Over the years I’ve gotten a number of inquiries about becoming a gunsmith. I’ve dashed off short answers to some, but was forced to ignore many others simply due to the amount of information that the answer demands. Here in full (or as full as I’m going to get) is my advice on becoming a gunsmith.
First let’s consider what kind of gunsmith we’re talking about. Some “gunsmiths” are really nothing more than parts changers – people who can disassemble a gun, manage to figure out what part needs replacing, order one from Brownell’s, and reassemble the gun with the new part. It might even run when they’re done! At this level there is very little money to be made; most such people are employed at minimum wage, perhaps slightly better, by sporting goods and “box” stores. They’ll usually spend most of their time mounting cheap scopes on cheap rifles – that is, when they’re not stocking shelves and attending to other rather menial retail tasks. This is the kind of job that a mailorder “gunsmithing” course qualifies one to hold.
The next step up is the ability to fit ready-made parts and make minor adjustments to actions. If the timing of someone’s S&W revolver is off, people at this level can drop in a new hand, do the necessary minor fitting, and hand the customer a gun which functions again. A person with these skills might be able to do simple action work, smoothing out the roughest parts of a trigger, do bedding jobs on hunting guns, or perhaps assemble an AR-15 from parts and perhaps have it function correctly. The money’s a little better, but one is still spending a lot of time putting scopes on WalMart rifles. Such people are most likely working for someone else – perhaps a local gun store – because there isn’t enough value in what they do to run a specialty shop.
This intermediate level MIGHT be learned via correspondence, IF the person is mechanically inclined, inquisitive about the results, and motivated to buy many broken guns and learn on them. It does require hands-on experience, but the driven person can probably learn on his/her own as long as enough reference materials are procured.
At the top you have true gunsmiths. These are the talented men and women who can make and fit stocks from scratch, who can fabricate metal parts when necessary, who can diagnose complex problems and correct them the first time, who can make a worn out and abused gun look and work like new again. These people can actually make a living as gunsmiths, sometimes a quite decent living, and virtually always work for themselves.
It takes a broad range of skills and interests to be such a gunsmith, though most (like me) specialize in one area. At this level the most important skills are not necessarily gun-specific: machining, welding, polishing and heat treating of metal, woodwork, and finishing for both wood and metal. These are skills that need a certain amount of equipment, and can’t be learned from a mailorder course.
Many such gunsmiths acquired knowledge from one of the dedicated gunsmithing schools, though you’ll find some very well-known gunsmiths either came from a related field and self taught the relevant firearms knowledge, or apprenticed to a Master in the trade.
I’ll confine the rest of my comments to becoming a true gunsmith as I’ve defined the term. If you’re serious about making a living, this is the level to which you need to aspire.
First off, understand that you’ll need excellent mechanical aptitude, an inquisitive nature, and a drive to do nothing but the best in order to succeed. Without each of those, you simply won’t make it in this field.
If you are starting from scratch, the best course of action is probably to attend one of the dedicated gunsmithing schools. There are perhaps a half-dozen around the country, but the two I’m familiar with are both in Colorado: Trinidad College and Colorado School of Trades. I’ve met graduates from both schools and have been impressed with their skill and professionalism. This isn’t to say that the other schools don’t turn out good graduates, only that these are the schools whose graduates are familiar to me.
If for some reason you can’t make it to such a school, all is not lost. It will take a little longer, and you’ll have to do it piecemeal, but it can be done with resources that are likely to be in your area. What follows will sound roundabout, but should serve to impress upon you the wide range of skills a gunsmith must have.
If you’re not mechanically inclined, you’ll need to be introduced to the principles of mechanical devices. Auto repair courses are available in every community college and are a great way to get used to seeing how parts interact, anticipating and diagnosing problems, and generally getting comfortable with complex mechanisms. (On a personal note, I find many people today surprisingly averse to getting their hands dirty. Gunsmithing can be a dirty job, and if you’re at all squeamish about such things an automotive course would be a good attitude adjuster.)
Many adult education programs across this country feature courses in clock repair, usually taught as a hobby to retired folks by retired watch & clockmakers. These classes have most of the advantages of an auto repair class, along with getting accustomed to working with small parts. Starting this way will put you in good company: I learned my mechanical skills as a teenager when I became a clock and watchmaker, and another gunsmith you may have heard of – Bill Wilson of Wilson Combat – started out as a watchmaker, too.
The next step is to develop some relevant skills in metalwork. The best way to do this is by taking every machine shop and welding class your local community college offers. Learn how to work with metal: forming, machining, hardening and tempering, finishing. If you plan to do serious rifle work, you’ll probably need to take classes in woodcarving and fine furniture building too. The things you’ll learn in those classes are the things I do every single day, and without that breadth of knowledge I could never accomplish the work that I do. The “gun stuff” is relatively easy in comparison, as long as those basic skills are in place.
If a tool and die making course is available to you, it would be a great advantage to take it.
Once you have those skills in hand, you’ll need to get some extensive firearm-specific knowledge. You have several avenues; first, you can attend some specialized (limited duration) classes at the aforementioned schools to learn how to apply those skills to guns. Another avenue is to take classes from a well-known gunsmith. Ron Power and Bill Laughridge, for example, both offer weekend classes on specific topics. Finally, you could apprentice to a master gunsmith and work for him/her on an occasional basis to pick up what you need. (Before anyone asks, no – I’m not currently interested in taking on an apprentice!)
An extremely talented and motivated person could, possibly, get this information from books, but not without the base skills discussed above, and certainly not without mechanical aptitude.
Because most of the good gunsmiths work for themselves you’ll need to have some talent in business management and sales/marketing. Since this is a people business, those with unpleasant personalities or poor communication skills will be at a disadvantage. You have to like guns and you have to like gun owners! These days a working knowledge of using the internet as a business tool is almost a necessity, as is a good website.
To get started will require some capital investment on your part. You’ll need a suitable lathe, milling machine, welding equipment, a wide variety of hand tools, air compressor, benches, tooling for the lathe and mill, and a seemingly endless list of specialized – and expensive – gunsmithing tools. A skilled machinist (which you should be if you’ve followed my advice) can make many of them, but there are many more that really need to be purchased. That runs into money!
How much money depends on what you plan to do and how good you are at bargain hunting, but you’re unlikely to get in for less than $20,000 unless you run into a string of screaming good deals. (That’s on top of your schooling, of course.) I’ve heard from a couple of gunsmiths who’ve done it recently, and they tell me that two or three times that figure may be more realistic if you’re buying mostly new tools. What you specialize in will have a dramatic effect on your investment.
You’ll need to have the resources to make that level of financial commitment, plus the additional resources to weather the inevitable startup phase. Plan on being without a solid income for at least a year as you build your business. Every truly capable gunsmith I’ve met has done it in a matter of months, but that’s not a guarantee that you can or that your market can support such growth. Plan for the worst, and if it doesn’t happen so much the better!
Finally, you’ll find lots of failed “gunsmiths” in the internet forums who will be glad to tell you how hard the gunsmithing trade is: how expensive it is to get started, how you can’t make a living at it, and so on. Keep in mind that you won’t find too many successful gunsmiths hanging around those places, because we’re frankly too busy to bother!
Yes, it’s a tough business. Guess what? All businesses are tough. I’ve owned a number of business concerns in my life, and helped start several others, and none of them were easy. Gunsmithing is no different. Don’t listen to the naysayers who got in thinking it would be a sure thing, who thought that they could succeed despite being ignorant and obnoxious. If you have the skills and the business acumen, if you like dealing with people, and finally if you like guns and shooting, you can be a successful gunsmith. All it takes is hard work!
-=[ Grant ]=-