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Dyspeptic Gunsmith Goes On A Rant ( again)

You likely know DG from the comments here and weaponsman.com. The other day the maestro conducted another of his masterpieces in the comments and it was good enough to be worth sharing.


Of course we old farts know what we’re talking about.

The worst thing for the American gun buyer has been the “tacti-cool mil-spec” wave of marketing in firearms.

For those who don’t understand why I get down on “mil-spec,” allow me to elaborate. My first job out of school was working for a defense contractor. For me, the term “mil-spec” means “lowest bid, cut-throat cost cutting, cheapest POS we can ship and still pass the contract requirements” level of quality. People who equate “mil-spec” with “quality” are likely from that segment of the US population who have a) never served, b) never been involved in making materials for the DOD, c) and they don’t pay much of anything in the way of taxes, and they just laugh at reports of $640 hammers.

I don’t rant about “mil-spec” just in guns. Example: Just this morning, my ass was in a 5-ton military truck that has been repurposed to a fire truck, ferrying it for our VFD. Folks, I don’t care if you get a boner like Bert Gummer over military trucks while you’re standing on the curb, watching them go by in a parade. Once you’ve sat your ass in one and had to move it around, you’ll know that there’s “no there, there.” They’re durable, they might have been cheap, but the idea that they’re something to wish to drive? Utter nonsense. If you still lust after these trucks once you’ve sat your ass in one and had to drive it, then there’s nothing I can do for you: you need some strong therapy and some medication. My nightmare is having to drive that wretched POS two+ hours to a fire.

Same deal with modern “mil-spec” guns. If you’re willing to toss ludicrous amounts of money after a modern “mil-spec” firearm… well, you do you. Don’t waste my time asking how it can be made “better on a budget.” Something made prior to 1960? Let’s talk. Something made after the Beatles showed up? No.

Since the early 90’s, I had seen the quality of US firearms go down, down, down, down. Since becoming a gunsmith and handling/disassembling/repairing many more guns than I’d ever see if I were just buying them myself, it is beyond question that in the 1980’s (a decade earlier than I perceived the decline as a gun buyer), the quality started declining – rapidly. At first, the quality decline was seen by only those of us who do detailed strip/re-assembly of firearms. By the 90’s, the rot and progressed to the outside. Today, it’s shit through and through. Sometimes, my fingers get shredded while pulling apart a gun – because the manufacture could not be troubled to take the burrs off the metalwork inside the gun. That’s beyond shoddy – that’s a company that doesn’t care what you think about their product. That company, BTW, is Mossberg. They can’t be bothered to de-burr their action rods.

When you look back at the fit/finish/workmanship of guns from about 1960, and then you compare them to guns from the 1990’s, there’s no comparison. None. Compare 1960 to today, and all you can do is shake your head and ask “WTF happened?” Well, firearms customers got stupid, that’s what. They’ve been bamboozled that “mil-spec” is a good thing, when it’s a highly dubious appellation to use as an indicator of quality. But it is now what infects the US firearms market. Then they delude themselves by thinking that their dollars are still worth something when purchasing something tangible. Why is it that gun buyers will happily spend $40K (and up) on a pickup to haul their boat, but they’ll piss and whine about spending $2K on a quality shotgun or rifle? When I was a kid, you could buy a pickup for $3500. Is it because the bank won’t give you a loan to buy the shotgun?

High Standard is (or was) well known for their quality .22LR target pistols. They were popular, accurate and reasonably priced compared to S&W 41’s and Colt “Match Target” pistols. Nicely finished, straight blowback pistols. The 1200 line of shotguns were solid guns, built with steel receivers, and had a basic (not “nice” but basic) finish of blue and basic, low-figure, walnut stocks. You can find 1200’s from the 1960’s for sale in the shotgun market for between $150 and $300. The 1200’s were cheap shotguns in their day – but compared to the shit being shipped out of major companies today, those low-end High Standard shotguns look pretty damn good today. That gives an indication how far we’ve fallen. High Standard fell on tough times in the late 70’s and early 80’s, like so many other quality firearms companies in the US.

And people wonder why I go on epic rants about the quality of firearms available today…

Howard and I both would quibble with DG over the denouncing of all mil-spec guns and modern guns in general across the board. Milspec now a days not so much “lowest bidder” as it is best value. and milspec does meet a standard that it has to conform to and we know what we will get with milspec and what kind of performance and longevity. Many companies just make up whatever standards they want with no track record of proven performance or can’t even meet the low end requirements of milspec. They just don’t tell the buyer that is the reason they don’t try to use the milspec yardstick . Of course milspec is not the end all be all but it is a baseline if that is useful and trustworthy for hard use combat guns for hard work. but I think Howard and myself would agree with where he was going with it.

18 thoughts on “Dyspeptic Gunsmith Goes On A Rant ( again)”

  1. Shawn, I’ll give you an additional bit of info on why I rant about “mil-spec” as a marketing tool.

    Had a Remington 700 in the shop this last winter. It was a Remington 700 5R “mil-spec” in .223 Remington. Owner wanted the muzzle threaded for a suppressor mount. OK, I do that.

    One of the things I do after I thread a customer’s rifle for a suppressor is that I clean their barrel, then pass a straightness gage down their barrel with the suppressor mounted. I’m checking to insure that there will be no baffle strikes. These gages are, oh, about a foot long, and they’re made from ground steel. I let the gage come just out the end of the suppressor while it is still in the rifle bore to be able to visually check the annular clearance around the pin at the front of the suppressor. I’ve never had a customer have a baffle strike yet because I do this with their guns and cans. I’m not in business to buy people new silencers.

    Well, in this case, the gage didn’t come out of the suppressor. “Damn,” I thought – I screwed up and the gage has caught on a baffle inside the can.”

    So I unscrew the can. No gage. I turn the barreled action muzzle-up. No gage is falling out. The straightness gage got stuck in the barrel under its own weight. I used a cleaning rod to bump the gage rod out. Upon examination with progressively shorter gage pins, I came to the conclusion that the bore isn’t straight; about 6″ from the muzzle, the bore was bent. I advised the customer of the problem with the bore. After discussion, we decided that he’ll just shoot the barrel out, and when it’s due for replacement, we’ll put on a cut-rifle barrel – or a real 5R barrel if he wants.

    Since he was going to be using a .30 cal suppressor, there was little chance of a baffle strike, but the whole thing infuriated me. Remington is (or was) claiming “military specifications” relating to the M24 sniper platform (which also uses 5R rifling) to peddle this rifle, and they couldn’t get the bore straight?

    It made me want to grab a a switch and start whipping on someone. “You clowns (whack) got rid of your barrel straightening press (whack) – you gave it to the Cody Firearms Museum (whack) and I’ve seen it (whack) with the rest of the 1903A3 machine tools you gave them for an exhibit back in the 1990’s, (whack) and today (whack, whack) you’re shipping bent barrels (whack) because you no longer have a barrel straightening press, never mind anyone who knows how to run (whack) the friggin’ thing (whackity-whack-whack).”

    I understand that the military has requirements, and they’re driven by cost and military operational requirements. The military does what the military does, and their job is to kill people and break shit. That’s what I pay taxes for them to do. But using “mil-spec” to market civilian firearm whilst shipping complete POS crap – now that gets me incensed.

    Look at your 1200 Riot gun there. It looks marvelous compared to modern shotguns. Why? Because they put a nice polish on the steel, and because they used steel in the first place (as opposed to aluminum). There’s nothing fancy there, it’s just a basic polish and hot blue job. It isn’t like a Colt Royal Blue, or the sort of blue job you see on “best gun” shotguns from the UK or Europe, or a Winchester Model 21. It’s just a good, run-of-the-mill hot blue job. That’s it. And yet, stood next to today’s “mil-spec” civilian market guns, it looks like a high-class piece of work. Why? Because today, gun makers just want to bead-blast and parkerize or bead-blast and paint their guns (or just bead-blast on stainless). Why? Because it’s cheap. And because there’s no one actually holding them to actual ‘mil-spec’ specifications, it’ll be cheaper than what they deliver to the military. At least the military holds manufactures to their specifications, regardless of how least-common-denominator that specification is. No one in the civilian market is going to grab a copy of the spec and start corrosion testing, abrasion testing, etc.

  2. With you on the milspec as a baseline thing, other than that DG and I would agree. Quality is dead, said death occurred around 1990 IMHO. Worked a gun store straight out of the Army and we had Colt 1911s that still looked nice on the outside but the inside looked to have been done by a blind pigmy with a dull adz. Smith was declining with the four digit autos, I swear I saw a whiz wheel for decoding what that shit was about. Ruger was still fairly well finished but they were casting the automatics and getting a little nuts with the models chasing the LE decocker and dao market too.

    As for old dudes knowing thier shit look no farther than “Kirk”, he used to post on Weaponsman and I think on here. I’m a bit younger and would have hated his ass if he was over me back in the day BUT I have gotten cranky and more demanding as I aged and he was one hell of an NCO in retrospect.
    I always enjoy when he chimes in to the comments on Soldier Systems and sends the kids into apoplexy. I don’t comment over there any more because Eric is a pajama boy…

    I get notifications from here and read all of the posts but don’t have the time or patience to comment too often. Really miss Hognose, wanted that CZ book he was working on pretty bad.

    • I’ve seen 1990 thrown out often, but then prior to that people said WWII is what caused quality to decline and you couldn’t get anything nice after that. I’ve even seen claims that 1930 is when manufacturing went to hell.
      I large part is that people want cheap and often don’t want to pay for quality. When I talk about a Swiss firearm and people respond that they would rather buy a $300 AR parts kit. People don’t want quality any more.

      • Howard, I think the 1990 point was when the handgun market started to crumble. Inventory prior to the strikes of the 80’s ran out, and the skilled labor at the top of the skill ladder in places like Colt and S&W disappeared from the shops. Remember that Colt had a long-running strike, from ’85 to ’90 as I recall. Winchester had a strike from ’79 to ’80, and things went downhill after that.

        In handguns, Glock entered the market. and S&W started having to chase Glock’s pricing to retain law enforcement customers.

        In long guns, things started downhill with Winchester’s chasing of Remington’s price charts – the pre-64 and post-64 quality differential was huge. Winchester fans rebelled. In what might come as a surprise to many readers, I actually think that the post-64 (and especially the post-68) Model 70 has some redeeming features – for a push feed rifle. The quality of Winchester’s shotguns went downhill, along with the Winchester 94’s. But as you point out, for some people WWII was the turning point. Winchester started their first round of cost-cutting following WWII after they no longer had the military contracts. Remember that Winchester went bust in the Depression, and was sold on the courthouse steps to Olin in 1934. The biggest reason why Olin bought the company was that Olin wanted Winchester to make the Model 21 shotgun.

        Today, a used Model 21 will set the buyer back between $5K to over $20K, depending on grade and configuration.

        I guess my perception of the market is that Winchester fell, then smaller companies fell one by one starting in the late 60’s and through the 70’s and by the 1980’s, the last stalwarts, Colt and S&W were dropping their quality. After that, it seems to have been a contest between companies to see who can make a cheaper and shoddier gun than the other guy.

    • Oh man. The comments section at SSD is a dumpster fire. I’ve tried to get his attention once or twice but I don’t think he sees the replys. I stopped going into the comments section all together. Nothing of worth in there anymore.

  3. DG—

    $300 for a scattergun like Howard’s seems super-reasonable. How is parts availability for a High Standard shotgun?

    • As with all older guns, it’s a function of “which parts do you need?”

      On many, many older shotguns, one of the most difficult parts to source is actually the/a barrel. That’s why my advice to people who are interested in older, used shotguns is to examine the barrel(s) closely. If you have good barrel(s) on a shotgun, you’re 80% of the way home free in most cases. Making a replacement barrel from a shotgun barrel blank is possible, but it is hugely expensive. I did an estimate for someone recently to replace a barrel on a LC Smith gun – only the right barrel was needing replacement, so I would have had to lift both ribs, pull the right barrel, match the profile, chamber, set the bore, then the choke constriction, then put the lifter into it, fit it to the lump, re-lay the ribs, re-blue, etc, etc. I gave an estimate of $2000 to do the job, with the barrel blank being about $300 of that – more than the gun was worth, and I thought I was low-balling the job. I don’t know what other shotgun smiths would estimate on that job.

      Compared to rifles and handguns, shotguns need barrels far more often for causes not related to shooting wear. There are often guns that develop severe pitting/corrosion in the bore, which can be honed out up to a point. Or, they develop exterior pitting corrosion – which can be polished out – up to a point. The worst are those cases where the barrel is damaged – eg, ringing due to a wad or some other issue. Mud/snow in the muzzle resulting in an exploded barrel is more common than some might think.

      When we look at the other parts on an older shotgun, the parts that will tend to run out the soonest will be the most easily or most commonly lost parts. Things like commonly removed screws or pins, stock forearms and buttstocks that were NOS (new old stock) out of the wood the manufacture used originally, etc. Stock pieces can be replicated and re-finished relatively inexpensively compared to a barrel.

      Many older guns will have lockwork parts readily available. Most users don’t mess with the lockwork, leaving the trigger/hammer/etc mechanisms alone when cleaning them, so there are often parts left in stock for these issues.

      The 1200’s part situation looks fairly typical.

  4. where to start… a) please quit whining about quality or lack thereof. people are going to buy the cheapest gun that will do the job! unless they have a lot more money than i…
    b) ‘quality’ means different things to different folks on different days… if my mil-spec semi-auto m-16 hits where i aim, and goes bang every time i pull the trigger… that is the quality i want in that gun. oth, my 1916 Artillery exemplifies pre-war craftmanship- but i could not afford to buy that gun new today.

    OK, that’s my rant…

    • I don’t know Alley,that ain’t much of a “rant”,way too short.DG’s comment on another post became the topic here and guess tis qualified as a “rant”,I saw it as a rather long post to a article that I enjoyed reading.

      My definition of “rant ” is minimum multi page,but,guess we all have different ideas of a “rant”.

      Oh,and Alley,do agree with your,well,gonna call it a “comment”,if it does what you need and you can afford it,great,good deal.My only ? would be do you feel what you have hold up under use/less then great conditions?

      Hmmmm….,maybe time for a “rant” about what makes a “rant”.

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