As regulations increase in the United States, it is possible that the only firearms that will be legal to transfer in the future without a background check will be those manufactured before 1899. These firearms are Federally exempt from the NICS background check process, and are likely to increase in value in the event that “universal background check” legislation is passed. For those who already own pre-1899 guns, or would like to acquire them, there is an unpleasant reality to their ownership: Some parts are fragile and are difficult to obtain! A broken, worn, or out-of-spec part can cause your valuable firearm to become a decorative wall-hanger.
I realize that many people are collectors, and that many antiques are too valuable to shoot. This article is instead about serviceable, “shooter grade” antiques rather than high Dollar value collectibles or investments. The focus of this article is on cartridge firearms commonly available in the United States at auction or online, with specific examples of firearms that I have repaired, and some common issues. It is not a complete how-to manual, but simply some food for thought. Everything I describe here is something that I have done personally, often multiple times.
First, some disclaimers and safety information. I am not a professionally trained gunsmith, although I have more than a decade of experience repairing antique firearms for fun (and occasionally for profit.) If you have doubts about the safety of what you are doing, please seek professional assistance. You only have the hands and eyes that God gave you, and they cannot be replaced. There are many things about working on firearms that are hazardous. As a personal example, I carry a shard of metal permanently embedded in the palm of my left hand – the consequence of a firing pin on an old revolver that pierced a primer and blew backwards. Working with tools also has its own hazards. I’ve had some burns and cuts over the years that might have been prevented by being more careful. Use common sense and do not take risks.
Pre-1899 cartridge firearms are divided primarily into three groups: Revolvers, rifles, and shotguns. There were a few semi-automatic pistols available in the 1890s, but they are expensive and uncommon. I have no experience working with these. Multiple barrel cartridge pistols such as derringers were also available, but are frequently high-priced collector items. Neither have I worked with these.
Rifles were primarily of three types: Bolt action, lever action, and single/double breechloaders.
Shotguns were mostly break-open, although the Winchester 1897 pump action shotgun is a notable exception. Again, these are generalizations for the purpose of this article. There are many unique and interesting firearms from this era that bridge the gaps between these categories, which is what I find most interesting about antique weapons.
One other item of note – just because a gun was designed or first produced in the 1890’s does not mean that your example is Pre-1899. This gets many people confused. For example, the Mauser C96 “broomhandle” semi-automatic pistol was developed in 1896, but was produced into the 1930s in many variations. In order to follow the law, you need to be sure of the exact year that your weapon was made. When in doubt, do some research. (For example, see JWR’s FAQ on the subject.) There are many online forums dedicated to specific models of weapons, and many resources that can help you identify serial numbers and markings. Some people enjoy this aspect of the hobby in its own right, as the history can be fascinating.
You don’t need specialty tools to begin work, although you may want to acquire some along the way. However, there are some essentials. I do not recommend the use of power tools in most instances. Patience is key. If you become impatient with the progress of your work, take a break and come back later. Fitting parts can be painstaking, but it is much easier to take metal off than it is to put it back on.
To start with, you will want some basic hollow ground screwdrivers and a small ball peen hammer. You probably already have these. In addition to common hardware tools, get a set of brass punches, a brass and nylon-headed hammer to avoid marring your gun. If a local store doesn’t have these, you can order a set from MidwayUSA. Another invaluable tool set is a set of small Swiss Pattern Files. While you probably already own a set of large files, you will need miniature files to work accurately on small parts. I got a couple of sets at my local Lowes Home Improvement Warehouse, but I’ve seen them available elsewhere. Also pick up some small steel punches for the more stubborn jobs.
For shaping homemade parts, I like to have a Dremel tool and a bench grinder on hand. Don’t use these things on antique parts, but if you are making things from scratch it can make things go faster. I especially like the miniature cut-off wheel on the Dremel, as it makes cutting sections of round stock for firing pins easy and more precise. “Cut to size, file to fit, and finish to match.” Another tool that is nice to have is a propane or MAPP torch – the kind you use for plumbing. It works well for basic heating of small parts.
Revolvers were the primary type of handgun in the post-bellum United States, and were mostly supplied with black powder cartridges. There were many manufacturers, some of them famous such as Colt, Remington, and Iver Johnson. Other makers are less known, such as National Arms and Forehand & Wadsworth. As a shooter, you will likely find that larger revolvers are more durable due to larger parts. There are some exceptions, such as the double action Colt M1877 “Lightning” and “Thunderer” revolvers, which are prone to breakage. The larger revolvers are also more collectible, and have the advantage of aftermarket parts availability. If you have access to these parts, then buy them! Numrich Gun Parts Corporation is an excellent source of hard-to-find small parts. VTI Gun Parts also has replica parts for the larger “Cowboy Action” revolvers, such as the 1873 Colt pattern and 1875 Remington pattern. Since the replicas are often clones or near clones of the originals, many of the replica parts will fit and function in your original revolver.
If you own a smaller revolver in .32 or .38 caliber, you are likely to run into multiple issues. Parts break more easily due to their small size. Many pocket revolvers were made by less common manufacturers, and were even known as “suicide specials” because they were not intended to be used frequently, and were sometimes of low quality. Parts can be almost impossible to find. The good thing about these guns is they are available inexpensively, and they are quite common. If you have limited financial means or are looking for an inexpensive pre-1899 weapon, then these are an excellent choice. I have repaired a number of Forehand & Wadsworth, Harrington & Richardson, and National Arms examples. Revolvers from major manufacturers such as Smith & Wesson tend to bring a premium, but can also be considered more reliable.
The most common parts to break on small revolvers (and even large ones) are springs. The mainspring which powers the hammer is usually a leaf spring, which runs through the grip. Over time, the stress of repeated use will crack this spring in the middle. If you are lucky, you can find a spring on eBay or from Numrich and install it with minimal trouble. But more often, these springs are unavailable.
Making Your Own Springs
I have made brand new mainsprings from bulk spring steel, or it is also possible to take a spring meant for a larger revolver or even a black powder revolver and reduce it in size. The main spring for a Pietta brand replica Remington 1863 black powder revolver is often of a similar size, and is available due to its current use in replica revolvers. Another common spring to break is the firing pin return spring. Most firing pins in small revolvers have a firing pin that floats in a small chamber in the frame. A recessed nut holds the firing pin and the return spring in place, and the spring is essential to keep the cylinder from binding and the firing pin from hitting the primers. Unfortunately, the springs are usually worn out, rusted, and/or of poor quality. Fortunately for you, the fix is easy! For most small revolvers, I have found that the spring from a ball point ink pen is a perfect fit when trimmed to the correct length/pressure, and has enough power to retract the firing pin into the frame.