Japanese Arisaka Restoration

The recent successful completion of the Lee-Enfield restoration has me inspired to work on a couple of other neglected firearms that have been in the family for decades.

My dad was in the navy in WWII and brought home a Japanese Arisaka rifle from the Philippines.  He never talked much about the war, and all he had to say about the rifle was that there was a pile of them that were free for the taking.  So, he brought one home.  Fortunately, he never tried to shoot it; more on that in a moment.

1930s-40s Japanese Arisaka before restoration (bolt removed)

1930s-40s Japanese Arisaka before restoration (bolt removed)

The rifle was stored in our attic from the time the house was built in the late 1950s until 1983, when my mother moved closer to town.  It went straight into that attic until 2006, when she moved into a retirement facility.  Unbeknownst to my brother and me, she gave it to a family friend.  Since each of us thought the other had it, the rifle never came up in conversation until last summer, when I happened to ask about it.  Long story short, the family friend graciously returned it to us, along with a side by side shotgun that is in horrendous condition.

I don’t know the rifle’s condition when my dad picked it up in the Philippines, but having spent 70 years in attics since, the Arisaka accumulated a lot of dust and rust.  The wood was in fair condition, but very dry; all the metal surfaces were rusty and most of the original bluing was gone.

Detail of the receiver and rear sight

Detail of the receiver and rear sight

After doing some research, I’m 90% sure this particular Arisaka was strictly a training rifle, and was never shootable. It appears to be some sort of type 38/type 99 hybrid with a mixture of parts from both designs. The biggest giveaways are lack of a serial number and proper hallmarks, and the fact that the barrel isn’t rifled. It is interesting, however, that it does seem to have all the correct mechanical parts of a fully functional rifle, including the firing pin, magazine spring, and the action dust cover, which is normally missing from all Arisakas. That one part, seen in the photo below, is probably worth as much as the rest of the rifle.

Detail of the bottom, trigger guard and magazine floor plate

Detail of the bottom, trigger guard and magazine floor plate

These training rifles are not uncommon, but they were not constructed to handle live ammo and are likely to explode if shot. The receivers were made of cast iron and intended for either wooden rounds or low power blanks.  Because they are virtually indistinguishable from the real rifles, a lot of GIs who brought them home after the war tried to shoot them. The consequence of doing this was not pretty.  This earned the later Arisakas a reputation for being poorly made and these are sometimes (incorrectly) referred to as Last Ditch guns.

Since I didn’t have to worry about shooting it or compromising its value (it’s a $50-$100 gun at best), the restoration focused primarily on the cosmetic, with mechanical function a secondary concern.  Fortunately, none of the screws were seized and the rifle disassembled quickly.  Compared to the Enfield, taking this one apart was a breeze.  The rust turned out to be mainly superficial, and came off pretty easily with some CLP and light brushing.  The receiver and barrel required a little more aggressive scrubbing with the CLP and steel wool, but cleaned up very nicely.

Arisaka-Comp-5Once cleaned and degreased, I used a cold blue oxidizing agent to darken the metal areas that were overly brightened by the cleaning.  This toned it down to a perfect match to the overall patina of this 70-year-old firearm.  With a little light surface toning, the result was a rich and lustrous dark blue/gray finish that accurately reflects the age and matches the remaining patina.

Arisaka receiver before & after restoration

Arisaka receiver before & after restoration

The stock, as I said, was overall pretty good, but the wood was very dry and splintery, and there were a lot of scratches and dings from laying bare in attics, etc.  A few applications of Kramer’s Best had it looking much better, but I still wasn’t satisfied with the result.  After looking at it and thinking about it for a few days, I decided to give it a light application of Watco Danish Oil, which is thin and penetrates well, and is great stuff overall.  Unlike many finishes, it builds up very slowly with a low sheen, and plays nice with other existing finishes in my experience.  I used a mahogany tint that matched the original finish on the rifle, and gave it just a single application.  The result was a remarkable improvement.  Scratches faded, tone evened out, and the overall surface just felt better in the hand.

Reassembled, the rifle looks great.  Since it’s not shootable, it will never be anything other than a wall hanger, but that’s okay.  It’s a piece of history and a link to my dad.

Arisaka after restoration

Arisaka after restoration

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The Complete Lee Enfield No. 1 MKIII Restoration

Lee-Enfield SMLE No. 1 MKIII

Lee-Enfield SMLE No. 1 MKIII

For those of you who have followed along, I finally finished up the Lee-Enfield this past weekend, and I’m pretty pleased with the results. To recap, this rifle was given to me by my father-in-law back in early January. It’s a Lee-Enfield SMLE (Short Magazine Lee-Enfield) model No. 1 MKIII (.303 British caliber) produced at the Birmingham Small Arms Co. in England in 1940. Lee-Enfields were manufactured from 1888 to the early 1970s, and total production was nearly 14 million rifles. This one appeals to me because it was made in England during the Battle of Britain, and shows evidence of actual deployment in combat.

The WWII No. 1 MKIII rifles are plentiful even today, and not particularly valuable. I probably exceeded the value of this one in the parts alone that I purchased, but I didn’t restore it to sell. It’s a keeper and a shooter that will be enjoyed and passed down.  As it happens, the first high-powered rifle I ever shot as a kid was an old WWI vintage Enfield that belonged to my uncle.  I remember that .303 kicked like a 12 gauge.  I may even still have that first casing somewhere in a box of my childhood stuff.

The Enfield before restoration with new forestock and hand guard above

The Enfield before restoration with new forestock and hand guard shown above

As I wrote in earlier posts, the rifle had been ‘sporterized’ at some point, or at least someone started that process. Unfortunately, this was a popular practice in the post war years. The guns were plentiful and cheap, and guys who bought them apparently preferred the look of a traditional hunting rifle. Since the Enfield featured a barrel fully shrouded in wood, sporterizing them usually began with removing the nosecap and hardware, the upper hand guard, and cutting off the front part of the forestock.  Sometimes the rear sights were removed or altered to accept a scope, but fortunately the bubba who hacked away at this rifle didn’t get that far.

The forestock had been cut and the upper hand guard removed

The forestock had been cut, the hand guard missing

The forearm on this rifle had been cut just behind the swivel band. The entire nosecap assembly at the front was missing, along with the swivel band, forward swivels and a variety of related hardware, and the upper hand guard. The rear hand guard was still there, but its ears had been cut off and so it needed to be replaced. It appeared all of the remaining wood on the rifle was scrubbed with a heavy wire brush, leaving the surface pretty rough and scarred with brush marks. All of the original finish was long gone.

After the initial disassembly and inspection, I was happy to find the action and barrel in surprisingly good condition. Areas of rust were minimal and superficial. All the serial numbers thankfully matched, so I knew everything was likely original. The action and barrel had significant areas of olive drab paint, which I discovered was routinely applied to rifles used in tropical climates during WWII to help prevent rust. I was careful to leave that intact.

Enfield Serial

Receiver with bolt removed – original forestock still on the rifle (note the olive drab paint)

I was able to identify and source all the missing parts without too much trouble. Since there was such a long bedding space on the Enfield’s full length forestock, I decided to go with an unissued but old forestock and hand guard assembly. With so much hand fitting required, I didn’t want to take a chance on a stock that had already been on another rifle. I may have been misguided in this assumption, but that’s what I did. I left the original buttstock on the rifle since there was no need to replace it other than the aesthetic contrast between it and the new wood. I preferred to keep the rifle as close to original as possible.

Enfield New Stock Fit 1

Fitting the new forestock to the receiver – completed

The new wood required quite a bit of fine tuning and adjustment to get it to fit the receiver and barrel correctly. There are several fairly critical areas on Enfield rifles where the wood needs to fit very flush against the metal, so the work was slow and cautious. With so many parts all needing to come together and a half-dozen attachment points that all had to be aligned, I spent more than a few hours wondering why I ever started this project. But in the end, it all finally came together and I feel really good about the fit. It seems to fit like a glove where it’s supposed to, with the appropriate generosity in the other areas where called for.

The hand guard sat too high for the nosecap to slide on

The hand guard sat too high for the nosecap to slide on

Of everything on the rifle, the nosecap I sourced ended up being the most difficult part to get properly installed. Initially the upper hand guard sat too high for the nosecap to slip over it properly. That required carefully reducing the height of the guard along its full length, but not so much that the top of the barrel would bottom out preventing it from seating against the forearm. Once that problem was resolved, I then found that the screw holes through the forearm were just lightly out of alignment, preventing the front nosecap screw from engaging the threads on the opposite side of the nosecap. Eventually, with a lot of patience and careful filing, everything fell into place and the wood was ready for the finish.

While not the most practical by today’s standards, I wanted to keep this rifle as true to original form as possible, and so went with the tried and true linseed oil finish. This is what was used when the rifle was made. Since boiled linseed oil is chemically different, I used raw linseed oil. Or at least I assume it’s raw. I had a can of artist’s grade linseed oil that I bought when I was in college 30 some years ago and never opened. I cut it with 50% turpentine to help ensure it would dry sometime this decade. Following the old adage, once a day for a week, once a week for a month, I’ve applied about 8 ‘coats’ and the results look great. The wood has a nice rich low luster and even the contrast between the new wood and the old stock doesn’t jump out too much.

Enfield Complete 4

Rear Sight with new upper guard in place

 

I completed the restoration with an original WWII vintage Enfield sling, also dated 1940, that I found on eBay. That and the war vintage bayonet I previously wrote about are the icing on the cake. Not that I need a bayonet, but it’s in unissued condition and the price was too good to pass up. I’m looking forward to putting a couple dozen rounds down range sometime in the next few weeks.

Lee-Enfield SMLE No. 1 MKIII

Lee-Enfield SMLE No. 1 MKIII

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Something Different – Restoring a WWII Vintage Lee-Enfield Rifle

I’m starting a new restoration project this week, and a first for Virginia Toolworks – a firearm. This Lee-Enfield No. 1 MK III rifle chambered in .303 British was made in England in 1940, right smack in the middle of the Battle of Britain!  It quite literally was a rifle that helped save Great Britain from the Nazi onslaught, and then saw service throughout the war.  Pretty cool!

Enfield Receiver

Lee-Enfield No. 1 MK III (c. 1940)

Enfield Model MarkThe Lee-Enfield bolt-action, magazine-fed, repeating rifle was the British Army’s standard rifle from its official adoption in 1895 until 1957.  This one is in excellent condition overall, complete with matching serial numbers. If you look closely at the photos, you can see the barrel was painted olive drab. This was a common practice with WWII era Enfields that were used in humid climates such as Africa and the Pacific.

The only apology is the unfortunate attempt on someone’s part to “sporterize” it by removing the upper hand guard and cutting off the lower forearm. This was a common, albeit ill-conceived practice after decommissioning to make Enfields look more like hunting rifles.  Tens of thousands, if not more, of these rifles were converted in this manner, a practice that is not unheard of even today.  In fact, there are companies now making modern style synthetic stocks for these old rifles.  Enfields are among the most beautiful military rifles of the 20th century, and given its lineage and condition, this one deserves to be properly restored.

Enfield Armory Marks

The “40” stamp indicates the barrel is original

Enfield rifles have a somewhat distinct look in that the barrel is shrouded in wood from the receiver to the end of the barrel.  Since the wood on this one has been sawed off, I will need to replace the damaged and missing pieces and source another nose cap, which is also long gone. Since millions of these guns were made, wood of the correct model shouldn’t be too hard to find.  The nose cap is the most unfortunate missing part because they were stamped with the gun’s serial number, so it will always be that one mismatched part.

I am by no means a gunsmith, but I do know my way around weapons at little. Fortunately, there is very little rust, no visible rust damage that I can find, and the action and bore appears to only need a good cleaning.  The one part in the photo above that shows rust is a retention clip for the rear hand guard.  This is an easy fix.  I’m looking forward to putting this rifle back into its original condition, or at least as close as it can get.  Now, if I can just find some ammunition for it…

Enfield Cutoff

Bubba’d cutoff (ugh!) – Olive drab paint was applied in tropical climates to inhibit rust. It will stay!

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