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
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200 S. Front St.
Montezuma, IA 50171
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