May 23, 2023
By Alfredo Rico
My favorite firearms are not the most expensive in my safe, but ones I have built or customized. From installing triggers, to assembling a bolt action rifle or AR from parts, I love upgrading and customizing my firearms. Almost daily, if I’m not tearing something down for an install, I’m building it up. Here are the top 7 tools that are always within arm’s reach.
A good set of standard roll punches is a must for working on any firearm. Using the right size and type of punch will allow you to align parts and make pin installation a breeze. My favorite set is Real Avid’s Accu-Punch Master Set because it has a complete set of flat-end and roll punches. At $99, this 37-piece set may seem pricey, but it is a comprehensive selection of punches for working on everything from handguns to ARs. The kit includes a large set of standard flat and roll punches, two specialty punches with flattened sides, a nylon finishing punch, a staking punch and a pin alignment tool. The punches come in their own flip-up organizer for compact storage.
2. Gunsmithing Driver Set
You won’t realize the value of having a flock of driver bits designed for gunsmithing until you work on a firearm that has several screw head sizes. Using a bit that is too small or large can mar the screw or firearm. Beyond size, a gunsmithing driver set will be hollow ground and sit flush at the bottom and top of the screw providing maximum grip with little chance of rounding out the screw head. Household screwdrivers will be tapered and provide a sloppy fit. Real Avid and Wheeler Engineering have great gunsmithing screwdriver sets ranging from around $50 to $100. I recommend shelling out for a 70-plus piece set, like the Wheeler Professional Gunsmithing Screwdriver Set ($75) or the Real Avid Smart Drive set ($100).
3. Gun Vise
When working on a firearm, you’ll do the best job when the gun is solidly held in a vise and you’re free to use both hands. There are two types of gun vises, tabletop and bench-mounted vices. Tipton has a really nice tabletop vise called the Ultra Gun Vise for $190. It can handle everything from pistols to rifles and has a dedicated AR mount. The stand has four leveling feet which will keep it steady, and two trays with multiple compartments to hold parts or cleaning supplies. Real Avid’s bench-mounted Master Gun Vise ($300) looks like a traditional vise and uses jaws to hold the firearm, but the similarities end there. The Master Gun Vise is much lighter than traditional mounted options, and the jaws sit on ball which can be rotated to and angled to give you a clear view of the part of the firearm you are working on. The jaws include many features to hold a rifle, pistol or AR, and it’s compatible with several other Real Avid products to facilitate particular projects such as installing barrel nuts and muzzle devices on ARs. I find both vise types useful and often use the tabletop for cleaning and the bench mounted vise when assembling or disassembling a rifle.
4. AR Multi-Wrench
Working on an AR can present its own challenges due to the specialty wrenches needed to remove a barrel and castle nut. This is where I favor an AR multi-wrench. There are a few on the market that also remove muzzle devices and receiver extensions. Whatever the case, opt for a wrench with a thick spine and beefy teeth. A thick wrench won’t dig into your hands when removing stubborn nuts while the beefy teeth will prevent the wrench from slipping. The AR-15 Armorer’s Wrench from Brownells ($60) is an excellent all-in-one example. My personal favorite is Real Avid’s Armorer’s Master Wrench ($80). It not only offers the above features but includes a hammer with multiple heads for driving pins, a free-float barrel nut wrench, and a ½-inch torque wrench receiver.
If you are mounting scopes, a bubble level is a must. There are many types of levels out there, the most useful is the Wheeler Professional Reticle Leveling System for $68. This system has two levels, one small level and another that clamps to the barrel. Use the small level to level the rifle first from a flat spot on the receiver, then clamp the other level onto the barrel and level it to the small level. To level your scope, you can then reuse to the small level atop the turret cap to make adjustments and align the scope with the barrel-mounted unit. What I like about this system is that it can work with nearly any firearm-optic combo, and you don’t need the added space or equipment required for the plum bob method.
6. Torque Wrench
Torquing a screw by feel may work well, but being precise and repeatable is better. This is why it’s important to use a torque wrench. Most firearm-specific torque wrenches offer adjustment ranges from about 10 inch-pounds to around 65 inch-pounds. There are many choices available and all work well, including the F.A.T. Wrench from Wheeler ($80), the Smart-Torq from Real Avid ($80), and myriad portable limiters and sets from Fix-it Sticks (from $42). If you’re working with muzzle devices, castle nuts, barrel nuts and barrels, you’ll need a larger torque wrench with a much larger range. Real Avid’s Master-Fit Wrench A2 Crowfoot sets (from $150) offer torque values from 10 to 150 foot-pounds and include AR-specific wrench heads.
7. Files, Steel Wool, Sandpaper
If you swap out or upgrade metal parts enough, you’ll find that sometimes they need a little massaging to fit properly. I’ve had to file dovetail sights, lap a barrel shank, shorten screws, and enlarge holes to make parts fit. With a light touch, the danger of messing the part up is miniscule. I recommend a fine-toothed metal file when you need to be a little aggressive. For fine-tuning, look at a small set that includes flat, triangular, round and square files. These will allow you to get into tight places and make minute changes. A Nicholson 6-Piece Fine Cut set, found on Midway USA for $40, is a good starting point. For very fine adjustments, 400 grit wet/dry sandpaper will allow you to lightly skim the surface without fear of removing too much. I use steel wool when the fit is very close and I need to polish the surfaces so they glide across each other smoothly.
What tools do you think are essential when working on guns? Do you have a go-to for at-home DIY projects or professional ‘smithing? Let us know if we missed anything by emailing our team at GAEditor@outdoorsg.com using “Sound Off” in the subject line, or start a new thread in our forums.
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