July 10, 2013

Servicing Out-of-Production Firearms

If you decide to work with a gun you’ve never seen before, here are some places you can turn to for help.

There will come a time, sooner or later, when you are faced with having to decide whether you want to work on an old gun that you may never have heard of before. It is up to you to decide if it’s worth the trouble but if you do, follow the rules I’ve learned over the years.

Rule One. Glazed looks totally destroy owner confidence and are to be avoided no matter how unfamiliar the firearm.

Rule Two. There are ways to get familiar with it.

Rule Three. You have to decide whether your investment in time, postage and phone calls to acquire that familiarity is worth it.

Rule Four. All the right Rule Three decisions will be made only after you’ve been burned a couple of times.

If the manufacturer of an out-of-production gun is still in business but no longer carries parts for the model, a call or letter will usually result in one or more of the following: (1) an exploded parts drawing; (2) a copy of an owner’s manual; (3) a source for parts. The parts drawing will help you with identification and relationships. The owner’s manual will at least provide basic field-stripping instructions.

If you need more than that, drop a note to the technical staff of the American Rifleman, ask if they have detailed take-down instructions and don’t forget to include a stamped, self-addressed envelope with your query.

Often, the source for parts you receive from a manufacturer will be a list of authorized parts distributors, who may or may not be able to fill your needs. The prices these authorized distributors charge are reasonable and, as individuals, they are generally willing to help you. If they don’t have what you are looking for, they’ll suggest sources they know of who might have it. Pennsylvania Gun Parts, a Winchester/Marlin/Remington parts distributor, is a good example. I was searching for some trigger assembly components for a Remington 11-48. They didn’t have them, but gave me the phone number for another authorized distributor who did. Two weeks later, the 11-48 was repaired and back in the hands of its owner.

At other times, the parts source will be the name of another company that decided to purchase all the leftovers for a discontinued model, thereby cornering the market and enabling them to set their own price. Parts for old Mossbergs and Ithacas, for example, have pretty much been taken over, the latter by a Canadian firm.

If your written inquiries—and write them you must—to suppliers such as Sarco and Quality Parts don’t turn out positive, you will have to pay whatever price is asked or forget about putting the gun back in working order.

Securing replacement parts from a factory authorized service center presents a similar problem. In the unlikely event they have them, they’d rather do the work themselves, so discounts are unlikely.

Courtesy, American Gunsmith

Courtesy, American Gunsmith

After dozens of phone, fax and mail inquiries, the origin and value of this .22-caliber rifle is still a mystery. Anyone out there know who made it, when, and how much it’s worth?

If both the manufacturer and the gun are mysteries, you face a more torturous route that will cost additional time and money.

Now you will have to become a firearms history major with the emphasis on research. If you have a decent gunsmith’s library, you can start there by poring through volumes like Pollards’ History of Firearms, Brownells Encyclopedia of Modern Firearms and Flaydermans’ Guide to Antique American Firearms—which also gives you their values.

If you don’t have a library of your own, try a public library, but finding one with a large section of firearms books that isn’t located in a major city or a city close to a major gun manufacturer won’t be easy. The American Rifleman staff may be able to help you with identification if you send them a photo. Actually, you’d better make that several photos, including close-ups of the action both opened and closed.

If your mystery gun has a patent number on it, you can ask the U.S. Patent Office for a copy of the original patent. Don’t call them, because it will get you little more than voice mail and a large ration of frustration. Write, and be fully prepared to wait at least a month for a response. After 30 days, write again and wait some more. Sooner or later, you will receive it. You cannot be denied a copy since a patent is considered public knowledge once it has been issued.

There are, in addition, professionals who make all or part of their incomes identifying and evaluating firearms. They are extremely knowledgeable and have been known to tell their clients not only the make, caliber and value but the month the gun was made, merely by looking at a Polaroid picture.

They also charge a percentage of the gun’s worth for their services. Normally 10 percent, it can get up to 20 percent depending on the time spent.

Other sources that can give you a clue, and maybe more, include the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.. A letter addressed to the Curator of Arms there should enclose a picture and drawings or tracings of any proof marks, lettering and designs stamped, etched or engraved into the gun’s metal work. A check made out to the Smithsonian, which you can take as a tax deduction, isn’t completely necessary but might speed the response to your inquiry.

Museums also worth investigating are The Henry Ford in Deerfield, Michigan; The Buffalo Bill in Cody, Wyoming and The Tower of London. The latter houses one of the world’s great collections of arms and armor but I wouldn’t recommend hitting the owner for return airfare so that you could conduct an on-the-spot investigation. Then again, why not?

Courtesy, American Gunsmith

Courtesy, American Gunsmith

The breech of the rifle with no name breaks open. Its extractor functions similar to those in modern, over/under shotguns, camming to the rear and removing the spent case from the chamber in the process.

Now, let’s suppose all the phone calls, letters and faxes leave you still facing a stone wall. You’re not necessarily out of the picture yet. There are specialists who do nothing but repair and restore old firearms. Chances are, these individuals can at least give your reputation for good service a boost. None of them are quick turnaround artists, but artists they are who take great care and pride in their work. They also insist on performing it themselves, so don’t look for any step-by-step instructions via return mail.

What you can look for, and will receive in most cases, is a trade discount that will turn you some sort of profit when the firearm is eventually delivered back into its owner’s hands. Few of these specialists will give you an estimate over the phone, wisely preferring to have the gun in hand before quoting a firm price. If you give your customer an estimate before knowing that specialist’s price, you will probably lose money. You will for certain if you fail to include shipping charges and your research-associated expenses when you quote the cost of the repair.

If, for one reason or another, all the above fails, the identity of the fowling piece, dueling pistol, double hammer percussion shotgun, triple drilling or whatever remains a mystery and you take on the task of disassembly and repair yourself, hope you don’t come across empty spaces once occupied by parts.

On the other hand, as long as all their pieces can be found, fitted together, used as a pattern from which to make a duplicate and you have the facilities available, the only problem broken parts present is the cost of manufacturing them. More often than not, your customer will consider that cost to be too high a price to pay.

By now, you should have a fair idea of what is involved when a great unknown appears. The origin and value of the .22 rifle pictured here is still a mystery after a dozen phone calls, as many letters and the reluctance of its owner to pay for the services of a professional appraiser. I was lucky, though. The only part missing was the rear sight, which I replaced by fabricating a new one.


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