Home Repair of Pre-1899 Guns – Part 2, by SwampFox

(Continued from Part 1)

When other parts on revolvers break, fixing them can be a hassle. If a bolt or a hand breaks, you will need to be an expert at welding, brazing, filing, and fitting if you cannot find a replacement. Even if you do find a replacement, be prepared to hand fit the part, as quality control today is greater than it was back then. Fitting a hand precisely is essential! The length of the hand determines how far a cylinder rotates, and how the chambers align with the barrel. Misalignment can cause poor accuracy, or can become a safety hazard if a bullet enters the forcing cone improperly.   If a cylinder cracks, there is little that you can do but purchase another.

Hammers and triggers, however, can be repaired by brazing. You can also purchase blank hammers and triggers on eBay, and then file them to the proper dimensions. The key to doing this is patience – it is much easier to file metal away than it is to add it back on! I recently did this on a National Arms .38 break-top revolver. I picked up a blank hammer on eBay, and notched it to install a new mainspring that I made from a Pietta 1863 mainspring. It is somewhat stiff, but it fires. I also had to create a new firing pin, as the old one was bent and worn. I used a section of an AR-15 firing pin carefully filed to the proper shape, and polished with very fine emery cloth and a buffing wheel. Firing pin length is important. Too short, and you will fail to strike the primer with enough force. Too long, and you can pierce the primer and release metal particles and hot gases back toward you.

Ammunition for centerfire revolvers is usually easy to find. For rimfires, it is much more difficult. Several calibers are commonly used for centerfire revolvers – .32 S&W short, .32 S&W long, .38 S&W, .38 Long Colt, .41 Colt, .44-40, and 45 Colt. Most of these are available at many gun stores or online. The .41 Colt is an exception, although at the time of this writing it is available from AmmunitionToGo. One common pocket revolver caliber is .32 rimfire. Ammunition is almost impossible to find, although Dixie Gun Works makes a reusable conversion cartridge that uses a .22 blank and black powder inside a lathe-turned brass .32 case. They are costly, but it is one way you can get a rimfire revolver working.

Pre-1899 Rifles

As a collector and shooter, you will benefit from the availability of military surplus firearms. Trapdoor Springfields, Krag-Jorgenson rifles, and European surplus rifles are quite common. Cowboy-era lever action rifles are also available, but I have found that they command a premium at auction. Many people are unable to afford these sought-after varieties. However, for the most sought-after rifles, there is an excellent variety of aftermarket parts. Aside from hand-fitting, parts replacement is simple.

European models have less aftermarket parts availability. Swiss and Italian Vetterli rifles are available for less than $400 on Gunbroker, and are frequently as low as $150. I developed a fascination with these under-appreciated guns, and I have worked on them for years. The eBay auction site is a good source of parts, as action blocks and bolts do not break easily. Springs, however, are another matter. Trigger springs, firing pin springs, and so forth degrade quickly and are often missing.

As I searched for proper springs, I found that my local Lowes Home Improvement Warehouse had a selection of springs that was almost identical to the original.  I found that all I had to do was shorten a door hinge spring, and I was able to create a main spring for a Vetterli that had enough power to set off a round. The Swiss and Italian Vetterli rifles are similar, except that the Swiss rifle was rimfire. Resources are available online if you wish to convert a Swiss rifle to centerfire. I would recommend the excellent “swissrifles.com” forum as a starting point. Many Italian Vetterli rifles were later converted to fire the Carcano round during WWI. They share action parts with other Vetterli rifles, but have a different bolt face, magazine, and barrel.

A Multitude of Mausers

1890s Mausers are quite common, and easily available. They are typically referred to as “small ring” Mausers, whereas the 1898 and later pattern Mausers are referred to as “large ring” Mausers. Numrich is an excellent source of Mauser parts, as is the Liberty Tree Collectors web site. By supplementing with eBay, you can put together a stripped Mauser action or repair your collectible rifle in any way you wish. I have experienced the joy of putting together a custom rifle from a stripped pre-1899 Mauser action – shipped straight to my door from a Gunbroker seller.

There are many interesting things that you can do, from shooting an original Spanish 7x57mm to creating a custom .45 ACP carbine that takes 1911 magazines. (That was assembled using a mailorder kit made by Rhineland Arms.) What all these guns have in common is hand-fitting, especially of the ejectors. The ejector sits in in a little box on the left side of the receiver, and it sticks through a slot into the receiver as the bolt is pulled back. They are easy to make from sheet metal if you cannot find the part online, but vary greatly in length depending upon the cartridge you are using.

The .45 ACP conversion carbine kit may require a custom-made ejector. It is often unavailable, as are the plans to make one. You will have to take the pattern of an original, and make a larger tip for it. Trial and error, over and over until you get one that works. Like many other modification and repairs, patience with filing and fitting is the key. Savage-style barrels are available for Mauser actions, and they allow you to establish headspace with a barrel ring. Older style barrels are also available, but you will need a lathe to headspace properly. An experienced gunsmith will be able to assist you with this. The nice thing about Mausers is that they often shoot modern ammunition, and are as close to a modern bolt-action rifle as you will find on the antique market. These will be in extremely high demand if regulations increase, and prices for them are already increasing.

Warning on 7.62mm NATO M1895 Mausers

Pay attention to an important safety concern for Mausers: Some 1890s Mauser rifles were aresenal converted in the 1960s to fire the 7.62mm NATO round, most notable  alarge number of the Chilean M1895 Mauser  rifles. They may or may not be safe, depending on the pressure of the cartridges that you use! Please do not fire any 7.62mm NATO converted small ring Mauser with standard pressure ammunition. I own a converted 7.62mm NATO small-ring Mauser, and I have specific low-pressure handloads that do not exceed the pressure of the 7mm Mauser round for which the rifle was originally designed. Please consult a gunsmith and a reloading manual before using 7.62mm NATO converted rifles!

There are other interesting kinds of actions you may find in pre-1899 cartridge rifles. The Martini-Henry, Remington Rolling Block, and Springfield Trapdoor rifles are especially popular. Parts for Trapdoor rifles are available at auction, and Uberti makes a replica of the Remington Rolling Block along with parts that can fit it.

Martini-Henry parts are almost impossible to find. I have been scouring eBay for Martini Henry parts, as I picked up a Nepalese Gahendra copy on Gunbroker a couple of years ago. The build is still in process, as the springs are all gone and I only have a stripped action. I have been able to recreate some springs from local hardware stores, but the main action spring is still missing. Many people have purchased some of the “untouched” rifles recovered from the IMA arsenal cache in Nepal, with varying results. Some parts are available from IMA and from Atlanta Cutlery, but often you are on your own to find them at auction. New manufactured wood stocks are available, but typically only fit the British models and not the Nepalese copies. Ammunition is also hard to come by, although new production .577/.450 Martini ammunition is made by Kynoch, albeit at a high price.

(To be concluded in Part 3)


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