by Paul Smeltzer,
Athens Gunsmith Service, Athens LA.
I hope the take away from part I was that all fires are not created equal. That being the case damage from different fires is not universal. The location and extent of damage is not the same between guns in the same fire, and can even differ on the same gun from one end to the other. Careful observation can give you valuable clues about the fire and damage absorbed by each firearm.
After this initial inspection it is a good idea to take pictures and make notes of what you started off with. Not only is this useful for your own recollection, but is useful in reminding and instructing the owner what his gun looked like when handed over to you.
Once this initial inspection is accomplished we come to the necessity of disassembly of the firearm. This process can be complicated by melted and deformed parts. It can further be complicated by not haveing had the opportunity to take apart said firearm when it was not a mess. If you are working with a firearm you have not seen before stop here and learn about the disassembly of the gun. The obvious first place to look is the extensive video library available through AGI. It is not a good idea to learn by diving into a damaged gun you hope to repair. You are very likely to break something that was not broke because you tried to disassemble it out of sequence or otherwise incorrectly. Destroying a part because you did not take the time to learn proper disassembly procedures is not excusable and can be very costly. Many burn guns I have handled are collector guns, or guns that have been out of production for decades. There is a good chance that if you spoil a part due to carelessness, you will not be able to replace it, that’s on you not the fire.
There are all the usual challenges present in disassembly, such as stuck fasteners and messed up screw heads. Most times the fire has taken the number and extent of stuck fasteners to a new level. This seems to be especially true when two dissimilar metals are involved, a steel screw into an aluminum frame for example. Patience, experience with stuck screws, and an ample supply of Kroil is necessary.
The amount of heat the firearm was exposed to is going to directly affect the disassembly process beyond stuck fasteners. Any plastic or synthetic parts that have melted into crevices or found its way into the workings of the gun is another opportunity to accumulate patience. Removing said synthetic material can usually be accomplished with various picks, screwdrivers used to pry material way, and small chisels. Sometimes it is helpful to freeze difficult parts or to gently use low heat in an oven or blow dryer till the plastic begins to soften a little. The kitchen oven is not the first choice unless you live alone and don’t mind the smell of burnt plastic mixed with a campfire. Being happily married I use my Cerakote ovens.
As difficult as melted plastic can be to remove, the most difficult agent to overcome can be gun oil. Yes, gun oil. Most folks will “oil down” their firearms, usually liberally, before storing them in a gun safe/oven. Depending on the volume of petroleum products, heat of the fire, and probably the composition of the oil, one can achieve an incredibly strong epoxy like adhesive that has inundated all manner of small internal parts. Mixed with carbonized dirt and grime the inside workings of your favorite firearm can look like a fly stuck in Amber. If this situation exists it will require all of your accumulated patience to free them from their tomb. The same tools and techniques used to free parts from melted plastic can be used for baked oil hardened goop. An additional tool I have found useful is decarbonizing solutions that mechanics would use to clean pistons and cylinders in motors that have seized or have accumulated heavy carbon deposits. Long soaks, several weeks, have gone a long way to loosening some of these welded parts. Be aware that some of these solutions will eat some types of alloys, not good to completely dissolve away needed parts.
After you have finally been able to disassemble the firearm, time to clean and inspect everything. Cleaning will most likely take a little more time than usual with carbon build up and baked sludge still present. I usually bead blast heavily coated parts, it is faster than steel brushes. However you choose to clean the collection of parts before you, they now need to be inspected, carefully inspected.
This is the time to check on the condition of the springs. Some guns have a mess of springs; coils, flat, round, some have few. We are looking for a loss of temper, springiness if you will. Can you easily bend a stiff flat spring, will a coil spring compress and rebound properly, same with round wire springs? If you find a suspect spring, where did it come from, large or small spring, just that one or others in the same gun? Once had a Smith .38 revolver that was left on top of a gun safe during a fire. The gun had rubber grips and as rubber does, it burned hot and long, the main spring, which is stout, was easy to bend in half with two fingers, and did not bend back without help. However, the rebound spring appeared to be in good shape, the small cylinder stop spring also appeared to be in good shape, in fact all the rest of the springs were in good shape. So do you condemn the gun? No doubt the grip area sustained significant heat, but did not seem to affect the next spring over, the rebound spring, a short stout coil spring. The grip frame did not seem to be distorted, cracked of otherwise visibly damaged. The cylinder and other moving parts moved as they should. I told the customer the safe bet was to condemn the gun rather than risk injury. Sometimes the safe answer is just the right answer, but I wonder if that gun might have been salvageable. The deciding factor for me was the complete failure of the main spring, it took a lot of heat for that big flat spring to become that soft.
Beyond springs, thoroughly check all parts for damage or distortions, especially small parts, aluminum or soft alloys. Pay special attention to those areas that take a hard hit when the firearm is discharged, chamber areas, bolts, cylinders, slides, and recoils parts. Any damage to these areas is a big red flag. For example an extractor from a closed bolt shows obvious damage and the associated extractor spring is damaged, we have a problem. If you can add evidence from your inspection or disassembly that indicates those parts took significant heat it is probably a deal stopper.
Be aware that some damage may have been caused by your efforts to take the firearm apart. Some parts may have been broke or missing before the fire. I have come across more than one burn gun that needed repair before the fire. It maybe necessary to replace damaged or missing parts, make note of these they are a cost, and maybe hard or impossible to find.
My next step is to reassemble the firearm as much as possible. I want to check function the best I can. If you have all the parts available and useful, check for function as you would any other gun you made repairs to (hopefully you know better not to use live rounds – ever in this process). Does the trigger system work, does it feed extract and eject, does the safety system work, do all the bits and pieces play nice with each other? If not, why not, if so good deal. I ’m feelin’ better about things if I can reassemble the firearm with the original parts, and it passes function testing.
At this point it is decision-making time, that decision is whether or not to proceed to the rebuild/refinish stage. My primary concern is whether I feel comfortable that the firearm will be safe to shoot. That decision is made with the accumulated information at hand. This includes damage to the stock or grips. I am not concerned too much about melted plastic stock parts, I have melted plastic stocks in my Cerakote oven at only 250 degrees. Not usually worried much about discolored wood either, or melted recoil pads.
It is a matter of looking at all the parts and making an assessment of where the most damage occurred, how significant, and how that might effect safe functioning of the firearm. Sometimes the answer is obvious, sometimes not, there are rarely absolutes. It comes down to knowledge of design and function, careful observation, and common sense. If in doubt the right answer is always condemn the piece, either destroy it or make it an inoperable wall hanger. If the answer is that it is salvageable, the next question is should it be salvaged?
Look for Part 3 of this article soon! Have any stories you would like to share about burn guns you have dealt with? Add them to the comments below.