July 17, 2013

Installing Steel Butt Plates and Grip Caps

Here’s how to get the classic look of curved steel butt plates with modern materials-—without encountering problems.

The transition from where we were, to where we are now, as far as firearms accouterments go, has been a slow process.

Traditions die hard when it comes to gun stock design and the normal functional furniture that has a place on a hunting gunstock. Accepted additions that play a functional role are normally sling swivels studs in one form or another, a grip cap to protect the wood in this area and of course a recoil pad or butt plate. Any other additions can only be considered fluff and serve no functional purpose.

We’ve all seen the old flintlocks with their curved steel or brass butt plates. Those things have mean-looking points at the heel and toe that look like they would hurt the shoulder under recoil. They probably do. This style of butt plate was carried on when the Winchester models 1866 and 1873 centerfire rifles came upon the scene with their crescent shape.

The evolution of the curved steel butt plate has brought us a more relaxed version with less pronounced curve but still maintaining a traditional classic styling.

Curved steel butt plates are available commercially from several custom metalsmiths as well as the folks in Montezuma, Iowa, who stock the old tried and true A.O. Neidner style. Prices range from $15 for a basic plate to just under $70 for a skeleton type with an open center that allows the wood grain to show through or the added touch of fine line checkering. Butt plates can be had with checkered faces or smooth ones that can be embellished with engraving. There are even some that come with little trap doors to hide “mad money” from the little woman. This is an area where you can get as elaborate as your budget will allow.

The steel composition used in the manufacture of these butt plates is mild enough so they will take readily to any type of blueing or color case hardening. If your preference when working with a wooden stock is a semi-inletted and finished blank, some of the merchants handling these will rough in the end of the stock for the curved steel butt plate. If the stock wood suppliers you deal with do not offer this service, the job is not all that difficult. Patience and perseverance being the two necessary components.

The actual tools needed for the installation of curved steel butt plates are pretty basic and should be a part of your armament of tools, especially if you have already worked on a wood stock or two. An electric hand drill, a wood rasp with one side half round and the other side flat, a straight edge chisel (razor sharp), an inletting scraper and ,if you have one, a bandsaw. You could probably get by with a coping saw if you are extremely careful.

To establish an outline of the butt stock, place the butt down on top of a piece of light colored cardboard. (I generally use manila filing folders.) Trace around the outside edge of the butt stock with a pencil, then cut the tracing in half with a scissors. The tracing should be a close fit to the rough butt stock. With the curved butt plate against the back of the tracing, you will be able to trace the contour of the curved butt plate directly onto the stock with a pencil. This traced line should correspond to the length of pull that is needed. For example, if your customer needs a length of pull of 131/2 inches, use a steel tape measure to measure from the center of the trigger to the middle of the butt stock.

At the 131/2-inch point, mark a pencil reference line. When you trace the outline of the butt plate, draw this line a little farther to the rear of the stock, about 1/16 inch or so. The important thing to remember is to leave enough wood to work down to the desired length of pull. Once you take wood off, you’re stuck with that length.

Tools & Techniques, Chapter 24 Installing Steel Buttplates and Grip Caps

Courtesy, American Gunsmith

Place the butt plate against the tracing of the buttstock and transfer the curve onto the stock.

Roughing in the curve is best done with a bandsaw but, as I said earlier, if you are careful you can probably get by with a coping saw. I usually tape the off side of the stock cutoff line with cellophane tape. This prevents the wood from chipping too badly when the teeth come through from the bandsaw blade. Keep the cut perpendicular to the center line of the gunstock. The curve should be at a 90-degree angle to the side of the stock wood.

With the saw cut completed, check the butt plate against the face end of the butt stock to see that it is a pretty close fit. The point at the top of the curved steel butt plate will need to be cut in next. This is where a razor sharp chisel will save you much sweat and anguish. A dull chisel will tear the wood rather than slice through it cleanly. The need for sharpness will be understood when cutting across the grain of the wood. Lay the top tip of the butt plate on top of the stock heel and trace it with a pencil. With your chisel, cut inside the traced line to a depth of about 1/8 of an inch. Now would be the time to start coating the steel butt plate’s inside face with inletting black. This will give you an impression of the high spots on the end of the stock when the butt plate is placed against the wood and tapped with a rawhide mallet.

I use Jerrow inletting black, but not as it is purchased. This brand is sort of thick and can occasionally give a false impression when used as is. I picked up a couple of small clay dishes from one of the places that sells flower pots. These are used in the raw state before they have been fired and hardened. Place about a teaspoon of the inletting black in the clay dish and thin it with a light oil. The clay dish will eventually absorb the oil out of the inletting black but a few drops of light oil will easily reactivate it. I happen to use 3 in 1 brand oil but any light machine oil will do.

An artist’s brush about 3/8- to 1/2-inch wide works best for me when coating inletting black on everything up to barreled actions. If anyone out there has figured out how to keep inletting black from getting all over your hands and sometimes on your face, please let me in on the secret. I seem to get this stuff all over myself.

After coating the butt plate’s inside face completely with the inletting black, set it in place and whack it with a rawhide or plastic-faced mallet. Remove the butt plate and you will see the contact areas highlighted by the black. The high spots are likely going to be quite far apart, which means you’ll need to rasp them down until they meet. If you are extremely lucky, they will be closer together and a lot nearer to final finishing. This spotting-in process will need to be repeated until the inside face of the butt plate comes in full contact with the butt of the stock. When you get down to where contact is almost complete, an inletting scraper can be employed to scrape or shave those last few thousandths of an inch.

If you want to cheat a little bit once the outside edges of the butt plate and the point at its top have reached full contact with the stock, you could glass in the void in the middle of the butt plate. Just remember to coat the inside of the butt plate with enough release agent so it will come off once the glass has set.

In most cases, there are two securing screws that attach the butt plate to the back of the stock. I think they look best when the slots of these screws run north and south. If the butt plate came with a Phillips-style screw, it probably doesn’t matter, but they should be positioned the same way. Check around the outside edge of the butt plate where it meets the stock with an 0.005-inch feeler gauge blade for any gaps that may be present. If you don’t find any, proceed with shaping the outside of the wood sides down to the edges of the butt plate. A steel straight edge, 12 inches long, will help keep the sides of the stock straight while blending the wood into the butt plate edges.

Tools & Techniques, Chapter 24 Installing Steel Buttplates and Grip Caps

Courtesy, American Gunsmith

It looks much more professional to have the screws running north and south on the finished butt plate.

Grip Cap Installation

This is also an area where you can get as fancy as you would like. There are a myriad of styles and types of grip caps available. For reference, the grip cap used here is made by Dave Talley of Glenrock, Wyoming. Considering that the grip cap’s purpose is to protect the area from getting beaten up and chipped during use, I chose a steel oval one. You will see grip caps made of plastic or aluminum while others are made from contrasting colored woods like ebony and rosewood.

The ways these caps attach are equally varied. The most common styles of steel grip caps are attached with either one or two screws. The contrasting wooden caps are usually glued or epoxied in place and are normally accompanied by a forearm tip made out of the same type or species of wood. Dakota, Grisel and Talley grip caps like the one we bought from Brownells attach to the stock with two straight-thread screws (size #8-24). Custom gunmaker Jerry Fisher makes a nice one that uses a single screw placed in the center of the grip cap.

The area to which the grip cap will be attached needs to be rasped or scraped flat and smooth. Once the area is as smooth as you think you can possibly get it, it’s time for the spotting in process. As with the butt plate, coat the inside face of the grip cap with your imaging agent. Place the cap on the area where it will eventually be affixed and tap with a soft faced hammer. Removing the grip cap will show an impression of the high spots. Scrape or shave these areas until the inletting agent shows complete, even coverage.

To help you maintain exactness to the centerline of the stock, place a length of masking tape over the center of both action screw holes extending back along the centerline to where the grip cap will go. Draw a pencil line along this center of the grip cap area. The grip cap can be shifted around until you get it placed exactly where you want it.

Once you have the grip cap positioned where you want it to remain forever, place one of the attachment screws in either of the grip cap’s holes and tap the head of the screw lightly. This will leave a punch mark in the wood much the same as a center punch would produce. Drill a 1/8-inch hole into the center punch detent. It is extremely important that this hole go in straight, exactly 90 degrees to the face of the grip-cap area. If the hole is crooked, you will have a miserable time trying to get these screws aligned properly. The heads of both these screws fit with very little clearance in the recesses provided for them. You don’t want them to bind on the outside diameter of the screw heads. Once you get the first hole in straight, stick a 1/8-inch diameter by 1 inch long dowel into it. This will keep the grip cap from inadvertently turning on you and losing its fore and aft hole alignment. Dimple a mark for the other screw through the grip cap and drill it, being careful to keep this hole straight as well.

Tools & Techniques, Chapter 24 Installing Steel Buttplates and Grip Caps

Courtesy, American Gunsmith

Once you have the two screws on the same plane as the bore line, dress the tops down flush with the grip cap.

It is possible to purchase extra screws for these grip caps. Whenever I can, I like to work with French or English walnut stocks. This wood is usually quite dense and therefore cuts very cleanly. The density also makes it difficult to turn a screw into a drilled hole unless it has been pre-threaded. I made up an extra screw to resemble a tap for cutting the threads into the wood when attaching grip caps. It is a simple matter to grind two flats 180 degrees apart on one of these extra screws with a moto-tool and shafted stone. Silver solder or weld a T-handle to the screw head for turning the tap screw, thus pre-threading the holes.

The #180-1 magna-tip bit fits these screw slots as though they were made for each other. Screw the attachment screws down until they bottom out in the grip cap holes. While the purpose of the screws is to hold the grip cap in place, cosmetics does play somewhat of a role here. To me, it just doesn’t look right when the screw slots are not aligned to the bore. It looks chaotic, as if the stocker was in a hurry to get the job done. The slotted heads of both screws provided are high enough that they will be above the grip cap once installed properly. This extra height will allow you to blend the screw head tops in with the top surface of the grip cap by filing and then finishing with aluminum oxide paper.

To align the screw slots with the bore line, envision the slots’ current position as being the same as that of a clock face. These are #8-24 screws so for every complete revolution of the head, the screw will go 0.042 inch deeper into the stock. If we divide the possible positions of the slot into the 12 increments of a clock face, we would need to remove about 0.0035 inch of material in the grip cap screw hole recess for each advancement deeper. For example, when the screw hole is bottomed out with the slot pointing at 3 and 9 on our imaginary clock we would need to make the hole in the grip cap .010 inch deeper for alignment. The screw heads of these screws are 0.187 inch diameter. A 3/16-inch end mill will cut the required amount of depth in your drill press or milling machine; just make sure you have an adequate means to measure the cutting depth.

Once you have one screw aligned, the same process is repeated for the other. The tops of the screw heads are then dressed down with a smooth cut file and finished with at least 320 grit wet or dry aluminum oxide paper. The idea is to bring them flush with the top of the grip cap.

Most of these grip caps come “in the white,” meaning they have not been blued. To ensure that the screws go back into their fitted place once they have been blued, mark one for identification. The ends of these screws usually come with a tapered tip on the thread end so I find it convenient and workable to grind one screw tip flat. Then you’ll know which screw goes where when they come out of the blueing tank.


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