My retail shop doesn’t just sell guns, we repair them, too. We have qualified armorers who fix a lot of problems gun owners experience (and sometimes cause themselves). So here’s a follow-up to my earlier post with some handy armorer’s tips, problems we see frequently, parts that commonly fail, and things you can do yourself regarding firearm maintenance and repair.
Let’s start with the why. Lots of gun owners like to have a plan A, a plan B and eventually even a plan C for when A and B fail. You’ve heard it before: two is one and one is none. This philosophy is often followed when it comes to gear, first aid kits and ammunition. But for some reason, it doesn’t often extend to basic gun maintenance.
One of my customers is a retired machinist/aircraft mechanic who spent 25 years at the metal shop in Tulsa for American Airlines. He made a good living there based on one simple principle: you do maintenance one of two times — when you want to and when you don’t want to.
The idea is that if something is able to be caught at an early stage, you can address it before it becomes a catastrophe.
Maintenance is a funny topic when it comes to guns because I see a lot of it being done too often as well as not often enough. I cringe when I come across guns that haven’t been touched, cleaned or oiled in seven years. But I cringe almost as hard when I see someone who’s done a total detail strip of their GLOCK on a monthly schedule on the 15th of the month like clockwork, regardless of how many rounds were (or weren’t) fired.
There are good and bad points to both sides. The good side to looking at your gun once a month is you know if there’s something wrong. The bad side is the risk of losing small parts like springs, detents, etc. And if you don’t have spare parts on hand, you’ve got an overpriced desk ornament or wall hanger rather than a firearm.
So much for the “any maintenance is good maintenance” philosophy, huh?
Let’s start with something basic for our first armorer’s tip.
Have a maintenance plan. Have a maintenance schedule. It doesn’t have to be intensive, but it does have to be followed.
One thing we get in the shop from time to time is police trade-in pistols. The great thing about police trade-ins is that department policy/guidelines drive maintenance and create a structure to where every firearm is periodically inspected and approved for use in service by a designated authority. For most, this is once a year at the annual or semi-annual firearm qualification.
By having an annual inspection at qualification, any repairs can be made and after the repairs are made – they can be checked out at qualification to ensure they’re kept in good working order. The only thing worse than needing a repair is finding out that a repair didn’t fix the issue at hand and you’ve got to make a second trip. Measure twice, cut once. And after you cut – measure again.
This isn’t a bad idea for those outside of law enforcement either.
I tell everyone who comes in the store to plan an annual firearm inspection one day a year near a birthday, anniversary or some other date that you’ll remember.
One of my best friends does a big hunting trip out in Colorado every year with friends. He rents a lodge and indulges in all sorts of tall tales, strong whiskey and general gun nut gluttony for seven days. But when he gets back, every firearm in the safe comes out, gets a good once-over and if anything he’s got needs a repair, it goes to the gunsmith. If anything he’s bought needs to be sighted in, by golly it gets sighted in that day.
Townsend Whelen is credited with saying that only accurate rifles are interesting, and my friend’s corollary to that is that only sighted-in rifles are useful.
He’s not wrong. He’s a man with a plan, and he follows that plan scrupulously. Taking stock of your life, and stock of your (rifle) stocks once a year is probably something we should all do as well as making sure all our rifles are sighted in and our self defense guns run with our stockpile of JHP ammo.
The easiest problem we fix? Getting you small parts. The most frequent problem we fix? Getting you small parts. The biggest pain in our rear ends? Getting you small parts.
Parts are tricky. I went to AutoZone recently shopping for a few things. Their store had 80,000 square feet and they didn’t have the three screws I needed (nor did the warehouse). They didn’t have the windshield wiper motor that I needed either. I had the staff order them in for me and they looked a little surprised that I wasn’t upset that they didn’t have them in stock.
We’re living in an Amazon Prime digital delivery world where everything is at our fingertips. Apparently when the desired item needed — no matter how obscure — isn’t on a shelf in the back, some folks get upset about that sort of thing. I’m in a business where we don’t have everything available all the time, so I’m used to it. Apparently, I’m one of the few folks who understand this nowadays.
Most of the time, getting parts is pretty easy. We just check our sheets to make sure we’re getting you the correct item for your gun and we order from the manufacturer or one of the authorized parts distributors. Sometimes that can be one of six or seven vendors and sometimes it can be one of one vendor. Every manufacturer is different on how they handle parts orders. For instance, GLOCK will not sell certain parts direct to a consumer.
One of the big challenges we face is making sure we order the correct parts when folks don’t have the gun in front of them or a serial number we can reference. If I have the gun in front of me, I know exactly what to order based on what I can see and read back from old part numbers, etc. If I don’t and I have a serial number, the manufacturer can check their records and pull up the model and variant and production date to make sure that we’re getting the right item the first time.
If you have a gun that needs repair, have as much info for your gun shop/smith available so we can make sure that you’re getting what you need. Help your retailer help you.
The most frequent problem we face is people losing small screws, detents, etc. and not having the make/model/serial number so we have a difficult time making sure a suitable replacement gets ordered. I mentioned my friend Benji in the last post and the small parts that he needed as an example.
Just the other day I had someone call in asking for some GLOCK pins. The kind that go in the frame. They weren’t aware that GLOCK makes a bunch of 2-pin and a bunch of 3-pin frames. Each of those pins are a little bit different and not interchangeable. Our caller didn’t seem to realize they needed to know WHICH pin they had lost.
History teaches us that folks in the military always keep spare parts at hand, and commonly the wear and tear items on any firearm are the firing pin, the extractor and the springs within such. As cheap as some of these parts are, it’s not a bad idea to keep some around, whether you’re in the military or not.
The P226 kit is just springs and screws and little things, lacking firing pins and extractors, but something is better than nothing.
A classic lower parts kit from PSA about $50 and it’s got everything in there.
GLOCK firing pins and extractors aren’t expensive at all. Granted, I have yet to see a GLOCK firing pin or extractor break – but it’s not a bad idea to have one or two lying around just in case.
SIG does a pretty good job about having a spare parts kit available, but GLOCK doesn’t have anything like that. I find it strange that major manufacturers aren’t giving end-users the ability to repair things in the field, but, I digress….
Recoil springs are inexpensive and easily obtainable. Often times they’re the cause of reliability problems and the first thing that we’re told to replace on any firearm having issues. A majority of the time, that fixes it.
A man with a few plans
My friend Rob is a member and big supporter of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearm Instructors and he travels to their annual training conference religiously. He has to fly cross country to get there with his firearms and he’s not willing to miss out on a great training opportunity by having gear that goes down. Whether you’re headed to IALEFI, Gunsite, or a big USPSA/IDPA/[insert discipline here] event, you don’t want to spend the money and hours traveling to only shoot for half a day thanks to a malfunctioning gun.
No plan survives first contact, so Rob is a man with a few plans.
Southwest lets him check two bags for free, so he packs two gun bags with guns and spare parts. I asked him what this year’s loadout looked like and it broke down as follows:
Bag A: Primary pistol with extra mags, backup pistol that used the primary’s mags. Spare parts kit that contained cross platform parts that would work for either firearm in a pinch. Primary rifle with extra mags and parts kit with two extra complete bolts and carriers.
Bag B: Backup to the backup pistol with two extra magazines. Backup rifle with two extra mags. Spare parts kits for both with bolts and carriers.
As Rob likes to say, you might have the smarts, but you still need the parts.
I gotta say, I think he’s onto something. He splits his gear up in a way that makes sense to him and if Southwest sends either one of his bags to an unintended destination. He can still train with his alternate set of gear.
In the event he has problems, he’s got the ability and the parts to get his gun working because he doesn’t commit all his spare parts to one bag.
He’s made so many friends at IALEFI that they all coordinate loadouts and if everything he brings goes down, he can take the ammo and the mags and borrow a backup gun from someone else – and if one of his friends has the same problem they can borrow his – because all their ammo and magazines and firearm loadouts have been pre-planned ahead of time.
I love it when a plan comes together.
His situation is probably different (and more demanding) than yours, but we can learn a lot from Rob. Spend a few bucks intelligently on small parts that might get lost/go astray or break over the years.
Easy maintenance and in troubleshooting you can do: This isn’t rocket surgery
The first question I ask when someone is wondering what kind of work they can do themselves on their firearms besides basic cleaning and oiling is this:
How’s your selection of tools/work area/tolerance for pain?
The reason I ask that is pretty simple. A single guy or gal who lives in a second story apartment with a roommate isn’t likely to have a workbench, a vise, or a whole complement of tools on a pegboard. If you’ve got a bench in your garage that’s got all of that, you’re off to a good start. But that’s not a luxury everyone has.
Also, an UN-carpeted work area is preferable when a detent, spring or screw goes flying. Note I said when and not if.
If you have basic mechanical skills, you can drift your own sights on and off with a vise and a punch. If you’re as fanatical about sights as a few gunsmiths I know, they have a digital micrometer and try to balance the length on each side as close as they can, plus or minus five thousandths of an inch.
I’ve had a few customers mount their own scopes, if they have the right torque wrench that measures in inch pounds and they use venetian blinds or something similarly to get their crosshairs leveled just right. But that takes time, patience, and the torque wrench, plus a working area large enough to set up all your gear. An easy thing for some, not so easy for others.
Depending on the malfunction a firearm is experiencing, a fix could involve something as simple as a lack of lubrication leading to too much friction or over-lubrication which attracts unburnt powder, dust, etc. clogging the action. I tell everyone to keep some gun lube in their range bag and a small cleaning kit so they can de-gunk their gun to see if that helps get it back up and running.
Another useful tool that I tell everyone about: a pen and a small notepad. Whether it’s a fancy one from Rite in the Rain or something from the grocery store, taking notes on malfunctions can be a fantastic diagnostic tool that will help your or your gunsmith.
Some quick notes on what the gun is doing, when it’s doing it, the ammo being used at the time and the magazines you’re using can be immensely helpful in troubleshooting. Not all firearm tools have to look like a ball peen hammer, a sight pusher or a digital micrometer.
That’s about it for now, I’ve tried to condense some of what we see most often into a 10 minute read for y’all and hopefully you’ll find it useful.
How regular is your regularly scheduled firearm maintenance and how deep to you get into your guns? Basic field strip, clean and oil? Total detail strip? We’d love to hear feedback from the readers as to how they manage.