Right, Wrong, and What’s Still Broken: Life Goes On in the U.S. Firearms Industry

Here Are The Gripes I Still Have With The Industry
By the end of the last century, the firearms industry should have a number of design issues pretty well figured out.  Sadly there are a few that somehow have made it into this century.  I’ve listed my top five and welcome designers and users to add theirs as well.

Number 1: Use Of Threaded Fasteners
In 1894, George Mauser developed the Broomhandle Mauser.  It was an ingenious design, with interlocking pieces requiring no tools for disassembly.  Only two screws were used in the entire design, and these held on the right and left grip panels.  Legend has it that Mr. Mauser cried because he couldn’t figure out how to attach the grips any other way.  At a point in time, well over a century ago, George Mauser recognized the problems with threaded fasteners in small arms.  Today, many in the gun industry and militaries around the world have all but forgotten the valuable lesson he tried to teach us.

It is a fact that threaded fasteners can fasten parts together securely in a quick and easy manner, and are often the only available means of securing two or more parts.  The problem is that vibration from firing loosens fasteners; making screws back out and causes nuts, bolts, and lock washers to fall off.

The solution du jour is to use liquid products called “thread lockers.”  One of the better known brands is known as Loctite.  This gooey liquid comes in various colors, each one indicating a different gripping level and some levels even require heat before they can be loosened.

When properly applied and used in applications where temperatures do not exceed 300°F (149°C), Loctite and the others do their job.  Where firearms manufacturers and armorers get into trouble usually occurs during gun assembly.  Conditions for application must be ideal as this stuff can’t be applied over grease or other improperly prepared surface.  Even on an ideally prepared surface, apply too little and retention suffers, apply too much and there is a messy accumulation that is difficult to clean and can potentially interfere with the operation of the weapon.

After application it is generally impossible to check for the presence of a thread locker, so one is never sure if the thread has been properly “Loctited” or not.  If at all possible, thread lockers should be avoided in small arms.

Besides thread lockers, there are ways to successfully use threaded fasteners.  These include lock wire, cotter pins, and special washers with tabs that can be bent afterwards to prevent the fastener from backing out.  Other, less elegant methods involve welding the threads or the head after securing or deforming the threads in rivet-like fashion, once the proper amount of torque is applied.  Nobody likes any of these solutions, as they are a nuisance to install and remove.  Almost all of the successful locking methods involve a sharp edge hazard as well.  I hate threaded fasteners.  If you have any doubts about that, just ask anyone who has ever worked with me.  I figure, if George Mauser beat the system in the 1800s, why can’t we?

Number 2: Pins, Springs, Screws, And Other Fasteners That Are All “About” The Same Size.
One design practice of modern small arms manufacturers that must drive military armorers crazy is the haphazard use of pins and screws in gun designs.  Take any modern firearm apart and you will generally find a large assortment of pins, screws, and other fasteners.  You will usually find many pins of the same diameter, often with lengths that are practically the same.  Some manufacturers even mix metric fasteners with English so as to really confuse the end user.  The armorer who reassembles a weapon only to find there is one pin left and it’s too long for the remaining hole utters oaths that cannot be repeated here.

Good designs start with the premise that only two different diameter pins (for example) will be used; one long one and one short one.  Everybody involved in the design chooses one or the other, with no exceptions.  Once this system is out in the field there is no mystery which pin goes where.

Number 3: Losing The “Jesus Pin”
There is another terrible habit that is widespread throughout the small arms industry.  This is the use of one small pin or some other part that is essential to the function of the weapon, but is not constrained properly.  This pin or part is always the first to go flying off into a snow bank or to drop into a creek at precisely the wrong time.  The loss of this little part takes the entire weapon out of commission and risks the safety of the user.  The troops generally give a prefix to the name of these parts as the “Jesus pin” or “Jesus bolt” or “Jesus whatever” as a way of signifying that assistance from this divinity will be the only salvation if this part is lost.  Still, many manufacturers do not adequately secure these parts to the weapon, and too often the military lets them get away with it.

Number 4: The Sanctity Of Gas Operation
It is rare these days to find any small arm that is not gas operated.  The M2 .50 caliber machine gun is not gas operated, yet holds the record for in-service longevity.  The M2 was designed by John Browning, using what we term the “Browning short recoil cycle.”  Another famous recoil-operated weapon is the 40mm Bofors cannon, functioning reliably for most of the last century using the “Browning long recoil cycle.”  It seems no lessons were learned from these designs.  Instead, every firearm manufacturer must drill a hole somewhere along the length of the barrel and tap gun gas to power their weapon.

Gas operation can be a reliable way to function a weapon, but there are problems.  Gas operation is very dirty and creates a buildup of gas residue and copper deposits that make cleaning difficult.  Worse yet, high speed gas passing through the gas port in the barrel erodes the gas port quickly and usually increases the firing rate throughout the life of the weapon.

Gas operated guns that are clean run faster than dirty guns, which sometimes don’t run at all.  To combat this, some manufacturers resort to the old trick of offering one or more gas port settings, one for the clean conditions and one for dirty.  Systems like this inevitably end up being misused by troops who always put it on the “adverse” setting which results in excessively high firing rates, premature wear, and potential component failure.

Number 5: Design By Cut And Try
For the most part, I’ve been very lucky to have escaped this in the places I’ve worked, but “cut and try” is a very real design approach in far too many small arms manufacturers.  Compared with other industries, we deal with the highest temperatures, pressures, and vibrations of virtually any mechanical device.  It is unthinkable that some manufacturers skip the stress analysis and proceed right to hardware.  There is so much incredibly accurate software existing today capable of accurately modeling and predicting the stress of virtually any design.  There is really no excuse for skipping the stress analysis.

So Much For The Naysayers

I’ve heard it every year from the military, government, and even friends and family: “What are you guys going to do when they come up with that laser death ray zapper that makes your firearms obsolete?”  Sorry, but a tube launched, spin stabilized projectile traveling close to Mach 3 is already a pretty sophisticated killing mechanism.  And by the way, how is your design coming along on that death ray?  We in the firearms industry are still waiting to hear.

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