Webley Mk1 air pistol restoration w/ Phil Hooper

There’s light at the end of the tunnel for Phil Hooper, finishing his restoration of a neglected Webley Mk1 air pistol.

As you may have seen in my last article, I’ve been carrying out a restoration of a post-War Webley Mk1 which was mechanically pretty good, but had serious cosmetic flaws. It was now time to carry out yet more work to return this pistol to its former glory.

The main body of the pistol and the barrel were now in presentable condition and almost ready for refinishing. Before continuing with restoration work on the small components and screws, I decided to repair the broken right-hand grip. This had the bottom corner missing where it had snapped across the blind hole for the location dowel.

The grips are made of Bakelite, a “thermoset’’ plastic which is quite brittle, and breakages like this are common, but tricky to fix invisibly. The grip was prepared by cleaning the area of the break with emery paper and then degreasing it with acetone. 

Then, using Sellotape, a cavity was formed into which a two-part epoxy resin could be poured. I erred on the side of adding too much resin, as you can’t get a sound bond if you try to add more after it has cured. For the same reason it is important to avoid any air bubbles.

After allowing it 24 hours to cure, the excess was removed using a small abrasive cylinder in a Dremel, which was next used with a dental burr to reinstate the location dowel hole in the underside of the grip. Further abrading by hand, with a Swiss file and progressively finer emery cloth, corrected the profile and surface finish to close to that of the intact left-hand grip.

Careful use of various patterns of Swiss files enabled the chequering and lower panel border to be reproduced to match as well. Localised painting with two coats of black satin Humbrol enamel followed for a good colour and finish match for an almost invisible repair.

Next, after that interesting interlude, it was time to take on the metal parts. I thought I’d attack the screw heads which were all burred to some extent. It is worth noting that none of the screws in these pistols were standard “off the shelf” items, but each was made by Webley to suit the specific individual requirements of the gun. Replacing all of the screws would have been possible as they are almost all available, but it would also have been expensive and unnecessary.

I used a flat-ended 4mm diameter pin punch on each screw in turn to peel back the burrs to reshape the head/slot profile. Each was then dressed with a Swiss file and then linished with progressively finer emery cloth until the head was acceptable.

After the resin had cured, Phil began the process of reshaping the area to match the original profile
The grip repair was completed with the help of some Swiss files and plenty of care and patience

The final touch was to place the threaded end into an electric drill chuck and tighten it just enough to hold, but not to damage, the thread. Then to turn on the drill, held horizontally in a vice, and hold p120 grit emery cloth against the head to produce faint concentric rings on the screw head (particularly for the rear sight and grip screws, with their larger heads) to simulate the marks left when the screws were originally turned on a lathe in the factory. 

A reminder, avoid using carpenters’ or electricians’ screwdrivers when working on any gun – the wrong screwdriver is the usual reason (plus clumsiness) for screw heads becoming burred. Treat yourself to a set of quality hollow-ground screwdrivers, ideally a proper gunsmith’s set.

The barrel catch was prepared as described previously for the body/frame. The rear sight was in quite good shape. Often the top corners are damaged and the sight can be slightly bent from a knock or two in use – but this one was pretty good and just needed preparation for re-bluing. 

The trigger guard cleaned up well and needed no further attention. I should mention at this point that my aim was not to restore the pistol to an absolutely mint cosmetic condition, rather to that of a really well maintained and cared for example – I don’t believe in over-restoring. 

On this theme, care was necessary when abrading parts, and the frame in particular, to remove surface defects and to prepare for bluing, not to round off sharp edges – a real giveaway of a poorly done restoration.

A cavity formed with Sellotape has been used to contain the epoxy resin to effect a strong repair on the damaged right-hand grip

The trigger had a layer of light surface rust, which was easily removed with fine steel wool, leaving the desired bright, polished steel appearance. The trigger on this model wasn’t factory-blued. The ends of the four cross-pins were also polished in the electric drill chuck. These bright steel components would later contrast well with their newly blued surroundings.

The next step was final preparation for bluing which was then done in four sessions: the barrel and cocking linkage, the pistol body/frame, the screws and the remaining small parts (cylinder front end plug, barrel top catch, rear sight element). In each case the steel surface to be blued was, once again, burnished with 000 steel wool then wiped down with a cotton rag and then thoroughly degreased with acetone. 

This last stage is absolutely key or the cold bluing process just doesn’t work. I used a clean rag, cotton buds, pipe cleaners and a toothbrush.  Even better would have been an ultrasonic cleaner, but I don’t yet have one. It just requires patient attention to detail and once the part in question is clinically clean, do it again one more time.

The rolled-in lettering on the left-hand side of the cylinder was scrubbed with acetone using the toothbrush. It can harbour oily rust and scupper the process, which I’ve learnt from past experience. Similar special attention was given to all cavities and holes, where the pipe cleaners came into their own.

The main ingredients of the cold blue solution are nitric acid and phosphoric acid, so wear disposable, talc-free vinyl gloves and take care. The solution can be applied with a swab, rubbed in with a cloth or applied by various other means that work for the individual – practice makes perfect, or at least that’s the theory!

There is an alternative bluing method that can be used very effectively for screws and other small components. This involves holding a grip screw in long-nosed pliers and heating the head with a blow lamp. Stop heating up the part just short of it reaching a dull red colour and plunge it into a metal container holding half a pint of a mineral-based car engine oil. 

All the screw heads had suffered some sort of damage over the years, most likely down to previous owners using incorrect screwdrivers
The screw heads look like new, but are the original parts, following plenty of time spent carefully deburring and reshaping them

Move the part around in a figure-of-eight pattern (don’t inhale the smoke given-off) until cool. Remove from the oil and, when cold, examine it to find a good, deep blue colouration that is both durable and corrosion-resistant. All this needs doing with a lot of care and appropriate PPE.  

Please note, it is not suitable for any steel part that has been factory-hardened, such as a trigger sear, barrel top catch or pivot screw, as the process could anneal the steel part, removing the hardness essential to the proper functioning and durability of the part. It is a good idea to first practice this bluing technique on something like an old and unplated, mild steel woodscrew.

With all of the rebluing and burnishing completed, and all surfaces wiped over with an oily rag, the pistol components were readied for reassembly. The cylinder inner surfaces and trigger housing were checked to ensure they were completely clean before being very lightly oiled. 

The sequence was to fit the piston assembly and mainspring, lubricated with moly grease, into the cylinder and replace the front end plug/spring guide. Then the barrel top catch, spring and cross-pin, after checking that breech seal was still in place. 

Then it was sear plus spring and trigger plus spring, taking great care over the cross-pin insertion so as not to mark the blued finish of the trigger housing. Then onto the barrel and linkage assembly and pivot screw. At this point I checked the pistol by cocking, loading and firing, and also checked its power. 

As all was fine, the barrel pivot keeper screw was added and, knowing the trigger/sear mechanism was working correctly, the trigger guard and cross-pins were re-fitted.

Next, the trigger adjusting screw and locking screw were added, both being left loose to allow for later adjustment. The grips would be fitted later as there was another job to be done first.

Phil used a blend of enamel paints to fill in The Webley “Mark I” lettering on the cylinder of the pistol
Here’s what the rear plug and rear sight of the Mk1 look like after being refinished

Actually, this next task was optional, but I think it was worthwhile. It was “whiting-in” the lettering on the left-hand side of the cylinder. 

I degreased the newly blued area with acetone, stippled-in some Humbrol enamel paint with a fine artist’s paint brush, and then, before it dried, wiped across the surface with a clean rag to remove the paint from all but the engraved lettering. 

The paint used was mixed roughly nine parts white to one part light brown to give an authentic “faded white” shade. I considered using the same process, with a dull red enamel, for the “Do Not Remove” instruction engraved in the rear cylinder end plug. However, there was no evidence of any original paint and not all Mk1s were done this way, so I left this lettering unfilled.

Finally, the grips were refitted. The pistol was now ready to have the trigger pull adjusted and the locking screw tightened. With the white paint dry the whole pistol was wiped down with an oily rag and checks made to ensure all pivots were oiled. After another few test shots – job complete!  A 60-year-old Webley Mk1 pistol, of exquisite design and workmanship, now looks and shoots as if it came out of the factory, albeit rather more recently!

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