Essential Tools of the Home Gunsmith, Part 1

Being a home gunsmith is a very rewarding pastime. For some, gunsmithing can evolve into more than just a hobby. Most of us, though, simply start gunsmithing out of necessity and a desire not to pay someone else $60 to mount a new set of night sights. Through that process, we acquire tools, gadgets, skills and a certain chutzpah to attempt more advanced work. We also gain scars, expert use of 4-letter words, and a healthy fear of losing tiny springs.

I started out my home gunsmith career about 12 years ago with a terrible bench, a crappy assortment of Chinese made punches, and even less knowledge. Since then I like to think I’ve picked up a few skills and figured out what tools I really need, and what items I’ve simply just wasted money on. I’ve spent thousands on various tools over the years. Some tools I’ve had to buy multiple times because I took the cheap way out. Other times I’ve saved bundles by avoiding the most expensive tool available.

Through part 1 of this guide, I’ll cover essential tools of the home gunsmith in the order of their importance. In reality, this is just one mans opinion. Your tool collection will be most influenced by the work you need to accomplish or the type of work you most enjoy. Through each part of this series, we’ll advance the home gunsmith tools from basic essentials to one rivaling even some pro-shops in capabilities.

Workbench

Without a doubt, the home gunsmiths most indispensable tool is a good workbench. It also happens to be one of the most overlooked tools. A good bench is strong, impervious to chemicals and

Essential Tool: The Workbench
My one-legged work bench.

solvents, and is heavy or sturdy enough to allow for the serious application of elbow grease and sweat. The bench is the cornerstone of all the work you’ll be doing. Counter-intuitively, this is also the one tool where sometimes the best solution is also the cheapest.

In my experience, the best bench is the one you build yourself. With some 4×4 legs, 2×4 frame, and a butcher block top, you’ll have the weight and structure you need to accomplish most any job the home gunsmith is going to encounter. Ideally you’ll want the largest surface you can muster within your space requirements. I built my own bench in the corner of my shop, securing one side and the rear directly to the studs in the walls. If my bench moves, it’s because the building is coming down. This type of strength gives you the power to really torque on barrel nuts, compensators, and your buddies rifle that he seemingly soaked in 3 gallons of red Loctite.

Bottom Line: Avoid spending hundreds on a professional bench. Build one for less than $100, secure it were possible and enjoy the stability of your bench while yelling an endless array of cuss words as you remove that over-torqued barrel nut.

 

Bench Vice

4 inch Wilton Vice
$60 – 4 inch Wilton Vice

Right behind that bench comes the first tool you’ll mount to it, a vice. I use my vice every single day. Sometimes I just need a third hand to hold or stabilize what I’m working on. A good vice is absolutely essential to nearly everything a gunsmith will do. I use it for cleaning, grinding, shaping, mounting and removing. A home gunsmith can get lost searching for the ‘right’ vice, with prices ranging from $60 for a 4″ Wilton, to several hundred dollars for larger 8-10″ heavy metal monstrosities.

I started on that $60 4″ Wilton with adjustable base, and for the money it was absolutely fantastic. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a hobbyist go the same route, with the caveat that at 4″ may limit your options down the line. If you primarily work with AR-15’s or pistols then you’ll likely enjoy it, and a brand like Wilton should last you a lifetime. If you have the a bit more cash, I’d step up to at least a 6″ and avoid having to get creative on clamping your gear.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the numerous gun specific vices out there, such as the Tipton Gun Vice, MTM Portable, Lyman etc. I have a couple of these through both gifts and my own purchases. They’re attractive and seem like a great idea. I can say without hesitation that you’re better off buying a generic vice and spending that money on other tools. Instead, buy vice blocks for mounting weapons and soft jaw materials like leather or magnetic covers to protect firearm finishes.

Bottom Line: Avoid single use tools, get a generic 6-10″ gun vice that will last a lifetime. Skip the dedicated gun vises and instead get (or make!) vice blocks to hold your guns, jaw covers, levels and other useful tools.

 

Hammers and Punches

Like vices, hammers and punches are used on almost every home gunsmith task you’ll encounter. Over time, you’ll likely have a whole section of your tool wall dedicated to varying hammers and punches. For the new home gunsmith, I typically suggest starting with a single multi-head hammer using both brass and nylon. Both materials are softer than steel, so they won’t mar. Nylon can be used when you don’t need to apply much force, but are worried about making direct contact with the finish of a firearm. When working around wood or making a direct purposeful impact on a firearm, many prefer rubber or rawhide hammers. I’ve seen many using rawhide to fit 1911 slides and release tight or stuck parts. Steel Ball Peen hammers are another style that usually make their way into the tool box. Being steel, they don’t wear out like your brass and nylon hammer and are fantastic at loosening those tough pins. Oversized rubber mallets can save your butt and are also worth their weight in gold.

One tip I wish I learned earlier: Get a bigger hammer, don’t swing harder. You have two choices to increase force when using a hammer. Speed or mass. Use the mass. The faster you swing, the less control you’re going to have and the more likely you’re going to test the resiliency of your project. Make sure and get larger hammers to do that difficult work rather than just swinging for the fences.

When selecting punches, you have even more options. Material wise, steel, brass and nylon all have uses. Brass and nylon can be used directly against a firearm when necessary, such as driving sights. Steel is fantastic on stubborn pins and parts. Typically I’d suggest selecting the weakest material for the job until you understand what material is appropriate for what job. I’d rather bend or break a weak brass or nylon punch than my firearms. In addition to the material, you’re going to need a set of straight punches as well as a set of roll pin starter punches. These are worth their weight in gold for both starting a pin and preventing mushrooming of roll pins. The first time you mushroom a pin will be the last day you don’t own roll pin punches.

Bottom Line: Start with a dual head, multi-material hammer in brass and nylon, Brownells and MidwayUSA both have many great choices. Invest in a couple sets of punches in steel and brass and one set of roll pin punches. You can’t ever own too many of either tool and remember that punches (and soft hammer heads) are wear items that will break and need to be replaced. Don’t sweat it when you burn through them.

 

Gunsmithing Screwdrivers

$60 Wheeler Screwdriver Set
$60 Wheeler Screwdriver Set

It’s easy to dismiss screwdrivers when building your shop. After all, everyone has tons in almost every shape and size, right? Wrong. A quality set dedicated to gunsmithing is absolutely essential,

especially if you want to progress past simple jobs. Screws in many firearms can be very small, mar easily and are often shallow. Applying torque with an ill-fitting driver can ruin your day in a hurry. Many pro smiths will grind a tool to fit into the deepest part of a screw head, where it’s strongest. For the home gunsmith, that’s time-consuming, often beyond the typical skill level of a home smith, and requires another set of tools to actually do the grinding.

Quality sets, like Brownells Magna-Tip Super Sets, were designed for the rest of us. Wheeler also makes a few sets that can help get you started. As you grow your craft you’ll undoubtedly need to grind a tool head, but a quality gunsmithing kit will handle 95% of your workload.

Bottom Line: Don’t use your existing shop tools. Get a quality set of dedicated drivers out of the gate. Add to it as you grow. When it’s time to do your first grind for a custom tool, buy a similar tool head that’s slightly oversized, and grind down to fit your needs.

 

Books & Guides

I almost put this at the very beginning as the de facto most important item, however, without any tools you’re not going to put anything you read into practice. If you’ve got your initial set of tools squared away, then before you spend money on anything else, it’s time to load up on education. A quality library (both physical and online) will prove its worth time and time again. While an iPad and laptop are both staples of my home gunsmith shop, I do take issue with only using YouTube as a resource. The problem I have with using only subject specific videos is that you’re much less likely to pick up the core skills and machining tips and tricks that a good gunsmith knows. You’ll learn one way to accomplish one task. Reading quality material, such as the NRA Gunsmithing Guide, will teach you techniques you’ll use over and over again. The NRA guide is 116 richly detailed articles are written by experts on every subject you’ll ever encounter as a home gunsmith.

After the NRA guide, I’d also suggest:

  • Hatchers Notebook via Amazon.com
  • Stevespages.com – The de facto resource for every gun manual (in pdf) I’ve ever needed.
  • FindOldGuns.com – Exactly what it sounds like, great resource on a variety of older guns.
  • AR15.com – Fantastic guides and forums for the ever popular platform
  • ChuckHawks.com – Articles on anything to do with shooting, smithing and reloading.

Bottom Line: Get the NRA Gunsmithing Guide, check out Hatchers Notebook, and start building your online resources as soon as possible. Know as many techniques as you can before you need them.

 

Final Words

Through part 1 of this guide, you should have a healthy set of tools and education to get you started. It doesn’t take much to accomplish a lot as a home gunsmith. Your knowledge, patience and growing skill level are more important than acquiring a mass of tools. Grab everything above, get learning, and come back for Part 2 of this guide when you’re ready to go to the next level in your tool set.

Jesse

Jesse is a long time adventurer, entrepreneur, shooter and general technologist. Drawing knowledge for GS Kinetics through a long history in the private sector tech industry and as a Fire Fighter / EMT for more than 15 years.