10 Basic Tools Every Gunsmith or Armorer Needs

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What kind of tools does a gunsmith need? The requirements vary depending on the end use and the specialization. However, I'd like to recommend some basic gunsmithing tools that apply to anybody who wants to work on their guns. Whether you want to work on your own guns or start developing gunsmithing services, these are my recommendations on 10 basic gunsmith tools that are essential. 

1. Gunsmith Screwdriver Set

This is essential, and probably one of the first things we learned in Gunsmith school. In fact, if I could put this on the list twice, I would.   

Guns don't tend to use the same screws as other accessories might. Gun screws require special "hollow ground" screwdriver bits that fully support the slot of a screw to apply more even torque force without gouging the screw head. Screw heads that are "boogered up" are one of the first indicators that somebody has been tampering with a gun without proper tools or training!  (Hint: we refer to these people as Bubba's, and that's not a good thing. Bubba often leaves forensic evidence of his work, such as stripped screws and scratched finish)

Stripped and boogered screw heads are bad enough, but properly fitted screw heads also protect you from another kind of accident. If you have a stubborn screw and apply a lot of torque to it with an improper screwdriver, there's a good chance you're going to slip and drive all that force into a nearby part of the gun or the stock. It's a great way to turn a simple cleaning or bedding job into a complementary $400 hot bluing service. 

Gunsmith screwdrivers generally come in two flavors: magnetic replaceable tips and fixed blade sets. Magnetic tip screwdrivers are cheaper and sometimes more convenient, but fixed blade sets are much more sturdy and stable. Both in school and professional work, I got by well with a Wheeler magnetic kit and this is a great starting point at an affordable price. If you want to go up in quality a little bit, the Brownell's Magna Tip set is awesome. You might also consider investing in some fixed blade drivers (at least common sizes) especially if you work on a lot of old guns with stubborn screws.  

Bonus Tip: If you have a screw, bolt or pin that will not budge despite lots of pressure, stop and assess the situation before going to town on it. Try soaking it with a penetrating oil such as Kroil, heating it lightly with a hand-held torch (be careful around wood and plastic parts) or gently tapping on the metal with a mallet while you turn the screwhead to try to dislodge any stuck material. 

2. Pin Punches 

One of the other most common methods of holding guns together is a steel or plastic pin. These tend to come in two varieties: solid pins and roll pins. There are others, but these two are nearly a guarantee in every gun.  

Solid pins are just as they sound and a regular pin punch will work for them as long as it is the same size as the pin. Roll pins, on the other hand, are a thin piece of steel which is rolled over to form a hollow pin with a thin wall. These must be treated with care as they are fragile and can easily be damaged when removed or re installed, making them useless and potentially making them very hard to remove.  

Roll pin punches have a little nipple (yes, it's called a nipple) on the end which fills the hollow section of the pin and supports it, protecting it from damage. It's crucial to use a proper fitting roll pin punch on these and not risk damage with an improvised tool - ask me about finding a replacement 3mm Roll pin for an HK VP9 the day before a customer needed to pick it up.  

A set of plastic and brass punches is a great idea also. These allow you to drive soft plastic pins and other parts without marring.  

Remember, Bubba leaves his mark of destroyed pins and punch marks on guns by using improper or improvised punches. Don't be like bubba.  

3. Hammers 

Yes, surprisingly, gunsmithing involves a lot of hitting things with hammers. The trick is to pick the proper hammer for the job at hand to get it done without damage.  

If you bought the punches above, you'll need something to drive them with. I like simple ball peen hammers for this. I personally like to have a selection of 2 oz, 4 oz, and 8 oz hammers. You want to be firm without driving too much energy, and I find that this range gives me a good assortment of options for everything from tiny roll pins to stick taper pins.  

Sometimes you'll need to hit directly on something without damaging the finish. For this, you'll need a soft faced hammer. The most popular ones sold have plastic ends which is soft enough to use on a wide array of materials. Some of them feature a brass head, and some gunsmiths like to use rawhide mallets. 

Another good option to have is a deadblow hammer, especially if you do a lot of machine work. The deadblow hammer is filled with BBs to transfer the energy straight into the surface without rebounding. This is especially good for seating parts flat in a vise or on parallels.  

4. Bench Blocks  

Now you have your hammer, you have your punches, but you need something to support your piece while you tap on it. 

A bench block is a small round puck used to support your workpiece while driving pins or sights. It is made of a soft enough material to protect your piece but is dense enough to absorb the blows and direct the energy where you want it to go. 

Bench blocks are cut with all kinds of holes and slots to support odd workpieces. The holes conveniently capture driven pins, keeping them from rolling all over the floor and forcing you into the "gunsmith crawl". 

I recommend two blocks of similar heights, as this is an easier way of supporting longer workpieces such as barreled rifle or shotgun actions.  

If you don't feel like buying your bench blocks, they are easily made with stock plastic as we learned in school. Take any suitable round plastic stock (ABS, PVC, Nylon, etc.), part segments and face them on the lathe, and cut the holes and slots you want with drills and milling bits.  

5. Calipers 

This one's pretty simple. Calipers measure things and gunsmiths often need to know the measurements of things. Keeping a set of dial calipers handy is borderline essential for being able to get quick access to information such as firing pin protrusion, sight height and width, roll pin and ball bearing sizes, and so many other things I probably couldn't list them all.  

 Calipers are also great for bragging about your groups at the range! 

Calipers are also great for bragging about your groups at the range! 

Calipers are quick and easy to read but are less accurate than other tools such as a micrometer. They are great for measuring things where getting within .002" is "good enough" and are great reference for roughing operations in machining.  

One word of advice: if you're going to buy cheap, buy analog. Calipers will be dropped, banged on things, exposed to coolant and oil, covered in chips, etc. It's been my experience that dial calipers on the lower end of the price scale perform reasonably well, but cheap digital calipers have a poor prognosis. They will stop displaying numbers correctly, jump inches at a time, display gibberish, reset themselves to zero while measuring, and pull all kinds of frustrating hi links.  

Digital calipers do have their advantages though, such as instant access to metric and fractional measurement and the ability to easily set a reference zero. If you want to go this route and are willing to pay more, Mitutoyo makes a great digital set that is pretty well resistant to the environment and to shock.  

 6. Dykem

Now we're getting into tools that help with a little more fitting and custom work. Dykem is a brightly colored liquid that is applied to a surface. It then dries into a very thin layer that is scratched off on contact. Any area where two parts come in contact with each other, Dykem can be applied to see where contact is being made. This can help with custom fitting parts (such as fitting a 1911 slide closely to a frame) or for diagnosing issues with a gun. Dykem can come in handy for diagnosing chamber issues, extraction and ejection problems, sticky actions, uneven bearing surfaces, and so many other issues that I always like to keep a bottle on hand. 

Dykem does have a tendency to spread easily, so it's good practice to use on a clean bench free of parts you don't want contaminated. 

7. Thread Checker  

Guns may be held together by screws that aren't standard to the rest of the world. Sometimes you may need to replace one (or occasionally even make your own). Having a tool to check makes this process much cleaner than guessing.  

There are plates available that contain a number of threaded holes to check against your screws. Personally, I have gotten a lot of use out of a very simple thread pitch gauge combined with a dial caliper. This will give you a lot of information about a thread pattern even if it is rare or obsolete. It's also an easy way to determine the thread pattern of receivers, barrel tennons, and barrel muzzles. 

The limitation here is checking small internal threads common in grip frames, sights, etc. For this it might be worth keeping a set of internal thread gages around.  

Note that some threads are close enough that they will start fine for a certain number of rotations and then get increasingly tighter. These screws can often be forced into place, stripping them in the process. This is especially true with very fine, small diameter threads where the lead on an inch and metric screw might be only a couple thousandths of an inch different. Just because it seems to pass the gauge test is no reason to force it if you feel unusual resistance.  

8. Files and Stones 

Files are one of the most important inventions in human artistry and craftsmanship ( just my opinion ). Most gunsmiths have more files than they could easily count, of all different profiles.  

A file allows you to shape and blend your workpiece in ways that are difficult to do with a machine. Re-shaping grip frames, blending beavertail safeties, breaking fine edges and many more jobs rely on the skilled use of a good file.  

The great thing about hand files is that, properly chosen, a file can do anything from rough shaping to smoothing metal and breaking the finest edges. Some jobs, such as fitting a breech plug to a barrel, may be done 2 or 3 strokes at a time and carefully inspected in between.  

Because there are so many types of files, it can be overwhelming to choose which ones you need. For general use, I recommend (at a minimum):  

  • One large, heavy cutting bastard or draw file 
  • One large mill file for smoothing
  • A selection of smaller mill files in basic shapes (flat, half-round, triangle, etc.) 
  • A needle or diamond file set 
  • A vulcanite file if you plan on shaping wood.
 Regular contributor Chris Wooldridge sent this picture showing hand file work to smooth out the barrel finish on a badly-neglected Winchester 94 (this particular rifle was over 100 years old!). Smoothing and polishing metal is much of a gunsmith's work. 

Regular contributor Chris Wooldridge sent this picture showing hand file work to smooth out the barrel finish on a badly-neglected Winchester 94 (this particular rifle was over 100 years old!). Smoothing and polishing metal is much of a gunsmith's work. 

When you're starting out with the basics, it's good to invest in some decent files. You'll use them more than you think, and good sharp files are just that much more of a joy to use. 

Once you have your basics, it's good to look out for any opportunities to pick up more. You can often find decent files at flea markets and antique stores for around a dollar a piece. As long as they're sharp, grime and rust can easily be removed. 

Bonus tip: Files are easily clogged with metal shavings referred to as "pins" which must be cleaned out with a file card. To keep a file from pinning, rub it against some playground chalk as if you're grating cheese. The chalk keeps the pins from sticking. 

9. A Comprehensive Cleaning Kit

Troubleshooting a malfunctioning gun always starts with a thorough and proper cleaning. Sometimes, this is even enough to fix a malfunctioning gun! As a gunsmith, you need to have the tools to clean any gun that you might come across. It's crucial to working on any gun, and it's also a service that many customers will pay for just to know that it's been done right with no hassle for them. 

The ideal set up includes a one-piece rod in every bore size that you might work on; this is definitely necessary for the professional. At the least, however, a comprehensive cleaning kit with brushes and jags in all common bore sizes will be a great tool. 

Of course, you'll also need a full chemical cleaning system; copper and powder solvents, oils, etc. There are a number of options on the market and everybody has a favorite. Some of the most commonly used include RemOil, Hoppe's No. 9, and Breakfree CLP. As you can, experiment with products that you like and find out what works best in which situations. You may find you end up with a wide variety to cover all of your needs. 

10. A Torque Wrench

A torque wrench allows you tighten a screw at a repeatable and confirmable torque, taking the guess work out of the equation. Experimenting with torque settings on action screws is one common method of troubleshooting accuracy issues in rifles, and a torque wrench helps you re-set it the same way after disassembly. They also come in handy for scope mounting screws, which often require specific and light torque pressures (typically around 15 in-lbs.) set evenly across all screws. This is simply easier and more repeatable with a torque wrench. 

Using proper torque settings can also help avoid poor performance and damage; too little torque can cause parts to back out during operation, while too much torque can strip screws and damage parts. 

11. Bedding Epoxy

Epoxy bedding (or glass bedding) a rifle stock is a common service done to improve the accuracy and repeatability of a rifle, especially one in a wood stock. Glass bedding is done by filling the stock with a hard two-part epoxy, coating the action in release agent, and bolting the action into the stock. The epoxy will then form a perfect impression of the metal of the action, supporting it fully while in the stock for better rigidity and repeatability. It also creates a nesting area that is much less susceptible to changes in environment than some stock materials, notably woods and thin plastics.  

If you are only going to go with one product, I recommend Acra-Glass or the Wheeler Bedrock Kit. These will do an adequate job of glass bedding a rifle, but they can also be used easily for repairs. Because these formulas can be mixed with a very runny consistency, they are easily applied to fill long, hairline cracks that other products would have a hard time penetrating. These cracks are common in wood furniture on guns and will continue to split over time if continually used. A thin epoxy can be injected into these cracks with a needle to fill and strengthen the void, often without any evidence that there was a crack in the first place.  

For rifle bedding and heavier-duty repair work, I actually prefer to use a marine product called Marine-Tex. Marine Tex mixes much thicker, with a consistency somewhere in between pudding and putty. It is easy to apply in large globs to fill large voids, compresses easily to fill all available space, and is easy to work and sand after hardening. It cures rock-solid and makes an excellent bedding service. It is sold in 2 oz bottles which are great for doing a couple rifles, while the more expensive 1 quart solution (over $100) is great for the professionals as it's enough volume to do many rifles or other heavy-duty repair jobs. 

 

I hope this post brought value to you or helped to answer some of your questions. Considering starting a career in gunsmithing or want to know what it takes? You might enjoy my article about My Experience Going to School for Gunsmithing, or the Custom .30-06 I built in school.