DaVinci or Darwin? How crazy is aesthetic gun modifcation for non-gunsmiths?
July 26, 2006 12:08 PM   Subscribe

Gun modification safety: I'm a geek that likes to customize and modify gadgets. Can I extend this to guns and ammo, without killing myself, by taking great care and following reasonable precautions, or should I STOP RIGHT THERE! ARE YOU CRAZY!? More specific examples inside.

I would look deeply into the safety and safe methods of doing something before performing it, but getting an overview here, of the safety/sanity beforehand of many different things, will help me decide whether to not bother, or to start that more serious learning.

I do not have a gunsmith background, and while I've grown up with guns, I've never been "into" them, eg never done my own reloading, never had a range membership, etc.

Like a computer case-modder, I guess I'm interested in style over substance (yeah, I know that's kind of dumb), so I'm not going to be trying to supercharge a gun, or convert a semi pistol to auto, or stuff like that. If anything I'd be reloading shells erring on the side of too little bang, rather than normal or too much.

So, some more specific indications of stuff I'd be likely to do, so you can tell me which are ill-advised or illegal:

(assume, say, a semi-auto pistol, state of WA, USA)

-Anodising, electroplating, engraving, etc various non-mechanical parts (eg the outside of the grip).

-The same, with mechanical parts, but not those critical to safe operation (eg modifying the ammo-clip, but not the firing mechanism). "Safe operation" does not mean reliable operation, it means will-NOT-blow-up-in-my-face operation, with the necessity for successful operability coming in a distance second. I'd prefer to accidentally render a gun useless than render it unsafe.

-Hacking electronic systems (eg those safety systems that render a gun inorperable unless the person is wearing a certain ring), to be triggered by a different authorization system.

Ammo modification (the danger-flag side):

-engraving or etching the brass? Before it's live of course. (From time to time I've seen people fire a shot that cracks open the brass, and I suspect engraving would make this occurance more likely. It didn't seem to be an injury risk, but I don't really know).

-Reloading... with various powders, or with additives in the powder? (eg, perhaps to make something smokier, NOT more powerful), and so loading a lighter-than-usual charge, to leave a higher safety margin to cover my ass for deviating slightly from the script.

-engraving/messsing with the bullet? Or even casting your own bullets? (reminder: for a modern pistol, not a black powder gun)

What kind of pistol/calibre/features would be a good choice for this sort of thing, primarily from a safety standpoint?

[posted anonymously because some workplaces these days get nervous when an office worker takes a sudden shine to guns.]
posted by anonymous to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You might consider asking these questions at your local shooting range. But for what it's worth, I own a pistol; I would not, under any circumstances, seek to modify it. Unintended consequences modifying a computer case might just case you a few hundred dollars. Unintended consequences modifying a gun might cost you a body part. That's too big of a risk in my book.
posted by oddman at 12:30 PM on July 26, 2006

Your best bet in taking this kind of thing on is to get apprentice work in a gun shop- then you can learn all the modifications they traditionally do (bluing, anodizing, barrel shortening/truing, machining, lathing etc etc etc), not to mention the safety techniques. From there you can extend them out.

This is one case where you'll really want to know the traditional/standard methods before trying your own thing, because it's hard to say how a new metal finish/corrosion/plating might affect, for example, the ability of the bullet to leave the barrel. Gunsmiths have intimate knowledge of this sort of thing and can give you a good starting point.

Go talk to your local gun shops to find out if this is possible.

Good luck getting a sane answer here. You're going to get some shrill people telling you not to do any of it, it's all insane because you're not a pro, etc. Hopefully the derails can be kept to a minimum. I don't know how many people here are strongly qualified to answer your questions; you're better off approaching a real live gunsmith than an anonymous, largely gunshy community such as this one.

By the way, there are people out there already doing this work and posting about it on the internet. I know last year I saw something about a guy who was CNCing his own guns from 3D models, completely working - I don't have time to google for you, but it's out there.
posted by fake at 12:34 PM on July 26, 2006

Yes, you can do this, and do it safely.

Regarding what the safest gun to dork around with would be -- the smaller the bang a gun normally makes, the smaller the bang it is likely to make if you fuck it up. Base your decisions on that.

If you want a forum that is chock full of knowledgable gun users, including many well-respected gunsmiths who would be thrilled to counsel a newcomer to the field, I highly recommend The High Road.

Be safe. Have fun.
posted by jammer at 12:36 PM on July 26, 2006

I think I'd leave engraving ammo alone - no telling if you'll set up a weakness in the brass that won't ahndle operational pressures - even at low loads.

Get a Speers, Sierra or Hornady reloading manual & read it cover-to-cover, research equipment & start slowly, loading up from minimum values. Learn all you can & don't cut corners.
posted by Pressed Rat at 12:48 PM on July 26, 2006

Don't forget (/voice of reason on) that the ATF oversees and cares very much about this sort of thing.

I'd definitely check on what's legal and what isn't before I went forward with modifications.

I had a friend years ago who had one of the four remaining ATF licenses in the US to build fully automatic weapons. They were always checking in on him, and watching his books for who he was selling to. He never got in trouble, but he had stories about people who did.

I'm normally a little on the crazy side, but I'd rather not deal with the ATF or Federal Marshalls. They seem a bit on the rough side to me.

/voice of reason toggle state.
posted by SlyBevel at 12:55 PM on July 26, 2006

There are definitely magazines about this sort of thing. I don't know if you've ever been to a gun show, but I bet that you'd find all sorts of resources, books, and other people into this stuff there.

I think guns are tricky because the forces involved don't just affect safety, or the bullet, or the internal workings. A cheap laser sight we bought just would not stay attached because of the shock of firing, and I'd imagine there are similar issues with permanent modifications, especially because guns come so highly finished. I know that there are lots of people who work with the wood on some guns though (most of the stuff I've seen I think is tacky). /uninformed speculation.
posted by crabintheocean at 12:58 PM on July 26, 2006

Keep in mind that if you fuck something up while doing this, there's a good chance the gun could explode in your hand while firing.
posted by bob sarabia at 12:58 PM on July 26, 2006

There is a school of thought that says if you are making intentional modifications of any type to a firearm, you're a gunsmith. The only remaining question is, are you a good one or a bad one?

The thing that would give most good gunsmiths pause about your post, is your innate enthusiasm to do things with a perfect willingness to screw up the job. "I'd prefer to accidentally render a gun useless than render it unsafe." A good smith works hard to develop knowledge and skills together, and buys tools to ensure that he/she cannot only do the work, but do it in an craftsmanlike way. A good smith practices patience and shares craft knowledge, and shows great respect for the objects upon which he operates, as a means of ensuring safety, and further developing his art.

Work first to develop a craftsman mind, if you would pursue this safely. Don't work alone, until you have significant practical experience.
posted by paulsc at 1:08 PM on July 26, 2006

You'd have to go pretty extreme on the non moving parts of a gun (minus the barrel) to render it dangerous or non functional. Most of the stories I've heard of stuff blowing up is guys making guns from scratch out of totally inadequate materials (copper pipe zip guns, that kind of thing). Just make sure you maintain minimum legal lengths and don't add anything that could arguably be a silencer.

"engraving/messing with the bullet? Or even casting your own bullets? (reminder: for a modern pistol, not a black powder gun)"

Lots of people cast their own bullets or make special bullets like sabot rounds. A highly modified bullet may tumble or disintegrate but I've never heard of the shooter being injured. Keep your weapon pointed down a range and practise good range safety and you should be OK. I think as long as you aren't hunting with the round you don't have any legal concerns.

"Reloading... with various powders, or with additives in the powder? (eg, perhaps to make something smokier, NOT more powerful), and so loading a lighter-than-usual charge, to leave a higher safety margin to cover my ass for deviating slightly from the script."

Not enough power can be bad in three ways:
  1. The bullet may get stuck in the barrel.
  2. Your semi auto may not cycle.
  3. The round may hang.

posted by Mitheral at 1:10 PM on July 26, 2006

You can also consider firing the weapon remotely (string, solenoid, whatever as long as it's well secured) when testing mods. Afterwards you can have it tested for stress cracks and such.
posted by IronLizard at 2:57 PM on July 26, 2006

Everything you mention has been done, but probably not by anyone you meet at a range. I would specifically look for advice from someone who has actually done what you want to do.
The problem is, there are many things that are just not predictable beforehand. These things are known from analyzing the aftermath, so its much better to see what mistakes others have made.
For instance, you shouldn't put loaded ammo in a vibratory polisher to brighten it up. Not because it might go off in the polisher, but because the powder grains inside the cartridge have a coating (called a deterent) that helps controll the rate at which it burns. When the grains of powder rub together, the deterent can wear off and the ammo can develop dangerous pressures.
Many guns are plated (parkerizing, nickel, titanium nitride, hard chrome), but some plating techniques can make steel brittle (automotive chroming).
Light loads have been known to cause blowups, the manufacturers of some powders specifically warn not to use less than the minimum recomended amount. Again, this seems counter-intuitive, but light loads with jacketed bullets can cause the jackets to separate from the lead core. Here are some first hand accounts of other light loads blowing up guns (for other reasons). The one where the guy hears a clank several secounds after the blow up (his scope finally returning to earth) is particularly instructive.
posted by 445supermag at 2:58 PM on July 26, 2006

Can't you just buy a Honda Civic and put a spoiler on it? Don't ruin a perfectly good gun trying to make it look different.
posted by electroboy at 8:22 AM on July 27, 2006

Also make sure that what you are thinking of doing is legal in your state. As you probably know, California has some asinine gun laws. For example, you can have a perfectly legal rifle but once you add a "grip that protrudes below the trigger line" you're a felon.

Definitely inquire about the legality of your modifications before getting too carried away. Better to be safe than sorry.
posted by drstein at 11:16 AM on July 27, 2006

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