Firearms

Handgun Service Life: What It Means and How To Extend It

SIG P226 on range bench with mags

When referring to firearms, especially for self-defense or duty, the term ‘service life’ often surfaces. There’s a lot of mixed information regarding handgun service life, with different law enforcement, military, and civilian standards. But what does that really mean, and is there anything we can do to extend it? 

What is service life?

Handgun service life is often referenced in two different manners. First, is a measure of the duration of time the firearm can be used in a specific role. This tends to be before any parts failure or significant malfunctions. Police and military units set their own service life standards, based on what they require.

S&W 340 and 686
Firearms like the 340PD may not have the longest service life, but they excel in other areas, such as being very lightweight and concealable.

These departments or units will adopt pistols that meet or exceed these standards. The firearm manufacturer will likely recommend a period of time or round count when you should perform preventative maintenance. You will likely develop your own regulations that work for your own views and shooting habits. 

The second reference to service life is the expected lifetime of the firearm in general. This typically means with proper use and maintenance, and will require parts replacement as individual components break or wear out. In this manner, a quality handgun will typically last generations.

At this point you may be asking, “How do you know if your firearm has reached the end of its service life?” That really depends on how many/which parts fail. If you crack a slide or frame, it may be time for a new gun. If you just shoot out a barrel, that’s an easy replacement. Plenty of high-volume shooters end up replacing an entire gun one part at a time as it wears. If you notice your accuracy or reliability beginning to deteriorate, things may need to be worked on. 

There are two different types of wear — wear from carry and wear from shooting/dry fire. Carry wear is typically superficial and does not affect function. Many carry guns will have finish wear from drawing in and out of a holster. Sweat and oil from the body can cause rust and make the gun look more used than it actually is.

Wear from shooting is a different story. Every round fired is another miniature explosion that the gun is forced to contain. Firing the gun also works the action, compressing/decompressing springs, locking/unlocking the barrel, ejecting spent brass, rubbing the slide and frame. All of these will result in wear on your gun over time.  

With roughly a 30,000-round minimum expected service life before parts breakage, the average pistol has a long way to go. Many shooters get tired of the same gun and trade it within a few years. However, for those who frequent the range often or shoot competition, that number can be reached in a couple of seasons.

Disassembled Glock 19
The simplicity of the Glock makes it very user serviceable.

Even regular shooters who put a box or two of ammo downrange every couple weeks will put around 2,600 rounds a year (that’s a little over 10 years to reach that 30,000 mark). However, the truth is most people won’t even dream of reaching the end of their handgun’s service life. They simply don’t shoot it enough — often, not at all. 

Cleaning and Maintenance

Having a good cleaning and maintenance schedule can help you extend the life of your firearm. It will also keep it more reliable. Excessive carbon fouling and powder buildup can contribute to uneven and premature parts wear. This gunk and uneven wear on moving parts creates extra friction in action, which can induce malfunctions. 

I like to clean my firearms after every trip to the range. This prevents carbon buildup from getting out of hand. It also provides a good opportunity to inspect for damage or unnatural wear. Even guns that are stored in the safe get a good wipe down and re-oiling every few months or so to keep them in top shape. Oiling helps reduce the friction between the moving parts of your firearm to prevent malfunctions and excessive wear. It will also protect the metal and ward off rust.  

All springs on your firearm will eventually wear, but the recoil spring is one to keep an eye on in particular. The recoil spring is responsible for providing the pressure and resistance to properly operate the semi-automatic action. As you shoot, the spring is compressed and released as the slide works forward and rearward to chamber/eject rounds.

Gun cleaning supplies
Keeping your firearms cleaned and maintained will help extend their service life.

Recoil springs are tuned to certain poundages to reliably operate the firearm based on factors such as slide weight and caliber. As the spring is worked, it will slowly become weaker/lighter. Eventually, it will not have enough force to fully eject or chamber ammunition and will need to be replaced. 

Ammo Selection

Your handgun service life is also dependent on the type of ammunition you use and how often you shoot. Ammunition such as +P or +P+ offer superior ballistics, but will result in additional wear to the firearm. Your firearm was designed to handle ammunition loaded to a specific pressure to operate with standard ammo. Whether it’s rated for increased pressure loads or not, the extra blast will create more wear and shorten your firearm’s service life. 

Similarly, higher-pressure calibers such as .40 S&W or .357 SIG will wear more than low-pressure numbers such as .45 ACP. This is just the nature of the round. This does not mean you shouldn’t use these, just pay extra attention to the firearm for possible wear or damage. 

Additionally, extended rapid-fire shooting will create more heat and cause excessive wear. 10–20 fast mag dumps per range session will add up. 

Top Handguns

As you may imagine, some handguns will have a longer service life than others. This is due to several variables, but it’s primarily a sum of parts quality and level of manufacture. However, more money doesn’t always get you a longer service life. It also largely depends on the handgun design.

Some older designs may require more upkeep and, as a result of the technology at the time of manufacture, may have a more limited service life. Early cast parts and alloy frames simply cannot take that kind of abuse. Simplicity plays a role as well. Fewer overall parts provides fewer points of failure. This is what makes the Glock pistol and other striker-fired designs so popular. 

HK USP45 leaning on tree
The USP is known for its long service life.

The HK USP is another popular handgun design known for its durability. Based on the MK23 Offensive Handgun Weapon System developed for SOCOM, the USP was designed with durability at the forefront. No, it doesn’t have a 3-pound match trigger, but it features robust components designed for reliable ignition and consistent reliability. 

Firearms from manufacturers such as Taurus, SCCY, and other import firearms come in at a lower price. However, they tend not to be built to the same standard. Tolerances are looser and parts are cheaper. They are not junk by any means, but they may require more upkeep to keep them running as they should and offer a lower service life. 

Revolvers offer their own specific quirks in regards to service life. The timing may go out. This means the cylinder holes no longer fully align with the barrel. This will require gunsmith work to get right again. Further, springs may get jossled out of position if dropped or banged around. This is not to say all wheel guns have a short service life. In fact, there are many classic S&W and Colt revolvers still kicking today. They simply require their own specialized care. 

S&W 686+ Snub Nose on Bricks
Revolvers face their own challenges when it comes to service life.

Final Thoughts

With a better understanding of handgun service life, we can properly maintain and care for our firearms so they last as long as possible. This is a good reason to purchase a gun of good quality, as it will likely outlast you with proper use. 

How do you measure your handgun service life? What preventative maintenance do you perform to keep your firearms working smoothly? Share your thoughts in the Comment section.

About the Author:

Alex Cole

Alex is a younger firearms enthusiast who’s been shooting since he was a kid. He loves consuming all information related to guns and is constantly trying to enhance his knowledge, understanding, and use of firearms. Not a day goes by where he doesn’t do something firearms-related and he tries to visit the range at least a couple of times a month to maintain and improve his shooting skills.

His primary focus is on handguns, but he loves all types of firearms. He enjoys disassembling and reassembling firearms to see how they work and installs most of the upgrades to his firearms himself, taking it as a chance to learn. He’s not only interested in modern handguns and rifles, he appreciates the classics for both historical value and real-world use.
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (15)

  1. Just an FYI note: As we have all lived through ammo shortages, the next shortage could be parts, so be sure and keep enough springs, and wear parts, on hand to keep your stuff going, and most of these parts are usually very affordable, like many are under $10. If ordering on line, many times adding just a spare spring to your order, bumps you up to the “free shipping” level, basically paying for the spare part. Right now, parts can still be found for guns even a half century old, which may be called “New, but old inventory”, usually when some opportunist took advantage of buying inventory from companies going out of business. For example many old Colt SAA’s used flat springs. Flat springs have a tendency to just snap in two, without warning, so if you can find spare parts, it is good to get them on hand. Even Glock parts can be on back order at times, so get a few parts at a time, whenever the opportunity arises.

  2. This is an Old Guy’s opinion, nothing more. Clean your weapons at least once a year if not in use. Every time the weapon is used, the weapon should be cleaned and gone over. These are not Tonka Toys, so do not slam them about, and for what it’s worth when weapons are not in use they should be stored in a cool dry place. OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN. You know the drill.
    CJ-

  3. A new Glock 19 Gen 3, one of the most inaccurate guns I ever shot, until the OEM guide rod was replaced with a new OEM guide rod. At 10 yards the grouping went from basketball size to tennis ball size just changing out the guide rod. While metal guide rods are available for the Gen 3, seems on the Gen 3, these metal guide rods result in broken slides, Other than that, one can pretty much replace every part, not counting the barrel, in a Glock for around $50 for OEM parts, and pretty much anyone can do it, in only a few minutes.

    On a brighter side, a 50 year old Browning BL-22, going through sons, their friends, and grandsons, estimated around a quarter million rounds through it, still functions like new, accurate as ever, even though it looks like a bunch of boys have used it for 50 years. Every scar and scratch is a memory. Also in a drawer, enough internal parts for great grandsons to rebuild it someday. 🙂

    Just wondering: Has anyone ever worn out a Ruger Single Action Revolver, of any caliber?

  4. I am one of those 1911 old timers who also owns a Glock 19 it makes a good backup gun for my 1911 but that just me, but if that’s all that you can handle is a Glock 19 plastic gun hey go go it.

  5. Use Google and the search string glock frame crack

    They are rare so far, but plastics do lose some of the integrity with age. We have M1911 pistols that are well over a hundred years old, and with the materials used, might need new springs at one hundred fifty or so– maybe.

  6. All you “1911” old timers lmao. My father bought me in 1988(?) an original glock 17. Other than mags, one guide rod she has about 20k rounds. Still looks like the day it was given to me. So if you wanna complain about ‘plastic’, might wanna think again.

  7. Although I have sometimes had to replace parts that were lost or broken on my various guns over the years, I have had to replace springs on every pistol with high round counts. My first high-round count pistol, a Walther PPK/S, showed peening of the slide rails and other signs of slide-battering before I recognized the need for spring replacements, but I am still unsure when to replace them in my various handguns.

  8. Alex yes the Glock is a good handgun in fact I own one in Glock 19 gen 5 and yes it is reliable and I have never had a problem with it and it is easy to field strip and change out parts and at times I carry it, but if I had to have but one gun it would be a 1911 and I have never had a problem with upgrading parts or just replacing them a person just needs to get their part from reliable sources.

  9. I remember being on the firing line when 12 gen 3 Glock 19’s failed at the same time with with exactly 2250 rounds. Glock told us that we SHOULD have done the spring upgrade. What a joke.

  10. This is just a comment, you as a younger shooter, I noticed that you mentioned the Glock as one of the best for breaking down and replacing parts, and as a younger person I under why you didn’t mention the 1911 colt which I have carried since probably before you were born, I can field strip it and replace parts or clean it very quickly and without missing a beat and I have relied on it in many different situations and still do.

    1. The 1911 is a great pistol and with practice can be field stripped, cleaned, and maintained. But I believe the tighter tolerances and hand fit parts many of them feature makes some parts replacement more of a chore than most shooters can manage. A newer shooter can pick up a Glock and learn complete takedown and parts replacement with ease. However, if you’re willing to put in the time to learn, the 1911 is a solid option. I’m glad it works for you, thanks for reading!

  11. This is just a comment, you as a younger shooter, I noticed that you mentioned the Glock as one of the best for breaking down and replacing parts, and as a younger person I under why you didn’t mention the 1911 colt which I have carried since probably before you were born, I can field strip it and replace parts or clean it very quickly and without missing a beat and I have relied on it in many different situations and still do.

  12. I vote for super long lifespan– multiple generation lifespan– just in case it is the hand-me-down legacy for descendents who no longer have new options. That is why I don’t like plastic guns, even if they work great and feel perfect for my hand, I want it to be functional two hundred years from now.

  13. This is just a comment, you as a younger shooter, I noticed that you mentioned the Glock as one of the best for breaking down and replacing parts, and as a younger person I under why you didn’t mention the 1911 colt which I have carried since probably before you were born, I can field strip it and replace parts or clean it very quickly and without missing a beat and I have relied on it in many different situations and still do.

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