The only practical way of learning how to repair and work on firearms is to get your hands dirty and work on 'em.
The only practical way of learning how to repair and work on firearms is to get your hands dirty and work on 'em. That requires guns, and you don't necessarily want to work on or modify your prized Parker or Winchester. You need inexpensive project guns whose sole function is to provide you with opportunities to develop and test your skills. Gunsmithing books are indispensable when it comes to learning new techniques and procedures. There is often just no other way of picking up the information you need. But there is one area where many, if not most, gunsmithing books are causing problems and not addressing the needs of today's gunsmith hobbyists. In many of the older gunsmithing books, especially those written before or during the 1950s and '60s, you will find lots of emphasis on sporterizing military rifles.
(T) Remington Model 514, (C) Stevens Model 15-B, (B) Remington Model 33
That was all well and good when military surplus Mausers, Springfields, and Enfields were plentiful and often incredibly cheap up through the late '60s. I can remember paying less than $25 for good 98 Mausers, and British Lee-Enfields were even cheaper. Military surplus rifles were of little or no interest to most collectors at that time, and the supply seemed to be inexhaustible. Most of these rifles were bought by hobbyists and were converted into sporters. Some were extensively modified with new barrels, stocks, and sights while others simply had the forend of the military stock cut and any unnecessary military hardware, such as bayonet lugs, barrel bands, etc., discarded. The workmanship varied from outstanding to just plain awful.
Contemporary collectors often condemn the "mutilation" of those military rifles, but a lot of good gunsmiths perfected their skills with work on these rifles. In fact, back when I attended gunsmithing school, many of the schools required that you sporterize or convert several military surplus bolt actions.
There are some military surplus rifles still available, but the better candidates for traditional gunsmithing projects are also very desirable as collectables. Keep in mind that there are a lot more military rifle collectors now than there were 40+ years ago, and these folks tend to buy up good rifles.
Winchester 1906, To get good at gunsmithing you have to get your hands dirty working on guns. Inexpensive U.S.-made .22 rimfire rifles afford many good gunsmithing opportunities.
So what's a budding gunsmith to do? What can you use for project guns if inexpensive military bolt actions are not readily available? (And as point of reference, I tend to think of good project guns as typically costing less than $100.)
Well, there are a number of possibilities. Although traditionally we think of converting or sporterizing military rifles, why not work on U.S.-made sporting firearms? With every passing year more and more older sporting rifles and shotguns come onto the market, and many of 'em actually drop in value as time passes. As new models are introduced each year, older firearms are relegated to the back of the closet or to the "cheap" rack at the local gunshop.
Shotguns are also readily available for gunsmithing projects. This Remington Model 11 is basically sound and a good candidate for repair. By working on it the hobbyist can learn a lot about how long recoil shotguns function.
Most of these firearms would be ideal for hobbyists. Not only are they inexpensive, they also offer lots of opportunities for customization, repair, or refinishing. In fact, if you really want to develop your gunsmithing skills, these older, used firearms can actually provide more opportunities for various types of work than the traditional Mauser or Springfield conversion.
Finding Project Guns
My first recommendation is the .22 rimfire rifle--the common, ordinary .22 rifle. Lord knows how many millions of .22s have been produced here in the U.S. as bolt-action single shots, bolt-action repeaters, lever-action repeaters, semiautomatics, and pumps. While there are some very desirable collectables, such as the Winchester pumps, many others are just seen as old. (And don't worry about pitted bores. Lining a .22 barrel is an excellent project for a hobbyist.) These rifles often can be purchased for very little money.
Another overlooked category of firearm is the shotgun. Next to the .22 rifle, the shotgun has to be the most commonly available firearm. Like the .22, shotguns are also available in a variety of action types--break-open single shots, pumps, bolt actions, and semiautomatics. They are also available as side-by-side and over-under doubles, but seldom will you find these in the less-than-$100 category. If you look long enough, however, you'll be surprised at what you can find!
This single-barrel 12-gauge Stevens Model 220 has a poorly finished and broken stock. Because of this the price was very modest.
Even more than .22 rifles, shotguns seem to have suffered a lot of abuse. It's not unusual to find shotguns with lots of rust and virtually no original finish on either the wood or metal. That's a bonus for hobbyists; that poor exterior condition can help keep the price down.
Although the golden age of inexpensive imported military surplus Mausers has passed, you can still occasionally find a good military surplus project gun. The trick is to not look for unaltered rifles in pristine or even good condition. Instead, look for older sporterized military rifles. Recently I was at a local gun show and ran across a 1903 Springfield made by Remington in the early 1940s. The rifle had been sporterized, and from the looks of the stock I would guess that it was done back in the '60s. The handiwork was pretty awful, and the barrel was absolutely ruined with a bore that closely resembled the inside of a cast iron sewer pipe. In short, this rifle was a dog! And it sure didn't attract any interest from other folks at the show.
But I saw it as a project gun. Sure, the barrel was worthless, but the action was good. Best of all, the only holes drilled into the receiver were on the right side for a peep sight. Also, the stock, though poorly shaped and finished, had some possibilities for rework or repair. Yeah, that Springfield might have been a dog, but it was a darn good dog!
It's true that many of the repeating .22s and shotguns are mechanically more complex than a standard Mauser or Enfield. This can make mechanical repairs a bit more challenging, but to me that's part of the real value of these guns. After all, if you go forward with your gunsmithing and end up in a shop some day, you're a lot more likely to find yourself working on repeating shotguns and .22 rifles than you are on simple bolt-action Mausers. The experience you gain in figuring out why that Marlin Model 60 .22 rifle is jamming or why that old Remington Model 11 12 gauge is
double feeding someday will pay off.
Stocks & Parts
When working on older rifles and shotguns, there are two things you'll need: stocks and parts. One of the best sources for an absolutely incredible variety of parts and stocks is Numrich Gun Parts Corp. in West Hurley, New York. These folks are far and away the largest, most complete supplier of parts for obsolete or out-of-production firearms in the country. If you don't have one of their latest catalogs, which runs to well over 1200 pages, you need to get one right away.
Another valuable resource for replacement stocks for older U.S.-made commercial firearms is Boyds' Gunstock Industries. Boyds is currently the largest producer of factory replacement stocks in the U.S.
Not only is the inletting bad on this 1903 Springfield, but the buttstock is so poorly shaped that it almost looks like it will break off from the pistol grip. A military rifle collector sees it as a ruined 1903 Springfield, but the gunsmith hobbyist sees it as great project gun.
And speaking of stocks, you don't have to buy a gun in order to have a stock to work on. At most gun shows you'll find someone who has parts for sale, and more often than not he'll have some stocks. You don't need good ones! Tell him you're looking for project stocks and more than likely he'll drag some out from under his table and fix you up! Not long ago I bought eight assorted commercial stocks for about four bucks each. They were cracked, had bad finishes, and suffered from various problems, but they were absolutely ideal for project pieces. I was happy, and the dealer was delighted to get rid of those damaged sticks of wood.
Like I said, you won't get good at hobby gunsmithing unless you get your hands dirty working on some guns. And while much of the gunsmithing literature involves military surplus rifles, which can be hard to find these days, don't forget that older U.S.-made .22 rimfires and shotguns are readily available and can provide the hobbyist with countless hours of work and enjoyment.
Until next time, good luck and good gunsmithing!