As your humble author was working on this column, it occurred to him that he, long ago, wrote a similar article for this publication. But that’s okay, ‘cuz this one’s better. This month, we want to briefly discuss the tools that the new gunsmith should shell out the initial dough to purchase, and those that he can or may be able to do without. As such, there really aren’t a whole lot of these initial tools, so they will be broken down by section below, with recommendations based upon personal use.
Unfortunately, common tools, like standard screwdrivers, pliers, hammers, and the like have limited use on the bench of the gunsmith. For gross (as in large, not as in yucky) operations they work well, but they are not necessarily suited to the precision work demanded when working on guns. Likewise, fine precision tools like those used in the electronics industry, while great for fine control of springs and pins and stuff, simply aren’t tough enough to last for long under the heavy-handed abuse of the average overweight, under-exercised gunsmith. Fortunately there is a thriving special industry of overpriced (sometimes), overbuilt (often), and convenient (always) tools for dudes to blow their paychecks on.
You will need a hammer or four. The first is the most used and thus the most important and essential smasher to acquire. Brownells has a great model that is simply adorable, a 1-inch nylon/brass headed item, weighing about 6 ounces. You will use it every day, and it is the most suited for the most common punching and driving of small pins and parts that you will encounter.
It will wear down and require dressing, the brass head will expand and need to be pounded or turned back into shape, and the nylon head will start to look like it went on a date with a cheese grater. If you can get spare heads, do it. Eventually it will expire and you will be forced to get a new one. Strangely, it is a very inexpensive replacement. For as much as it is used, Brownells should double the price and really make it profitable.
Buy a rubber deadblow hammer for heavier soft work. This is your second hammer.
The third hammer to get right away is a heavier steel model. Many smiths use a standard ball-peen hammer to help loosen those hard-to-move super-tight pins. The typical gunsmith’s tool bench is the home to a 1-pound steel that is quite easy to control and has the necessary mass to overcome all but the most stubborn interference-fit inertia.
The old adage, “Don’t hit it harder, use a bigger hammer,” is oh-so-true in Gunsmithtown. The harder you hit something, the less control you have, and inevitably you will ruin your tools and the piece you are working on. You know, the workpiece that belongs to someone else.
Overcoming inertia requires force. Force is applied with a hammer using speed or mass. Mass is easier to control and far more effective, hence the 1-pound hammer for moving the tapered front sight pins on an AR. Which brings us to the fourth hammer … the Hammer of the Gods. Thor called his “Mjolnir.” I call mine Pickles. Use the 16-pound sledge hammer to beat the ever-living crap out of that old .22 from the thirties that has no value, doesn’t function, and continues to reside in your shop for the sole purpose of relieving frustration. Plus, its effect on box elder bugs has to be seen to be believed.
Buy the Magna-tip 58-bit Master Super set, and the thin bits sets from Brownells. Use these for your bench. Very, very high quality tools. If you want a range set to allow you to show off your sexy gunsmithin’ to the hot chicks at the range, buy the Wheeler Engineering 89-piece set from Midway USA. It has several specialty bits that turn three-handed 15-minute jobs into two-handed three-minute jobs.
Discount sets have their place. But not in the gunsmith shop. Great success has been gained with Starrett punches from Brownells. Also get roll pin punches and those cute little hollow-nosed pin starter punches.
Get a high quality Dremel type tool. I’ve yet to find one that will stand up to hard use, most being of the hobbying variety. Be prepared to replace this one yearly. Once you have one, though, it is hard to get along without. For some unknown reason, motors and electricity have this funny way of making work easier. You will use this for grinding, polishing, buffing, hogging out stocks for glass bedding, and who knows what else.
A variety of hand files are a must. The models available at your local home supply store are generally of adequate quality, as long as they are the expensive ones. Large bastards, mills, and the little needle files are all needed.
Ceramic or Arkansas polishing stones are essential for trigger work and other fine material removal.
One interesting and miniscule tool to acquire, or make, is a firing pin protrusion gauge. You may not actually need this one right away, but you will need it eventually. Worn firing pins, or badly manufactured firing pins, will cause headaches and this little doozy will help you figure out if either is the case. This tends to be needed on older guns with heavy mileage, and there are a whole lot of those out there.
Get several sets hex wrenches. Preferably ball ended. Without a doubt, get metrics. You’ll need those to handle all those crappy ChiCom red dot sights that are flooding the market. Invaluable tools, they are must haves; and be prepared to order extras after you lose or break a few.
Finally, at the risk of alienating all those manufacturers in the ether of Gunsmithtown, most of the jigs, rigs, and nice-to-have gadgets are not really necessary for immediate accumulation. That’s not to say they are useless, because they are often very handy and make the job more efficient. They just tend to be pricey, and the average dude should put off getting them until he knows he will get his money’s worth.
Lube and Cleaner
It would be a good idea to get a parts cleaner, and maybe a small ultrasonic tank. Overall, you may find that your selections of bore cleaners, lubricants, and the like will be determined by your nose, or specialty. A lot of guys get positively high off of Hoppe’s #9, which is okay since it works quite well, and you might as well enjoy your work. Some people think its odor is too strong. Well too bad for them. They may then gravitate toward Tetra’s line of cleaners and lubes, which have a completely different aroma.
Fortunately, the great majority of the cleaning solvents and oils in Gunville are reasonably or greatly effective at the tasks for which they were produced. However, my experience with the “green” environmentally friendly, non-toxic selections has been disappointing. If I can drink it and not die, it has no business touching my guns. Gun solvents should be like coffee: great to smell, but revolting in taste, and capable of stripping copper from barrels, and cells from esophageal linings with equal ease.
All of this stuff can be purchased for well under 10 C-bills. Between these tools and those discussed in next month’s column, the new-born gunsmith can accomplish the vast majority of the everyday jobs. And this shouldn’t put him out too much dough if it turns out not to be his cup of tea. A lot of guys just do this kind of thing casually, fewer as a career, and many others try it and change their minds. Starting out small and wise like this will absolutely benefit anyone.
This article appeared in the April 12, 2010 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.