Category Archives: Gunsmithing

Gunsmithing By Accessory

Some Things Are Best Fixed Simply.

As anyone who reads this column regularly knows, I am much in favor of do-it-yourself gun work for all kinds of reasons. There is much your gunsmith does that you can do too. Doing the work yourself will give you a better understanding of your gun and how it works. And, in the current dreary economy, one of the biggest reasons is, well, economy. Your free labor can make your parts money go a lot further.

Often as not, an off-the-shelf gun will serve its purpose pretty well. With a few sensible modifications or accessories, it will do so exceedingly well. We’ll run through some examples here where the important modifications were dumped out of a sack and bolted on with little or no machine work, fitting or finishing. Yet, in the end, the guns were far more effective and useful.

I found a Ruger Mini-14 under a bed when moving back to the old home place in the country. It occurred to me this would make a nice casual varmint gun to have in a kitchen corner. There are a few coyotes around who seem to favor house cats as snacks though, as a self-confessed “dog” guy, I do not find this a troubling defect of character. The Mini-14, on the other hand, was troubling, mostly since the stock was clearly designed more for someone 4-foot, 6-inches rather than 6-foot, 4-inches like me. A simple bolt-on Masen rubber buttpad dramatically improved handling.


XS Sights (above) allowed old eyes to see sights better on Hamilton’s foundling Mini-14,
thanks to their white-line front blade and ghost aperture rear peep sight. Getting the
old front sight off would have been tough (below) without a Dremel abrasive wheel and
mandrel, which slit the band easily.


This older stainless Mini had a stainless front sight blade, which was largely invisible to me so better sights were imperative. Poking around in various catalogs, I found a set of XS Sights Systems sights that went on with a little fitting. The ghost-ring aperture and white-line front blade will leave the free-range canine corps somewhat more endangered than before.

Once exposed to the gloriously fitted and finished pre-war Smith & Wesson revolvers, I largely swore off the newer kind with one notable exception. Much in favor of serious lightweight revolvers for outdoorsmen, the M329 scandium-framed, titanium-cylindered .44 Magnum was hard to ignore, homely space-age appearance notwithstanding. But, without a few simple bolt-on parts, it would not be one of my favorite S&W’s now. The gun arrived fitted with wood grips. After about 2 rounds of conventional .44 Mag. ammo, my paw was done for and shooting stopped. An old friend, the late, great Kent Lomont, the only person I knew who regularly shot to destruction S&W revolvers, advised I try the X-frame Hogue grips with the sorbothane gel pad at the top of the backstrap. With this one addition, the M329 became a useable gun. Cost: $30 in parts, 30 seconds in labor to install.

The gun also arrived with a horrific set of sights, which I would never see to use effectively. I know a guy who makes heavy-duty sights for S&W’s and laid on a set. This same guy makes lanyard rings, so I embezzled one of those in the interests of gun retention around water, ATVs and such. The gun wants for nothing now and is unnoticeable in a belt holster.

Many years ago, I acquired a Thompson/Center Contender, thinking it would make a good, general-purpose handgun. Powerful and accurate as it was, try as I might, I could never love it. My paw just never could adapt comfortably to it, especially shooting off-hand. The various barrels were sold off over the years, eventually leaving me with just the receiver. Friend Thad Rybka showed me his .357 Contender carbine and that little light in my head flickered dimly. What a handy and useful little rifle.


This S&W M329 was a holy terror to shoot without the new set of Hogue X-frame grips.
New sights and a lanyard ring make it a practical field gun and a joy to carry.


Three useful guns saved and made even more useful with a few parts and accessories.

Always a .22 junkie, this looked like a way for me to add a high-quality, super-accurate rimfire to the stable. Plus, it would, as the need arose, be a good test-bed for other calibers. In due course, a barrel and stock set turned up and were bolted right on. An unemployed low-powered Leupold scope found work in a set of Weaver bases and rings, giving the ol’ Contender a new occupation.

These three little projects put back in service three useless guns with just a little work and a few parts. That said, I do not advocate the inexperienced engage in modifications if they are potentially dangerous mishandled. But, aside from tuning and action work, most simple rifle and handgun projects are within the capabilities of most shooters. Plus, there will be beer money left over.
By Hamilton S. Bowen

200 South Front Street
Montezuma, IA 50171
(800) 741-0015

Midsouth Shooters Supply
(Contender Accessories)
770 Economy Drive
Clarksville, TN 37043
(800) 272-3000

XS Sights Systems Inc.
2401 Ludelle
Fort Worth, TX 76105
(800) 734-0136

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Secrets Of The Red Front Sight Insert

It Can Be INSTALLED Easily If
You Follow A Few Simple Rules.

Revolver shooters are always looking for ways to improve visibility and contrast of sights. One way, popularized by Smith & Wesson, is to install a colored plastic insert in the front sight blade. Red is a color not often found in nature and would stand out well against most any target (other than a stop sign). It’s one of the most popular custom revolver modifications.

Not long ago I took a seedy M29 in trade, which arrived with a clear, pink front sight insert that had to go. At first blush, creating a new insert looks terribly easy, and it really is if you know the secrets. If you don’t, you are doomed. Early on, desperate shooters cut up everything from toothbrushes to taillight lenses for material. Laboriously filing out an insert and fitting it perfectly to the dovetail slot was, as they say in polite society, a pain in the keister. Eventually Brownells developed a dedicated kit using a mix-it-yourself epoxy to be dyed your favorite color and simply poured into the dovetail slot with perfect results. Or so it was said.

After a dozen or two tries, I hit on a combination of little techniques that make the procedure palatable. Let’s touch on the easy part first. Many times you will be replacing an insert that has come adrift so you won’t have to machine a new insert slot. But, if you are working with an unmodified sight blade, you will have to make the slot. It you have a milling machine, it is a small matter to machine a perfect dovetail with a 0.25-inch dovetail cutter. I cut mine about 0.060-inch deep. The problem with machined slots comes when you have a non-detachable sight blade stuck to a tapered barrel. Holding it is tricky. At this point, it is often quicker and easier to use a small pillar file and either a safe-edged triangle or small, dedicated dovetail file, doing it the old-fashioned way—by hand.


The machined slot (above) is ready for the epoxy insert. The forms (below) are held in
place by the clamp to keep the liquid epoxy in place. Think of it as pouring concrete.



This stuff shrinks, so don’t stint on the pour (above). We’ll clean this up later,
but it is easier to remove than to not have enough. Professional results obtained
on the first try (below), thanks to an unmentionable number of failures in times past.


Secret No. 1: Cut the dovetail slot right up to the top edge of the blade, or else you will have a bit of black sight blade on top of the insert which presents a confusing sight picture. While the epoxy is pretty grippy, it won’t hurt a bit to drill a small hole or two in the bottom of the slot into which epoxy can flow and lock in the insert. If you are lucky, brave or a happy combination of both, you can do this with a No. 1, 60-degree countersink in a hand drill. The rest of us should use a drill press. Beware the upper edges of the slot, as it is easy to chew into these inadvertently. Now comes the hard part. There are two real secrets.

Secret No. 2: Slather the sight blade and surrounding countryside with Acra-Gel release agent, taking great care not to get it into the dovetail slot. You want the insert to stick like paint. However, the release agent will dramatically simplify cleaning up around the insert.

You need some simple forms to keep the epoxy brew in place. I use a couple of small triangular shaped pieces of 0.015- to 0.020-inch shim stock cut just for the occasion. With a small machinist clamp with narrowed jaws, clamp the forms in place with at least 1/16 inch of form above the face of the sight blade and dovetail slot. I like to see at least 1/8 inch of form material past the ends of the slot.

Secret No. 3: The differential pour—a term used by professionals of the trade meant to awe and confound their victims. You can’t create a stiff mixture and have it flow well off your pine goo applicator and into the small, sharp corners of the dovetail slot. What will happen is it won’t and, once the mix sets and you remove the forms, you will find voids in the corners. Bad form. So, I start with a near-water like consistency and get it into the corners, just covering the bottom of the slot. Then I’ll add more white powder to stiffen the mix and nearly fill the slot. Since this mixture shrinks a great deal, stiffen the mix further to a pancake-batter consistency and gob it on until you have at least a 1/16-inch build-up over the top of the blade surface.

Set-up time is about half an hour. Remove the clamp and forms carefully. Whatever you do, resist with all your might the temptation to start picking off the excess and flash. This epoxy sets up hard and is quite frangible. Nothing like wrecking a perfect pour with a gruesome chip. Instead, start filing very carefully with a sharp fine file to bring the surface down to grade. Once you get to steel, stop. With a very sharp scribe, pick out any material in the serrations. At this point, you should be able to break or knap off any excess with a stylus of sharpened micarta or pakkawood. The release agent will minimize any risk of fractures. To brighten the insert face, use a little 600- or 1,000-grit wet-or-dry emery paper. Re-black any white metal with cold blue. If all goes as planned, you will have a first-class insert.

This job is simple to do but difficult to do well without a trick or two up your sleeve. Now you know them, too. No need for thanks—just send me a bottle of Lagavulin when you’re done.
By Hamilton S. Bowen

Brownells Inc.
200 South Front Street
Montezuma, IA 50171
(800) 741-0015

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You Can Learn!

NRA Summer Gunsmithing Schools.

Mention the word “school” to some people and they take on a hunted look and start edging toward the nearest exit. But what if someone told you of a school where you could immerse yourself in the mysteries of your favorite hobby and actually learn something important to you? Well, as it happens, there is such a school.

For as long as I can remember, the National Rifle Association has organized summer gunsmithing courses for hobbyists and practicing gunsmiths alike. The classes are conducted in association with several community colleges that offer degree gunsmithing programs during the regular school year. At this writing, there are five campuses participating in the program.

Each of these schools will typically host a dozen or two guest instructors who will lecture (and demonstrate) on everything from basic metalworking to advanced engraving techniques. While a few classes will run for a couple of weeks, most are weeklong— but what a week it will be. Speaking as both student and instructor in these classes, I can promise you there is no other way to cram so much valuable information into such a short period of time. It is impossible to attend a class and fail to take away knowledge that can save you countless hours of struggle and headaches, even if you are a professional gunsmith who simply wants to broaden your horizons a little or sharpen existing skills. All it takes is one little tidbit to justify your time and trouble.

But what makes these seminars so special is the people who teach them. Virtually every instructor is a widely recognized expert in his field of endeavor and brings to the table years of invaluable experience to share. I have been privileged to sit at the feet of the likes of Jerry Fisher, Lynton McKenzie, Ron Power and many others. It does not get any better than that. Not only do the visiting artists share freely of the skills and knowledge that may have taken them decades to acquire, but most are bottomless pits of little anecdotes on running a business, dealing with clients, tricks of the trade and sources for tools, services, materials and guidance that may not be cited anywhere in the literature.


Ben Fagen, machine shop instructor, watches over a student lathe pilot.
Photo: Michele Haywood, Montgomery Community College


Bob Marvel (right), M1911 class instructor, discussing the finer
points of M1911 function. Photo: Michele Haywood, Montgomery Community College

I have taught at three of the schools—Montgomery, Trinidad and Murray—and have always found the physical plants to be tidy, well lit, well equipped and well managed. While the schools do not always have on-campus accommodations, all are helpful in providing information about the local chow and lodging scenes. There is a school within a hard day’s drive of most of us in the country. Classes are typically small, usually 10 to 15 students, so there is ample time for individual attention.
Instructors typically send out lists of tools, materials and parts for the classes. Just think of it as summer camp for adults with guns.

Nobody need be intimidated by the teachers or other students. These are your classes, paid for, in part, by your NRA dues (you are a member, aren’t you?) and are for your benefit. Your classmates will be from all walks of life: gunsmithing students, gunsmiths, engineers, cabinet makers, school teachers, accountants, machinists, farmers and, in one case, a naval architect, and all have one thing in common—they want to learn more about guns. Like you, your fellow students are serious enough to have sacrificed their vacation or valuable spare time to attend. There are no dumb questions, only unasked questions.


Filing up an S&W ratchet doesn’t scare Hamilton anymore, thanks
to his friend and NRA class instructor George Wessinger.

Even though I am a practicing gunmaker like a lot of us in the trade, I started as a hobbyist and then it got out of hand. But, with few exceptions, very few of us in the trade accomplished what we have in a vacuum. Most of us had a little help and encouragement along the way. Yes, having a good imagination, a little native mechanical ability and good spatial judgment helps, but there is nothing like accumulated lore passed on down for free. Over 30 years ago, I attended a class at Trinidad State Junior College on S&W revolver tuning and repair taught by my good friend George Wessinger who sadly passed away a few years ago. I distinctly remember the nonchalant way he located a specific ratchet tooth on a cylinder and filed it in to set the carry-up timing. He just opened the cylinder, grabbed it by the chamber, swung the gun around by the cylinder until it was flipped upside down and trapped it on the bench pad just so, arranged perfectly so he could file in that chamber’s ratchet tooth. Before the class was over, I wasn’t any longer scared of those ratchets. In time, I even perfected the “flip.” In the past 30 years, I have fitted hundreds of cylinders and filed in the ratchets exactly as George did. And when I do, I never fail to breathe a small thanks to the kindly gent from the great state of South Carolina who showed this hayseed how it was done.
By Hamilton S. Bowen

NRA Summer Gunsmithing Schools

Montgomery Community College
1011 Page St.
Troy, NC 27371
(910) 576-6222

Trinidad State Junior College
600 Prospect St.
Trinidad, CO 81082
(800) 621-8752

Flathead Community College
777 Grandview Dr.
Kalispell, MT 59901
(800) 313-3822

Murray State College
One Murray Campus Dr.
Tishomingo, OK 73460
(580) 371-2371

Lassen Community College
478-200 California 139
Susanville, CA 96130
(530) 257-6181

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Just Make It Yourself

If you can’t find the factory part.

Anyone who is not obsessed with the “lowly” .22 rimfire can’t call himself a real gun junkie. You simply can’t have too many .22s. Some of the finest handiwork of the American arms industry handles this little cartridge. Millions of gun owners’ first exposure to firearms came from one.

My first .22 was actually a Savage M24, with a .22 Long Rifle barrel over a 20-gauge tube. My next .22 was an M17 S&W, followed by an M41 auto pistol with a 5-1/2-inch heavy barrel with an extendable front sight. These three guns consumed several cases of .22 ammo before I could vote. In the end, I used the revolver most since it was just handier. To my eternal regret, I never sprung for one of the little lightweight 5-inch “field” barrels for the M41, something that would have put it into the field more often.

In moving back to the old home place, I stumbled across the lovely old M41 which I had not shot in years. It was still a boat anchor so I thought why not find a field barrel, a part long out of production. Poking around on the Internet turned up several but priced at two or three times what I paid for the whole gun. Miffed, I swore to do what any self-respecting gunsmith would do and make one myself from a standard-weight, 7-inch target barrel just as the factory is purported to have done. After a few weeks of searching, a suitably seedy candidate materialized.
Since this project wasn’t something I do every day, a little planning seemed in order. I am a muller by nature and prefer to wrestle with projects in my head over time before making chips (or mistakes). By working in my head while driving, mowing the yard or some other brainless task, I can go through the motions and generally anticipate every step, tool or potential problem. Where numbers and specifications are involved, I’ll even make a few notes or sketches on the back of the proverbial napkin.

Everybody has his own approach to shop projects, but, along with the planning, I like to gather tools and make any fixtures and parts in advance of the real work, in part, because I’d hate to have to tear down a complicated machine setup just to make some little gidget. Any of you familiar with the M41 barrel know there is an extension of the barrel, which covers the slide, leaving the breech face and chamber in about 3 inches from the end. There is no room for a conventional lathe center. So, I made a simple round holder from 3/4-inch round stock which I ran in the lathe collet holder. The closely fitted nub about 3/8-inch long machined on one end engaged the chamber diameter, accurately supporting the breech end of the barrel. A milled flat not only gave clearance with the barrel extension but also served as a dog to drive the barrel. Another small clearance cut was necessary to accommodate the feed ramp. The muzzle of the barrel would run on a tailstock center. The only other dedicated tool I needed was a lathe bit ground to cut the recessed crown.

Hamilton trying out his new, much handier toy. The ratty old
7-1/2-inch barrel has now been shortened into a more
convenient lightweight 5-1/2-inch one.

Real Work

The first order of business was to shorten the barrel which Ho Chi Minh, the ancient import band saw, did with its usual anti-American violence. With a slab-sided barrel, truing the muzzle in the milling machine was a simple task. Next came chamfering the interior crown with a piloted 60-degree chamfering tool to accommodate the half center. The half center features a small flat on the point of a “dead” center (as opposed to a center running on bearings with the work piece), which reduces coverage of the 360-degree arc of the crown by about 90 degrees. It still provides adequate support for turning but gives access to the face and bore of the barrel to accurately machine the recessed crown. Once cut, I beveled lightly the outer muzzle face for appearance sake.

The remaining rib grooving now ran to the muzzle. On composite S&W revolver barrels, where the base/blade unit is added rather than integral, the rib is slotted and a sight base with a foot is fitted to the groove and pinned in place. You can see the V-grooves in the muzzle face. In this case, there was no raised rib for pinning in a blade, just the grooves. With the heavily sloped barrel shoulder and proximity to the bore, there was simply no way to attractively pin in a sight and then file and polish flush the pin. Silver soldering was out since cleaning solder out of grooves is a pain. A screw-on sight is unsightly which left a slotless, blended screw as the only alternative.

The sight was made from a copy of the old S&W factory add-on sight. The foot was removed and a clearance hole for a 6-40 screw with a 7/32 counter bore cut just behind the blade. Set into a 1/4-inch slot about 0.050-inch deep milled into the rib grooves, the sight has plenty of lateral support. The counterbore was cut shallow enough that the bottom of the screw slot was above grade. Torqued down hard as I dared and set in red Loctite, I filed the head down to just above grade, peened the edges of the closely fitted screw to fill any gaps and then filled it flush. Once the top of the barrel was re-matted, there was no sign of the screw. Shaping and serrating the front-sight blade and a dip in the blue tanks finished the job.

Holding the barrel precisely for the lathe operations (above) would have been impossible without the homemade mandrel. The reconfigured lightweight barrel (below, top item) has a conventional front sight while the 5-1/2-inch heavyweight barrel features an extendable front sight for more sighting radius.

Most Satisfactory

The old M41 is a joy to shoot now with its newfound light and airy handling. Even better, nice to see a few sub 2-inch off-hand groups at 25 yards. Most importantly, the barrel was the result of a nice, pleasant and rare day off in the shop, puttering for my own amusement.
By Hamilton S. Bowen

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Books For Gunsmiths

Information Is An Important Tool.

If I visit a residence without books lying everywhere or a few yards of bookcases brimming with readables, I get a really uneasy feeling. That something is not quite right. Like nobody there knows anything or cares to. Books should always be at the ready to answer questions, to show specifications or to educate. You just can’t remember everything and books are a good place to stow useful knowledge. Maybe an old-fashioned view in the cyber age but the Internet doesn’t know everything. Books are often just handier and more efficient.

Like any business, a gunsmithing business runs on information. There is a certain core store of knowledge you have to have at hand to work effectively. Every gunsmith, working and hobbyist alike, will have a different focus in his work but we all still need much of the same information. I’ll touch on a few of the essential references that inform my daily work.

Most of my daily fare is metalwork. Questions on heat-treatment of particular steels arise regularly so I peruse heat-treat recipes, draw temperatures and hardness tables found in a couple of steel company publications on both carbon and stainless materials. Occasionally, I’ll nose into the Machinists Handbook for advice on odd thread pitches and how to select tap drill sizes for them. Most of the books on metalworking I have are quite old but then so are the materials we use. If you haunt used bookstores, you will find all manner of books on materials and machine shop practice that are priceless and cost about nothing. The sad irony is the Internet is the best treasure-hunting tool out there and is how I find most of my books now.

For rifle and pistol smiths alike, barrel and cylinder chambering means you need specifications for the cartridges you use. I have a weary, greasy, dog-eared NRA Handloading Guide, bought in the early years of my business, that has critical SAAMI (Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute) cartridge drawings showing the all-important headspace numbers that all gunsmiths must use to produce safe, dependable and predictable work product. I will admit to visiting the excellent SAAMI website for drawings my old book doesn’t have (just don’t tell the book). Since the old NRA Guide doesn’t offer much in the way of intelligence on vintage or foreign munitions, I have an equally faithful and grimy edition of Cartridges of the World which has not only specifications for many other cartridges but loading data, as well. When you need to order up chambering reamers and other tooling for some obscure round, these specifications are invaluable tools without which you cannot intelligently design the tooling. These two books will cover most territory you will travel but I would also commend at least the third and fourth volumes of George A. Hoyem’s excellent The History & Development of Small Arms Ammunition. Nobody should keep house without a goodly collection or reloading manuals, old and new alike, from various publishers and manufacturers.

Webley-Fosbery parts are the only thing scarcer than the guns so it pays to study up a little before venturing into the irreplaceable innards. This book from Mowbray tells it all. A companion book on Military Rifle Disassembly is a must-have as well.

While I do very little gunsmithing for hire, there is still a good bit of it going on in the shop after hours and on weekends for my own amusement and for family and friends. Most of us in the gun making trade tend to specialize. While most custom gunmakers have a sound working knowledge of firearms, few of us have a lot of general experience. And it shows the first time you are confronted with a gun you have never handled, let alone disassembled or repaired. While intimately familiar with the entrails of most revolvers, I had to repair an old Marlin Levermatic some years ago, a terrifying experience. The action of this little .22 Magnum rifle was a Gordian knot of entangled mousetrap springs, levers and cams, none of which made a lot of sense at first glance. However, armed with my grubby, stained copy of J. B. Wood’s Firearms Assembly/Disassembly Guide, Part III, I was able to prevail and make it well. The first-class Collectors Guide to Military Pistol & Revolver Disassembly and Reassembly by Mowbray & Puleo was an invaluable companion for understanding a Webley-Fosbery revolver. This was uncharted water for me and I didn’t want to rush the work or injure the old girl in any way. Owners manuals from contemporary manufacturers and parts catalogs from Gun Parts Corporation and Jack First all offer exploded drawings of new and vintage arms that will provide the names of any parts left over after reassembly. You simply can’t have too much of this material at hand.

The last class of books we’ll touch on are my favorites. These play little part in my day-to-day work but they have fueled many a pleasant evening, pouring over them all. The list is long so I’ll mention but a few favorites. I have the eight Wal Winfer books on British single-shot rifles which offer great insight into these grand old guns. There are several tomes from Collector-Grade Publications on everything from the Colt New Service revolver to the Remington Models 8 and 81. These books are also the ones that can lead to penury and privation, especially when you accumulate several hundred pounds of them. Still, they are friends and companions from whom I would not be parted. Handy as the Internet is sometimes, there is no substitute for a paper book with its own peculiar smell, warmth and substance. Books are like guns, too: if you know how many you have, you don’t have enough.
By Hamilton S. Bowen

Brownells Inc.
200 S. Front St., Montezuma, IA 50171
(800) 741-0015

Gun Digest F+W Publications
700 E. State St., Iola, WI 54990
(800) 258-0929

Mowbray Publishing
54 E. School St., Woonsocket, RI 02895

Collector Grade Publications
Quality books on collectable
P.O. Box 14046
Cobourg, Ontario Canada K9A 4W5
(905) 342-3434

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GUNS October 2013

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The Humble Punch

A Most Important Part Of Any Tool Kit.

Of all the tools in your tool kit, there is none more humble than the punch. It doesn’t perform glamorous work nor is it pretty and it is regularly beaten like a rented mule. It is also one of the most-used tools a gunsmith has. Perhaps a few observations on the general topic will aid the weekend gunsmith in his endeavors.

First, safety. We don’t need no blind gunsmiths ’round here. Punches must be used with eye protection. In time, heavily used punches will peen and distort at the head (hammering) end. Eventually, chunks of work-hardened steel can break loose and can fly into unprotected eyes at high velocity with unhappy results.

Periodically, the head of a punch should be ground back to the punch body’s diameter. Punches can also get out of hand and fly off in all directions. The tentative carpenter can tell tales of 16d nails zinged half way across a job site because of inaccurate hammering and a gingerly grip on the nail. Punches will do the same thing.

While on the subject of safety, here is a helpful first aid tip. Hammers and punches work together. Both can do a lot of damage to a firearm if either gets out of control. I would rather smash a finger than bash a firearm, generally on the theory that fingers and fingernails will grow back. I have used fingers as gun protectors a couple of times in my life to good effect but with wondrously smashed digits. If you haven’t tried this, it hurts. Later, once the pressure from hemorrhaging builds up under your now-purple fingernail, it hurts a lot. A kindly dentist might supply some small used carbide burrs for your Dremel or Foredom tool. Use them to grind a couple of small holes through the nail for instant relief. Then, take two aspirin, a Snickers bar and get back to work.

Like the screwdriver, the punch can do an amazing amount of damage to a gun in a very short amount of time. Aside from gaining confidence in your own hammering, there is a little trick worth noting. Once a pin is below grade, the exposed hole will help keep the punch tip from skittering around. Reinstalling a pin is more troublesome, especially where the pin at issue is above grade and is only going in flush with the exterior. The trick is to take hold of the punch with a very firm grip, holding the tip just off the head of the pin a few thousandths of an inch. This makes the hammer drive the punch to the pin but no further. After the hammer hit, your hand will retract the punch back off of the pin head.

Adapted to various pin and punch situations, this helps keep the punch tip under control and away from surrounding finished surfaces. It applies to a degree to cup-point punches used commonly on dome-headed pins to prevent flats. You simple can’t count on the cup recess to keep the punch on the pin head under a hammer blow. You haven’t lived financially until you have done several hundred dollars worth of damage to a firearm’s finish with a punch.

It goes without saying you can’t hold hammer, punch and a work piece unless you have three hands. For those of us who don’t, a bench block or a bench vise and, perhaps, some specialized fixtures or holding devices to grip the work firmly without marring it, are critical to successful pin removal. Just laying an irregularly-shaped piece of work on a bench mat and beating away at it will almost invariably get you in trouble.

Not every hobbyist gunsmith has grinding equipment in the form of a bench or belt grinder. If you can manage it, these are vitally important in the use and maintenance of punches. Not only will grinding gear help keep punches in good shape, you will find endless applications for punches that don’t exist and aren’t available for purchase. So, you grind your own. Plus, when you break or bend small punches, you can easily convert them into something else, a short, small-diameter starter punch, for instance, on the theory that the shortest, largest punch possible that will do the job is the best one. Prick punches require constant sharpening to keep fresh, especially used against hardened material.

Punches come in all manner of shapes and sizes. I would recommend a basic starter set such as the 9-piece Mayhew set from Brownells. If you work a lot with guns with domed pins—such as Smith & Wesson revolvers—cup-point punches are a must, both starter and long lengths. I especially like the interchangeable-tip brass and nylon punches for drifting dovetail sights. If the nylon fails to work, you can resort to the brass tips but bear in mind brass can deform steel and will leave a brass track on parts. A piece of paper between punch tip and work will help. May pay to loosen up a super-tight dovetail fit with a dovetail file once the part is removed.

Punches are simple but important tools. They can do both a lot of good and a lot of bad work so a little care and skill is imperative. Just give some thought to your next hammer strike and have at it.
By Hamilton S. Bowen

Brownells Inc.
200 S. Front St.
Montezuma, IA 50171
(800) 741-0015

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Sometimes It’s Not The Gun

It’s The Ammo.

Gunsmiths are much like farmers. They have to know a little about everything. Every good gunsmith and every good farmer is a Jack of all trades. In addition to a thorough understanding of firearm mechanics, gunsmiths need also to know a great deal about ammunition. Practicing gunsmiths encounter nearly as many failures of munitions as guns in their day-to-day practice. In many cases, a gun is “repaired” simply with a change in diet or some related adjustment to the ammunition. We’ll touch on a few common problems and how to overcome them.

Before SAAMI (Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute) was founded in 1926, headspace allowances, essentially cartridge endfloat in the chamber, tended to vary from maker to maker and gun to gun. It isn’t uncommon to see a vintage Winchester or Savage lever rifle with what today would be considered excess headspace, whether from manufacturing tolerances or just wear and tear. With low-pressure ammo of the day, this really didn’t hurt anything until and unless the owner started reloading his own ammo. Then, the sloppy chambers would tend to stretch the cases on firing. Full-length resizing the cases after a few firings would often lead to case-head separations just forward of the rim, leaving the balance of the case stuck in the chamber.

Happily, there is an easy fix for reloaders. Have your gunsmith check the headspace to verify it is long and out of spec. While ideally you would have him set back the barrel and repair the excess headspace, this is often a time-consuming and costly process—and unnecessary. The simplest fix is fit cases to the gun. Using fresh unfired or once-fired cases, expand the necks up three to four calibers, then run them into your full-length sizing die only enough to form a new shoulder forward of the original. Leave it long initially, checking fit in the rifle. The action must not close at this point. Slowly, a little at a time, size further until the action just closes. Use this die setting to size fired cases in the future.

A really scary example of problems arising out of vintage guns and ammo are the province of big-bore British magazine rifles. I have seen serious function problems in custom rifles that were positively in spec according to best available chamber and headspace numbers and had adequate firing pin protrusion. Not all factory ammo made for the .404 Jeffrey, .416 Rigby, .505 Gibbs and other similar rounds is all that well-matched to available rifles. With some currently-produced ammo, I have seen numerous failures to fire or hang-fires due to short body sections exacerbated by the extremely sloped shoulders of the cases, all adding up to excess headspace induced by the ammo. You haven’t lived until you have experienced a 0.08-second hang-fire in a .505 Gibbs. Using our neck sizing technique will create ammo with proper headspace for these guns. I would never venture into harm’s way with a big-bore dangerous-game rifle for which I did not personally load the ammo, carefully tailored to the specific gun.

As a practicing revolver schmidt, I see several common “gunsmithing” problems almost daily that are the result of reloaded or out-of-spec ammunition. Heavy-bullet high-performance ammo is all the rage today in sport revolvers. Most of this ammo is loaded with cast bullets, which quite often have quite wide front driving bands in front of the case mouth. If this section of the bullet is too long and not sized properly, it can foul on the leede or throat sections of the chamber, preventing the cartridge from fully seating in the chamber. Sometimes, the interference is great enough to prevent closing the cylinder. Even if you can close the loaded cylinder, the cases may still have interference headspace and the gun won’t cycle smoothly.

Assuming the throat diameters are adequate to the bullet diameter below the crimp, the solution is either to properly size the whole cylindrical section of the bullet or change to a design with a smaller meplat and narrower driving band. Reloaders often forget that in-and-out bullet sizer/lubricators do not always size the entire bullet due to lube port location or bullet length. Only through-type sizers will accomplish this. A simple remedy is to use the Lee bullet sizer die in a reloading press to complete the job.

In some cases, reloading practices are not at fault. Gun malfunctions are just plain bad luck, a combination of unhappy gun and cartridge specifications. The resident baby Nambu is a good case in point. Available custom ammunition tends to have a long cartridge body section, which prevents the gun from going into battery occasionally. The ammunition may well have perfect specifications but my particular gun has seems to have short headspace and simply won’t function with it. Running the fired cases through the standard full-length sizer die didn’t help. So, I simply shortened the die body until I could set back the case shoulder enough to produce ammo that works. This same problem cropped up recently in the shop with a .38-40 revolver and was solved with exactly the same die modification. Vintage rounds were developed before the advent of SAAMI and chamber and ammo specifications varied wildly, leading to incompatibility of some ammo and chambers.

Every gunsmith and gun junkie should have as much ammunition-related material as possible in his archives. The book Cartridges of the World is a must-have and good place to start. If you shoot vintage firearms, old loading manuals are invaluable sources of loading data and bullet mold info. I also have several volumes on vintage ammo that I visit regularly. Aside from a set of high-quality calipers and a precision micrometer graduated in “tenths,” one of the most important tools you can have is a set of SAAMI cartridge and chamber drawings. Happily, these are now available on the Internet. These drawings are God for contemporary cartridge specifications and are binding on firearms manufacturing industry members. They also make life a lot easier for us small fry out here in the trenches.
By Hamilton S. Bowen

Cartridges of the World
F+W Publications, 700 E. State St.
Iola, WI 54990
(715) 445-2214

Lee Precision
4275 Highway U, Hartford, WI 53027
(262) 273-3075

11 Mile Hill Rd., Newtown, CT 06470
(203) 426-4358

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Many vintage rifles, such as this Savage M1899, do not headspace by the numbers,
but that is not cause for alarm since you can properly headspace the rifle with
special, fitted ammunition.

gunsmithing 2

Homemade tapered expander buttons used on an RCBS decapping die made necking
up the cases a simple matter.

gunsmith 3

This .45 cartridge with a 300-grain cast bullet (above) is not going to fit this gun
until either the bullets are properly sized or the chamber throats honed to fit or both.

gunsmithing 4

This lovely little Nambu had negative headspace and the only way to produce ammunition
that would function was to modify the full-length sizer die to move the case shoulder back
until the action would lock up properly.

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Classic Irons

A Bolt Peep Sight Installation.

Mankind has sought better sighting devices since shortly after the introduction of the rifled barrel. Most primitive iron sights were various combinations of blades and notches and probably worked about as well as the accuracy of the arms of the day justified.

However, by the middle of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was very much underway in both England and the United States. Enormous leaps in machine tool technology, steel and engineering led to amazing gains in the inherent accuracy of firearms. But this accuracy was only as good as the sighting systems of the time allowed. Naturally, the private sector led the charge and, in due course, astonishingly complex aperture sights appeared, many with very precise and sophisticated vernier adjustments. Telescopic sights were still in their infancy and didn’t offer much more in precision but went off the rails with distressing regularity.

While quantum leaps in optics occurred late in the century, sportsmen were slow to trust them. Both the British and Germans tended to fit their scopes with quick-detachable mounts so iron sights could be deployed in event of scope failures or conditions where the scope wasn’t up to the job. Even on into the age of smokeless powder and improved optics, riflemen were still uneasy and took a lot of comfort in high-quality iron sights. Not until the post-World War II era did telescopic sights gain real acceptance. Only then, did exotic iron sights start to fade away.

British gun makers were notorious for fitting wondrous arrays of folding shallow V-notch rear blades used with bead front sights. Fascinating as they were, they were also about useless unless you had especially good vision. I have a .360 Henry single-shot rifle with a front sight bead that can’t be more than 1/32 inch in diameter. Only on a good day can I see it with my myopic vision, excellent prescription shooting glasses notwithstanding. Evidently, I am not the first with such difficulties. Further, only aperture sights will enable aging shooters to again see the rear sight, front sight and target in apparent simultaneous focus.

gunsmithing 1

At one time, Lyman made all manner of sights including the bolt peep for a Mauser (above), complete with dovetail adapter plate. Simple lathe/milling machine fixture and grooving tool with an unaltered Mannlicher cocking piece. Alas, this is not really a home gunsmithing project unless you keep house with a lathe and mill.

gunsmithing 2

Iron sight makers have produced all manner of aperture sights. The British used a lot of these sights and tended to favor striker-mounted sights on their magazine rifles. The foremost maker was John Rigby who produced his own version. Devised and used mostly on his famous Mauser sporters, the sights occasionally found their way onto other magazine rifles, including the Mannicher-Schoenauers. I have a seedy M1905 model undergoing periodic improvements and wanted very much to install a Rigby bolt peep sight. While not especially rare, most seemed stuck to Rigby rifles.

So, I set about looking for one or at least a nice reproduction part. Just by chance, MAGNUM Magazine, published in South Africa, reviewed one produced here in the states by Rusty’s Action Works. Without an original with which to compare it, I can’t say how authentic it is, especially as I am aware of at least two or three Rigby variations. What I do know is Rusty’s part is a first-class piece of workmanship and similar enough in appearance and function to keep even the most discriminating sort happy. The machine work and polishing are almost jewel-like, to the extent I am not sure it will even make it into the bluing tank. Once regulated, adjustments are made instantaneously by turning the knurled adjusting wheel, which, through an ingenious eccentric pin and slot arrangement, moves with the aperture to a given range’s setting. Most were regulated for two or three ranges.

While the excellent instructions were for installation on a Mauser cocking piece, the installation on the Mannlicher cocking piece wasn’t especially complicated. Unlike the Mauser cocking piece which is easy to hold in a mill vise, the Mannlicher part was round with only a small square tab which I used to index it in the small, simple but critical holding fixture which did double-duty in both lathe and milling machine.

gunsmithing 3

The sight from Rusty’s Action Works is jewel-like in finish quality and functions as well as it looks.

gunsmithing 4

This Rigby-style bolt peep is original to this Mannlicher rifle.

Like most striker-mounted peep sights out there, the Rigby utilizes a dovetail to attach it. In the case of the Mannlicher, I wasn’t going to bugger up the lovely knurling or modify an irreplaceable firing pin so I made a small adapter, similar to those supplied with the Lyman bolt peep sights of yore, which soldered to the Mannlicher cocking piece. For additional security and precision in location, I machined a small groove in the rear face of the nut into which fitted a flange on the adapter plate.

The only trick in any of these installations is getting the peep aperture slightly below or at the existing line of sight. I can tell you that cutting a dovetail off-center is tricky and, on the next one, I’ll look to modify the sight body and aperture stem slightly to accomplish this. I have not yet regulated this sight but regulation is simple and Rusty’s instructions very complete and helpful. The end user will have to mark and cut the aperture stem detents as a part of shooting for regulation which is something best done on a milling machine.

When this old Mannlicher is done, up and running in good style, I’ll have a handsome period sporting rifle with a sophisticated period-style sight both interesting and effective.

Author’s note: I am looking for a Fraser bolt peep sight either to purchase or borrow to measure for some sketches with an eye to duplicating. These are pretty obscure and have so far eluded me. Be grateful to hear from any of our GUNS readers on the matter.
By Hamilton S. Bowen

Rigby-style Bolt Peep Sights
Rusty’s Action Works
186 Rectory Rd., Montross, VA 22520
(804) 493-9370 5:30-9 p.m. weeknights only

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GUNS April 2013

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To Restore Or Not

That is the question.

Every gunsmith with two screwdrivers to rub together is queried regularly about restoring guns. Often, the guns are family heirlooms with sentimental value or basket cases that would cost many times their NIB (new-in-box) value to rehabilitate in good style. Many are perfectly wonderful and desirable guns that are just a little past their prime. Some are extraordinarily rare pieces, which deserve the work.

If ever there were loaded term, it is “restoration.” For most of us, it means returning to new condition, exactly as it was when it left the factory. In strictest terms, it is also an impossible standard. In the years since a gun was made, the craftsmen who made it have shed their mortal coils. Much of their equipment, materials, processes and formulae went with them. Consequently, at best, we can get infinitely close to original but never 100-percent there. On the other hand, there is “refinishing” which is probably best defined as getting a tired arm back into respectable condition with respect to function and appearance without regard to authenticity. It is often the best goal. A sensible gunsmith will raise a few questions before agreeing to a restoration project as there are pitfalls that would do credit to the average minefield.

Should you? Often as not, no. If your cousin brings in Uncle Willie’s Model 61 Winchester .22 showing decades of use in the field and proper care, it is probably best left alone. Honest, patina is the work of a happy lifetime in the field and must be respected. The costs of a proper restoration with great care taken with respect to duplicating factory polish, bluing, stock stains and finish, etc., will considerably exceed the value of the gun at this writing. Worse, all traces of Uncle Willie would disappear.

Suppose it is Aunt Bertie’s “Owlhead” top-break .32 revolver mail ordered right out of the 1905 Sears catalog for $3.45 and now an absolute piece of crap with broken spring, cracked grip, missing parts, half the nickel flaked off and heavily pitted from storage in the chicken coop. It might be possible to restore such a gun since it was possible to make it in the first place but it will cost thousands of dollars tedious welding, fabricating, filing and fiddling to do so. Then, what do you have? Despite great sentimental value, it is best nailed up over the doorjamb next to the lucky horseshoe.

gunsmiting 3

Export Target Model S&W Triple Locks (above) are exceedingly rare in any condition.
This specimen has much of the original finish but is pretty banged up and in need of
some minor repairs so may be a good candidate for a maximum-effort restoration.
This lovely old Fraser rifle (below) is just a wee bit worn and misused to ignore and
will justify any effort and expense to heal.

gunsmithing 1

Good Investment?

Suppose, on the other hand, it was Great Uncle Willie’s Colt SAA taken with him to Oklahoma during the great land rush. It may be a hellish wreck now with sewer-pipe bore, missing front sight, bumper-chroming shop polish and re-blue and plywood grips. But, any Colt with a visible serial number that isn’t polished beyond the point of no return is a good candidate in the hands of an enterprise such as Turnbull Manufacturing, which can save most specimens in fine style. Sentimental value aside, even with an investment of several thousand dollars in a serious effort, you have only to watch the skyrocketing prices of these guns to see nicely restored examples as bargains next to some derelict, thoroughly molested originals. In most case, such work can only add value. It must be said, however, it is well to have a costly purchase of a costly antique arm authenticated by a knowledgeable expert since restorations have a habit of becoming increasingly “original” at every change of ownership.

A happy outgrowth of this new appreciation for restored guns is upgraded guns. Again, our friends at Turnbull Manufacturing are among the foremost practitioners. Special-order, highly finished Winchester rifles, for instance, are exceeding rare and valuable. A deluxe, engraved M1876 with many options turned out by the factory is probably worth more than a nice house in a respectable neighborhood. With a bit of skilled work, it is possible to reproduce such a marvel from a seedy standard model at a tiny fraction of the cost.

There is a special class of guns that must be saved at all costs due to rarity or intrinsic value. I have a few, one a miniature Fraser falling block rifle (circa 1885 or 1890) with split fore-end, scattered external pitting, broken firing pin, relined barrel, foggy scope and beat buttstock with wormy horn buttplate. It is unserviceable, abused and utterly magnificent. Daniel Fraser, one of Scotland’s finest makers, is thought to have produce between 400 to 425 of his elegant falling-block rifles, including 50 or so of the small ones. This is a favorite rifle, will be buried with me and cost is no object. I may not skilled enough to do all of the work myself and will be pestering friends who can help but, someday, this lovely gun will shoot again. Perhaps Mr. Fraser will look down upon it with approval.
By Hamilton S. Bowen

gunsmiting 2

This S&W Triple Lock retains most of the original bluing and coloring though
touched with a little metal mold. It is best left alone since a costly restoration
wouldn’t add to appeal and would detract from value.


Smith & Wesson New Frontier Target models in .445 Webley are also exceedingly scarce.
Since this one was stored in a wet rag for decades, etched, pitted, and refinished with
indifferent cold blue, it is an ideal candidate for a careful, meticulous restoration.

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GUNS Magazine February 2013 Issue

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Recoil Pads

Installing one is similar to skinning a cat and this is one more way.

One of the most oft-requested tasks of gunsmiths is the installation of recoil pads. While there are as many ways to install recoil pads as there are gunsmiths, I am, nevertheless, going to throw in my 2¢ worth, thanks to an epiphany occurring whilst motoring down the highway, doing gunsmithing problems in my head. Unfortunately, fitting recoil pads is an equipment-rich enterprise and not something done easily out of your back pocket. The usual stuff first, all old hat to professional gunsmiths. As with most information in the world, you will find any of a number of perfectly good descriptions of this work on the Internet.

Gunsmithing 1

Faithful Dayton disc grinder with both B&R fixtures deployed
with a pad. Messieurs B and R must be a clever lot.

Most typical applications require shortening the butt stock, which is the trickiest part of the operation. First, check the pitch of the stock, defined as the angle of butt to line-of-sight. Easiest way is to put the butt flat on the floor with the gun butted up to a wall. The distance of the muzzle to the wall usually describes pitch. Obviously, shorter butts and barrels will give a different number. Main thing is to maintain positive pitch, which, if extreme, would let the gun slip up and over your shoulder. Negative pitch would let it slip down. For most jobs, start with a cut parallel to the existing butt but 1/8″ or so short of the final cut. Check pitch and adjust accordingly with the final cut.

Actual cutting depends on your circumstances. Faster and finer the saw, the better, else you chip the wood. My saw, a Diston framing saw, left over from teenage summer jobs, is neither so I tape the butt on the cut line and cut only to within 1/8″ or 1/4″ of the final cut line and taking great care. Before doing the final grind, I like to drill out the old screw holes an inch deep or so and plug with a hardwood dowel retained by Elmer’s wood glue. Then, I grind it to length on a disc grinder. At this point, try to make a vertical line with a pencil or scribe along the centerline of the butt as close as you can manage by eyeball.

Once the butt is trued up, grind flat the back of the pad (where it mates to the wood), taking care to remove just enough material to get the pad flat all over. Then, poke the screws in from the groundside of the pad until you see a little dimple in the business side. With a sharp, greased, oiled X-Acto knife, or similar, make a slit about 3/8″ to 1/2″ long on the vertical line of the pad. Now, lay the pad against the buttstock centering side-to-side as best you can without cocking the pad off to one side or the other. Be sure to position the pad with enough material at the bottom to retain the lower line of the stock through the thickness of the pad. With the upper screw (oiled) run in from the back, tap it with a hammer. Check the location of the dimple on the butt—should be pretty close to the centerline. If so, measure the screw hole spacing on the pad and transfer it to the butt using the dimple as the starting. Carefully drill the screw holes with a drill sized to the minor diameter of your screws.

Once I have the pad bolted down tight, I retape the stock with masking tape and very carefully cut a line around the pad with the X-Acto knife and I do mean cut. I want this line deep enough to hold some white-colored compound, whether chalk, zinc oxide, typewriter whiteout or what have you. Even in the nuclear glow of my shop light, I want a crisp line to follow when grinding to size.

Everybody wants perfect work and rightly so but, what distinguishes the men from the boys, is not doing perfect work but doing perfect work very quickly. After trying every known recoil pad holding fixture ever made, we finally discovered the B&R fitting jig sold by Brownells. It solved almost all of the usual problems of smoothly manipulating the pad against the grinder. Even so, any time you are pushing the pad against the grinding disc rather than the grinding disc pulling on the pad, there is a risk of chatter to the cut in the form of little facets or flats on the smaller arcs of the pad. But, with one fixture and a 1-way disc, this would always be problem. Then the little light in the ole noodle glimmered a bit and a solution glowed. Why not use two fixtures and run the disc both ways? Laid in another B&R fixture and mounted it on the other size of the grinder table. Friend Michael Carver, local wizard electrician, rigged up a reversing switch. Now, by grinding one side and end of the pad on one fixture, I can reverse the motor, hang the pad from the other fixture to tackle the diametric opposite sides and arcs with the pad pulling against the wheel at all times on all points for the smoothest possible finish. I use a 120- or 150-grit disc and finish by hand with 220- and 400-grit paper. With a little experience, it won’t be hard to perfect the technique. For those of us who install just a few pads a year, this is a down and dirty way to get respectable results with minimal trial and terror.
By Hamilton S. Bowen

200 S. Front St., Montezuma, IA 50171
(800) 741-0015

gunsmithing 5

Weary old family heirloom Savage shotgun has been put back into
service with a new pad and a coat of varnish.

gunsmiting 2

Scribing a sharp line, once the pad is fitted and bolted in place,
marks the net line where material will be removed.

gunsmithing 3

Not a pretty line, but it will give you a fighting chance of seeing what you are doing.

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GUNS Magazine December 2012

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