Throwback Thursday: Firearm Restoration — Guide to Refurbishing Your Gun

Old revolver with rust spots

I have rebuilt, improved, modified, and refurbished quite a few firearms over the years. Only a few have actually been worth more when I was done, but they were all reliable and serviceable.

There is some question as to whether we should restore an original firearm. As an example, a single-action revolver made prior to 1900 may be more valuable in original condition than if was restored. A professional restoration, on the other hand, may tip the scales to the higher value.

Most of us are happy to restore a broken stock, cracked pistol grip, or perhaps perform light refinishing. The first rule is to study. I recommend my own book, Commando Gunsmithing for simple instructions. There isn’t anything in the book about lathe or drill press work, only simple handwork using a minimal number of tools. Patrick Sweeney also has good gunsmithing books, often more advanced than my own. However, Commando Gunsmithing is a rough and ready guide to at-home projects.  

Tools You Will Need

You need a few hand tools. Real Avid offers first-class gear for the hobbyist. This gear is also used by professional gunsmiths. The gunsmith screwdriver, as an example, is properly hollow ground to fit grip screws and for use in mounting scopes. A standard hardware screwdriver isn’t useful for gun work and will mar screw heads and strip them as well. A hex and Allen set of drivers is needed. Also, certain polishing cloths and compounds may be put to use.

Why Refurbish a Firearm?

I don’t recommend any of this work with a look toward making a profit. This isn’t real gunsmithing, although some gunsmiths make a living doing similar work. They also do machine work and more complicated restorations. Being able to restore an older firearm, and get it into operating condition, is satisfying.

gunsmithing tools
A gunsmith screwdriver, center, is tapered to properly fit screw notches for firearm restoration.

Do Your Research

Before approaching the firearm, a bit of study is needed. As an example, I would like to have an idea of what a Savage Model 67 stock costs before I buy the example with a busted stock at a pawn shop. I might be able to buy a shooting example of the shotgun for the price of a replacement stock.

You should be familiar with what replacement stocks cost. As an example, there is nothing wrong with the Hogue Monogrip for shooting, but if you want to make that old Smith and Wesson Model 66 original, a nice set of Magna stocks will set you back close to $200 — if they are nice.

If the goal is to have a $1,000 gun in incremental portions of investment, get this straight in your mind first. If you want a good 1911 that shoots like a Les Baer, get some experience in fitting, and you may get that Rock Island up to snuff. As an example, you could add a Bar-Sto barrel and a Wilson Combat trigger set for example.

When shopping for a used gun at a good value, let safety be your guide. The gun should be mechanically sound. The safety should operate properly, the feed mechanism should be working, and the sights should not be damaged. Cosmetics are another manner.

A worn or corroded finish isn’t difficult to address. Take a look at the sights though. A few years ago, it was common to see police trade-in Glocks with the front sight missing. This is quite inexpensive to replace. A Smith & Wesson revolver with a broken target-type sight is another matter. This can be contrasted with Ruger rear sights, which are surprisingly affordable. I know, because I have replaced each during the past year.

I attempted to find an original Browning Hi-Power rear sight and lost out on that one. Eventually, I modified the pistol to take another type of adjustable rear sight. Service pistols catch door jambs when worn on the point of the hip. Broken sights are common. Grips come next. The CZ 75 is a little thin, and so is the Beretta. Fortunately, there are easily available replacements.

S&W Revolver with grips removed
It is common to replace handgun grips.

Differing Levels of Restoration

When it comes to repair, don’t take on a job bigger than you can handle. Sure, if the gun is cheap enough, you may learn a skill working with it. But some firearms need to be scrapped! A gun with a problem, or two, that can be fixed is OK. A gun with a stuck action, or major parts missing, should be avoided.

Stocks with dents are not a big problem — using water to raise dents is possible. A missing recoil pad or butt plate isn’t enough to scare me off. These items are cheap, so long as you are not hung up on an original for a vintage rifle.

While this seems basic, be certain you know the caliber. In revolvers, .38 Special ammunition is plentiful. An old .38 S&W revolver is another matter, and ammunition is quite scarce.

I once bought a Springfield 1903 A3 that had been re-chambered and re-marked .30-338. No problem, I made the ammunition. However, I would not take this on today. I once bought a military Mauser 98 in 8mm Mauser. The stock, however, was marked 7.62. The stock was an Israeli-type from a rifle converted to .308. I don’t know how it happened, but it did.

A decade ago it was common to see 7mm Mausers, Lee Enfield, and French 7.5 rifles converted to .308. None were accurate, and some were downright dangerous.

Old Bersa slide with rust firearm restoration
This Bersa pistol slide is in need of refinishing.

Cold Bluing

Cold bluing is a nice little project that often turns out well. I think it works best for spot-finishing a rough or cleaned-up area that was once corroded. Preparation is everything.

If the metal isn’t polished, a pitted or rough-looking gun will still look rough after cold blue, but it will be less likely to rust. I have done several of these cold blue projects. They turned out well, and it works best on small handguns.

The process really works best for refinishing small parts and high-wear areas. Don’t clean or oil the gun for two or three days afterward, the blue may be affected. After the blue sets in, occasionally rubbing and oiling the gun will make for an even more attractive finish.

small pistol that has been re-blued for firearm restoration
A small pistol is a good host for cold bluing and firearm restoration.

Conclusion: Firearm Restoration

Today, some of the big names in replacement parts and tools are closed or barely hanging on. Fortunately, the internet offers the ability to search for, and find, difficult to locate parts. Buyer beware is the name of the game.

I stick to things I know, and I like to personally examine the firearm before purchasing. I use the internet for ordering supplies, not finding older guns. Just the same, there are reputable dealers. The world of firearm restoration is an interesting one.

Have you ever tried firearm restoration? How did it go? Do you have any tips to share with other readers? Share your answers in the Comment section!

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in August of 2021. It has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and clarity.

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (9)

  1. Seen too many firearms that “BUBBA” worked on, and in light of all the DIY videos on the internet, more and more “BUBBAs” think they can handle a DIY project. Can you work on your firearms? YES. Should you? First get the proper tools. and then start with simple projects. Even a simple strip and cleaning project can go wrong when one is not paying attention. (I always have a magnet handy to find a dropped spring.) With proper attention to what you are doing, a DIY project can be an experience every firearm owner should experience. Prime example is to refinish a stock, or to polish an action to remove tooling marks. Anyone with a MOSIN NAGANT will know what I am saying.

  2. I have an old single shot shotgun that I use for dove hunting many years ago. It’s set in storage for several years and the barrel got pitted and rusted. I went through the process of cleaning up and polishing the barrel but never got around to doing the bluing that I planned. Due to many other unfinished projects I have not gotten backed to it. I am looking forward to finishing this project at some point in the future.

  3. Have to love the internet, and u-tube. Found “New, old inventory” parts for a 50+ year old Colt New Frontier, at reasonable price. Caution is: Once “New, old inventory” is gone, it is gone, so don’t wait if you find what you need, even if it is a little more than you are willing to pay, because it is only going to get more so.

    Replaced the worlds ugliest stamped checkering, thick coated, super shiny, wood stock on a Rem 7600 with a flat black polymer which included a “jell” recoil pad (really comfortable), for about $40, then repaired a scratch on the receiver by disassembly, and cold bluing. Really a Bad A$$ looking rifle now, all for about $50.

    Have used U-tube before doing any disassembly, to either learn, or refresh, before starting a project. Highly recommend doing this before disassembly, and reassemble. Caution: Some videos are done by, well frankly, idiots, fortunately there are usually several different authors on the same subject, so you can decide which coarse to take, and it you cannot tell which is which, maybe you should change hobbies. 🙂

  4. I have an old Colt .38 revolver double action from around the turn of the century. The cylinder release is warn down to the point where it’s not safe to shoot. If I replace that part, would it diminish the value?

  5. I have an old Colt .38 revolver double action from around the turn of the century. The cylinder release is warn down to the point that it is not safe to shoot. If I were to replace that part to make it operable again, would that diminish the value?

  6. Looking for a copy of Commando Gunsmithing can seem to find one anywhere at a reasonable price. Anyone out there have any leads.. thanks ahead of time…

  7. I certainly agree with David above, some serious care and patience is a requirement. I’d add having a very clear end goal, plan, and most important, a solid firearm to start with. Have done plenty of stock swaps, grips, etc, but the real fun comes with unique builds. My favorite was a custom SKS bullpup build. Solid rifle for cheap in the 90s, so great starting point. Hand laminated and carved stock, welding for securing, tapping for barrel brake, but the hardest yet most satisfying was building the cantilever trigger. Trigger pull is no worse than the original, so pretty happy, plus it makes heads turn at the range. Have a second original SKS for nostalgia. Overall, learned a bunch and had alot of fun

  8. Bob thank you for all your excellent articles!

    I have a S&W model 342 Centennial style revolver that needs refinishing. I sent it to Gunsight Academy and they claim that the sent it to have Birdsong Black T finish applied. I contacted Birdsong and they claim they never saw it. Whatever finish was put on it was a semi dull black that began wearing off as soon as I holstered it in a leather holster. Whichever is more durable I would like done, just remove the finish and go back to the original finish or something else that an unlined leather holster will not damage. I was considering NP-3, but I believe the original finish would be just as corrosion resistant at a lower cost. As you probably know the cylinder is titanium and the frame and outer portion of the barrel are aluminum alloy.

    What are you recommendations?

    Thank you.

  9. I have refurbished a number of guns strictly for the sake of “something to keep me busy.” From restocking to rebluing to minor repairs, all fun and gratifying, including the mods to “keepers”…i.e. mew stock on an old Rem 722 in 300 Savage and S&W 29-3 I bought and sent to Smith to be checked. Ended up getting serviced and a new cylinder at no charge (nice folks at S&W) then I put on Deltapoint Pro red dot and new grips. Primarily I like to refinish original wood, etc. I often buy old 22’s and spruce them up and give to friends for children coming of shooting age or donate to shooting organizations. Certainly have turned some questionable looking Firearms into nice pieces, just needed a little care and some patience.

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