Gunsmith Training: Pistolsmithing – Week One, by R2

Design, Function, and Repair

This week I started on the core of the course. One of the things emphasized heavily in this course, according to the introductory material that I reviewed last week, was the essential of design, function, and repair (DFR).

Design, Function, and Repair (DFR)

To be anything more than a rudimentary parts swapper, you have to have a complete understanding of how the firearm was designed to work, how it functions, and what your courses of action are to make any sort of repairs or changes to it. Without understanding the design, it’s just a black box that works magic when you pull the trigger. Very few firearms are so simplistic that you can instantly understand why things are designed the way they are. In fact, many firearms are literally works of art. The ability to see and understand how the parts fit together and their relationship in a three dimensional space is a critical skill.

This is where I found AGI’s cutaway views inside of functional firearms to be invaluable. It amazes me how sensitive some of these parts. Changes of only a few thousandths of an inch can have a huge impact on the reliability or whether or not the firearm even functions. This is also where I wish that there were some three dimensional depictions or animations of the parts, but I suspect that if/when these videos are updated, that will make it in. In the meantime, the primary instructor– Bob Dunlap– does very well at explaining the “how” and “why” using these cutaway views, disassembled parts, and working firearms.

Single Action Pistols

The course starts with the study of single action semi-automatic pistols and opens with the venerable Colt 1911. John Moses Browning was a genius, and most modern firearms are based, at least in part, on his designs. I own several of these pistols. While they are not my absolute favorite (the Browning Hi-Power holds that spot), they are very good and still very popular.

Bob’s Knowledge

It was while viewing this section of videos that I began to understand what Gene Kelley saw in Bob Dunlap. The man’s knowledge is amazing. I took the statement that he made in the introductory videos about working on multiple hundreds of thousands of guns with a grain of salt. However, after having sat through only 10 hours of classroom with him, I have no doubt about that now.

Back in College

When I was in college, I had a professor who taught a course in “Rotating Electrical Machinery”. This was a course that dealt with large, powerful electric motors and the complex calculations that were required in their design and maintenance. The instructor was one of the toughest instructors I had ever had. He changed books every year so there was never a compendium of questions/answers circulation through the campus. Additionally, he assigned every homework problem there was and never even looked at the book while teaching. He knew it all by heart. Where we looked at the formulas as disjointed, he could derive one formula from another and link them all together.

He really knew his stuff. When it came time for tests, he never gave partial credit at test time, and his tests were often only four questions long. It wasn’t uncommon to totally fail his course. Yet, afterwards, you could set a meeting with him and walk him through your thought process where he would point out your errors and you would then get partial credit on the question. He was the most accessible professor I every had. At the time, I literally hated him and his class. When I made it out into industry, he was the professor that I respected the most. There was no slacking there, and I learned more from him about his subject matter than any other professor from their respective areas.

Bob Dunlap reminds of that guy. He knows his stuff forward and backward and is very proficient at teaching it.

Colt 1911

This week was spent entirely on the Colt 1911, beginning with the field stripping of the gun and then progressing to the complete takedown and dissasembly. I was very impressed with the detail given as Bob took them apart, carefully explaining what each part was and how it functioned. Bob then moved to the aspects of working on the 1911. He identified what types of problems are common and how to fix them. Great detail was given when dealing with modifying parts and how tiny modifications can make the difference between just working and working well.

Trigger Jobs

Bob spent considerable time on trigger jobs for the 1911. This is one of the most requested modifications and one of the most messed up operation by many gunsmiths. If you don’t understand exactly how the relationships work, you can get in trouble, as I’ll explain below.


One other notable addition to this section was where Bob explained how you can use the methods that Sig uses on their firearms to make the 1911 a very accurate firearm. It’s not even difficult to do. This is something that I’m putting on the project list for all of my 1911s and Brownings.

Impressions of Video

Some of the teaching obviously occurred in a classroom with an audience, though the production crew did an admirable job of keeping classroom noise down. I can hear some faint machining noises in the background and an occasional door opening and closing. However, for the most part, those noises are not a distraction at all.

Some of the teaching also takes place in a different setting where its pretty obvious that there were no students attending, as it was more of a studio type arrangement. In these settings, Bob’s hair is grayer, so I know they were recorded at a different time. That tells me that these videos have been remastered at least once to update and improve them. That’s good to know. I’m not buying something that is old and outdated. They are willing to update when they needed to.


The audio in the DVDs is mostly excellent. There are a few places where there is some fading in and out, like you would expect when a battery is dying on a wireless mic, but nothing is lost in the conversation and it only happens occasionally. There are also a few places where the audio track picks up a distracting buzz but not for long periods of time.


The most annoying aspect of the videos has to do with how they are played. The original videos are obviously in NTSC format and then transferred to DVD at a later time (whenever AGI made the transition from VHS tape to DVDs). In the transfer process a common error pops up. If you’ve ever had an old VHS tape remastered to DVD, I’m sure you’ve seen this issue. During the age of analog cathode-ray tubes (CRTs), everything was analog and there was some variance in how the video image was presented in the video frame.

To accommodate for this, manufacturers used a process called overscan. They would add additional lines of resolution to the video frame and the very edges were thrown away by your TV, presenting a decent picture to you. On modern digital equipment, the monitors no longer use overscan, and every line of the scan is often shown. The original intention was to have these extra lines as black, but manufactures of equipment often took shortcuts and they are just filled with noise.

On the course videos, these lines are readily apparent at the bottom of the screen. When they converted to DVD, they probably should have had the system replace the noise with black and then no one would notice. Instead, you have to learn how to ignore that noise. It’s not much. However, since it’s not black, it is noticeable.


The camera often switches to a closeup view of Bob’s hands while he is explaining something and if necessary, they will use an inset of the closeup while still showing Bob. Bob also obviously has a monitor that he is looking at and he can move around to give the best view of the closeup he wants. Using this method is almost as good as using computer animations to show the inner workings of the parts.

Multiple Views

To keep you from getting bored on long segments of talking, the videos will switch between two cameras. It’s a common technique in the video production world and works well. Sadly, the two cameras used in this method, on the original classroom videos, are not color matched. You may not notice this, if you don’t do any video editing. It was mildly irritating to me, but it doesn’t happen very much. The content was well worth it.

Provided Notes

AGI provides you with a set of notes complete with pictures on important aspects of the classroom lecture. Don’t depend on these notes for the tests though. While the information in them is useful, you won’t be able to just read the notes and then take the tests. You are going to have to watch the videos (sometimes more than once) to be able to pass these tests. The tests don’t try to trick you, but they are probably the closest I have seen to making sure you actually paid attention to the lecture from any others I have taken.


It’s pretty obvious to me that my initial anticipation of only 10 hours per week of classroom time is pretty optimistic. I’m still trying to stick to covering 10 hours of video. Yet, I often find myself rewinding a certain section or rewatching entire chapters again, either because I missed something or because I can see that there are critical ideas being talked about and I want a complete understanding of them.


It’s also readily apparent to me that you can’t just watch the videos. You must be working on the firearms. If nothing else, you need to disassemble and reassemble them just to help drive home the “design” and “function” aspects of the course. An FFL is going to be a necessary thing to gain access to firearms unless you have enough friends and family to keep you supplied well.


While the Browning Hi-Power won’t be covered until next week’s videos, all of my Colt 1911s were functioning fine. I disassembled and reassembled the Colts several times and then decided to tackle my Hi-Power, since they were so similar. I was dismayed at what I found though.

Dangerous Carry Condition

Bob spent a significant amount of time detailing how the sear/hammer system worked, especially when dealing with improving the trigger pulls. I was disturbed to find that the sear/hammer relationship in my own carry gun (a Browning Hi-Power in .40S&W) was wrong. The sear had a negative relationship. While the trigger pull was  about six pounds, it was creepy and had a tendency to creep forward. That makes it insecure if the gun receives any significant vibration. While I carry it with the safety on, I have occasionally found the safety swiped off by accident. It’s possible that the gun could discharge if the right conditions present itself with that negative sear relationship. That will be something that I have to address. That firearm is now temporarily retired until I fix it.

Barrel Conversion

That worked out though, because I have a Bar-Sto 9mm conversion barrel that I want to fit to the gun. I had already worked on the lockup and was comfortable, but the barrel didn’t quite fit. The slide had a tendency to stick open when it cycled, requiring the barrel to be bumped to allow it to return into battery. Bob covered fitting the barrel for lockup but not the problem I was experiencing. This gave me the opportunity to contact the AGI office and speak with Jack Landis on how to fix this problem. In about five minutes, he walked me through the process of finding out where it was binding up and how to correct it.

My Own Disaster

Using his directions, I located the area where the barrel was binding in the slide and then grabbed my Dremel with a sanding drum to lightly touch-up the area of concern. The Dremel spun up. I triple checked everything and touched the drum to the barrel and knew instantly that something was horribly wrong. It could be that the Dremel was bad, the mandrel was bent, or even that that particular sanding drum was incorrectly made, but in the first pass, I set a wonderful wave pattern into the barrel as the drum bounced all over the place. Argh!!!

After calming down, I got on Amazon and ordered a Foredom TX rotary flex shaft tool and a set of bits for it. That project will be shelved until the tooling comes in. That’s my tool for the month. I hadn’t intended on getting one yet, but it’s pretty obvious that I needed one. I could have just used files and probably done just fine, but I was going to eventually get one so why not now.

Resources and Tools

Aside from the Foredom rotary tool, I picked up a copy of R.D. Nye’s “45 Auto Custom Touches” from eBay. It appears to contain much of the same information that Bob covered with many accurate drawings showing the relationships between the parts that Bob talked about and with cutaway views. I think it’s going to be a pretty good complement, though Bob’s information was more comprehensive.

Gun Club Update

Last week I mentioned the Gun Club of America. This week I spent some time looking through more of thei Guntech videos and publications as well as took some time reading the forums. The early videos are 4:3 aspect converted from NTSC format, but the later videos are all HD formatted. That’s good to know that they have improved their productions. I’m sure as they update their course, we’ll see more HD stuff, but it will be really hard to replace the original videos of Bob. I’m willing to live with the limited resolution due to the content.

I should also note that in one of the Guntech videos I watched, Jack Landis mentioned that if you are a Gun Club of America member or a student of AGI, you can call the office and get a pretty good price on the Foredom tools. They buy them in bulk for their Enhanced Master Gunsmith Course.

Next Week

I’ll see you next week when I finish up the 1911 instruction and the Browning Hi-Power is covered along with double action automatics.

See Also:

The American Gunsmithing Institute (AGI) is a DVD/distance learning educational source that specializes in gunsmithing. They offer programs in professional and practical gunsmithing, welding, machine shop including instruction on the lathe, vertical mill and general machine shop. In addition to the complete gunsmithing course, they also offer informational DVDs on specific firearms and armor’s courses for some popular firearms. If you are interested in taking any of the courses or just learning about them, you can request information online or just call them at 1-800-997-9404.


  1. I’ve been building custom guns for 38 years now. A Dremel tool causes more trouble than it fixes. You need to learn how to use files and you’ll see far superior results.

    1. @Brooksy

      I already know how to use files. I could have easily done it that way, but I want to master power tools as well. I can still build cabinets with a handsaw and a hammer too, but I do like my table saw and pneumatic tools.

      1. Well I’m old school so take that into consideration. You’re an exception to the rule as know very few people who can file properly, common problem in todays mechanized machine world. I can do most jobs with a file quicker than you can even set up a milling machine to do the same job.
        When I used to teach the first thing I’d teach is how to sharpen tools and how to use a file properly.

        1. I can appreciate doing things by hand. I learned to file in a machining course I took as an elective in college. It’s been a very useful skill to have and maintain. Having a good sharp set of files and the skill to use them is indispensable to a shop.

    2. I have gunsmithed professionally since 1981 and the dremel tool is like any tool, you must learn how to use it correctly. That means picking the proper tool head and especially the rotation speed. Way too many folks are very impatient and heavy handed when using a dremel. Vast majority of the time you need a light touch. Other common mistake is not supporting both the work and the tool correctly resulting in chatter or bounce, hence the “waves”. I suspect your particular job should have been done with a “Cratex” abrasive, either bullet point or drum. It is very easy to control material removal without getting carried away. Depending on the grit (I use mostly the medium which is coded brown in color) you can whisk material away or polish to a high luster. The most used dremel tool head in my smithing is the “1” cut-off disk”. Make no mistake, you can screw up quick so it takes practice but does allow you to be extremely precise, even to the point of needing a magnifier lense to see precisely the material removal rate and angle. Files have their place also but the dremel does things quicker and with more options to work in areas you just don’t have room to move a file stroke. If you work for profit the dremel will definitely speed up work. P.S. Watch out for the sparks thrown off the cut-off wheels. Not only do you need safety eyewear using a dremel but don’t get so focused on the action that you ignore the spark stream and burn your shirt/shop apron like my assistant did….lol.

      1. **sigh** been there, done that, have the t-shirt with the hole in it for evidence. 🙁

        I just discovered the abrasive impregnated rubber bits. I love those things. It’s actually hard to do a bad job with those.

  2. R2: Thanks for these articles. I look forward to them, as they constitute pretty much a comprehensive review of AGI’s course. I have many of their videos (I generally get one whenever I acquire a new firearm, if available, to supplement the owner’s manual), and have found them to be pretty good.

    However, I’ve not taken the step of going full bore on their courses. Your experiences, as described in this series, may help me decide if this is right for me. Thanks again for putting in the time on this.

  3. Dremel = the devil’s tool ! 🙂

    Sounds like you’re being very generous with the “older material”. Probably not a big deal when you’re dealing with the 1911 except the quality of the video.

    Know it’s really early but have you got a sense of where you might be going with this ?

    The local gun shop owners can do minor stuff but seems like the real Smith’s specialize.

    1. @sirlancelot,

      While the quality of the video itself is dated, the information contained in the video is excellent. To me, it’s worth dealing with NTSC formatted video. Sure, you could reshoot, but would Bob be able to be the instructor? It would appear to me that a significant draw of this material is the knowledge that the instructor has and his ability to pass that knowledge on. I’ve not seen another gunsmithing instructor as good as Bob Dunlap.

      As to what direction I’m heading, I’m not sure right now. Bob seems to have obtained his vast store of knowledge by being a warranty repair smith for most of the major manufacturers. I don’t know that that is in my future. I would like to own my own gunsmith shop and be an all around excellent smith. Most of those around here are mediocre at best and I want to be better than that. As to specializing, I don’t know about that. I hear from people that you have to specialize to be successful, but that has not been my experience in business. About the only thing that I can’t get good at is something that I’m just not interested in.

  4. I specialized, Flintlock muzzleloading rifles and fowling guns. Have had a constant back log of orders of two to three years for over twenty years. I haven’t had to do a show in over 15 years. I quit taking orders two years ago and build only what pleases me now. So, specialization does work, you just have to be the BEST at what you do.
    I’d suggest one field that could use some good people is early Colt and Smith hand ejector revolvers, awful hard to find anybody who knows about these old guns and there’s lots of them out there. Heck, everybody works on AR 15’s etc., too much competition in an area like that.

    1. Going off of my experience in another one of my ventures… Specializing on what the market wants isn’t always a good thing to do. I did that and found all of the fun sucked right out of one of my businesses.

      I got into the business as a hobby, but the minute I ended up doing the drudge work that the clients wanted and didn’t have time to do what I wanted, it no longer became fun. I eventually shut that business down because I grew to hate it. Life’s too short to not enjoy what you’re doing in your career.

      Of course, it also depends on how hungry you are too.

      1. I see your point. I was ate up by flintlocks and had already been building them for 16 years before I ever went full time. I avoided drudge work altogether, never took any on, always had plenty of work on my plate so I didn’t have to take it on. Always refuse any kind of repairs or restoration as well. I like the creative end of the skill.

        What you eventually need to get to is to be “THE” man in a particular area that every body goes to. Eliminates all the drudge work.

        I only build what I want to these days. But I can only do that because I have put in 38 years worth of dues to get there.

  5. I might also mention I’m completely self taught. There wasn’t an internet or anything else back in those days. So, my advice may be somewhat slanted, what worked for me all these years may not work today.

    1. Pretty sure you got some experience and expertise [b]Brooksy[/b]. I got a buddy who’s trying to learn gunsmithing and having some hard time learning from other resources he found on the internet.

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