© 2014 Grant Cunningham Click to email me!

I hate doing tune-ups, too.

Regarding organization, I'm like the guy with his feet in a bucket of ice and his hair is on fire: "on average, I'm comfortable." On average, I'm organized.

My organization goes in streaks. I'll get the urge to clean, arrange, and organize my workspace, and once done it slowly - over a period of time - degrades once more into chaos. At some point the organization mania comes back, I fix everything up, and the process repeats itself. The cycle takes months.

I'm in the organization part of that cycle, and it hit yesterday afternoon: I finally got tired of digging my way across the shop to find the lathe ("I know it's here somewhere.") I started by clearing some of the workbenches of their layers of stuff: at the bottom of one pile were some new FedEx boxes I'd gotten from their depot perhaps five - maybe six, who knows - months ago.

I spent the remainder of the afternoon inventorying bags of commonly used parts that had simply been dumped in a bin on arrival. (If I need a spring, for instance, I go to the organized parts drawers to see if I have one. If not, I paw through the incoming parts bin. I always find what I’m looking for, but the routine chews up precious time. And it’s annoying.)

The great part is that once I'm finished the shop will seem newly spacious. There are times I think I need to move to a bigger location, then I clean everything up and I find space I didn't even know I had! That's the payoff, but unfortunately it never lasts. Sooner or later the clutter returns, and I'm back to scouting new digs. Won't I ever learn?

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to find the broom and dustpan. I think I saw them over by the lathe...

-=[ Grant ]=-

It's party time!

Well, for some of us, at least.

This is SHOT Show week in Las Vegas, and you'll notice that I'm not there. I'd love to be, but I've got far too much work to do to justify taking the time off right now. Well, that - and the fact that I spent more money than I should have last year. There are times when being independently wealthy would be a welcome burden!

I'm not alone. At least one well-known gunwriter is also on the sidelines, snowed under by a combination of work and deadlines. That doesn't mean that either of us have to be out of touch with the goings-on, however.

Last year I finally found a legitimate use for Twitter: following what was new and unusual at SHOT. I found out about a number of products that I didn't see reported anywhere but in people's tweets. I also know people who are prowling the show floor, and they're usually kind enough to forward the interesting stuff to me. That is, when they're not attending all of those private parties and digging the latest gossip. Which I'd be doing if I weren't working.

Next year, I'm going to pack up and go regardless of my workload. Of course I said that last year, but this time I really, really mean it. Just like last time.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: A letter to the U.S. Postal Service.

Dear USPS:

I'm writing this open letter because I know you don’t read those that I send to you. How do I know this? I tried that already and nothing's changed.

Listen, I know you guys and gals are hurtin’-fer-certain these days, what with this newfangled email and all. The news tells me that your revenue is down, and because the unions won't let you do any commonsense cost-cutting your profit margins are getting squeezed.

I feel for you.

Well, I certainly
would feel for you if I had any confidence that the people in charge had an inkling of what to do to turn your mess around. They've given little indication so far that they do, but I'm going to help you out. I like the Postal Service, I really do, even if I do think the title “Letter Carrier” is less noble than the “Mailman” I grew up with.

Because we have such a longstanding relationship, I’m going to give you two simple, low cost (one of them is no cost) methods that will add dollars to your bottom line. Not enough to save you from your skyrocketing pension costs, but every little bit helps - right?

Here goes:

1) Follow federal law with regard to shipping firearms. As it stands, federal law allows any private citizen to ship a handgun across state lines, as long as the recipient holds an FFL (Federal Firearms License.) The USPS, however, has this strange idea that BOTH parties need to have an FFL, precluding the private citizen from sending his or her package (much more profitable than those letters you're fixated on) through your service. As it stands, Federal Express and UPS get that lovely business, and it's a shame because they charge three to four times what you do. With savings like that, people would be crazy not to use you!

All it would take to steal that business from them is a simple rewrite of your regulations to parallel federal law. That's it. It wouldn't even cost you any money, because you're already paying for those pencil-pushers to sit around in their offices. Might as well get them to do something useful for a change!

2) Your website sucks. I don't mean the design necessarily (though it does need some help in the usability and clarity departments), but its functionality. If I want to ship a package, it should be easy to do through Trust me on this: it's not.

First, you allow only specific browsers to work because you've used proprietary code that only they recognize. Hello, this is the twenty-first century! "This site optimized for Internet Explorer" is as passe as Motorola brick phones, no matter how cool you think Gordon Gecko is. Standards compliance is where its at these days.

The second problem is that printing a mailing label with postage requires the browser to download a little applet, which then requires a third-party program - namely Adobe Acrobat - to run the thing and print the label. Why? I have no clue, but it's what we call a kludge, and it's incredibly sloppy. FedEx doesn't mess around with nonsense like that to do the very same task, and neither does UPS. If your people aren't smart enough to figure out how to print from within the browser like those companies already do, fire them and hire someone who actually graduated from high school. (Oh, yeah, that pesky union thing makes it difficult to fire the deadwood. Sucks to be you.)

Why should you care? Listen, I use a Macintosh. Despite the fact that the Mac OS handles .pdf files internally, without the need for ANY third-party separate utility, your stupid website forces me to download Acrobat. The problem with that is that Acrobat is a buggy resource hog that tries to rewrite my system's preferences so that ALL .pdf files trigger Acrobat to start up. It's annoying, it's a security risk, it's not at all needed or welcome, and more than a few Mac users simply refuse to submit to such foolishness.

You're probably still asking why you should care. Well, Mac owners are now upwards of 15% of installed computers in this country, and the percentage online is a higher. Marketing study after marketing study shows that Mac owners are better educated, make more money, and utilize online services more than users of other systems. Like it or not (and Michael Dell most assuredly does not), those are the facts.

So, tell me how a business plan that involves pissing away the most affluent part of your market, those most likely to use your services, is a good idea? It's not, and it's yet another reason your volume is dropping. Redesign your site, make it standards compliant, get rid of the proprietary browser code and that Acrobat nonsense, and you’ll probably find people using it more. (I assume that’s why you have the site in the first place, amiright?)

Hey, if you like the way things are going, ignore everything I just said. Otherwise, start acting like the independent corporation you keep claiming to be and put your customers first. You can win against the other guys, but you have to bring your "A" game. Right now you’re not.

Two simple things, with my compliments.


-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: When in Rome...

My fascination with old and abandoned things often leads to dreams of great discoveries. Though I've been to a few abandoned places - all of which are pretty well known, at least locally - I'm handicapped by geography. Here in rural Oregon, there just aren't many such places.

There weren't enough people here to have produced a large urban/industrial base a century ago, our technological history doesn't go back much more than 175 years in any case, and we've never exactly been a hotbed of military activity. Thus my dreams of being the first (or, at least, one of the very few) to visit such a site remain elusive.

Other people are more fortunate. A British film crew just last year found the remains of the Aqua Traiana headwaters, the beginnings of a lost aqueduct that once supplied Rome with fresh water. It's beautiful and amazingly well preserved, and all lying below a pig pasture near the village of Manziana, just northwest of Rome.

What gets me is that they found it - in the best Indiana Jones style -
by discovering a hidden door in an abandoned church.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Another Day In The Life Of A Gunsmith.

Many people tell me that they'd love to have my job: "it must be fun to play with all those cool guns and get paid for it!"

Lest others be deluded into thinking that this business is all fun and games, allow me to supply a dose of reality: somedays it literally doesn't pay to get out of bed.

Last Thursday was just such a day. It started with the need to make a 'spud'. No, not a potato - a 'spud' is a metal pilot that aligns a cutter with a bore. They're used as guides for such things as chamfering chambers and crowning barrels.

You can buy them ready made, but they come in one size per caliber-specific application. The problem is that if the spud is even .001" off, the quality of the cut will be destroyed. They need to be fitted precisely to the hole in which they will be inserted, and the ready made variety never are. If good work is to be done, they have to be custom made to fit the work.

Over the years I've made a wide range of spuds in various sizes, and because of that selection I usually have one that will fit properly. Occasionally, though, I run into a situation where I need to make yet another one, which is what happened on Thursday. I needed a .216" spud, and the closest I had was .214" - not nearly good enough to properly crown the .22LR barrel on which I was working.

Not a problem! I picked out some appropriate metal and chucked it in the lathe. I made a couple of cuts to get close to finished size, but when I measured the diameter I found that it tapered by roughly .002" throughout the length of the piece! The spud is only a couple of inches long, so a .002" variance in that length is
huge. It renders the part unusable.

It's also not supposed to happen.

Annoying, but not insurmountable. I thought that the lathe probably just needed to be re-leveled, which hadn’t been done for a couple of years. I leveled the lathe (which takes a couple of hours if done very carefully), made a test cut, was still off!


The next step was to check the
lathe’s tailstock for alignment. The tailstock, which supports the end of work in a lathe, has to be precisely aligned along the lathe's longitudinal axis. Otherwise, it pulls the end of the piece left or right, which leads to a taper such as I was finding. I spent the time aligning the tailstock, and a quote from the movie "Ruthless People" poured from my mouth: "Now THAT oughtta do it!"

It didn't.

I went back, tweaked the lathe level, and aligned the tailstock again. The problem persisted.

Put yourself in my place: I've got a top-notch Austrian lathe, the best Swiss measuring instruments, and I'm making parts displaying precision more appropriate to a Kalashnikov clone produced in an unlit cave factory outside of Jalalabad. Something was wrong, and I had to find it. The only hitch was that it was now dinnertime, and due to skipping lunch I was as hungry as could be. The problem would have to wait until the next day.

Friday morning I came into work determined to find the cause. Double checking everything revealed no clues. I replayed the issues in my head, while at the same time resting my hand on the tailstock. I looked down, and it came to me: the live center in the tailstock must be the source of the problem. It was the only thing I'd not checked.

A live center looks like this:

The cone-shaped bit is inserted into a hole in the piece being machined, and the other end goes into the tailstock. The cone revolves on precision ball bearings, keeping the piece aligned as it's rotated by the lathe. Any rotational error will result in inconsistencies in the finished part.

A quick check with a quality (Swiss) test indicator confirmed my fears: .0025" wobble. I checked the piece I'd machined, in several orientations, and sure enough - not only was it tapered, it was also slightly oval, which is exactly the error a worn live center would produce. Bingo!

I ordered up a new live center from my favorite online tool supplier (, and on Monday the smiling UPS man delivered it to my door. The center quickly proved to be the answer; the rotational error was less than .0001", compared to the .0025" wobble of the old one.

With the new center a perfect spud was easily produced, the barrel was beautifully crowned, and the gun will soon be on its way back to a happy shooter.

It only took me a day and a half, plus a not insignificant amount of cash to find and fix the problem. So, want to tell me again how you wish you had my job?

-=[ Grant ]=-