A bad workman may always blame his tools, but Mike Morton reckons this will never apply to you – as long as you’re using the right gear
While few shooters aspire to becoming full-time gunsmiths, most people want to be able to at least maintain their guns, carry out minor work or make simple modifications. In order to do this yourself, you’ll need some basic gunsmithing tools.
If you’re new to the world of airgun shooting and have just splashed out on a rifle and scope, the thought of having to spend even more money to pick up some extra kit might be seen as an unwelcome and unnecessary additional expense – but there are a few factors in your favour that may help overcome this.
First of all, you don’t need to get everything in one go; and second, many of the tools you need to look after your guns can pull double-duty around the home or workshop as well.
Before we start looking at specific tools in detail, there’s one general piece of advice that is probably the most important of all: use the right tool for the job.
If you need a particular implement that you don’t already own, it’s much better to delay the job in hand until you’ve either bought or borrowed the correct item. Postponing a task is always preferable to bodging it, where you could potentially create more problems by damaging your gun or scope – in addition to not completing the original job you set out to do in the first place.
- A toothbrush is so cheap, yet so useful
- A good spanner set is well worth buying
- Torx drivers are useful for some mounts
- A gunsmith’s hammer should be brass
- Set the correct torque with a wrench like this
- Pin punches are great for disassembly
- A hollow-ground screwdriver is best
- Some torque drivers accept multiple heads
- Oil droppers let you apply lube precisely
- Square bubble levels are perfect for scopes
- Pencil rubbers can be used to support parts
- A plastic mallet won’t mash steel if you miss Allen/hex keys come in metric and imperial
To carry out most of the tasks you’re likely to encounter, it’s necessary to hold your gun stable. Early on in my airgun shooting career I tried to save money and thought I could get by without a decent gun rest.
I soon found out that trying to fit a scope to a rifle that’s either lying on your lap or is wedged between your knees isn’t much different to wrestling a greased piglet: chaos ensues, and the end result is less than pretty.
There are numerous gun rests on the market, but my current favourite for home use – and one that I’ve been using for more than a decade – is the Gunsmith’s Maintenance Centre from US firm MTM.
This features two removable plastic forks with moulded-on rubber padding to protect your gun. One fork is specifically designed to support the rear of the stock, while the other cradles the forend.
The base unit features four slots at different heights, and the forks can be positioned to present the rifle muzzle down for cleaning, so any oils or solvents will be kept clear of the action. Alternatively, the forks can be slotted in place so they hold the rifle perfectly level, which is what you’ll probably want for the rest of your maintenance and scope-mounting work.
The same forks can also hold the rifle upside-down for stock removal or trigger adjustment, and are close enough together to support the barrel and action once the stock’s been removed.
The tray features some small compartments into which you can store a few tools and cleaning supplies, and there are even two circular compartments which are a perfect fit for a bottle of gun oil and a tub of moly grease.
Guns, scope mounts and other airgun-related products often come with one or more hex keys included in the box or packet. These will have been supplied to carry out a very specific job, and may or may not feature a marking telling you the exact size of the key.
If no size is present, keep the hex key in a zip-lock bag or other container that you should clearly mark with its intended role – such as ‘Bushnell turret key’. These hex keys can then be taken with you when you go shooting, in case you need to make some impromptu adjustments in the field.
A hex key, which is also known as an Allen key or Allen wrench, is used to drive bolts and screws that have hexagonal sockets in their heads. Hex screws and bolts are commonly found on scope mounts, trigger guards and stocks.
While the majority of modern-manufactured airgun components found in the UK that need a hex key will be metric, some will be imperial, so you may need two separate sets of hex keys to cover all eventualities.
What you should never do is use a metric hex key in an imperial socket, or vice versa. Some of these keys are roughly the same size, but this slight mismatch means you run the very real risk of rounding the corners of the socket on the screw or bolt you’re working on.
If this happens you may not be able to get any firm purchase on it, and the fastener may be irreparably damaged and have to be drilled out and replaced, which is a massive nuisance to say the least. And, like most of my cautionary tales, this happened to me.
While two or three specific sizes will see most use – most of my scope-mounting duties rely on 3mm and 4mm hex keys, for example – it’s a good idea to buy a set of keys of varying sizes.
My own set goes from 0.7 to 10mm, and while I rarely use keys from either extreme, some smaller keys have proved useful for jobs like adjusting open sights and fitting grub screws to air strippers and muzzle brakes, while larger sizes are useful for stock screws. One Ginb stock I own, for example, needs a huge 10mm key.
Hex keys are usually double-ended and L-shaped. If you insert the short end of the key into the socket, the long arm will give you more torque. This can sometimes be too much for airgun components such as scope rings, though; in this case, it’s enough to insert the long end and use the short section of the tool for reduced leverage so you don’t over-tighten and damage any components.
While hex keys are in frequent use for many airgun-related tasks, you may still need to use a slotted screwdriver from time to time. Slotted screws are most often used to secure trigger guards and the forends on some piston-powered rifles.
While hex keys are usually safe to use regardless of who made them (as long as you’re using the correct size, of course), not all screwdrivers are created equal.
If you examine a typical DIY/household slotted screwdriver, you’ll see it’s actually a wedge shape when viewed from the side. A gunsmithing screwdriver, on the other hand, has been hollow-ground, meaning the tip that’s inserted into the slot is rectangular, rather than wedge-shaped.
Grinding away the excess metal to create this precision shape is time-consuming for the manufacturer, and that makes this type of tool more expensive, but a good set of hollow-ground screwdrivers will repay your investment.
A hollow-ground tip will fit the slot of the screw far better, giving you more control and greater purchase, with less likelihood of it slipping and damaging either the screw or the surrounding woodwork or metalwork.
Some gunsmithing screwdriver sets offer a single handle with interchangeable tips. Take the time to match the correct tip to the job in hand. The tips vary in width and thickness. Use the largest size that will comfortably fit into the slot, which will both maximise the contact area and minimise the chance of it slipping.
When you’re screwing or unscrewing anything that requires a substantial amount of torque, you can hold the screwdriver in your fist for a more controlled grip. Protect the surrounding area with a cloth or even your free hand, just in case you do slip.
Pin punches, hammers and mallets
Of all the gunsmithing tools the airgun shooter needs, the humble pin punch is the one to elicit the most fear in the newcomer. Why? Because it’s hammer time! Some gun parts, notably trigger blocks in springers, are held in place using friction-fit metal pins.
These pins need to be knocked out before the part they’re holding can be removed. These pins can be quite tough to remove the first time, after which they subsequently become much easier to knock out and re-fit.
Pin punches must not only be the correct size, being as large as possible while still fitting through the hole, but the tip should be matched to the type of pin that’s being driven out.
Pins have either a flat or round surface, and pin punches are either flat-tipped or cup-tipped accordingly. You may get away with using a flat-tipped punch on a round-headed pin, but you run the risk of peening the end of the pin, making it even harder to remove.
Any pin needs to be knocked out with a hammer or a mallet. Hammers offer more precision, as you can more easily deliver short, sharp taps, while larger Delrin mallets are better at transferring more energy to shift a particularly stubborn pin.
The business end of a proper gunsmithing hammer will be made of brass rather than the usual DIY-type steel hammer. If you slip with a steel hammer, the chances are you’ll damage the surrounding metalwork, whereas a brass hammer will usually leave no permanent mark, or at most may leave little particles of brass which can just be cleaned away.
If you choose to use a steel hammer, try to protect the surrounding metalwork in case the hammer does slip off the punch. A Delrin mallet, while not offering anything like the same degree of precision, shouldn’t harm the gun if you do make a mistake. Brass and Delrin gunsmithing hammers are available from numerous retailers, including Brownells UK (www.brownells.co.uk).
Before you break out the pin punch, try to identify the side from which the pin was originally inserted. It’s much easier to knock it out from the same side – and you should reinsert the pin from this side as well when it’s time to reassemble the rifle.
You’ll need to firmly support the rifle before you start tapping out the pin, being especially aware of where the pin will emerge when it’s been knocked all the way through.
You do not want it being hammered into your tabletop! A small block of wood underneath the gun can give you some clearance, and pencil erasers can be used to the same effect for smaller pins.
Torx is a trademark name referring to a type of screw head that’s characterised by a six-pointed star-shaped pattern. While Torx is the most popular name for this type of head, a bit like what Hoover is to vacuum cleaners, the generic name is a star driver or star bit.
But whatever you want to call them, star bits are relatively uncommon in terms of airgun set-up and maintenance, other than in some scope mounts.
Where star drivers come into their own is in the field of knives, particularly folding types. It’s a good idea to disassemble a folder every once in a while (taking great care not to cut yourself) so you can carry out a deep clean and re-lube.
While screws and other fasteners can be tensioned by feel alone, a torque driver will let you apply a pre-determined, consistent and repeatable amount of torque. While this is particularly useful for tensioning scope rings, it can be handy in other situations too, such as securing stock screws into wood, where an overzealous operator can strip the thread.
Torque drivers come with interchangeable bits, and you can get an assortment of hex and star bits to match any airgun-related task you might face. They do cost quite a bit, though, and when buying one you’ll need to make sure it offers the required range of torque.
I have two Felo drivers, for example: one offering a range of 1.5 to 3.0 Newton metres of torque and the other spanning 3.0 to 5.0Nm. The former driver is perfect for airguns, while the second offers more grunt for my centrefires.
About 1.7 Newton metres is enough to secure the scope mounts on a PCP, for example. If in doubt about how much torque to apply, it’s always better to use too little rather than too much.
Some star-shaped sockets are not as deep as they could be, meaning the tool can easily slip out. Counter this by applying a downwards force as well as rotational torque.
While it’s brilliant to amass a comprehensive collection of tools, Murphy’s Law states that the time you’ll need them the most is when you’re out shooting and they’re lined up in their cabinet back at home. Enter the range box.
The one I’ve got here is another MTM product appropriately called the Shooting Range Box, but for years I made do with a Stanley toolbox, which was most definitely not intended for airgun use.
What my old Stanley box and new MTM box have in common, though, is the ability to take your tools with you when you go shooting. Whether you take the box to the range when entering a competition or just leave it in the boot of your car when you’re out hunting, if the gremlins strike, you’ll now be able to deal with that loose scope or stock, and your shooting session won’t be scuppered for want of a tool.
One major advantage my dedicated range box possesses is the ability to hold a rifle, using the same fork system as that found on my Gunsmith’s Maintenance Centre, which now stays at home all the time.
Dedicated tools are commercially available to help you align your telescopic sight, but one of the most inexpensive ways to level a scope is using a set of small bubble levels. The aim is to use the tool to ensure the horizontal crosshair on your scope is perfectly level, but it’s important to make sure the rifle itself is level while you do this.
One bubble level can be placed on top of the elevation turret, as this should be parallel to the horizontal crosshair. A second bubble level can be placed on the action, ensuring the gun is also level.
You can verify your work by hanging a plumb line downrange and checking to see if it’s perpendicular to the horizontal crosshair. The bubble level method is cheap, quick and simple – and works on the basis that your turret cap and horizontal crosshair are parallel to each other.
A good in-the-field fix if you’ve left your actual set at home is to use a smartphone app, such as the appropriately named Bubble Level app.
There may come a time when you need to accomplish a very specific task for which tools are either rather expensive or don’t exist at all. One example of the former is the scope ring alignment tool and lapping bar, which we looked at in detail in Airgun Shooter 99 (‘Lapping it up’, page 42).
Before you commit to buying a tool like this, you’ll need to carry out a cost/benefit analysis to see if it’s really worth buying. My lapping kit, for example, has been used numerous times, on both my own scope rings and some of my shooting friends’. But if you only intend to use it once or twice, you may wish to reconsider.
A good example of a bespoke tool is the HW 77/97 takedown tool that I got from Steve Pope at V-Mach. This custom aluminium tool fits perfectly into the slot once the Rekord trigger unit has been removed so the action can be separated and the piston, compression tube and spring extracted. You can get away with using a spanner wrapped in a cloth, but the correct tool does a far better job and won’t mar the metalwork.
You may need to use a special tool to set the correct amount of torque before you carry out a job with your driver. Once that task has been completed, remember to dial the driver back to its lowest torque setting. Torque drivers can lose calibration if they are kept at a higher setting for too long. If in doubt, return your driver to the manufacturer so it can be recalibrated.
Torque wrenches can also be useful for airguns, making sure the range they cover is low enough for airgun use. The particular wrench seen here is made by Park Tool for bicycle maintenance, but it’s easy to press this into service for airgun use as well.
Although the means of setting torque on this wrench is different to the way it’s set on my Felo driver, both tools need to be reset to their minimum value after use to maintain accurate calibration.
Inexpensive, but invaluable
Not all effective ‘gunsmithing’ tools have to cost a fortune, mind you. The humble toothbrush, for example, is a brilliant tool to brush off swarf and other detritus. If you’re feeling flush, an electric toothbrush works really well too.
While rubbing alcohol is a brilliant degreaser, regular lighter fluid works almost as well, and it will also remove glue residue from sticky labels. Furthermore, lighter fuel won’t harm a blued finish. It will leave a very thin film over the surface it’s been used on, and this has a mild lubricating quality.
Oil droppers can be very useful to apply just the right amount of lubricant to the area where it’s needed. Reusable droppers like the one made by Draper are supplied empty and can be filled with the oil of your choice, while the Daiwa Reel Oil dropper is pre-filled and sealed, and must be disposed of once it’s empty.
It’s also worth keeping a tub of moly grease on hand, and a small paintbrush makes the perfect applicator. This is great to lube springer linkages and barrel threads.
One final piece of kit to keep to hand is a microfibre cloth. I have several in use at the same time. When a clean one starts to get dirty, it gets relegated to doing dirty jobs like wiping off grease until finally it’s disposed of.
Building up a toolkit is something that can be done slowly. And if you think you stink at DIY, don’t let that put you off taking a tool to one of your precious guns – practice makes perfect. Just make sure it’s the right one for the job!