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Survival Gunsmithing Anyone Can Do

Ingenuity and knowledge is at the heart of firearm modification, not tools and expensive custom jigs and aftermarket parts. Understanding your limitations and the gun’s is important. Perhaps even the most important thing in being successful at basic gunsmithing. Sure, you’ll need the basics, something to help you achieve the general tasks, but it doesn’t take a fortune to be able to do some modification work. If you are stuck with a hammer, some punches a file, and a screwdriver, you can make it work, but it IS nicer to have a bit more.  The biggest reason for the misconception about tool needs and costs of starting in the gunsmithing trade, or even as a hobbyist modifying your favorite hunting rifle, is the fact that automotive and normal hardware store tools aren’t all that useful on firearms beyond a certain point.  It DOES take some specialty equipment, or at least a better working knowledge which can bring you the upper hand.

But what makes sense really?  The economy is tough: it may be easy to get a local gunsmith with the right tooling to do a simple job for much less than you can even assemble the tools for.  At that point, it comes down to whether you want to have the experience of doing it yourself, or you want to save some time and money, thereby lowering your risk of damaging your firearm.

Let’s be clear: ANY modification outside of drop in parts available on the open market by reputable makers can potentially cause function or safety concerns for the user, so please exercise caution in making modifications.

Despite contrary belief, many “drop-in” parts require SOME fitting. In fact most require more than just “some fitting,” but it isn’t something that can’t be done with a little bit of patience and some attention to detail. Before there were high speed rotary tools and mills and lathes, there were chisels and files and abrasives.  It’s just a matter of understanding the relationships between the pieces involved.

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Take for instance, changing a pair of standard grips for a pair of truly drop in grips, that’s an easy change, and something that can have dramatic effect on your performance.  Even a pair of aftermarket high end grips for visual and handling improvements, usually doesn’t require any fitting at all, and if it does, it’s very minimal. Go slowly and try not to put too much pressure on grip screws. If the grips don’t seat fully, move them around slightly until they do.  If they still don’t fit look for blockages and slowly take off protruding internal edges on the wood or composite material until they fit perfectly.

An AR-15 or an AK-47, or any number of more mainstream guns can be fitted with aftermarket drop-in, or semi-drop-in furniture, to give a whole new level to the utility of the weapon.

It doesn’t stop at “drop in stocks.” There are thousands of additional “bolt on” accessories, and other simple add-on parts for these platforms, and many others.  The Remington 870 and Mossberg 500/590 are also prime candidates for this type of modification.  Just about everything has a drop-in version for these guns.  There can be significant improvement in functionality and looks with simple add-ons and they need not be the most expensive or the hardest to make work.

Adding a rail heavy hand guard will require a barrel nut wrench, but you can get one for around $20 to $30 from an Internet retailer like Brownell’s or even from Amazon. It isn’t expensive and if you plan on being able to fully service your AR (s), you will want to invest in one anyway.

Adding items like the following can all be done with minimal time and knowledge investment, and require normal tools only:

  • Extended pieces, like charging handle, forward assist, bolt release and ambi safeties.
  • A free-floating barrel tube (requires the above wrench)
  • Add on bipod
  • Add on picatinney rails
  • Add on muzzle brake
  • Most optics
  • Magpul accessories like grips and stocks
  • Plenty of other add ons

The AK platform isn’t much more difficult, and requires no more specialized tools than the AR-15 add-ons. Grips, Stocks, muzzle brakes, scope mounts and other add-ons don’t require much time or effort at all. Lights, lasers and other add-ons can also be quickly adapted

Some basics to keep in mind when doing modifications to your firearms:

Barrel length and fire control groups must be of the standard legal type, including on a rifle: a barrel of no shorter than 16 inches and a minimum full gun overall length of 26 inches.  If a pistol is being transitioned into a rifle, that’s ok too, but must be barreled to meet the minimum requirements and have a barrel over 16 inches or risk being classified as a SBR (short barreled rifle-an illegal weapon without the proper tax stamp and form registration).

All states have their own specific laws and interpretations of laws in the gun arena, and you must be in compliance with both federal and state laws, which is beyond the scope of this article, so please do your research before making modifications which could land you in hot water.

A final note on this: a pistol made on a rifle or shotgun action must have never been used with a buttstock, and must have never been attached with one, in order to remain legal.  DO NOT test the BATF. In the gun climate that exists nowadays, it is dangerous to play anywhere near the lines, regardless of how blurry they are.

You may also consider drop-in barrels for semi-auto pistols as a fun and relatively easy modification.  You might use a .357 Sig barrel in a gun made to shoot the .40 S&W, and many of these types of barrels are truly drop in.  In the case that it isn’t, a few quick touches with a fine ceramic stone could be just the thing needed to bring it into alignment.  Always exercise caution and restraint, and dry cycle a weapon with dummy rounds or other inert methods to ensure they are functioning fine.  If in doubt, don’t be unsafe: contact a qualified gunsmith to look over the work.

Some basic refinishing work might be right up your alley as well; touch up kits or even whole cold bluing solutions are a fraction of the cost of new hot dipped parts refinishing, as well as quicker. Sure you won’t get as even of a finish, or as deep or pretty, but you would be surprised how nice a little touch up can be for your old shooter.

Don’t fool yourself into believing this isn’t an accomplishment to be able to finish any of these projects, even if they aren’t particularly challenging to the experienced veteran gunsmith. Getting to know your firearms is the mandatory learning curve here. The more you know about the relationships existing inside your firearm, the easier it is to safely and proficiently modify those mechanisms for a better user experience. Don’t ever forget to check the local and federal regulations for your particular firearm to get a good feeling for your limits and restrictions before you make any modifications or buy any expensive parts.

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