Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Shop Fire

Cleaning dies is a time consuming and dirty job
               The Fire

 Around 9:30 that fateful night I heard a commotion outside and upon seeing what was going on I saw that my shop/house was on fire and fully engulfed.  I live across the street from the shop location so I was close by.  I was stunned and attempted to go over but the firemen already on the scene stopped me. I knew that my son and grandson were there but was unaware that my step son and his daughter were over there visiting. Anyway my wife and I suffered the loss of our children and grandchildren.  Of course, that is something that you never get over. The Fire Marshall never determined what caused the fire though he determined that it started in the living room and not in the shop where the ammo was made. Of course all of the normal precautions were taken but sometimes that isn’t enough.
Handguns that were ruined in fire

 My gun collection and all of my reloading equipment were over there as well as many books and other paraphernalia that was gun related. I had many special made dies and tools as I load a lot of obsolete ammo and write about. My gun collection included many firearms that were from 100 to over 140 years old. There were quite a few modern types of firearms with scopes. None of the scopes survived as they are not meant to absorb the heat that was generated.  Since the house was totally destroyed I did not hold much hope for the contents. Of course, I had some powder, primers bullets, and other supplies for making ammo much of it for obscure calibers which turned out to be a total loss.
Model 29 44 mag survived mechanicaly but needs a major blue job

 The guns were taken off the property by the police to avoid looting regardless of their condition. They were boxed and inventoried as well as they could though many of the firearms were unknown to them because of their age. It proved to be a learning experience to them as they are not the type of weapons used in crimes.  Of course, I had a complete record of them, which I provided. Anyway, in about two weeks they released them to me, which made the evidence room clerk happy as they took up most of the space. After looking at all of those boxes, I knew that my work was just beginning. It’s a bad feeling to see the guns in such bad shape. Anyone who loves firearms knows what I am talking about.
Carcano action but stock destroyed

 After the initial shock wore off, I had some decisions to make in regards to this material. For a short period of time, I considered throwing up my hands and saying to hell with it and let everything go to the scrap yard. However due to a lot of encouragement from the shooting industry and friends I realized that quitting wasn’t an option that I could live with. The decision was made to restore the guns and other equipment as much as possible. I have been accused with some justification of having gunpowder in my veins. I cannot refute that claim. Besides golf and gardening activities are not interesting to me in the least. The decision was made not to let this put me down for keeps.

 Upon going through the rubble, we found a lot of dies and some other tooling that might be salvageable. All of the dies were covered with rust and other crud. Many of them were encased in plastic as the die boxes melted and surrounded the dies. I decided on doing what I could to fix them as many are expensive and difficult to replace. The dies that were not encased in plastic were the first project that I tackled. I wanted to get an idea of what was and wasn’t good. Since my grinder perished, I picked up a new one with several wire wheel brushes. I took each die and removed as much of the outside crud as possible, which took several minutes for each one. If I was able to remove the inside parts that was done at this time and cleaned up. I then put them in buckets of kerosene for several days to loosen up the crud on the inside. After soaking for a few days, I removed the innards and cleaned them up by using the wire brush. This included the decapping, belling and bullet seating assemblies. They cleaned up pretty well and were usable again. The insides of the dies were cleaned with a wire brush hooked to a drill. I wrapped the brush with the proper amount of steel wool, which worked well. The sizing dies were a little tougher. They required more work as the dimensions are more critical. I ran the steel wool in them until they came out shiny or I could see that they were pitted which rendered them useless for resizing. Using course, dry steel wool on a drill really worked well. I would make it a tight fit and spin until I could feel the die getting warm. After a couple of minutes, you could tell if the dies were good or not. I was able to save quite a few that way including some of the odd ones which if I had to replace would go into the three figures in dollars. I also have some bullet making dies and using the same methods were able to save many of them. Some of my one step bullet sizing dies were salvageable. Cleaning the threads and insides put them back in service. I am here to tell you that this is a very time consuming and dirty job. After the dies were restored and deemed fit for use, I had to find suitable boxes for them, which I did. I have tried some of the dies and am happy to report they work fine. The dollar savings is considerable using the restored dies as opposed to buying new ones.  The tungsten dies did fine probably because of the hard metal used. In addition, it is an insert that is relatively short and as long as it isn’t damaged your die should be fine.  One thing I learned was that I have a LOT of dies.
Die before cleaning

 The dies that had plastic in the threads required extra work. The wire brush wasn’t effective in removing it so heat was the only option. The larger pieces had to be cut up before we could do anything with them. The heat has to be carefully applied to avoid further damage to them. We found that by hammering the plastic around the dies removed it pretty well. The plastic was brittle which helped with that task. Also the plastic helped protect the dies from the elements and water, making them easier to clean.  Some of the plastic was taken off by putting the die in the vise and taking it off with a hammer and screwdriver. I only used heat when nothing else worked. One example was some dies didn’t have a stem in them and as a consequence plastic got into the threads and defied efforts to remove it. Many of the small parts were salvaged including decapping assemblies and seating stems. They just had to be cleaned up and re-installed. If the die was too badly damaged to continue service, the small parts were utilized elsewhere. You would be surprised how fast costs add up if you buy those little parts. Shell holders for the most part were salvageable.  The inside has to be cleaned so a case will fit and the bottom as well so it will go into the ram. I found that a dremel tool with a small brush is helpful. A small screwdriver and wire brushes also help with this chore. However, some have plastic from the boxes, which is very stubborn to remove without some heat applied. Most of the bullet seating assemblies and decapping rods cleaned up on the grinder. You have to make sure that the threads are well cleaned out as well as the neck expander.  The neck expander has to be well cleaned to avoid damage to the inside of the case necks.    

Cleaning shellholder 

 When doing the dry dies you should wear a mask to avoid a lungful of dust. In addition, safety glasses are necessary as there are many particles flying at high speed. If they hit your cheek, no big deal but one in the eye will certainly cause you much pain and possible permanent eye injury. Work gloves are not a bad idea either to protect a finger that might stray too close to a wire brush. You should have good ventilation to air out the shop. Kerosene isn’t real dangerous but it can catch fire if you are careless. Fire extinguishers should be close by just in case. Safety should always come first when doing this or any type of operation.    


Cases that were scorched 


 The guns are a different matter.     Some of them were burned so bad there was no doubt that they were totally destroyed. With the long guns I wanted to save as many as possible but there are a few problems with that. Virtually all of the stocks were destroyed as well as the scopes.  However, the metal on some wasn’t as bad as you would expect so there was some hope. If the receiver and barrel were exposed to excess heat then it was discarded, as there is warpage and other problems that would prevent them from being fired. Once the receiver and bolt are heated excessively they lose their temper and strength making them dangerous to fire. Even if you were able to make it fire it may come apart which would be disastrous to the shooter and bystanders. Some parts of the fire burned at about 2,000 degrees, which is hot enough to destroy virtually anything. I plan to shoot some of the bad guns but they will be tied to a tire with a string. We will video tape the events for further study.  If in doubt, have it checked out by someone who is familiar with these types of situations. Some of the guns were heated but not enough to destroy them however, most of the springs lost their temper, requiring replacement. That is a time consuming and tedious job not to mention the difficulty in obtaining some of them. Of course, the guns have to be taken apart and thoroughly cleaned to enhance the inspection. I have a few antique rifles that survived though the stocks were not so lucky. Trying to find replacements can be an exercise in frustration. Anyone have a stock for a 60 caliber Snider?  Some of my handguns were in a trunk so were spared the heat but not the foam and water that the fire department used. Some lost much of their bluing including an early model 29 in the box. Well now, I have a shooter.    

Ruger 45 Colt before blueing 

 Most of the brass and bullets were lost. There was some exceptions as some wasn’t exposed to the heat. I sorted through the brass to see what could be saved. If it wasn’t exposed to excessive heat it was cleaned up and used. If it is obvious that the brass was exposed to a lot of heat it was discarded. It can be dangerous to use that brass as it is weakened and could come apart in the gun. If I had any doubt it went to the scrap heap. If the bullets weren’t melted or heated out of shape they were cleaned up and used. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 50,000 bullets were lost including a lot of odd diameter slugs. As for brass probably around 10,000 were lost much of it odd stuff. The loaded ammo was a complete loss as you could imagine. The books, which included many, hard to get volumes went up in smoke.   There was a small amount of ammo that didn’t go off however it was exposed to the heat and is regarded as being unsafe to fire. The heat may have altered the powder characteristics, making it too strong to fire. The way I look at it is a gun and body parts are harder to replace then ammo.    

Ruger 45 Colt after home blueing 

 I have an assortment of presses and although they got burned It looks like I can salvage some with a lot of TLC.  Some are pricey such as the Star and a Silver Press from Corbin. Like the dies I have them soaking to remove the surface rust. After that they will be taken apart to clean up each part. If the major parts are not warped they can be saved though a lot of the small parts will need replacing.  The Silver press survived in good shape just needed to be cleaned up and remounted on the new table.  I had two Dillons but they did not survive partly due to location and the material they are made of. They are made from aluminum, which melts at lower temperatures then steel. The dies for the most part were ok as was the shell plates.  The Ammo master and Rockchucker presses should be ok. Unfortunately, the MEC shotgun presses were badly damaged. Any of the parts that survived were salvaged for further use in the future. 

Presses that were lost in fire 

 As I said I had some handguns in a trunk which essentially survived the fire but has some water and foam damage from the fire company. While not mechanically impaired they looked pretty bad. Taking them to a gun shop would be an expensive proposition so I decided to blue them myself. I have performed that operation in the past so I know what is required to do this process. For this project, Birchwood Casey products were chosen. The gun is a Ruger Blackhawk in 45 Colt that I have owned for some 32 years. I figured that I couldn’t hurt it though it was taken out and test fired just to make sure it is up to snuff. It was pretty grungy and had some prominent water spots and other areas where the bluing was removed.  The grunge was cleaned up first then off came the bluing. After polishing, it was thoroughly cleaned and degreased. The secret in getting good results bluing a gun is the preparation. If you leave grease on the gun your bluing will be uneven and may be off color. A smooth surface aids in getting good results.  After about three hours of labor, I had a finished product. While not a professional job it looks good and as time permits more of these guns will be done.    It is very important to remove all traces of the bluing compound and oil the gun. The reason is bluing is corrosive and you will get a lot of rust quickly by failing to follow this step.  


 The fire did some strange things such as total one gun and another nearby just got singed. A Swiss K-31 had the stock blackened but the metal is fine.  Many rounds of ammo went off but there was no casualties attributed to that as ammo outside a gun doesn’t have as much power so there were no bullets flying for miles around.   Very little of anything left the property, contrary to rumors. The one neighbor’s house suffered minor smoke damage, as there was a high wind that night blowing toward her house, which is a very short distance from mine.    I hope none of the readers ever experience this tragedy as it is beyond description in how horrible it is.