September 29, 2023
Back when I was new to gunsmithing, one of the first lessons I learned was this: There were no common standards as far as parts were concerned. Things are much better now, but in those days even the thread patterns on screws differed. And the screw slots? Don’t get me started.
That’s why I, like so many gunsmiths before me, soon made a drawer full of custom-ground screwdrivers. That even included special ones, not to be modified, meant for particular firearms. I had a set of custom-ground screwdrivers for working on Smith & Wesson revolvers. Custom ground? Yes, we’d take a regular screwdriver, and using a bench grinder we’d make the screwdriver tip a perfect fit for the job. In the case of S&Ws, that meant the side plate screws, sight screws and grip screw. Those screwdrivers saw no other firearms.
Well, those days are over, as Wheeler has an array of firearms-fitted screwdriver sets that you don’t need to modify. (Although there’s going to be more than one of the gunsmithing crew who will, anyway, because they can’t be happy otherwise.) And, they offer them in an array of sets, as well as updated torque wrenches, that will make even those of us who are borderline OCD on the subject, happy. Let’s start with the cool new torque wrench.
Digital F.A.T. Wrench
Torque wrenches are neat tools. They let you tighten a threaded fastener up to a specific level of force, and not more. The F.A.T. (Firearms Accurizing Torque) digital version has a digital readout, and visual and audible indicators, letting you know how close to, and when, you arrive at the desired setting. It even tells you if you have exceeded the desired setting, so you can stop, loosen the screw, and do it over again. And the settings? From 15 to 100 inch-pounds, a spread that covers all the common torque settings you are going to need in firearms work. The F.A.T. comes with 10 bits of the most-common size for torque work, and they are primo. Made out of S2 tool steel, and hardened to 56-58 Rockwell, they won’t bend on you.
That’s one of the first lessons all new gunsmiths have to learn: Soft screwdrivers are tools of the devil. A screwdriver blade that bends means you will end up marring your work. Plus, the Wheeler tips are phosphate-coated, so getting rained on at the range while working on your firearms doesn’t mean immediate rust.
The ten tips are the ones you will most likely need for the fasteners that have torque limits. That is, scope mounts and rings and action screws on rifles. Not only are there operating instructions, but each one comes with a calibration certificate, and two batteries. This is not a Christmas toy “batteries not included” lightweight, this is a tool meant for getting the job done right.
Bits, Tips and Handles
Firearms fasteners now come in three common types and one loathed one. In the earliest days there was but one, the slotted screwdriver. Then we started seeing the Allen wrench, which is the hexagonal wrench and hex-socket screw cap. The newest, and far superior to the earlier two is the Torx. This is the “star driver,” the one that looks like a Phillips screwdriver, but with six blades instead of four, and with a flat tip. The Torx screw head and wrench can sustain higher torque limits than either the blade or Allen, and is much less likely to be deformed from over-work. The loathed one? That’s the Phillips screwdriver. The Phillips screwdriver and screw head was designed to “cam out” of contact once its torque limit was exceeded. Yes, that’s why it is so difficult to get them properly tight, because they don’t want to be. But, they are everywhere, and you cannot avoid them, so you might as well get used to them. The best way to deal with Phillips-head screws is to use a hardened bit, and one with sharp edges on the flutes. Like the Wheeler tips.
If you look at the common screwdrivers in your kitchen drawer, you’ll notice that the flats of the blade angle towards each other. This is so the screwdriver will fit more screws in your house, and you won’t need dozens of them. But it is bad for firearms, as the angled flats cam out, and in so doing they will mar your firearms fasteners. What you want is a design known as “hollow ground” and when tips are ground this way, the bits of your screwdriver have parallel sides at the screw slot. No camming out, then. Wheeler blades are all hollow ground, so you can be sure they will stay put in the slot, provided you put on proper downward pressure as you rotate the handle. While you’re applying pressure, you may notice that all the Wheeler handles have rubberized surfaces, to keep your grip in place even when the weather is hot, and your hand is sweaty.
And the modern method of tightening threaded fasteners is perhaps the only one new shooters are familiar with: The hex-socket handle, with the tips slipping into the handle as-needed. And there’s one more advantage here, the Wheeler handles, including the F.A.T. wrench, have magnetic inserts in the bottom of the bit socket. So, you can insert a bit into the handle and turn it point down, and the magnet holds it, the bit won’t fall out. Having had bits fall out and spending inordinate amounts of time on the floor searching for them, this point alone is enough to endear me to Wheeler. Us old-timers had a drawer full of screwdrivers. All the Wheeler tools are made as handles and bits, so you need but one handle to turn them all. Now, we all can have more bits, and one handle, in a lot less space. And a neat way to organize and store.
The new design of the Wheeler tools is beyond cool. Instead of an oddly shaped hard plastic container, the new boxes are rectangular, lie flat and open flat, and are stackable. They have dual latches, that click closed, and keep the box closed even when set on their sides or ends. The tops have a rectangular raised boss, and the bottoms have a recessed section, so if you happen to have identically sized Wheeler boxes, they will nestle together. Even if they aren’t the same size they will rest on each other, and not tip and slide off the shelf. And then, just so you know Wheeler is looking out for you, they print what each Wheeler box holds, on three sides of the box. So, you don’t have to pull the whole stack off the shelf to finally get to the one you want. You know which one it is before you grab the first one.
More Than F.A.T.
If you are not wedded to digital, if analog is just fine, and if you want to save some money for your ammo budget, then you can get a lot of the F.A.T. Digital action for lower cost. The Regular F.A.T. also comes with ten bits, to cover the same spread of possible fasteners, and a sliding torque setting to set the tool to. You get as many bits, but not as much torque, as the non-digital F.A.T. has a torque spread of 10 to 65 inch-pounds. You get the bits, the storage box, and save $25, so unless you absolutely must have digital readout or you require torque limits above 65 inch-pounds, the regular F.A.T. is just what you need.
Even More F.A.T.
If you want torque, and you want it in every possible application, then the F.A.T. 100-piece Professional is just the ticket. Part of the Wheeler line of the Pro Series tools, here you get the F.A.T. torque wrench, a regular handle, and two adapters. The bits encompass the full range of blades, hex and torx, plus there are fifteen hex-socket bits, to tighten hex-head bolts such as you’ll find on the top-end scope mounts. You know, the ones that are nearly indestructible? And the Wheeler hex-socket bits have magnetic inserts so you won’t be dropping hex-head bolts as you go to assemble things. If you have a rifle with action screws, scope mount and base, optics, laser or other gear on your rifle, handgun or shotgun, and there isn’t a Professional F.A.T. wrench bit to fit it in this set, you are truly the odd man out.
Too Many Options?
For a lot of applications “tight enough” is as much as you need, and a lot easier than a torque wrench. Or you can do what a lot of us do who are tightening things almost every day: You do the work up to needing torque with a handy tool that you can hand-spin and get snug, then use the torque wrench to put the final finish to the job. For that you need just a regular handle and a selection of bits. But, how big a selection, and what kind of bits? Well, that depends on your needs.
I know it sounds kind of like a role-player in an online game: “Look out for the Hex/Torx, he’s a wily opponent.” Nope, it is the Wheeler tool kit with a wide selection of hex bits and torx bits, and the basic flat and Phillips bits you’ll need in firearms work. Plus, a specialty bit, one designed and fitted to work on the Leupold scope base windage screws. You know, the ones that no out-of-the-box screwdriver fits? The one all us gunsmiths had to custom grind in order to not mar customer’s rifles? Yes, that one. There’s 42 of those, and then there is the micro-handle and micro-bits, for the really small work, the red-dot optics hex bits that are micro-sized. You get twenty of those, and a special handle to fit the micro bits. This is a perfect set for working on optics.
We all need a set of screwdrivers. But what size? Well, here Wheeler gives you choices. This is America, of course you have choices.
At the small end, you have the Spacesaver, a compact box with a handle and 34 hex, Torx, flat and Phillips bits, for all the common tasks. This is designed to be small enough to fit into your range bag, so if you find yourself at the gun club and in need of tightening something, you have the Spacesaver. There will be things it can’t tighten, simply because 34 bits can’t cover everything. But it will do most of the tasks you’ll need done, and it is small enough and light enough to be in your range bag when you need it.
Moving up, you can, if you want to dedicate the range bag space, pack the Gunsmithing screwdriver set, with 40 bits, handle and adapter. It is a bit larger than the Spacesaver, and it handles more tasks, so you might find that for your needs or firearms, there is one specific screw, or mount, or optic, that needs the bit the Gunsmithing has that the Spacesaver doesn’t. That’s life, and that’s why we have choices.
Now, if you feel the need to be covered in all contingencies, Wheeler has two more, the big and the biggest. The big one is the 89-piece gunsmithing set, and you are probably not going to find space in your range bag for this one. It has two handles, and short and a long one, adapters, and more bits than you can shake a stick at. There’s hex, Torx, flat, Phillips and 14 specialty bits, for all the scope mounts, an S&W rebound spring bit, a 1911 grip bushing driver, and even a Mauser recoil bolt two-pin bit. When I saw that, I recalled needing to make one, back when Ronald Reagan was President, and wishing there was one to be had outside of the Mauser factory.
And finally, there is the Professional Screwdriver Set, with 100 pieces in the kit, where Wheeler swaps out some of the specialty bits and add in fifteen hex-head nut drivers. This isn’t a range bag item, it is its own item, and if you add it to your gun club trip packing list, there will be just about nothing that happens at the range that you can’t tighten. Well, firearms, anyway. Wheeler isn’t looking to tighten something that’s loose in the engine compartment of your automobile or truck, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a lot there you could manage with one of the Wheeler kits.
All of these are going to cost you more than a screwdriver kit from your local big-box hardware store, but think about it: Most of the screwdrivers in the big-box store are not anywhere close to the sizes you need. So, most of them are a waste, and you really haven’t saved any money. And those that do “fit” will probably not be hollow-ground, so you’ll risk marring your firearm. When the time comes that your buddy says “I got mine cheaper at [fill in the blank],” just shake your head. And try to be kind when he comes to you, looking for something that is the correct size. Give him time, he’ll learn.
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