Mills and Lathes for Gunsmiths

Jack Landisby Jack Landis
AGI Technical Services Manager

One of the most frequently asked questions that I get is, “What size and type of mill and lathe should I get, now that I’ve ordered the machine shop course from AGI?” OK, here goes . . .

Having learned to use the lathe and mill at Adult School, and then at Lassen College during the summer NRA classes, I can tell you that I REALLY wished I’d seen Darrell Holland’s course first. Darrell is an excellent instructor and you will learn what you need to buy to get the job done. The way to do it, is to watch the lathe and mill portions first, THEN buy your lathe and mill.

Used is good.  If you pay attention, you will get way more for your money. Then do the course and cut as you watch. You will find that you will be re-watching it several times as you go.

That being said, to answer your question, I have used a 9×42 Bridgeport with a 2hp motor, and what was a new (when I bought it) Chinese geared head 12×36 bench lathe. 12×36, or 10×30, is big enough to do anything a gunsmith needs to do. The Enco and Jet  mills are fine as are the Laguns. A 42” table is plenty, 8 to 12 speed is fine and you don’t have to spend the money for a variable speed. Spend it on DRO’s (Digital Readouts, 2 axis is plenty) and a power table feed.

Darrell uses a belt driven 10×30 South Bend bench lathe in the course. He says, as do most belt drive devotees, that they provide a superior surface finish. Belt drive . . . Gear drive . . .you say toMAYto, I say toMAHto, I like redheads and he likes brunettes . . .

For lathes, the first class used machines would also include Clausings, Jets, and Republics, among others. The $2000 Chinese bench lathe I have has worked just fine for me. It costs more now and appears to be the same one Enco, Grizzly, Rutland Tool (now MSC), etc. are still selling 15 years later. Same lathe, different paint, different prices. I like the short distance through the headstock since I like to chamber and crown in the headstock. I can do barrels as short as 17” this way.  Way shorter if you make a spindle bore diameter piece of aluminum about 14” long with a 60º counterbore in the chuck end, about an inch in diameter. Use the counterbored end to center and support the end not in the chuck and keep it from sliding out by tightening the spider screws down on it.lathe

These lathes work fine if you are the only one who uses them. If they are used by a bunch of people in a shop or class (who didn’t pay for it)  they will not last. I DO wish I’d spent the extra $800 and gotten the floor model. I miss the magnetic foot brake and the coolant pump. The coolant can be set up with a muzzle end fixture to flow through the barrel and out the breech end while chambering, thus decreasing the amount of time it takes to do the job dramatically.

See the course first, then buy your ‘chines. That’s my strongly held (and fairly informed) opinion. ‘Til next month, break some new ground ‘smithing and shooting, and please introduce someone new to each.


4 Responses to Mills and Lathes for Gunsmiths

  1. Good info per usual. I am a hobby gunsmith. I always enjoy your articles, and have learned a lot of great tips from reading them. Gunsmithing boo-boo’s can be expensive, stressful and even ruinous. An ounce of prevention goes a long way! I am still adding to my Gunsmithing library. Not up to Patrick Sweeney’s personal collection yet, but I’m working on it! I have several of his books in it of course. Goodwill used books are very inexpensive, if you are patient you can find books that sell for big bucks, some out of print and in like new condition for penny’s on the dollar. Good hunting!

  2. Jack, you are right. I totally agree that Darrel Holland is to lathe and mill what Les Paul is to guitars, he knows the instruments. He’s a great teacher, everyone should get his course from AGI even if you already know the lathe and mill – if only for the safety reminders and measuring skills. I really like my Smithy I-Max Lathe Mill combo. Darrel did a review on it toward the end of his course and it became my choice quiet easily. Even before I bought the Smithy Granite version the folks at Smithy walked me through my learning curve and helped with a very generous supply of accessories and spare parts. When I call them, they answer the phone and are interested in helping me with a friendly and kind attentive voice. I bought the 2 axis DRO option which I installed and I love the variable speed control and motor power. I’m not pushing one brand over another, it was what I could afford at the time and it runs very well. It is probably not suited for hogging out a lot of metal all at once, but it does real well at well aimed, reasonably proportioned cuts. At about 900 pounds it doesn’t move or vibrate easily. Buying a new home for my wife and I brings another reality to mind, I need a bigger garage for this little beast and it will be a bitch to move and set up again, but it goes where I go now. Too much fun to give up.

  3. One thing to consider when buying any lathe is the spindle bore diameter. Darrel’s is a Heavy 10 model, which is great for gunsmithing. They now are fairly pricey for ones in good shape; about $4000+. Don’t confuse that with other South Bends, which tend to have small spindle bore diameters. I believe that even the Heavy 10 can have the smaller bore so pay attention when buying or you might find that you end up with a machine that can’t take most barrels through the spindle. I have also gone the Chinese route, buying the Grizzly 4003G, after owning several old American lathes. Wish I’d done it years ago. No more compensating for wear. “Real” machinists will get palpitations when you mention Asian made lathes but for a gunsmith, they’ll last forever.

  4. I have a used Clausing model 5914 in my shop. This unit is a 12 x 36 with 2 HP 3 phase motor (had to buy a rotary phase converter to get 3 phase power). The good thing about buying a high quality used machine is that the depreciation is already built in. When it comes time to sell the equipment, I will recoup almost all of my initial investment.

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