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Gunsmithing Tips for All-Steel Firearms

Anyone can experiment with a Dremel tool and do irreparable damage to their firearm, but with a little knowledge and restraint, you can actually improve the functioning of your weapon rather than harm it.

This article will not focus on any work that could cause safety issues or major damage to your firearm.

There are three VERY important notes crucial to this article:

  • Firearms are complex and high-tolerance mechanisms, and if you are not EXTREMELY confident in your understanding and capabilities, you can cause damage to or even ruin the functionality of your firearm.
  • DO NOT BE AGGRESSIVE. A level of restraint is required for the best results. This is not a timesaving type of work. Utilize common sense, and do not perform anything other than basic cleaning and very basic parts replacement without extreme caution.
  • When in doubt, consult with industry experts, read up on the modifications, and do not proceed until you are confident in your abilities.

Remember to use high quality tools and materials in these processes. You should also work only with clean weapons and new parts. And of course, please pay attention to the overall work being performed.

Slide-to-Frame Lapping and Bolt-to-Rails Frame Lapping

This work is to improve the feel of the action and decrease abrasion.

DO NOT USE ANY GRANULAR ABRASIVE COMPOUND ON ANY MATERIAL OTHER THAN HARDENED STEEL. This process WILL NOT WORK on polymer-framed weapons including (but not limited to) Glock, Ruger, Springfiled, Smith and Wesson, and Keltec. This process also WILL NOT WORK on aluminum-framed weapons including (but not limited to) Sig Sauer, Ruger, Springfield, Smith and Wesson, or any AR-15 clone.

It is worth repeating one more time: THIS WORK IS ONLY SUITABLE WITH STEEL WEAPONS. This means a steel bolt and steel frame or a steel slide and steel frame. If you use an aluminum frame and steel slide, then the frame will be eroded away and permanent damage will be sustained.  Aluminum is softer than hardened steel, and lapping compound is harder than both; in short, you will potentially reduce your expensive gun to a non-working firearm.

A good firearm for this project is a 1911 .45 semi automatic pistol or a steel-frame bolt-action rifle. The goal is to smooth out the action of the weapon and match slides to frames or bolts to actions.

Materials needed:

  • Lapping compound (finer than 320 grit, but preferably 600 grit or finer; Clover brand is the minimum quality you should buy, but try to look for better-quality compounds in places like Brownell’s catalog)
  • Solvent for repeated cleaning
  • Nylon brush
  • Towels
  • Paper towels
  • Bore light
  • Q-tips
  • Oil or lubricant

Once you understand which guns you cannot perform this technique on, the rest is easy. Take apart all soft add-ons or wooden pieces, remove internal parts, and plug the chamber if the barrel cannot be removed. Use an oversized patch of cloth or paper towel shoved into place from the barrel end, not the breech end (insert it from the place where the bullet exits the barrel, and move it into the chamber to block it completely). This is crucial to avoid chamber damage.

Apply about a Q-tip head-sized amount of the finest grit lapping compound onto the rails of the steel frame you plan on lapping, evenly distributing the compound throughout the rails so that it isn’t clumped in one spot.  If the finish is extremely fine, like highly polished blued steel or stainless steel, you should consider abandoning the project or using a much smaller amount of compound and keeping the outside surfaces clean and free of compound. The compound will produce a matte finish on the metal it is worked on.  It will not be a shiny job, but it will be extremely flat and smooth.

Work the compound by mating the steel slide to frame or the (steel) bolt to (steel) frame.  Move the slide back and forth on the frame to the fullest extent (or similarly for the bolt to the frame rails to its fullest extension).  Do NOT work the two components together for more than forty-five seconds to one minute and thirty seconds.  The job is essentially complete.  Clean thoroughly and reassemble to check for improvements in slide/bolt feel.  Make sure you remove all traces of compound and clean twice with solvent and a nylon brush.  Use a few drops of oil or high-quality lubricant on the newly treated rails to ensure no peeling (gouging) of the metal.  If the compound has not worked quite as well as you had hoped or there are still high spots (areas where the compound caused the rail to become dull, but did not impact the entire rail), then repeat the process.  Do not repeat more than once, even if there are still high spots.  Clean fully and lubricate well.  Reassemble and test functionality.

Prepare for a smoother, less noisy gun that will feel slicker in the function. Total time: 35 minutes.  Money saved by not going to a gunsmith: $50-$95.

Checking Common Reasons for Malfunction

If you experience failure to feed on semi-automatic handguns, check these items in this order, and test fire between tests. Most likely, if you test between trials, you will find the cause of the problem and not cost yourself extra work.

  1. Clean the weapon well, and inspect for damage to all contact (bearing) surfaces.  Reassemble and test.  If this does not fix the feed issues, then move to the next step.
  2. Check for fully seated parts and ensure that the gun is functioning dry (without ammo), as it should be.  Reassemble and test.
  3. Check the magazine spring and follower to ensure that there is adequate pressure pushing the cartridges up to match the plane of the lips of the magazine. If either the cartridge alignment or the spring tension is lacking, replace the parts.  If parts are hard to find or will take time to get, you can try a temporary fix of stretching the magazine spring, and/or reshaping the magazine follower (if it is metal) to ensure it meets up with the magazine feed lips.  These procedures can be done using a pair of gas pliers (standard non-needle nose pliers) and your hands.  Tip: You can tell if this might be the problem by loading the magazine to full and then seeing how loose the cartridge at the top seems, and looking at how easy it is to change the positioning of the top cartridge.  Also, the cartridge should be mated fully to the magazine feed lips. After ensuring these parts are in place and working, reassemble and test.
  4. Check the play (looseness in the linkage) of the barrel, if there is a linkage.  Guns like a 1911 .45 will have a linkage, as well as S&W autos, CZ and EAA autos, etc.  Guns like Glock, S&W Sigma, and Sig Sauer will have no linkage, and this will NOT be the cause of feed problems, unless there is significant damage to the bearing surfaces.  If the linkage is loose, try the next two steps below first, and if the problem is not solved, consult a professional gunsmith to inspect the problem.
  5. Check for burrs, gouges, debris, or excessive roughness on the ramp of the chamber to the barrel.  If such problems exist, consult a qualified gunsmith to fix the issue.
  6. Replace the recoil spring and ensure that the guide rod does not have excessive striations or wear marks on it.  If the new recoil spring does not solve the problem, move onto the next potential solution.
  7. Check the hammer (if there is one) for excessive or jumpy cocking.  If the spring has rotated improperly or if there is debris in the sear/hammer mechanism, it may be causing the hammer to impede the slide racking back and moving forward over the back/top of the cartridge at the top of the magazine.  If you are to this point and the problem has not been resolved, then you should disassemble the gun further, then field strip and/or blast clean the mechanism with canned pressurized cleaner.  ONLY PERFORM THIS IF YOU ARE CONFIDENT YOU CAN PUT THE GUN BACK TOGETHER PROPERLY. You should have a blown up diagram of the gun with disassembly/reassembly instructions and the proper tools to avoid damage to the parts. If this does not resolve the issue, look for trigger pull issues to ensure there are no broken parts in the mechanism. If none are found, move to the final step.
  8. Take the gun to a qualified gunsmith to diagnose the issue, as further concerns will require material modifications and should not be played with unless you have extensive firearm knowledge and experience.

These projects are very common and can be performed if instructions are followed well.  Just remember this is not a “be all-end al”’ instruction set, and if you have any doubt about the procedure, DO NOT PERFORM IT. A simple and small article will not be enough to make up for your lack of confidence or experience if you have doubts about your capabilities in these procedures, so don’t attempt if you cannot be sure of your success in them.

More of these articles will be coming in the future, and they will cover a wide variety of firearms and small gunsmithing projects that will help diagnose problems or improve firearm function.

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