We say that guns are tools, but more accurately, they are machines. Firearms are more akin to a radial saw or tractor than a screwdriver or hammer. And like machines, guns break down over time. Some of the greatest actions will last you decades, maybe even forever with proper maintenance. Some guns you pick up might last just long enough to no longer be covered by the warranty. Regardless of the quality and complexity of the firearm, most small fixes can be done at home with the right tools and a little elbow grease.
Diagnosing the Problem
Problems with firearms typically fall into basic categories: Ammunition malfunctions, failures to feed, failures to fire, operation issues. Ammunition malfunctions include squib loads and most hang fires. These types of problems are usually solved by clearing the firearm and switching up the ammunition. Failures to feed can be identified by the cartridge not loading into the chamber correctly and the action will usually not return to battery. Failures to fire can be either ammunition problems (like hang fires) or a problem with the firing pin, bolt, or chamber. Operation issues include many different types of problems such as failures to cycle, stovepipes and other ejection problems, and slam fires.
If you’re experiencing some ammunition issues, try switching up the load. Try a different brand (like Federal Premium or Winchester) or check your load data for handloaded ammunition. You can also switch the projectile: some firearms don’t like hollow points, while others don’t feed FMJ very well. You can play around with different loads to find what your gun prefers to eat, this is typically the case with rimfire firearms.
If you’re having problems with rounds being loaded into the chamber, you should first check your grip. Limp-wristing a handgun is a good way to force a FTF malfunction. If you’re sure it isn’t operator error, it could be your magazine. Check to see if your feed lips are bent or burred, clean and lube the magazine, and finally check your spring tension. Over time, the spring can lose its potency and will lack the force to push the last few rounds into the breech. You can find replacement springs and other magazine parts here on Defender Outdoors.
Failures to fire are almost always a problem with the ammunition or with the firing pin. If your firearm doesn’t fire after switching the cartridge you might have an issue with your firing pin. Not too long ago, my over/under shotgun was firing one shot, but not the other. I switched shells, cleaned and lubed, and still had issues. When I inspected the shotgun in better light, I noticed the tip of my firing pin had chipped off and wasn’t contacting the primer. Over time, firing pins take damage from hitting stiff primers and can easily chip, break, or get rounded off. Swapping in a new firing pin is a quick fix you can usually do at home. Occasionally, there are other issues that will cause an ignition failure. The firing pin may become obstructed with carbon if you haven’t cleaned your firearm recently, or the chamber may have buildup that prevent correct cartridge seating. A quick clean should remove the obstruction and help the firing pin and bolt travel smoothly. In some cases, the breech face does not correctly contact the cartridge and loads it into the chamber in a way that prevents the firing pin from contacting the center of the primer. This malfunction can sometimes be fixed with a new extractor.
Finally, you operation issues. These can often be harder to diagnose because of the many working mechanisms in a firearm. In the case of a failure to eject, the problem can be a cleaning issue (remember to clean and lubricate your firearms often, folks), a gas issue in semi-auto rifles, broken ejector, a slide timing issue, a damaged extractor, limp-wristing or thumb riding when shooting, a heavy recoil spring, or even out-of-spec ammunition. For issues like this its best to work through each possible problem. Check your grip: keep a firm grip with your thumb off the slide, make sure your clothes are clear of the slide, and keep that firm grip through the firing process. If you’re still having issues, try switching up your ammunition choice and give your gun a good scrub and oil. While you’ve got your gun taken apart for cleaning, examine your extractor claw to make sure it isn’t damaged or broken, make sure your ejector is in spec, and that your slide doesn’t have anyburrs or rough machining that might be causing the faulty operation. If all these parts are in fine working condition and you’re still seeing issues, you might need to switch to a lighter recoil spring. All of these can be a pretty simple fix with a couple of tools, some new parts, and a little time.
If you’re having problems diagnosing the problem, you can always check forums or blogs. There are hundreds of thousands of gun owners across the States and most of them have come across a malfunction at one time or another. Usually they can diagnose the issue from personal or professional experience and even help you get the right parts. If you’re still unsure about the problem are don’t feel comfortable working on your gun (they are deadly weapons, after all), there are plenty of gunsmiths out there trained in firearm repairs. (Shameless plug: Defender Outdoors Shooting Center has an amazing gunsmith for all of you in and around the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.)
Gearing Up: Choosing the right tools for the job
Before you get started, you’ll need to make sure you have the right tools. Every gun owner should be proficient in small repairs for their firearm. Not only can you save money by doing small repairs, but you’ll be learning a valuable skill that you might have to use if there isn’t a gunsmith available. One of the most valuable tools to have in your arsenal is a cleaning kit. Many issues can be solved by a deep clean to get rid of accumulated grime that can affect the operation of the firearm. Also, regular cleaning can prevent a lot of issues and undue wear on the moving parts. With cleaning should also come lubrication. Lubrication will prevent rust and corrosion as well as make sure the action moves smoothly. A little oil goes a long way to prevent wear on the moving components, so don’t over do it; over lubing can lead to dirtier firearms and more cleaning.
Next, you should get yourself a general tool kit for the type of firearms you have. If you’re an AR guy, Wheeler has a great Delta Force Armorers Kit that is everything you need to build, repair, and upgrade your AR. It comes in a carry case that keeps all seven tools together for around $90. Nearly all firearms are held together by a set of screws. And like most machines the screws are often different sizes and types. Wheeler has solved the issue with the Wheeler Deluxe Gunsmthing Screwdriver Set. With 89 pieces in a durable hard case, this set will prevent you from having to use the wrong sized driver head that leads to stripped or burred screws. Also useful is the NCStar Essential Gunsmith Tool Kit. This soft kit comes with the most commonly used tools including a mallet, punches, pliers, and more in a soft case for easy storage.
You might also want to invest in a good bench mat. These mats look cool with the exploded diagram, but make for a scratch-free work place that won’t move around on you. Also, if you’re going to need to do any deburring or smoothing, you might want to pick up a Dremel tool or other handheld rotary tool and a set of bits. Having one of these around not only makes smoothing out bad machining a cinch, but they’re also handy for those household chores on your “Honey-Do” list.