February 23, 2011

Repairing Obsolete .22 Rifles

We are not talking high dollar value with the vast majority of old .22 caliber rifles, however. Sentimental value? Sure. But sentiment usually takes a back seat to the wallet when it comes to a plinker.

it’s true that the number of legally owned handguns in this country can be counted in the millions, there must literally be “billyuns ‘n billyuns” of old .22 caliber plinking rifles in attics, closets and cellars.

At least three to five times a year, one of them gets hauled out of its hiding place and handed to me for repair. Usually along with some comment along the lines of “Am I in trouble keeping this? It’s not registered.”

I tell them to relax. It’s not full auto, it isn’t considered an “assault rifle” yet, and it went out of production long before the Gun Control Act of 1968, the Brady Law and The Crime Control Act of 1994. I also let them know that stocks of original parts have long been exhausted and the factory that originally produced the gun no longer manufactures replacements. If, indeed, the factory still exists.

Complicating matters is the fact that thousands of guns were manufactured to carry the name of a retail chain that has either gone out of the firearms business or out of business, period. Further complicating the problem is the fact that you need to find out who made the piece in the first place, because if there’s any hope of locating replacement parts, that’s where you’ll start to look. Just make sure all the checking and calling around isn’t going to be on your nickel.

For example, you’re unlikely to find anything by asking for, say, a trigger for an L.C. Smith hammerless double barrel shotgun made by Hunter Arms Company in 1945. You should, however, be able to track down a source for old Marlin parts. Marlin picked up the L.C. Smith line in 1946. Between then and 1951, Marlin produced 12-, 16- and 20-gauge scatterguns, as well as the smaller .410. The shotguns were equipped with 26- to 32-inch barrels with any standard boring. Production was discontinued until 1968, then resumed with the introduction of Marlin’s 12-gauge Field Grade. It was discontinued in 1973.

It might not have taken you very long to read that little bit of history, but it took me a couple of days and several long distance phone calls to collect the information after an L.C. Smith wearing “Hunter Arms Company” on it came in for repair a few years back. In that case, the gun’s dollar value was high enough to merit some up-front bucks from its owner, so my research was paid for before it started.

We are not talking high dollar value with the vast majority of old .22 caliber rifles, however. Sentimental value? Sure. But sentiment usually takes a back seat to the wallet when it comes to a plinker.

For example, a Montgomery Ward Model 31A is a tube-fed, bolt action plinker. In good condition, it might be worth $125. In the condition it reached my shop, it was barely worth $50. The tang holding the magazine tube assembly to the barrel was slipping around in its dovetail. The follower was still attached to its spring in the inside magazine tube, but was snaking up the feed ramp in the receiver because the breech end of the tube was worn out. It was impossible to fire a full magazine without the last two or three rounds getting jammed between the bolt face and the follower.

Should I take the job on or not? Following the advice of guys who had been around the business a lot longer than I at the time they gave it to me, I read a lot about guns—old, new or otherwise—when I’m not working on or writing about them. As a result, I already knew certain things.

American Gunsmith, Gunsmithing the Rifle

American Gunsmith, Gunsmithing the Rifle

Inside magazine tube replacement kits include a tube blank crimped at one end, a spring, a follower, a plug and a plug retaining pin. Above the kit is the old tube whose spring and follower were causing the gun to jam.

First of all, the Model 31A was made for Montgomery Ward by Mossberg during the early to mid-1930s and was a version of Mossberg’s Model 40. Given that, there was a chance of securing an original equipment replacement tube from the Mossberg Collector’s Association. The cost of that replacement, plus shipping and sales tax, could be more than the $40 my customer wanted to spend. If you include the cost of labor, that’s a pretty tight budget. But here’s how this specific job got done at a profit.

Everything I’m going to describe applies specifically to fitting a new tube to an obsolete Montgomery Ward; you can follow the same procedures for similar tube-fed rifles. The only things that will change are tube diameters, lengths and hole locations.

Brownells’ stocks any number of .22 inside magazine tube replacements, all ready-made to meet specifications by such manufacturers as Winchester, Marlin, Remington, Savage, Stevens and Springfield. Three additional inside tube kits, for guns I’ll refer to as “all others,” are also available.

One of those kits retails for $12.82. The tube is 223/8 inches long, mikes out to 0.350 inch outside diameter, has a 32-inch spring, a follower, a plug and a cross pin to retain the plug. The inside tube of the Model 31A miked out to 0.352 inch and was 191/4 inches long. The tube diameter of the new kit was close enough to assure a functional fit. Its length presented no problem at all.

The tube blank comes with one end roll crimped to retain the follower. To shorten the tube, remove the old one from the rifle and insert the new one - crimped end first - until it bottoms out at the receiver end. Use a file or fine tooth hacksaw to notch the new tube where it interfaces with the outer tube. To assure an even, perfectly flush cut, remove the tube and slice it off with a tubing cutter at the point you notched it.

You’ll squeeze the tube some in doing this, so the plug may not fit in the cutoff end anymore. One of the neatest little hand tools around for renovating the tube so the plug can be reinserted is the same one you use for deburring and chamfering brass prior to reloading. One end looks like a reamer, the other has three prongs with inside cutting edges. The reamer end cleans and restores the tube’s inner diameter with very little effort. The pronged end dresses off any rough spots on the tube’s outer edge.

Once that’s done, slip the tube back into the rifle so you can locate the hole you’ll be drilling for the plug retaining pin. Before you mark it, make a mental note that the pin has to rotate with the inside tube and be able to lock into the recess for it in the outer tube. This is the most critical measurement you’ll take in fitting a new magazine tube, so make sure that pin can do its job before you drill any holes. If you position it too far forward, it won’t be able to lock in and keep a loaded tube from flying out of the rifle under pressure from the magazine spring.

When you feel you’ve made the right mark, secure the tube in your drill press and drill through one wall of it with a number drill the same size as the fluted end of the retaining pin. Next, insert the plug and use a center punch to locate a hole that lines up with the one you drilled in the tube. Remove the plug from the tube, lock and true it on your drill press and, using a number drill one size down from the one you used previously, drill clear through it. Finish off your plug preparation by very slightly countersinking whichever end of the hole you’re going to align with the one in the tube. This makes driving in the pin’s fluted end easier and a lot truer.

American Gunsmith, Gunsmithing the Rifle

American Gunsmith, Gunsmithing the Rifle

To determine the cut off point for the new tube, insert it into the rifle crimped end first until it seats as far as it will go. Then notch it where indicated.

Now, drop the follower in toward the tube’s crimped end and feed in the coil spring. This is not as simple as it sounds. The tube is now 191/4 inches long while the spring is 32-inches long. It will put up a fight the last eight inches or so, but don’t cut it off. Just keep feeding it in—a coil at a time, if necessary—until you can cap it with your finger. Control the spring’s urge to escape while you insert the plug and line up the hole in it with the one in the tube. Keeping pressure on the plug to prevent it and the spring from going ballistic, start the fluted end of the retaining pin in the aligned holes with a light hammer. I suggest using your middle finger to restrain the plug while positioning the pin with your index finger and thumb. Once it is started into the plug, you can let go and tap it all the way in. Take care not to drive it through and bulge the tube’s opposite wall. When properly seated, the pin should protrude from the inside tube about 1/8 inch.

Once the tube was fitted, I still had to take out the slop between the magazine assembly’s tang and its dovetail. If this were a high-powered rifle, it would call for soldering, then perhaps reblueing because of the heat needed to perform the soldering. With the plinker, I didn’t worry about recoil or reblueing. I simply pushed the tang to one side of its dovetail, clamped it there and used a prick punch to raise three or four pimples in the base of the dovetail before drifting the tang back into position.

From the start to the final installation, the time involved in this task was somewhere between 15 to 20 minutes. Regardless of the time spent, you can be pretty sure hardly anyone these days expects to pay less than $20 for labor that demands some degree of skill. On top of that, I charged full retail for the kit, so that’s $32.82. Add in the cost of shipping the kit plus sales tax and I was still under $40, exactly what the customer had in mind. I charged him $43.50. He went away so happy he came back the next week with another obsolete rifle for me to fix.

The main point to all this is that the bottom line for a better bottom line when dealing with any obsolete item is thinking the repair through before tackling it. Cram as much into your head as you can about who made what, when they made it, who else they might have made it for, and where you may be able to find parts for it. And if you figure you’re going to have to pursue additional sleuthing in order to set whatever’s wrong with it right, never be shy about charging a minimum to take a firearm in for repair.