The firearm industry has come a long way since its inception in the 14th century, from using materials like bamboo and burning wick to sophisticated metal alloys and modern technology. As the technology has evolved, so has the manufacturing practices and material selection. The preferred metals and alloys for the firearm builders and manufacturers of today are carbon and alloy steel, stainless steel, and aluminum. 2019 saw growth of around 5% and this trend is expected to continue in both consumer small arms and military defense consumption, however the firearms industry has generally been a volatile market, leading to increased emphasis on manufacturing costs. Choosing the correct material and manufacturing process for your product can greatly improve efficiency, yield and help manage costs overall. Here, we talk about choices for material and manufacturing processes and the benefits of each.
Selecting the Correct Material
Having a steel that meets the technical requirements of firearm builders and manufacturers is essential to the performance of the end product. There are hundreds of application-specific grades of steel, however carbon steel and stainless steel are the two categories most alloys fall under. Carbon steel has a high carbon content in its makeup, up to 2%, which gives it a higher degree of strength and hardness. Carbon grades, such as 1060, are commonly found in barrels, receivers, and suppressors because of their corrosion resistance and hardened surface. Stainless steel has a similar chemical structure, but must have at least 10.5% chromium in its makeup, which dramatically increases corrosion resistance and protects against oxidation. Series 300 and 400 stainless steels offer their own benefits for firearms because of their better resistance to heat erosion and rust. Alloy steel may also be selected depending on which alloying elements are necessary to the firearm application.
Material selection is up to the gun makers, as there is no ‘best’ option. All metals have their place in firearm building and each one offers different advantages and benefits. Safety is also a major concern when selecting a material for firearm parts, so choosing a manufacturer that uses modern methods and technology can prevent catastrophic failure. For example, the mechanical characteristics of seamless tubing paired with a thick wall, are suitable for containing combustion gasses in gun barrels, so choosing a seamless material will ensure user safety and product performance. Although tighter tolerances, controlled mechanical properties, improved surface quality, and superior flatness and straightness are all capabilities that firearm manufacturers search for when choosing a supplier, cost savings is the largely the most important determining factor. Cost savings are not necessarily achieved in the cost of the material, but rather in how the right material can be utilized to save in productivity and machining.
Every year, CNC machining technology gets more complex and costs to the customer can skyrocket. A single part can cost hundreds of dollars due to material cost, set up, and machining time. Working with a manufacturer that has the capabilities to produce a complex, finished part that meets the high standards often required by the firearm industry can eliminate shipping, scheduling and inventory issues, saving thousands of dollars.
Other engineered product solutions, such as cold drawn shapes or extrusions, can be used in the firearm manufacturing process when strict properties or complex capabilities are necessary. Using cold drawn shapes, profiles, or extrusions can reduce operating costs, streamline production, and optimize value across the supply chain. Efficient use of material and design flexibility can significantly assist firearm manufacturers to reduce the number of different parts used and minimize additional production steps such as welding, assembly or heavy machining. In the near-net extrusion process, the close-to-final profile is achieved in a single operation. As a result, neat-net extrusion delivers dramatic reductions in material usage and machining costs over alternative methods, such as machining from bar stock.
For many OEMs and machine shops, the use of near-net profiles or performed blanks for structural and special-shaped components can save significantly on labor costs and improve customer order delivery performance by speeding up production and reducing machining to a minimum. In addition, the surface quality of the extrusion is superior to that produced by other methods, resulting in easier and less costly finishing when a ground, buffed or other machine-finished surface is required.
Plymouth Tube Company offers a wide variety of extruded shapes and sizes. With many years of expertise, Plymouth can offer design assistance that can result in cost-effective solutions that optimize the extrusion process, as well as part integrity with strength. As many Plymouth customers can attest, working with Plymouth early in the design phase can help improve part quality while reducing machining and scrap. Plymouth takes an engineering approach to developing true value-added solutions for customers and always strives to expand capabilities and develop new processes.