, and you should not trust him too much on the first transaction. That’s why auction houses and online auctions have developed procedures such as feedback to encourage ethical dealing.

Don’t be shy about asking questions. Reputable dealers and auctioneers, especially with rarities and antiques, usually provide lots of good, well-lit photographs. If something about the gun is important, ask. And listen to the answer. We’ve seen relatively few problems caused by dealers, but an awful lot of problems caused by private sellers’ or buyers’ unstated assumptions.

Read the terms, for auctions and online sales. If the guy says money order only, and you call him after the sale to try to wheedle him into taking your personal check, he’s not the one being a [bleeep].

Dealers, especially collector-focused dealers, often include an inspection period. This is customarily from 24 to 72 hours. If you have buyer’s remorse — which is, by the way, the largest single cause of gun returns, with, “my wife flipped out when she heard what it cost” a solid #2 — you can usually return a gun inside this window. Shipping is your expense if you do that; don’t squawk about it, even having an inspection period is a courtesy the seller extends to you. If the gun is not as represented, that is a separate issue.

3W When: Some Time Factors

Interstate 5wHere’s another thing that favors your LGS. You can buy the gun and walk out with it after the NICS check. (Unless you’re in some statist kleptocracy with a waiting period — you know who you are). Immediate gratification beats nervous waiting; that’s how the pleasure centers of your brain are wired.

Let’s start with a baseline of online auction time factors. Here are some rules for success as an online auction buyer:

  1. Before: Have your transfer FFL picked out and pre-briefed before your buy. He will need to send his FFL to the seller (in the case of an FFL dealer) or show the seller how to verify his FFL (in the case of a non-FFL seller). Note that some dealers will not accept transfers in from non-dealers (and some jurisdictions won’t let a dealer do this, requiring all interstate shipments to go to and from Federal licensees).
  2. Before: Set a hard and fast top-line price, beyond which you will not be buffaloed (this is good advice for any auction because in live auctions also, it’s easy to let excitement get the better of you. Don’t ask how we know this).  In an auctioneer, not online, auction, factor in any buyers’ premium, a little fiction auctioneers use to encourage bidding by only tagging on a substantial charge — we’ve seen 17% — to the hammer price.
  3. Before: Pick a price you’d like to get it at. It’s a free country and you might get something for a low ball. (Which is why many auction sellers place a reserve). That is your first bid.
  4. Before: Note when the auction ends, and commit to being there at the end. If it’s a thirty day auction, it’s not going to sell on Days 1-29, so nobody bids then but chumps. The human race being what it is, somebody always bids then. Commit to being there at the end of the auction.
  5. Towards the end of the auction, enter a bid. Like most serious bidders, we usually don’t get into an auction until the last half hour or even 15 minutes. There’s just no percentage in wasting time earlier. Perhaps at the 15-minute point, the bidding is already over our preset stop line, and we don’t bid at all. That’s normal.
  6. If you win an auction, you’ll know just about immediately (online auctions) or within 24 hours (auction houses). You have a limited period for making payment. The terms are usually crystal clear.
  7. You may be able to pick up your purchase, in the rare case of an intrastate sale. Or it may have to ship to a transfer FFL near you. It is your responsibility to ensure the sender has the FFL’s contact information and license, although the FFL will usually prefer to send it himself.
  8. Expect a week from payment clearing for the firearm(s) to be shipped. We have found four to seven days is about standard. (An inexperienced seller can drag things out, and we’ve had to educate on or two).
  9. When the firearm arrives at the transfer FFL, he will unbox and inspect it (for the serial number and maker/importer information if nothing else), enter it in his Acquisition & Disposal record (“bound book” but these days it may be a computer database), and notify  you its in.
  10. At the transfer FFL, you will complete Form 4473, show ID, and (usually)

4W Where: Where to Find these Auctions?

There are three kinds of “places” we go to on the net for guns:

Online auctions. The best in the business is GunBroker, but we are irritated with them for supporting career criminal Trayvon Martin’s family and hangers-on over George Zimmerman. AuctionArms has a smaller selection, but seems to be rising; it’s the one that has a dope deal with NRA.

Live auction houses. There are three, off the top of our head, that offer firearms of great interest to modern arms buyers, shooters and collectors:

Of these, we have bought only from RIA. We’ve been outbid at Julia, and well, we’ll see how we do at Amoskeag.

Specialty Forums. Most every kind of firearm has a forum dedicated to it, and many of them contain a classified section.

5W Why: Hey, we already covered this!

But we’d like to add that, like most things in the gun world, you do it for education and recreation. (We’d be hard pressed to break down which of the two is paramount).

19 thoughts on “The Five Ws of Buying a Gun on the Internet

  1. LSWCHP

    Just to provide a different experience…

    Here in Australia the firearms market is small and the handgun market is miniscule. I live in a city of over 300,000 people and there’s 3 pistol clubs with a total membership of about 150 people. So that’s 150-ish legal pistol owners in the whole town. Handgun ownership is tightly controlled with great hurdles to ownership and severe penalties for misuse.

    There are no handguns for sale at any of the 3 local gunshops, so purchases are generally made online. I’m a pretty rare bird, and I currently own 6 handguns, and have owned 4 others. I bought one of those guns (a beautiful Hammeli 208 .22) from another club member, and all the others have been purchased over the internet.

    Because it’s such a small market no individual, dealer or club wants to get a bad name, so it’s a very high trust environment and I’ve never had a problem. I’ve also bought and sold a dozen longarms over the net without any problems.

    And having said all that…..given the hoops we have to jump through to acquire a new firearm I can only stare enviously at your comment about your last “dozen or so purchases”. You Damn Yankees have your freedoms, and you should guard them passionately. If you don’t, you will certainly lose them and end up like us Damn Furriners, which is no place for a man to be.

    1. Loren

      After so much hassle about owning a gun in OZ I wanted to ship a single shot 12 ga back to the States as I couldn’t even give it away to a “buyer”. It wasn’t worth the cost for another Australian to to register it, even though it was almost new. I was told I’d have to apply for a strategic arms export license among other things to send it back. Went to plan C instead and gave it to a relative and paid the fees.
      We elect the Hilde beast we’ll get what we deserve – Australian style freedom, and that ain’t free.
      Come-Take

  2. robroysimmons

    Thanks I will be looking forward to the sellers portion since I want to distribute part of my mil-surp collection to worthy hands and away from the bubbas.

  3. Eric Wayte

    Could you please write a similar article from the seller’s point of view? I need to “cull the herd”, and want to make sure I have my I’s dotted and T’s crossed.

    1. Eric Wayte

      Billybob,
      I hear you, but I have not had that experience. I have a few handguns that I need to move to make room for ones that I will actually shoot. The ones I have traded in before we after discovering I didn’t shoot them well, back during my quest for the “ultimate” handgun.

      1. Hognose Post author

        Eric, it will probably take a while to do it, so for now my advice to you is establish an account and find your way around the site. See what other people are asking and getting for guns like your white elephants. (One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, after all). When you are logged in to an auction site you can search saved auctions which gives you some ideas about what selling prices are. There are some techniques to optimize sale and ensure that your firearm goes for top dollar (and that it really goes, rather than cycles on relist after relist. Guns that do that are either [1] too high initial bid and/or too onerous conditions or [2] a dealer fishing for a chump with an over-market price.

        In advance figure out how you’re going to send the gun to the recipient’s local FFL. With handguns, you might be best off paying a dealer to do it (it can be a hassle to send handguns) and if you have a good relation with a dealer he may do it for the shipping charge plus a sawbuck. Licensed dealers can send via less expensive modes than us unlicensed folks. I do not think C&R collectors have any special shipping bennies, either, but I’m not one.

        1. Eric Wayte

          I have a FFL who will handle shipping. My concern is the paperwork/documentation part of the process.

  4. Ti

    I like your article’s comments about not abusing your local FFL. Case in point – most auction’s (GB and GA) I’ve bought from have been transferred to a local pawn shop/gun shop. The shop is one of the highest volume receiving FFL’s in Northern Colo. I went into a local shop closer to my home and asked the owner about doing NICS and transfers. He said to me “I want the opportunity to sell you a firearm out of my stock or through my channels”. That works for current production units, but not the hen’s teeth from online ads/auction. Just because I don’t want to see a local gun business die on the vine, and after all it is a gun shop that I could actually ride a bike to from my house, I let him find me a G34 gen III. Tried to sell me gen IV, but I didn’t want a IV. Paid more for that 34 than if I’d gone GB/GA, but the guy has to pay the light and water bill.

    1. staghounds

      “Sure! Show me your 71/84 Mauser and Colt Berdan selection, there are only 20 on Gunbroker.”

      I have NEVER understood businesses that turn a customer away.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Thanks, Dean. I thoroughly enjoy your work and quote it from time to time here (probably should more often).

  5. joshua

    I try to make amends by purchasing a few boxes of ammo every time I stop by a LGS to browse. The markup on a few boxes of 45ACP is about the cost of a FFL transfer anyhow.

  6. Keith

    The only problem I’ve ever seen is everything in the auctions is a rich man’s toys. Way out of what someone not making a phone number can think of getting. Of course that’s basically true of every thing around guns today. Glad I bought all mine back in the 1990’s. Going by manufactures web site MSRP and posted prices for the historical guns I own it would cost 10 times what it did to build up my collection today.

    1. Ti

      Isn’t this a FUN hobby….err….uhh….obsession. UNOBTAINIUM is fun to look at. Every once in awhile though you find a smidgen of hope and a deal appears….

    2. staghounds

      Actually that’s not true, there are plenty of guns on line for very low prices. Do a little looking, you’d be surprised.

  7. Aesop

    In our life after winning the Powerball Lotto, we’d sincerely like to have that Colt Gatling gun and mount, but would then have to commission something like a replica build of the Yangtze gunboat San Pablo upon which to mount it. Along with getting a working smallbore naval gun, Lewis gun, BARs, and a rackful of vintage ’03 Springfields. If nothing else, it would give DHS proper fits, and give the local Coasties something to look forward to on their VBSS patrols.

    Which is why the Julia auction catalogs, like the Maltese Falcon itself, are the stuff dreams are made of.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Yep. I am going over Rock Island’s catalog for the June Regional and trying not to drool. I can find everything I want to bid on with one or two quick searches, but I find the catalogs endlessly entertaining. The Premiere Auction catalogs are three volumes, at least, the last one was. Beautifully printed and well worth (to me) the $150/year.

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