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Thread: Cutting Dovetails by KSCO

  1. #1
    CEO/CFO GunLoads Gunload Master's Avatar
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    Cutting Dovetails by KSCO

    Cutting Dovetails by Hand
    By Jim KCSO
    *
    Letís start this off by my issuing a disclaimer; Iím not an expert at anything. I am a poor country boy gunsmith who has been lucky enough to be able to learn from his elders. What I am passing on here I was fortunate enough to pick up from folks like Greg Roberts of the Green River Rifle works, Bill Large, Doc Carlson and V.M Starr. I have cut enough dovetails by hand so that is I donít happen to have a 5/16 rougher in the mill I will just cut one rather than take time to set up the mill. If you work slowly and carefully you can cut as neat and as well a fitting dovetail as any machine. So listen upÖ
    Tools required:
    1 square file, preferably with a safe edge
    1 Triangular file 60 degree with, safe edge REQUIRED
    1 small square
    1 depth gauge, this doesnít have to be fancy my favorite was made from a broken CB antenna.
    1 Hacksaw with a 24 tooth blade.
    The safe files should look like thisÖ


    I ordered these files from MSC and made the safe edges by grinding them flat on a grinding wheel. I kept the temper by keeping them wet and keeping my finger on the stock as I ground.
    To start the dovetail take a square and mark the barrel with two lines just smaller than the top of the dovetail. You want to err on the side of caution here as you can always make the dovetail bigger but you canít very well make it smaller. The take the sight and make sure that all casting lines and burrs are removed the base of the sight should be clean and smooth or the sight wonít fit properly.

    Here is the barrel with the sight and the square on it. Notice that the pencil lines are NARROWER than the top flat of the intended sight.
    Now that the dovetail is marked out you need to make two cuts inside the lined you just marked. I use a 24 tooth hacksaw as it is less likely to catch and slip as compared to an 18 or a 10 tooth blade.

    The first two cuts should be shallow and you will FILE the cuts to final depth. I donít measure this I just eyeball it. After you get the first two cuts made go inside those cuts and make several more like this.

    Now you take the square file and clean out the blank and square it up. Work slowly and try not to mar the top flats of the barrel. Use the safe edge of the file against the outside of the work to be removed and cut from both sides to the inside. When you have the scrap removed then square up the cut and cut down to just under the proper depth for the sight. You need to leave about 5 thousands for clean up as you work the square cut into a proper dovetail.


    Here the cut is nearly squared and the depth gauge is ready to check depth of the cut. A fancy tool isnít necessary for this, but a Harbor Freight dial caliper will only set you back $12.95.
    Once the cut is squared and nearly to depth take you triangular safe file and lay it in the cut with the safe end to the bottom and start cutting each end to form the dovetail.

    When you are cutting to the ends you will notice that the dovetail will start to curve up away from the bottom of the cut. Viewed from the side the dovetail will be curving up. Take the safe file and turn the safe edge into the dovetail and square the cut ever so often so that as you view the cut from the side it is flat and square.

    As you look at this you can see the edges of the dovetail are not sharp and are starting to curve slightly, itís time to turn the file and flat them out.
    As you get close to the final size of the dovetail try the sight in the cut every few cuts. As soon the sight will start in the dovetail go slow and work to clean up, sharpen and square the dovetail.

    The dovetail is close at this point and you want to go slow here and try the sight in the cut ever couple of file strokes. You want the sight to go in with just enough resistance so that a light tap with a brass punch will move it back and forth. You NEVER want a cut so tight that you have to pound on the sight to move it, or deform the sigh to make it move. When the gun is sighted in you take a center punch and lock the sight in place with a punch mark. Most factory sights are WAY too tight in the dovetail as they are pushed into place with a hydraulic ram. This can actually cause a thin walled barrel to deform and put a wrinkle under the sight on the inside of the bore. I have had several factory 45 caliber guns that had to have the barrels cut back and re dovetailed by hand because the bore was deformed under the factory dovetail. In a number of cases the reason for this was that the bottom flat of the front sight had not been properly smoothed.

    Here is the finished dovetail with the sight in place. There are no gaps under the sight and the top of the sight base is flush with the top flat of the barrel.
    Now I donít time any job in my shop as I donít work to a clock, I prefer to just keep plugging and make sure the job gets done right. With practice I would guess that it should take less than Ĺ hour to cut a proper dovetail. Even if it takes you 1 Ĺ hours to do the job, you can balance that against the $35 a machine shop will charge you. Any you have the satisfaction of having done it yourself.
    *
    Last edited by Gunload Master; 07-13-2008 at 12:27 AM.
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  2. #2
    Boolit Master
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    That's a fine job and you don't need to worry about a dovetail cutter coming apart on you in the middle of the job either. Thanks for posting this!
    Keep your plow share and your sword, know how and when to use them.

  3. #3
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    Great article. You can also practice on a piece of pipe or square stock first before trying a bbl. Check with a gunsmith for cut off bbl ends for practice stock too. Gianni.
    [The Montana Gianni] Front sight and squeeze

  4. #4
    Boolit Master
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    Nice job! I would also like to complement you on the nice work that you did on the photos and text. It just goes to show you that you do not need fancy equipment to make nice things. People tend to forget that craftsmen have been making works of art just by using their brains and a common sense approach for centuries with simple hand tools in wood stone and metal.

  5. #5
    Boolit Buddy
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    jim, thank you for taking the time and for the pics to put together this post.
    very informative with good tips. dan

  6. #6
    Boolit Master

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    That is really a great pictorial!
    I have done a few dovetails by hand. Actually, fairly simple if one uses plenty of time, and goes slowly. Making reference points not only on the main metal removal, but also the depth really help.
    Remember, removeing metal, anybody can do it. Putting it back is another issue indeed!
    I made a left hand save edge, and a right hand safe edge file set. I later found Barret files.
    Makeing a safe edge, I used a sharpening stone and honed off the teeth. No heat involved. It doesn't take much to make a safe edge.
    Rather than useing a singel hack saw blade to make the cut outs, I taped several together. I held the bundle to make the cut. With lots of cutting oil, it doesn't take much in cutting. I file the cut out to the depth I needed.
    I tried grinding my safe files to the degree needed so they could rest on the cut out and file to depth. That was kinda a waste of time. It was more accurate tilting the files and guageing by eye with checking the piece to be dovetailed.
    I did ok. It was very satisfying to have done it myself. On one Hawken, I found out about dovetails by trying to put an Hawken front sight in the Italian dovetail. Some fileing and fiddleing and it was on. That gave me the where with all to get a barrel and try it myself.
    It is an art, and quite satisfying.
    Very descript pictorial. Good job.

  7. #7
    Great contribution! How does one make dovetail fillers? I replaced the factory rear sight on my Winchester M94 with a Williams receiver mounted peep sight. I'm left with an ugly open dovetail.

  8. #8
    Boolit Master Clark's Avatar
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    The MacFarland book, "Introduction to Modern Gunsmthing" 1965 has a section on cutting dovetails with a hack saw.

    Having a mill and dovetail cutters, that book always reminded me of the term "barefoot doctor".

  9. #9
    Boolit Master peter nap's Avatar
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    I've cut a bunch of them using safe edge files, but only on octagonal barrels. I there a layout Jig you can make to cut them on round barrels?

  10. #10
    Boolit Mold
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    Thanks

    Hi:
    I wanted to thank you for the photos and instructions on the sight installation.
    It is really appreciated.



    Now I donít time any job in my shop as I donít work to a clock, I prefer to just keep plugging and make sure the job gets done right. With practice I would guess that it should take less than Ĺ hour to cut a proper dovetail. Even if it takes you 1 Ĺ hours to do the job, you can balance that against the $35 a machine shop will charge you. Any you have the satisfaction of having done it yourself.
    *[/QUOTE]

  11. #11
    Boolit Mold
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    Filler

    Quote Originally Posted by Major Tom View Post
    Great contribution! How does one make dovetail fillers? I replaced the factory rear sight on my Winchester M94 with a Williams receiver mounted peep sight. I'm left with an ugly open dovetail.
    I do believe Brownell's has a filler wedge for empty dovetails. But it seems to me you could reverse the process of cutting the dovetail and make a filler piece of steel, or a nice piece of nickle silver, maybe a cutout from a large piece of silverware handle.

  12. #12
    Boolit Mold
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    I just checked, and Brownell's does have a dovetail slot filler.
    Brownell's is a supporter of this site, and has a link add at the bottom of the page!!

    ALUMINUM SLOT BLANK
    Fills Empty Sight Dovetail Without Fitting
    Price Range:$6.95 - $6.95 (In Stock)
    Mfr:WILLIAMS GUN SIGHT
    Learn More

  13. #13
    Boolit Master
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    They also make a steel one that you peen over and file smooth but is best used for when you are going to re-blue the gun.

  14. #14
    Boolit Master WallyM3's Avatar
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    "Safe edge" files are very handy for lots of jobs and reasons. One trick I've reinvented all by myself is to grind off teeth and round over sharp corners on a fixed belt sander. It provides a straight and flat platform on which to grind, is faster than a pedestal grinder and the file remains cooler.

    When I learn to post pics, I'll throw a few up here.

    Very, very fine dovetail work

  15. #15
    Boolit Buddy
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    Just make sure when laying out a dovetail , especially for a rear sight, that you take and make your initial cut lines square to the bore and not to the barrel side if your barrel is swamped...

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  17. #17
    Boolit Master
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    A filing guide that clamps to the barrel can be made using small sealed ball bearings on either side to rest the file on to do round barrels as well..Russ

  18. #18
    Boolit Mold
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    Wonderful! I am thinking of taking up making muzzleloaders as a hobby and this is precisely the kind of info (and confidence builder) I need!

  19. #19
    Boolit Master
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    Wheeler Engineering used to make a hardened tool to do that, but they no longer sell it. I am too prone to messing up when I try to 'eyeball' work. It's good to know there are guys like you out there that know the art of it.
    Dutch

    "The future ain't what it used to be".
    -Yogi Berra.

  20. #20
    Boolit Man
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    I can see how it would be easier to do with a flat topped barrel (e.g. octogon), but what's the secret for doing it on a round barrel so that you are sure that it absolutely is at the top of the barrel and not a couple of degrees off? Like on a Thompson Encore barrel?

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