If you enjoy shooting for fun, hunting, or are serious about using firearms for personal defense, having the knowledge and essential gunsmithing tools needed to perform basic maintenance, repairs, and modifications on firearms can be invaluable. However, before you do anything to a firearm, you need to ask yourself the following questions:
- Is what I am doing legal?
- No? Then don’t do it.
- If you aren’t sure, then find out.
- Yes? Then proceed to Question 2…
- Do I have the skills and equipment that I need?
Before you start working on one of your firearms, make sure you know what you are doing. You don’t want to make your firearm unsafe or have to take a box of parts to a real gunsmith to clean up your brain fart.
Numerous resources are available online and in print that can help you avoid mistakes. I have used Youtube videos as a guide in the past, however, they have started to place restrictions on firearms content. Forums, armorer’s guides, and firearm-specific books are all good resources for learning what to do and what not to do. Just be sure you do plenty of research before you attempt a repair or modification you are not familiar with.
When I started working on my own guns, I was remarkably horrible at it. Just thinking about the abuse I used to inflict on my firearms makes my skin crawl. After I made many mistakes and put some nasty scratches and dings on otherwise nice guns, I learned some important lessons. One of the most important lessons that I learned was that having the right tools for the job will make the job easier to perform. They will also, if used correctly, lessen the chances of damaging one of your prized possessions.
Here is a list of absolutely essential gunsmithing tools:
A bench vise holds items securely while you work on them. Bench vises come in several different sizes and types. A luxury version for gunsmithing would have jaws at least 6 inches wide and a swiveling head and base. Vises such as this are large enough to hold pretty much anything, and a swiveling head and base would give it superb maneuverability. It would be an excellent choice for a professional gunsmith or someone who does a lot of work in their shop. This vise by Capri is a good example. My vise is smaller than that, but I have been able to do a lot of work with it. When coupled with a set of magnetic vise jaw pads, it will hold barrels, pistol frames, receivers, and other parts.
*Note: Don’t clamp down too hard on frames or receivers. When possible, use magazine blocks or inserts to reduce the chance of crushing parts. Crushing a receiver or frame is a very expensive mistake.
Your vise should be bolted down tight to your work surface. The best place to put a bench vise is a stationary bench or table that is secured to the wall or floor. This will give your vise and whatever it is holding as much stability as possible.
Gun Vise or Cradle
A gun vise is different from a bench vise. It is more of a cradle that can support an entire rifle or shotgun while cleaning or installing optics. The gun vise that I have is Tipton’s Best Gun Vise. It is great for installing optics, cleaning, or other light-duty work. A gun vise will prevent you from having to clamp delicate stocks or other parts in a bench vise, which could crush them. They can even be adjusted to hold pistol frames.
Out of all of the screwdrivers that you have around the house, very few of them are suitable for gun work. In fact, the only regular screwdriver I will use around my guns is a #2 Phillips driver to take the grip panels off of my pistol. Most guns use screws with slotted heads, and unlike a lot of things around the house, they need a screwdriver that fits the slot perfectly. Using a regular flathead screwdriver on gun screws is a bad idea because it will almost always mar the screw head.
Gunsmithing screwdriver sets have “hollow ground” tips with many different widths and thicknesses. This will allow you to have a screwdriver that will fit the screw head perfectly, which will greatly reduce the chances of messing up a screw head. Marred screw heads are ugly and can make removing the screw later much more difficult.
Save yourself some grief and frustration and buy a gunsmithing screwdriver set. Brownells specializes in gunsmith tools and makes some of the best screwdrivers around. Their Magna tip sets come in various sizes of bits and handles. I have one of the “super sets” that has fit my needs very well. Their “Professional Super Set” has enough bits to cover basically any gun screw ever made. Wheeler Engineering makes a set of gunsmithing screwdrivers. While the Brownells set is considered the industry standard, the Wheeler set earns high reviews as well.
Essential Gunsmithing Hammers
When working on firearms, you will need various types of hammers. Not everything needs to be pounded into submission, but some jobs do require some rather aggressive persuasion. Having various hammers to perform different jobs will make sure you don’t abuse small parts but have enough oomph to knock out stubborn pins.
- Ball Pein Hammer: One of the main hammers you will use for gunsmithing is a steel ball pein hammer. A good weight for this type of hammer would be 2 or 4 ounces. I use a 4-ounce hammer. This weight is controllable, but can still generate a fair amount of controlled force if necessary.
- Brass Hammer: Brass is a soft metal that will not scratch or mar steel. Using a brass hammer is a good insurance policy against damaging a firearm with an errant hammer blow.
- Nylon Hammer: These are great for tapping parts into position or gently knocking them loose.
Gunsmithing Punches (Different Types)
Every modern firearm I can think of uses pins to help hold the gun together, which makes pin punches essential gunsmithing tools. You will need different types of pin punches to help drive out different types of pins.
- Drive Pin Punches
- You can remove solid pins from guns by placing the punch against the pin and tapping it out with a hammer. Drive punches are flat on the end and have a long shank that eventually tapers into a handle. This set by Starrett is an excellent choice.
- Roll Pin Punches
- Not all pins are solid. Some pins are pieces of spring steel that have been rolled into a pin-like shape, hence the name “roll pins”. These punches have a rounded tip to help make sure that the pin doesn’t become damaged during installation or removal.
- Roll Pin Holders
- Roll pin holders are specialized punches that have a concave-shaped tip that the pin is inserted into. The concave tip helps the roll pin shrink as pressure is placed on it. This makes inserting roll pins into a firearm much easier. The easier processes are, the less likely you are to damage something.
What you saw above is only a small look at the types of punches you will need for gunsmithing. My article, Complete Guide to Gunsmithing Punches, covers all of the types of punches you will need in detail. It also has helpful tips to make using them much easier.
Another essential gunsmithing tool is the bench block, which is used to securely hold parts in place and/or remove pins by hammering them out. Some bench blocks are firearm specific, such as this one by Wheeler Engineering. It is designed to make various aspects of AR-15 assembly and disassembly more convenient.
Other bench blocks are more suitable for general use with various firearms. They are usually round, shaped like a hockey puck and will have a V-shaped groove cut into the middle going all the way across the diameter of the bench block. There will also be one or more holes that go all the way through the bench block to help with pin removal.
Scope rings, optics, and other firearm accessories may require Allen wrenches for installation or adjustment. You will need both metric and SAE Allen wrench sets due to the wide variety of accessories and manufacturers. Some accessories use ridiculously tiny screw head sizes, so be sure you have the tiny sizes as well.