Gunsmiths have lots of expensive, specialized equipment, and much of it would seldom, if ever, be of use to the average hobbyist. But there’s one item that–even though you might think it’s too specialized–can be very useful in your home shop. And it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg because you can build it yourself.
I’m talking about a barrel vise.
A barrel vise is a heavy-duty clamping tool used to hold a barrel while the receiver or action is turned on or off the barrel. In gunsmithing, you normally don’t hold the receiver or action in a vise while installing or removing a barrel. There are several reasons for this. First, it’s generally easier to secure the barrel even though it’s often round. Second, by placing the holding pressure on the barrel, there’s less likelihood of damaging the action, which can be bent a lot easier than you might think. And, finally, actions or receivers tend to have odder shapes that are less conducive to clamping in a vise.
Especially important for the home gunsmith, a barrel vise gives you the ability to do more work on rifles, shotguns, or handguns. For example, with a barrel vise you can pull the barrel off an old military Mauser and install a new sporter barrel. You can swap barrels on revolvers. You can remove barrels for refinishing, cleaning, lapping, or sight work. Any time you can do a job easier without the action, a barrel vise can be a big help.
There are many vises available from gunsmith supply houses, and all of them work. However, you can easily build your own. By doing so, you will save money, and you’ll have the option of modifying the design to fit your needs.
Traditional Barrel Vises
Perhaps the oldest and most traditional barrel vise consists of a large casting with a rectangular or square opening. At the top of the casting is a massive machine screw that extends down into the opening. The barrel is placed inside blocks of wood or metal under this screw. The screw is turned in and compresses the blocks around the barrel, holding it securely. It’s a simple and effective vise that I’ve used many times over the years. The only problem involves the threads for the machine screw. These threads can be stripped out, and when that happens, you have a major problem.
Another popular vise consists of two thick, rectangular strips of steel. The strip on top is normally a bit shorter and will have anywhere from two to four screws passing through it and threading into the lower strip. The barrel, again in a wood or metal block, is positioned between these two strips, and the screws are tightened. The compression exerted can be pretty impressive, and the vise works quite well. But again, there’s the potential problem of stripping out the screw threads. You also have to do a lot of work with a wrench if your vise has four clamping screws, and that can get old really quickly if you have to put a barrel on and off an action repeatedly.
My favorite barrel vise is a homemade unit and uses a hydraulic jack. It’s fast, easy to use, and can be tightened with just one hand. It can also double as a press if needed. Best of all, it’s simple to build and relatively inexpensive. I built my first barrel vise like this almost 30 years ago. I’ll admit that one was too big and too heavy, but boy it sure worked.
Years later some friends who had a machine shop built one based on my suggestions. They generously gave me their first prototype, and I’ve been using it now for about 20 years.
How To Build Your Own
The vise is simplicity itself. It consists of two 1-inch-diameter steel rods approximately 15 inches long. They are threaded into a 3/4-inch-thick steel base that measures 9 inches by 14 inches. The rods are set 4 inches apart. There is a moveable 3/4-inch-thick steel platform 7 inches by 2.5 inches. The two steel rods extend through this platform.
To keep the platform off the base piece, there are heavy coil springs around the bottom of each rod. There is a 3/4-inch by 6.25-inch by 3-inch-thick steel top cap attached to the two rods by large nuts.
The “secret” of this vise, and what makes it so easy and fast to use, is a 4-ton hydraulic jack. It’s positioned to sit on the moveable platform between the vertical rods. The top of the jack bears against the top cap of the vise, and by pumping the jack, the moveable plate is forced downward.
When using the barrel vise, the blocks holding the barrel are positioned under the moveable platform. As the platform is forced down by the upward movement of the jack piston, tons of energy are transferred to compress the blocks around the barrel. The amount of force you can obtain with this barrel vise is limited only by the size of your jack. If you want more compressing force, use a bigger jack. Needless to say, you can vary the dimensions of your vise to accommodate virtually any size of hydraulic jack.
A variety of different types of blocks can be used to hold a barrel. The simplest is a block of hardwood, such as oak. The other option is to make up a metal clamping block.
Years ago I took a 3×3.5×2.75-inch piece of aluminum bar stock and bored a 2-inch-diameter hole in it. I then cut the block into two equal halves right through the center of the hole. The blocks are used both as molds to cast inserts of bedding material around the barrel that I intend to remove or install and as holders for these inserts when used in the barrel vise.
Don’t be afraid to change the dimensions of your barrel vise or barrel blocks. The important thing is that you have one. It’ll be a great addition to your shop.
Until next time, good luck and good gunsmithing!