IF you spend a little time in the professional tools section of Brownell’s or Midway’s catalogs or website (let alone turn yourself loose on McMaster-Carr or MSC Direct) you may just develop a case of Tool Deprivation Syndrome. The TDS sufferer has a backlog of jacked-up guns and a series of excuses that begin with the magic phrase:
If only I had a [insert magic talisman], I could fix the [insert name of appropriate member of the dead-gun pile].
You know the way it goes: “If only I had a drill press, I could mount that scope.” “If only I had an action block.” “If only I had a CNC Bridgeport.” We call bullshit. Today, in guerilla workshops in Darra Adam Khel and in shantytowns in Mindanao, bush gunsmiths are making functional copies of modern weapons with saws and files and grinding wheels, because nobody told them they need a CNC Bridgeport.
There are four answers to a dead-gun project that get the gun up and running:
- Admit you’re never going to fix it, and take it to a pro.
- Suck it up and get the tool.
- Improvise, substitute, or make your own equivalent of the factory tool.
- Take a patient, manual approach.
Take it to a Pro
There are some things that absolutely require Approach #1. An example of that is coatings: a professional that does them all the time will do them, especially difficult ones like rust blue, flame blue or straw, and aluminum anodizing way, way better than the home or small-shop smith can. (Well, with practice, anyone can get good at simpler coatings like rust blue or parkerize, but you’re going to make some ugly ducklings before you’re turning out swans). The semi-Bubba alternative is Cerakote. You never want to go full Bubba, but the full-Bubba approach is Krylon rattlecan. (Unless you’re trying to emulate an SF team’s personalized camo finish on their arms, which was probably applied with Krylon rattlecans).
Suck it Up, Get the Tool
There are some things that absolutely require Approach #2. One of them is a small thing, and yet it seems to be the last one newbie smiths acquire — a very comprehensive set of screwdrivers. Before you get the Ruritanian FAL handguard bushing no-go gage*, have a set of premium screwdrivers. Gunsmiths need hollow ground or parallel-ground screwdrivers, not taper ground hardware store drivers. A screwdriver should fit exactly in its screw slot. The semi-Bubba uses an undersized driver, damaging the slot in the screw. Full Bubba uses an oversized driver, or a right-sized one deployed off center, to provide optimum damage to the screw and to the wood and metal around the screw head. One screwdriver manufacturer has a whole drawer full of images like the one to the left. (That’s actually a mild one).
Similarly, a full set of punches in steel and brass are mandatory. Roll pin punches and roll pin starter tools, also, if you work with modern firearms that use these fiendish fasteners.
Finally, a set of reamers. You know why the pins in your homemade AR lower rattle, and the ones in an el cheapo lower rattle, and the ones in a GI rifle don’t? The GI gun (like most premium ARs) is drilled undersize and reamed to size for a perfect fit. Perfection is an asymptote: you may never get there, but you ought to be trying, or go back to Approach #1 and Take it to a Pro.
Improv, Substitute, Make
Approach #3 is actually the trad gunsmith solution for… inter alia, screwdrivers. If you have an unusual size screw, find an oversize (but expendable) screwdriver and grind the tip to a perfect fit. You’ll never damage a screw or any of the things it fastens this way.
Some foreign and obsolete weapons require odd spanner wrenches or slotted screwdrivers; the temptation here to try to use a general-purpose tool like a vice-grips or Leatherman is strong. Resist it, for that is a path well trod by Bubba the Gunsmith and quite a lot of actions and stocks bear the scars of it, in mute testimony to his passage.
One good substitute for a punch is a reversed drill bit of the right diameter, chucked into a drill press. Best to do this with a worn-out or run-out bit, lest you scar the cutting edges with the jaws of the chuck. Scarred cutting edges go walkabout in wood and metal alike, producing drill holes that are not cylindrical, or even not round.
Take a patient, manual approach
In finance, borrowing is “leverage” and leverage, just like a lever in mechanics, gives you an amplifying effect. If you win and borrowed to leverage your bet, you win proportionately bigger. If you lose… you got it, you lose bigger if you have leverage. Leverage in gunsmithing comes from power tools and time-savers. If you’re not doing this for money, you’re not trying to beat the clock (in the standard English idiom, not SAS, sense). Take your time, think it through, do it gently, get it right. Use nonmarring tools and cushion the jaws and surfaces of marring ones. Most of all, never let your tools, especially power tools, get to anyplace your mind hasn’t already been.
Bubba is always in a hurry. And being Bubba, he doesn’t even know why that’s a bad thing.
To Sum it Up
Judgment is more important than purchasing power when you have a job that needs a specialized tool. The Brownell’s tool kit shown at the top has many (not all) the tools you need for AR work, and it has some good and overlooked necessities (non-marring vise jaws and an FSB block go a long way towards making you “not Bubba.”). But here are a few secrets Brownell’s won’t tell you (although you can pick them up if you read the reviews judiciously).
- The tools in the kit aren’t always the best ones. (They’re always OK, though).
- It’s nice to have a box with cutouts for the key tools, but the box itself is cheap molded polyethylene, and you can save $150 by skipping it. That’s more than 10% the price of the whole set, for the lowest quality item in it.
- You can actually detail strip and reassemble an AR, apart from four seldom-needed things, without any of the tools shown here. The AR is so well-designed for assembly that you can do it with a dummy cartridge or a wrong-caliber cartridge (for safety), or even use the firing pin if you don’t have a cartridge, although we don’t recommend using the firing pin as it may mar the wider pins. The parts you need tools to disassemble are: barrel from barrel extension (especially to reassemble), FSB from barrel and return, staked key from carrier, staked receiver extension (buffer tube) from receiver (and it’s good to have a torque wrench for receiver extension reassembly).
- These tools are not “everything”. You’ll still need headspace gages (unless your name begins with “Bub” and ends with “ba”), a good bench vise or machinists vise (quality costs here), and if you’re dealing with old barrels (and who isn’t) a throat and muzzle erosion gage, which is a very costly precision gage, and a straightness gage (although you don’t need a gage to identify a barrel that’s not straight by the shadows in the rifling). By comparison, Brownell’s kit for the FNH SCAR 16/17S includes both 7.62 and 5.56 headspace gages and a barrel straightness gage.
Since you still need some expensive things even with the $1,500 armorers kit, consider a much less expensive kit from Wheeler Engineering (also available from Brownell’s, and, we think, Midway). However, Brownell’s kits are made mostly from US tools, and Wheeler doesn’t say where their stuff is made; and the Brownell’s click torque wrench, for example, seems to be higher quality than the Wheeler beam one. (As a rule of thumb, click-type wrenches are more accurate than beam type but are more vulnerable to losing calibration, especially if stored improperly). Fortunately, the torque requirements for AR parts are quite wide-ranging, at least, according to the M16 and M4 maintenance documents.
While we’ve used AR-specific examples, most of what we’ve said about tools is just as applicable if you’re working on 1911s, Smith & Wesson revolvers, or a Brown Bess (for the latter, you should probably make your own screwdrivers, as each maker made his own screws and the slot sizes are all over the place — plus, many have been Bubba’d in the last couple of centuries).
Us your judgment first. Then use the right tool, in accordance with your judgment. And you’ll never be Bubba.
* In case you didn’t figure this out already, Ruritania is a fictional country, FAL handguards do not have bushings, and if they did, it’s hard to imagine what a Ruritanian FAL handguard bushing no-go gage would look like, or what page of the Brownell’s catalog it would be on. It’s just an expression