Gunsmith Training, by R2

I recently began to wonder about retirement. I’m in my 50s, self-employed, and middle-class. My father worked for the same company for 45 years and retired on a comfortable pension, but I don’t see that happening to me. Unlike years past, there isn’t any real loyalty between employers and employees anymore and retiring after long years on the job is more of an exception than the rule now. To add to this concern, there is the reason I’m self-employed. I’ve never performed well under the thumb of a boss. However, I have been able to excel when working for myself. Not to knock the job, but flipping burgers or being a Walmart greeter just doesn’t suit me as I look forward in getting older.

No Faith in Social Security or Pension Plans

Given the economic precipice that we seem to sit on, I have no faith in social security or in any pension plans. I also don’t want to just sit back and relax after all these years of work. I may not be able to keep up the physical pace that I once did, but my mind is still sharp and I am still driven.

A Hobby to Pay Bills in Golden Years

My self employment has come about because I took hobbies that I held interest in and turned each of them from a mere hobby that paid for itself into one that actually paid the bills. Honestly, it’s time to do that again, this time planning for a hobby to pay the bills in my golden years.

Gunsmithing a Natural Choice

Gunsmithing was a natural choice for me. I enjoy working on firearms, and it doesn’t require heavy manual labor. As my body ages, I can still maintain an income. However, in order to take it from a mere hobby to a business, I had to step up my game. I needed more knowledge and skill as well as the ability to work on other people’s firearms. So how was I to go about that?

Choices in Learning Gunsmithing

There are basically three choices in learning gunsmithing:

  1. Apprentice with a gunsmith,
  2. Attend a gunsmithing school, like Colorado School of Trades or Trinidad Community College, or
  3. Online, distance, or DVD learning.

Apprenticing With a Gunsmith

Apprenticing with a gunsmith could work, but it also presents difficulties. I would like to learn from the best, and I am unaware of any really good gunsmiths in or near my location. Of those gunsmiths that I do know, I would only trust my firearm to a handful of them. I’ve seen some of the work that others produce around here, and I’m not interested in mediocrity. Of the remaining gunsmiths, commuting on a daily basis would be difficult, though not impossible.

Getting one of them to take me on as an apprentice is a different story. I’ve spoken with a few, and while they are more than happy to have free labor for menial tasks, they don’t really want to share their knowledge or the work. I’ve also spoken with a few people who hang around the gunsmiths over time, and none of them had gained any appreciable knowledge. The conclusion I’ve come to is that, for whatever reason, the local gunsmiths are not (or don’t want to be) teachers of their skills.

Attending a Gunsmithing School

Attending a gunsmithing school was out of the question. There is no gunsmithing school within a reasonable commuting distance of where I live. I’m already running two businesses that require my full time attention. I can’t just pick up and move my family to another location just to attend school. It’s a nice thought, but that was a choice that would have been valid years ago before I had the responsibility of a family and a business.

Online, Distance, or DVD Learning

What is left is online, distance, or DVD learning. I spent some time researching the various options and was quite surprised at the number of schools that offered some form of online or distance learning. But after reading reviews, recommendations, and details of each program, one stood out above the others. American Gunsmithing Institute (AGI) had the most complete system and appeared to be the most respected. What initially drew my attention to them was their DVD’s, which they sell through Midway and Brownell’s. While there were many who questioned the value of an online gunsmithing course, those DVDs seemed to be respected by all as a means to quickly gain knowledge about a specific firearm.

I made my choice. AGI it is then. As a bonus, they are also one of the sponsors of SurvivalBlog’s Non-Fiction Writing Contest.

Addressing Some of the Negative Aspects of DVD Learning

Before I go into the program I chose, I’d like to address some of the negative aspects of DVD learning that I found online. There were many threads spread throughout many different forums on the Internet that discussed AGI. I’ve collected some of the concepts that I saw reoccurring with people and then addressed each of those:

  1. You can’t learn gunsmithing from a DVD.I would both agree and disagree with this statement. I’ve sat through classes in colleges and universities, both good and bad. If you start with a class from a professor who doesn’t care about his program or his teaching lessons, there isn’t much you’re going to get out of it. If you sit in a class that has a a knowledgeable teacher who cares about passing on the learning to you, you can get a lot from the class. But in the end, what you get out of the class is directly related to how much effort you’re willing to put into it. That goes from the selection of the class itself to the gleaning of information presented in the class. You have to be motivated to pursue skill and knowledge.In that respect, I would disagree with the poster’s statements that you can’t learn from a DVD. In reality, there is very little difference in watching a DVD and sitting through a lecture. As an aside, I noted that in the sample DVDs, there was considerable close-up imaging of firearms and the working parts of them, including cutaway views of the insides. While not impossible to do with projector technology, I’ve yet to sit in a lecture that would allow you to see that level of detail, let alone rewind the lecture and watch it as many times as you need. In that respect, I disagree with the poster. DVD learning is valid and in many cases superior to the standard lecture.On the other hand, gunsmithing requires hands-on skills to let that knowledge sink in and become second nature. However, this is no different than an actual school. Often lectures have labs associated with them. Both are required to glean the knowledge. So how do you get the lab (hands-on) experience from a DVD course? AGI actually has several answers to that question. You probably own several firearms. You probably have friends and family who own firearms and who will let you work on them, even if it’s just dis-assembly, cleaning, and assembly.In addition AGI presents several methods that you can use to gain access to other firearms, though they require you to obtain your own FFL. Again, you glean information comparable to the effort you put into it. If you just attend the lectures, you will miss out. You have to be motivated to acquire and work on firearms, as there is no instructor to just hand you one to work on. If you are motivated, it can be done.
  2. No one will hire you with a certificate from AGI.I would agree with this statement completely. If someone is hiring you because you walked in and plopped down a certificate from any gunsmithing school, I would wonder about the quality of work that they performed. The certificate is for your ego. What matters is the skill. You shouldn’t be hired until you can demonstrate skill and/or proficiency in the task, unless your are being hired as an apprentice. That applies to regular schools as well as online schools. Diplomas are by and large meaningless, unless you have the skill to go with it. If you are applying for a job, you better be willing to demonstrate those skills.
  3. You have to attend a real school.I disagree with this statement completely as well. I’ve homeschooled my children, and I would put them up against a public schooled child any day. The days of the education monopoly of brick and mortar schools are ending, and online/distance learning is the future. If you don’t believe that, ask these same brick and mortar schools why they are all offering distance learning as part of their program. If they are not, they’ve missed the boat.
  4. You can’t make money at gunsmithing unless you work for someone else. If you try, you spend too much time running a business and not enough time working on guns.There may be some truth to this statement, depending upon your concept of gunsmithing. If you plan on working for someone else, I don’t see a problem here. If you are planning on running your own business, you do have to be a business-man. But that goes for any self-employment. Self-employment is not for everyone. When you work for someone else, you generally put in your 40 hours and then go home. When you work for yourself, it’s a whole different ball game. I’ve never worked as hard for anyone as I have for myself, but I enjoy what I do and I get the flexibility that I need. Some weeks I work 40 hours, but 60 to 80 hours are more normal. It depends on your personality though.My father tells me that he needs the stability and structure of steady employment. I thrive on the ups and downs and challenges of self-employment. It just depends on how motivated you are and what you enjoy. I couldn’t stand to be trapped in a job working for someone else. The business aspects are not that difficult. You just have to do them and be aware that there are consequences if you don’t. As a business owner, you wear many hats: that of an accountant, salesman, janitor, security, bouncer, and many more. If you don’t like that, don’t start your own business.

Objectives I’m Hoping To Accomplish

I have some objectives I’m hoping to accomplish by learning gunsmithing. I want to:

  • Learn a useful trade that I can continue to perform in my golden years,
  • Be able to support the lifestyle that I am accustomed to,
  • Be self-employed, and
  • Share my experiences with those who wish to know.

A Weekly Column

I’m going to write a weekly column as I go through this program, letting the readers know how all the aspects of program work for me. I will monitor the comments on the blog as I write these articles and answer any questions you might have as best I can. I promise to be honest and frank about my experiences.

Let’s use this as an experiment in distance learning and specifically how AGI works. They have quite a few online programs and are developing more in other trades.

Index:

  1. Unboxing and Familiarization, by R2
  2. Starting the Class, by R2
  3. Pistolsmithing – the 1911, by R2
  4. Pistolsmithing – The Browning Hi-Power and other semi-autos, by R2



29 Comments

  1. Good for you R2. I also have a diverse skill set, electrical, mechanical, etc. I too am in my 50’s and basically hold on to my current position in multicraft maintenance for the excellent healthcare benefits should the wife or I ever need them. I have been thinking of embarking on exactly the same path you have chosen. I will be looking for your future posts on this topic. Press on sir and do well.

  2. I build guns for a living, have done so since ’96 full time. Started as a hobby in ’80. I’m very specialized, only building high quality flintlocks. I have never lacked for work, generally being 2 to 3 years behind. I had a gun in Mel Gibson’s movie ‘The patriot” and PBS came out and did a show on me featured in their “Craftsman’s legacy” series a couple years ago. I’m self taught, learning my trade the hard way from ’80-’96. That was way before the internet, I handled a lot of old guns, read what I could find and just figured it all out. I taught gunbuilding classes at Conner Prairie in Fishers Indiana for a 1/2 dozen years or so.
    Now I’m 61 years old and falling apart. This is not an easy business on the body. Had shoulder surgery last year and have to do the other one late this fall. I’ve got bad arthritis in both my thumb joints and tendonitis in both wrists and forearms. My back is always killing me due to the hours I spend at the bench and I don’t work anywhere near 40 hrs a week.
    So, there are drawbacks to your chosen new profession. If you’re in good shape you’ll be alright. Also, all the modern smiths I know in this area have all the work they want. I’m not sure you need to be “certified”, if you know what you’re doing you’ll have a great customer base.
    You might keep in mind the BATF is going to insist you have an FFL to do modern gun work. That’s why I don’t touch any modern guns for any reason, I don’t want those guys breathing down my neck.
    My final word…..GO FOR IT!

  3. Excellent ideas and it’s good that you are planning ahead. I think too many people of all ages fail to make goals for their life and into retirement. My husband was one of the rare ones that stayed with a company for many years then retired at age 55 with a pension. This took planning and sacrifice as we started our family. When he was hired and we found out the company had this great retirement benefit we just had one child on the way. We have 3 grown children and 3 grandchildren now. My husband has been retired for 8 years and I retired almost 2 years ago.

    One thing that you said kind of struck me the wrong way and we often get a similar response from others that find out we are retired. ” I also don’t want to just sit back and relax after all these years of work. ” Well, we seldom if ever get to sit back and relax. We have so much going on. We thought about and planned our retirement from working for others to doing what we want. Our property and home, cars everything is paid off. We live on a small pension plus now my husband collects SS. It isn’t much but we live and have practiced frugality for many years. Sometimes I wish we still had jobs and could come home and kick back on a week end and do nothing. Ha! We have a small farm and raise our own beef, lamb, chicken and eggs. We have a garden. My husband has built fences and cut trees and we have made improvements with a pond and pastures.

    In addition we keep our granddaughter during the summer during the week (she stays with us Sunday night through Friday afternoon) so her parents can save their money for Christian school tuition for her instead of spending it on daycare.

    I think, and I’m not saying you in particular because you have made plans, people that think retirement is sitting around all day lack creativity and imagination. Now that we are retired we plan how we want to spend OUR time. Our favorite “relaxing” activity is traveling to new places we are still frugal so we camp. The further away from hubs of “civilization” the better. Last August, after school started, we camped in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and points along the way from our home in Georgia. We can’t wait to do that again. I wish I could sleep in past 5:30 but the chickens and dogs get up at the crack of dawn and so my day begins.

    I thank you for your article and hope that those that read it will begin planning today for retirement or TEOTWAWKI or disasters with skill sets they can use. But don’t get so caught up in the future that you don’t live in the present. Balance is everything.

  4. As this series progresses I would be interested to find out about the liability and legal issues associated with this trade. One commenter above already said an FFL was required for work on modern guns. What other things are involved regarding insurance, bonds, licensing, etc?

    1. This is a question that is applicable to all business owners – not just gunsmiths. Having been down this road I believe that most problems can be avoided by doing your best work all the time. Like I said, I detest mediocrity. I’ve also learned that you don’t have to say “yes” to every customer and that the customer is NOT always right. Sometimes it’s just better to walk away from a job before you take it.

      Every customer I’ve ever had problems with had plenty of warning signs. At the time, I felt that I just couldn’t say “no” because I needed the money. Nearly ever time I wished I had said no before the deal was finished. If your spider sense is tingling, just say no. You don’t even have to give a reason for saying no. I always keep a list of competitors with me and I’m more than happy to refer those people to someone else.

      An unhappy customer will cost you far more than simply referring them somewhere else will.

  5. Thanks for an excellent article.

    With regards to DVD learning, I must say that it would be identical to YouTube video learning. I used to find working on cars from the 60’s – 80’s to be intuitive. Not so today. YouTube videos of repairing specific issues for my makes and models have proven to be fantastic for me. Occasionally they provide more detail than I need, but I certainly can’t fault them for too much information – the next guy might need it.

    One caveat is the outlay for tooling and instruction for same. Our high schools for the most part don’t teach shop anymore. What an incredible shame. Metalworking skill requires hands-on experience. Operating a screwdriver is not the same as running a lathe. Another is the fact that not everyone possesses mechanical aptitude. For the most part though, I suspect those reading this and contemplating it know their own ability.

    Good luck!

    1. I have a small lathe and milling machine that will be perfect for this sort of work, but I really think that AGI is right about starting out. For most work a small hammer, good set of punches and a good set of hand files and a set of screwdrivers is all that is needed.

      I started machining things without the lathe and mill. Even a fairly large project was accomplished with nothing more than a good hacksaw, files and an angle grinder for lots of metal removal. It just took a long time to do that.

      I’ve worked on friends guns for a number of years and every problem they’ve brought me (except for one that needed to be re-barreled) could be done with hand tools.

  6. Spent over a year researching before choosing same school and have started the courses for the same reason. Retiring not backing up and sitting down. Will be interesting to follow your progress and opinions.

  7. It’s a great idea to turn your hobby into income! Very entrepreneurial, and historically sound. And especially for those living in a rural area, it’s helpful to be creative about finances.

    Another source of income which can work in rural areas is locksmith. When I had the locks changed at my new residence, I paid around $150 and I don’t think he worked more than 2 hours. He’s the only locksmith for 60 miles so I didn’t have a lot of choice. If you could get referrals from local real estate agents who have just sold properties to out of town clients, this might make a great supplemental income. I don’t know how many clients he has, but if you just need to supplement, this could be a relatively easy thing to learn and gear up for. He also offered security technology (cameras, driveway alarm, etc.) while he was here.

    Another thing I wish we had around here is someone who will list and sell your items on Ebay. I am not interested in going through the whole process of taking the pictures, uploading the sale, answering buyer questions, closing out the sale, and shipping the item sold, but it could be a handy sideline for a suitable retiree or someone who has the time and know-how. I brought a lot of things to the Redoubt that I don’t need and wouldn’t mind selling, and would willingly pay a 30% fee to do so.

  8. “What other things are involved regarding insurance, bonds, licensing, etc?”

    You can’t afford insurance if you’re a one man operation in gunsmithing. The premiums per year are more than you can earn. Your best bet is to form an LLC. (Limited Liability Corporation in lawyer speak)

  9. “Retirement, just like adolescence, is another false construct of the 20th century. Nobody did nothing after a certain age in any civilization, any era, anywhere. It’s Utopian hogwash.

    I like your plan. Good on you. And the best thing that you’ve mentioned here is that you don’t trust the mediocre Smitty’s in your area. This is excellent news. An area in need of a high end guy means more money for the one who arrives first and builds trust.

    I have an idea. We live in a network society (we always have, the smarty pants’ just think this is new). Go to the folks with the largest gun collections in your area and talk to them. Find out what they want/need. But mostly just lay out your plan. Don’t be proud or shy about it. People, real people one on one, want to help. Don’t ask them to do anything for you. Find the one or two with a heart of gold. Somebody is just waiting to help. Offer to work on the first one free, network. It’s about building relationships and high quality references.

    Your plan is better than mine. I’m still praying and working through examining my options. I’m excited for you in the next chapter of your endeavors. I’m even a little inspired. Excellent. Thanks.

  10. I to am in some what of the same boat and have gone through many of the ups and downs of looking at which path to go when it comes to gun smithing. I decided to go with AGI also, and got my first videos through Brownell’s I intend to learn and learn some more and learn by doing. It’s great, very exciting. Started doing 80% firearms. Very awsome! Good Luck and Gods Speed. Do not quit!!!!

    1. Hi Y’all..my hat off to everyone..with all the positive and encouraging comments..Need to say Thank y’all..Seems we all have thought very respectfully and in depth about our financial independence in our retirement..making ourselves more productive and less dependent..keeps everyone young..
      Wishing all the best to everyone..I have been blessed personally..
      Tex

  11. I concur with the view that many “journeymen” trades people don’t really like to share their knowledge. I went through a UAW electrical apprenticeship many years ago, electrician for 38 years. There are way too many folks who like to keep their knowledge to themselves. They fear they won’t be as needed if too many people have their knowledge. I found these types to be really good at only one aspect of their craft, but otherwise mediocre. As a journeyman, I found that by sharing my knowledge with others I also gained knowledge from them. By engaging in conversation and listening I would gain a different perspective on whatever problem we were working on. By sharing I might learn to see things from another persons perspective, see a different way of doing things that I hadn’t thought of. Two heads sometimes are better than one.

    Being the experienced craftsman, my way most often turned out to be the best way to do things. But as an experienced craftsman, I have to be willing to learn from others. That is what kept me valued in my craft and necessary to my company.

  12. I’m 74, and I was forced out of my career in engineering design by a layoff. I have worked on personal firearms throughout my adult life, plus a couple of friends pieces. So I am currently using an on line course to learn gunsmithing. I’m about halfway through it, started setting up shop in spare building, and planning on hand tool, grinder, drill press to start. Planning on purchasing AGI courses next, also from Midway, Brownells. This is helping keep old grey matter exercised. Don’t like to sit around. My advice is to go for it! Follow those dreams and try to mentor and bring along a younger person and pass on the torch! God Bless!

  13. I am a female gunsmith. I did an online school. My schooling was through Penn Foster. It was a work at your own pace school. There was a lot of reading and some videos. I have been working for myself now for 3 years. Its great.

  14. I turn 50 next month, have had the exact same thoughts about starting the AGI courses. Look forward to your posts. Please include costs for the course/s you select. Thank you for doing this!

  15. I don’t think their is as much money in it as you might think unless you are building very fine firearms. I would say to look for an armorers course which is cheap. Learn to troubleshoot things like ARs, Rem 870s, glocks , sig Sauer, etc. Most guns now are consumable items, if you manage to wear one out or break something the parts are quite modular to replace. They don’t require a full fledged gunsmith in my opinion.

    1. Then someone walks in with grandpa’s old S&W 916 that they took apart and lost a ‘couple things’ for. Better have those hand tools (with the knowledge to use em) on hand.
      There’s a vast difference between a ‘smith’ and a ‘parts replacer’!
      A smith can make parts (without electricity)

      1. Funny, that is the exact same situation that AGI talks about. Much of gunsmithing today is simply parts swapping, even at the manufacturer level. Many wasted hours and materials by not understanding how the firearm works and the proper way to fix it. They just swap parts till the problem goes away. It sounds kind of like the automotive industry. AGI seems to stress understanding the design and function of the firearm in order to fix it.

  16. I feel that you are spot-on with the motivational aspect!!! If you want something bad enough you can achieve it.. Being an auto mechanic for my entire adult life i didnt have much experience with a hammer or a saw. But i longed to be off the grid and self sufficient.. So I youtubed till the wee hours of the morning and self studied myself silly. And I built my own solar powered and rainwater harvested Cabin on rural property!!! Because I wanted it!!!! I didnt pay for an expensive school. I willed myself to learn a new skill and excelled at it. You, sir, will do wonderfully in your endeavor and I look forward to reading your future updates!
    -Piney

  17. I just started AGI’s Master Course. Love it! Have to say I was skeptical at first but we just started on the 1911 and there is so much information on that gun alone it is amazing. You definitely will not have a lack of info. Which is great. Great angles and supplemental text books are great is well. I started a couple months ago and love it. I plan on taking a two year program at the local community college for skills as for as welding milling and the lathe go. I mean that is my only option because I can’t move to Pittsburgh or Denver. So I’ll get out of it what I put into it. Can’t wait to read your column in the future.

  18. hi folks…my dad was an armorer in WWII and he taught all his boys how to do your own work…he always went to gun shows and pawn shops to ‘buy old junk guns’ then he would repair and rebuild them into a tight safe weapons…he sold many rebuilds and made a good second living from his craftsmanship… while I can ‘do’ the craft, and I work on my and our family guns, I chose to go into electronics and medical work… I retired and got certified in medical message…this is a good compliment to our homesteading lifestyle…fruit trees, berry bushes, vegetable gardens, herbal medicine, chix and rabbits.. and MASSAGE… I have known 85 and 90 year old therapist who worked at their pace until they died…good luck in the gunsmithing trade…from another retired old head

  19. Thank You to all of you for your thoughts and insightful observations.
    I am 81 and not ready to sit it out. One of the most heartening things that I ever heard was from a Rabbi on tv sharing that there is no such word as “retire”, in the Bible. So that means God still has plans for me, to prosper me and not to harm me.
    Blessings to all.
    BullDawg

  20. I also wanted to start a gunsmithing business. Looked into the options for education and AGI was the only one that made sense too me. Thank God for AGI, although I have had work experience and education in Machining & welding, which is a must for the full time gunsmith, I have been a tinker my whole life that’s why I chose gunsmithing as a career. Also my state & the ATF require no experience at all to gunsmith I would not recommend it, get the training. I am in my mid 50s and have many health problems so having a shop in my back yard is also a plus. I have built a respectable company by hard work, trust, and keeping my word. I do not advertise and haven’t for 9 years now with the exception of business cards. I have most of the large sporting goods shops around here as referrals, they send my their customers which is a God send, and doesn’t happen over night, u must do quality work. You are not going to please everyone but your work must b quality & equal to factory repairs. I pray God will give me many more years smithing but what ever happens I have no regrets. It has sustained my family now for years, I stay busy year round, no break in sight. Hope this helps someone. But u can’t go wrong with AGI. I once hired a guy that went to School at Colorado school of trade and was the worst Smith I ever had. Although I’ve heard the school in OK is good I’ve had no one work for me who went there so I can not commit on that one. Thanks Hope’s this helps a bit. MIKE D

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