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.
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.
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.
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.
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.