Diggory Hadoke outlines the pitfalls in store for an inexperienced gun owner thinking of taking the DIY route to restoration or repair
The guns you may be planning to work on were made by time-served craftsmen at the top of their game. Time may have been unkind to their creations, but unskilled gunsmithing, restoration or repair work is the unkindest cut of all, to paraphrase a line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. (Read ‘Do I have to tell the police my gun is being repaired?’)
As a frequent buyer and restorer of century-old (or more) sporting guns, the bodgery of tight-fisted former owners, or those with delusions of their own adequacy in the workshop, is a common frustration.
In the case of a best-quality gun, it requires little effort to ruin it. Every aspect of the gun was made as it was according to strict criteria. Any deviation will attract the eye of the knowledgeable and they will remove it from their purchase list immediately. (Shotgun restoration – where to get it done and what to spend.)
If you are really determined to ruin a good gun, have a go at rechequering. This is, without doubt, the fastest way to convert a £10,000 gun into a £5,000 gun in an effort to save yourself the £150 a professional will charge you to rechequer a stock and fore-end.
Not up to scratch
The thing about chequering is that if you mess it up, you can’t do much about it. Every cut makes the hand thinner. If you have to file off bad chequering and start again, you restart with a significantly slimmer and weaker — as well as weird-looking — piece of wood.
Skilled men make chequering look easy and the tools can be bought online. It looks like simply scratching lines on a bit of wood. This is why so many hobbyists feel emboldened to have a go – and why so many used guns are ruined and need restocking. After decades in the gun trade, appraising and handling tens of thousands of Victorian and Edwardian shotguns and rifles, one gets a sense of what looks imperceptibly right and what looks plain wrong.
This is something of a curse, because it means that when a competent, enthusiastic (and actually skilled) hobbyist shows me their restocking job on a nice Birmingham boxlock, something that has been a labour of love and a showcase for their talents, despite the shiny finish, the figured wood and the well-fitted wood-to-metal intersections, it screams ‘awful’ to me. Invariably something is wrong.
Maybe the finish is too shiny, maybe they didn’t use enough red oil, maybe the chequer panels are the wrong shape for the model, or the graduation from head to hand simply lacks the line a professional would have achieved. Having carpentry skills does not make you a gun stocker. The devil is, indeed, invariably in the detail.
The reader may get the distinct impression from this that I am no advocate of hobbyist gunsmiths and they would be right. However, there are tasks that a modestly equipped gun owner might consider enjoyable to undertake themselves.
It may be that they have got hold of a cheap gun at auction or privately and would like to try their hand at disassembling it, cleaning it and reassembling it.
If all goes according to plan, this can be done on a basic workbench with a few screwdrivers (turn-screws in gun-trade parlance), a small hammer, a drift and (the one specialist tool) a spring-clamp.
Dismantling the gun
With these, it should be possible to dismantle the gun entirely. Be warned, however, that if done without due care and competence, even this simple exercise can lead to burred screw heads, where a slippage has caused damage or a slot has been opened up to allow use of a fatter screwdriver.
A lot of these efforts get brought in at the ‘I give up’ stage, where the owner has encountered a seized breech pin or burred one too many slots and realises they are only going to make it worse if they continue with their work. Skipping that, we each have to be honest about our capabilities and experience. Practice on an old, low-value gun first. I learned the basics stripping barn finds that my childhood friends used to bring me when I was a teenager.
So, what gunsmithing work would I advocate the average sportsman undertake on his own? Let us consider the concept of the hand-detachable lock. It is a great idea. It enables the amateur to remove the locks of a gun without tools in order to clean them, thereby minimising the possible damage that can be done.
With regard to the two main embodiments of the concept, as applied to sidelocks and boxlocks, the former is the least satisfactory. The Holland & Holland system with the lever on the end of the lock pin, enabling the sportsman, merely by force of thumb and forefinger, to unscrew it and then tap out the locks, is potentially useful. It does enable quick and easy removal, inspection, cleaning and lubricating to be undertaken in the field, in camp or in the gunroom.
However, even a simple gunsmithing task like this leads to issues. Many an enthusiastic chap has dropped out his locks to show his friends or amuse himself, only to get stuck putting them back in. It is important to align the ends of the cocking dogs and push the trigger-blades forward before inserting the locks, otherwise they won’t seat properly.
Then, there is the tendency for the pins to work loose when put in and pulled out of a gun slip, leading to the lock falling out, invariably on to a ploughed field.
The Westley Richards version, the hand-detachable boxlock, is more foolproof. A hinged bottom plate can be opened to reveal the guts of the action, the limbs of the boxlock mounted on a sideplate and inserted from below. The hinge cannot open unless the fore-end is removed first, making it safe in the field. The lock needs to be replaced carefully, making sure the mechanism hasn’t slid slightly upward on the tumbler pivot, preventing it from seating. This is straightforward to the experienced.
Even these simple operations require some basic skills and knowledge in order to avoid doing harm. I can perhaps best sum up my advice on home gunsmithing thus: don’t do it.
There is a reason people have professions and, when it comes to keeping your valuable gun in good fettle, we are fortunate that we still have those who are willing and very able to do the work for us. Britain is still home to the finest gunsmiths in the world. They deserve our patronage and, believe me, you do not want to find yourself standing in a workshop under the withering gaze of a veteran gunmaker, explaining why you now need him to rescue your gun from the mess you made trying to save yourself a couple of hundred quid.
What you can do at home
Keeping your gun in good order actually means it will need less gunsmithing during its life.
- The first thing you can do is to take it out of the gun slip as soon as you get home from shooting. Damp guns in damp slips lose their finish and go rusty fast.
- Then, take the damp gun apart and wipe it over with kitchen towel to remove any visible moisture.
- Push some wadded-up kitchen paper through the bores with a cleaning rod to remove any residue and then put the barrels on top of a warm radiator (not the fore-end or the stock).
- Rub over the wood with a clean, soft cloth and leave it to stand in a warm room to dry off naturally.
- Once dry, scrub the bores with a phosphor bronze brush and swab them out with kitchen towel, the last time soaking the towel in gun oil. If it comes out clean, then swab the bore with a wool mop soaked in oil. (Read our list of the best gun oils.)
- Metal parts need a dab of grease on bearing surfaces (hinge pin, bolts, hook). I use Vaseline mixed with gun oil. I use Parker-Hale Express as a general-purpose oil. I also like ACF 50 as a barrier and rust inhibitor. Then, wipe over the metal surfaces with a slightly oily cloth, taking care not to get oil on the wood.
- These simple steps will prevent a lot of the wear and tear that befalls guns while they are not in use.