September 15, 2010

Working the Browning Model 81 Lever-Action Rifle

Browning doesn’t tell anybody how to disassemble the Model 81 lever action. Be sure you do it right or be prepared to wait for parts.

The Model 81 comes from Browning with a manual that tells the new gun owner about “safe handling procedures.” The manual must have been written by lawyers trying to avoid lawsuits, because it does not tell how the owner how to dismantle the gun—not so much as how to remove one screw to clean the rifle internally. Even its section on cleaning and maintenance does not say one word about disassembly.

But I must admit that Browning has one strong reason in its favor for not telling the company’s customers how to take their BLRs apart. Disassembling and reassembling this rifle should only be done by a knowledgeable, qualified gunsmith—even for cleaning—because doing it incorrectly may cause damage to parts.

So Browning chooses to avoid all references to taking the gun apart. In fact, it says in the gun’s manual, “If your rifle requires service, contact your local recommended Browning Firearms Service Center.” This means gun shops will be getting these rifles in for repairs and cleaning, and you need to know how to take them apart the right way, or you will find yourself telling your customer that you are sorry, but he is going to have to wait until a new part arrives. Here’s what you need to know about fixing the lever-action Model 81 Brownings:

First Things First

Because people who bought many long-action BLR rifles got a manual with their gun that was printed for short-action rifles only, they’re likely to be confused from the start. The bolt design in the long-action rifle is different from the short action; therefore, the part numbers are different. This short-action manual did include a blow-up picture and a parts list, but doesn’t give needed information for working on this or the long-action BLR. Our shop has had very few complaints with the short-action BLR; however, we have had several with the long action.

Among this rifle’s most common problems are feeding problems, the easiest fix for which is checking the detachable box magazine before looking elsewhere. Very often, just changing out these magazines will correct a feeding problem.

When the cartridges are not lifting enough to feed into the chamber, check its feed from both the right and left side before doing anything to the magazine.

If both sides are failing to let the cartridge lift enough for the nose to feed into the chamber, replace the magazine. If only one side is failing to allow the cartridge to ride high enough, you can change the lip on that side enough to make it work. Be careful that you do not bend one part of the lip more than the other. A rough or wavy lip is not acceptable and will not work right.

Also, a flat piece of steel the same length as the magazine lip, can be put under the edge of the lip and griped with vise grips to make a slight adjustment along the entire lip edge. But opening these lips too much will allow two cartridges to try to feed at the same time. If the backs of the cartridges are held too low in the magazine, the bolt will sometimes ride over the rim and fail to feed. If they are too high, they will keep the extracting cartridge from ejecting correctly. The back of the lips must be tight enough to hold the cartridge in the correct position, while the front must be open enough to allow the cartridge to ride higher.

Courtesy, American Gunsmith Book of the Rifle

Courtesy, American Gunsmith Book of the Rifle

These adjustments are very critical, and both lips must correspond to the opposite lip and the front to the back. A new magazine often corrects all these problems.

Another common problem occurs with the Model 81’s external retaining pins, which are directional and should be installed from right to left. Always remember someone may have had a pin out and driven it back in from the wrong side, and this can cause all sorts of problems.

To check, open the lever 2 to 3 inches. Drive out the cocking-lever pin and then the cocking-gear pin from left to right. Use a punch that is slightly smaller than the pins, flat, and smooth on the driving end, or the pin’s finish will be marred. This will allow the cocking lever and gear assembly to be removed from the bottom of the receiver.

Check all the teeth on all these parts to make sure they are not damaged, for one chipped or broken tooth will cause future damage and malfunction on this rifle. Also, a broken tooth is not practical to repair, and Browning does not like to sell the cocking gear or lever. After this assembly is removed, the bolt assembly can be pulled out the back of the receiver.

Most of the cleaning and repair work you do on the BLR will be on this bolt. (This is true once you have mastered getting the gear assembly back in correctly.) The long-action BLR has a bolt with six guide lugs around its body, giving it a star or gear appearance from the rear view. The bottom lug is machined into teeth for the gear to travel. This works very well, as long as it stays clean. The rotary bolt head fits tight into its corresponding barrel slots. It must be clean to ensure proper, smooth operation.

On both the long- and short-action models, the firing pin is held in by a firing-pin retaining pin. I have only seen one broken firing pin on a BLR, but the long, thin firing pin in the long-action rifle makes me believe I will see more.

This firing pin must be removed before starting any dissembling of the long-action bolt itself. This is not true of the short-action or original BLR bolts.

Fixing The Long Action Bolt

Because the long action seems to need the most care and repair, let’s look more closely at it. After removing the firing pin in the long action, you’ll see a bolt-head retaining pin that should be driven out from the bottom out the top. Remove the bolt head with care; the extractor is only held in place with a small retaining spring. This retaining spring is held in place by the body of the bolt. When the bolt head is removed from the bolt, this extractor retaining spring can be lifted out of a small hole drilled into the base of the bolt head and slid to the rear so the front of the spring will come out of the extractor. At this point the extractor will fall out.

The ejector is a simple, spring-loaded metal rod that exerts pressure on the head of the cartridge at all times. This will push the inside edge of the cartridge case away from the back side of the bolt, and as the cartridge retracts enough to be free of the barrel and receiver, it will eject itself. Many firearms use this design to eject their cartridges, and all of them have the same problem: Getting stuck with dirt, rust, and other fouling. However, I have not seen this problem in the BLR as yet. They are just too new. Still, we will see it just like we do in the Remingtons, I believe, and the repair will be the same.

Courtesy, American Gunsmith Book of the Rifle

Courtesy, American Gunsmith Book of the Rifle

This ejector is held in place by a retaining pin that is driven out from left to right, and it must be held because it has a strong spring. When they are stuck, they need to be soaked in a good cleaning solvent. (Tip: Heavy rust that will sometimes resist solvent for days can be soaked in alcohol and then in plain water to soften the rust.) After soaking, hold the bolt and hammer the rear of the bolt face as hard as you can with out damaging it to dislodge the stuck ejector. If it does not work, soak it longer. When heavy rust is a problem, make sure you get all the rust out of the ejector hole and use a good oil when reinstalling the ejector. If they cannot be removed due to rust, they will sometimes have to be drilled out. This is a last resort because it is so easy to damage the bolt head.

The extractor is so small on this rifle, it makes one wonder if it will be able to withstand the abuse of heavy and magnum calibers.

However, I have never heard of one failure to date. Make sure you reinstall it the same way it came out, and you will be all right.

Most gunsmiths are surprised at how loose this extractor fits into its slot in the bold face, but this is part of the design, and is nothing to worry about.

To reinstall and adjust this extractor on the bolt face, it should be held with the top of the front sloping edge even with the front edge of the bolt recess. While holding it here, put the extractor retaining spring back through the rear of the bolt head. Push it all the way through and then pull it back enough to hook its bent tip back into the retaining-springs hole in the bolt base. Now, hold the bolt with the teeth down and slide the bolt-head back into the bolt, with the extractor on the ejection side of the bolt.

If the extractor is working correctly, you can slide it back and forth in its slot with ease. Without touching it, the sloping edge should come back to the same position, with the sloping edge being in perfect alignment with the face of the recess just like it was put back together. When this spring is correctly set, you can take a punch and push the extractor a little farther into the center of the bolt recess, but the spring itself will not make it do this on its own. Take the punch and push the extractor back away from the center of the recess and slowly let it return until you have removed all pressure on the extractor. It should have returned to the correct position as described earlier. Do not let it snap back, since this will make it come too far. When this spring is too tight, it can force the extractor too far into the cartridge recess in the bolt head and not allow the bolt head to close around the cartridge head. This can create a jam, or when it is somewhat too tight, it makes the bolt hard to close. When this spring is too loose it will not always extract the fired cartridge. There is a slight bend in this spring that can be increased or decreased as needed to offset these problems as they occur.

Changing this bend is very critical and never needs to be made more than 1 millimeter. Overbending will destroy the correct tension on the spring, and it will have to be replaced. The new one will then have to be set for a given rifle.

Also, the long-action firing-pin spring has a collar that goes on the firing pin before the firing pin spring is installed, while the short action does not. This firing pin is also directional with a slope cut on the back of the bottom edge.

Courtesy, American Gunsmith Book of the Rifle

Courtesy, American Gunsmith Book of the Rifle

When you reassemble the long-action bolt, slide the firing pin into position with the angle turned down. Slide the spring spacer sleeve on the firing pin and then the spring. Now slide the bolt face into the bolt with the extractor in place as we described earlier. With the teeth of the bolt turned down, install the bolt face with the extractor facing the ejection side as described and start the bolt retaining pin into the top of the bolt. Make sure the hole in the bolt retaining pin is facing forward. Back the firing pin out the rear of the bolt 1 inch and hold it while carefully driving down the bolt-face retaining pin, being careful it does not turn to one side. This pin must be perfectly in line with the firing pin.

It serves as the firing pin guide and being the least bit out of line will cause several problems: failure to fire, firing pin breakage, locking the firing pin forward, which causes the rifle to fire upon closing, binding the bolt head so the action will not open, plus several other smaller possible problems. After the bolt-face retaining pin is driven into place, slide the firing pin forward to make sure it goes through the hole in the pin without restraint. If it does, everything is aligned. If it does not, slide the firing pin back 1 inch and start over until you get it correct. Close is not good enough; it must be exact.

Insert the assembled bolt two thirds of the way into the breech and reinstall the three-piece gear set. Since Browning does not list these parts in its BLR manual, you will have to remember how they came out. If you cannot remember, assemble them outside the rifle so you can see how they will fit. Install the gear pin through the gear bushing, gear, and drive. Push the retaining pin in enough to hold all these together without driving the pin all the way in. The reassembly is simple until you start putting the lever and gear back in because you have to get the gear and drive into the correct position. This drive, as I call it, is built onto the lever in the short action; it is a separate piece on the long action. It is not named or shown in the parts manual. Insert the lever retaining pin into the receiver enough to go into this gear drive, but not through it.

Hold this all in place while you slip the lever into the same position you took it apart—open about 2 to 3 inches. Slide the lever pin in enough to hold the lever. Move the lever up and down to see if all the parts are working. You will have to try several times to get the gear teeth to line up with the drive teeth and bolt-feed teeth. When the bolt closes fully just as the lever closes fully and all are smooth you have it right. Congratulations. Now drive all the pins home carefully to avoid damaging their bright-blue finish.

Working The Short Action BLR

The late-model short-action bolt on the BLRs has very little resemblance to the long action. The short action is a simple, round bolt, and if it did not have the drive teeth on the bottom side, it would not have any resemblance to the long action. The long-action bolt head turns into the barrel locking lugs, like the new Remington Model 7400. The short action has thread-type locking like the older Remington Model 742.

Because of this, some of the adjustment problems are similar to the two styles of Remingtons. Unfortunately, this different-style bolt face creates a whole new set of feeding and ejection problems.

Courtesy, American Gunsmith Book of the Rifle

Courtesy, American Gunsmith Book of the Rifle

In the BLR short-action bolt, the bolt head is held in by two breech bolt pins that can be tapped out.

The extractor is a claw type like those used on many autoloading pistols and shotguns, and being the same type, it has the same problems. It is held in place by the dog leg method of using a spring pushing a plunger into the back to create the necessary pressure to hold it in the bolt and grip the cartridge rim.

If the rifle is having a problem extracting the fired rounds, check the extractor for looseness and tension. It should fit very tightly and have strong tension when pushed back with a punch.

Push it out away from the bolt and let it snap back. This should be instant and forceful. As you might expect, dirt and rust will put this one out of order in short order. The ejector problems and cures as described above will work here as long as you understand that the screw in-type bolt head must close fully to headspace and fire.

A bolt that does not close quite as tightly as it should will sometimes misfire. Check the firing pin where the round machined part flattens out to see if there are marks. This is the sign that the firing pin cannot go through the bolt face because it is not turning fully into its locked position. Most of the time this can be solved by cleaning out the barrel-locking slots.

Also check the locking lugs to make sure they are not damaged. The breech bolt guide that rides in the top of the bolt also needs to be checked for signs of wear if the rifle has been having a feeding and ejecting problem.

Trigger Work

Doing a trigger job on these rifles can be very tricky. Because the entire trigger assembly is built into the lever, a shortened sear has been known to fire when the lever is closed. There must be travel in the trigger for it to remain safe.

The felt pull can be helped by stoning both sear surfaces while being careful not to change the angle or remove much metal. It is not necessary to change or reduce tension on this trigger spring; it is factory soft to begin with.

Do check to make sure that all trigger-assembly parts are not rubbing against any rough surfaces. If they are, use emery to smooth them because files will not do a satisfactory job. Also, some ‘smiths have reduced the hammer spring tension to make the trigger pull softer, and this works except that the gun misfires much easier, especially when it is cold.

The Simple Stuff

This rifle’s parts are almost all held together with pins, so removing the magazine latch, hammer, and other internal parts is easy and clean when you drive out the various directional pins. Other than having to repair the magazine latch, the rest of the work on this rifle will mostly be cleaning. Of course, if someone has broken a part by trying to take the BLR apart without instructions, you may have to order parts for them.

Barring that, you’ll mostly need to break down only a few areas of the gun. There are no working parts under the forearm, so you need to remove it only for cleaning the gun or to replace to forearm. The stock bolt is easy to reach inside the stock because Browning hollowed out a large area for it. The six-part rear sight is as simple as it looks—one of the few easy things to fix on this otherwise complicated lever action.