Going to School for Gunsmithing - My Experience

Gunsmithing is a field with a lot of mystique and perhaps even more fantasy. In recent years of increasing gun fervor, it’s no surprise that many people are considering going to work in the field to indulge their passion for craftsmanship and firearms. I was one of those people who decided to make it my craft and career, and I began attending Piedmont Technical College in 2015.

For those who are considering taking this path themselves, or even just curious about those who choose to do so, I thought I would share some of my experience in school and the things I took away from it.

I graduated from Piedmont Technical College’s School of Classical Gunsmithing with an Associate’s Degree in General Technology with a Machine Tool Technology concentration and two technical certificates in gunsmithing. Many of the articles and videos I have shared come from experiments and projects I did in school. In addition, I made many great contacts (both teachers and students). One such person is Chris Wooldridge of Swamp Fox Custom Rifle Works, who has been a regular contributor to this website. 

 My happy self at graduation. 

My happy self at graduation. 

The Curriculum

The school that I attended was set up to offer 4 semesters of gunsmithing courses to receive technical certificates in gunsmithing, which also counted towards credits for an associate's degree if combined with general education and an area of specialization - machining, gunsmithing, or welding. I took the latter path and studied my general education and machine tool classes before starting the gunsmithing program. I believe this paid off well for me and I highly recommend studying general machine skills (manual or CNC). 

The gunsmithing classes took 4 semesters, each with an overall focus. The first semester covered familiarization with hand tools, safety with tools and firearms, and basic function of firearms. Much of the first semester seemed somewhat arduous or redundant, as the main focus was creating tools and projects from metal with the simplest tools possible - often shaping significant pieces of metal with grinders and hand files. Although it was frustrating at the time, I have found hand tool use to be a significant part of every job that I have had since, and something as simple as using a file takes more finesse and skill than may be appreciated. First semester is also where we were given a rough rifle barrel, filled with pits and scratches, and learned to polish it to a bright, clean finish before we used it as our first hot bluing project. This semester was to set the foundation for much of what we would be doing as gunsmiths in the real world, restoring neglected guns. 

 The abused barrel I received, after a hand polish and re-blue. 

The abused barrel I received, after a hand polish and re-blue. 

Another big part of the first semester was a business section. This included instruction on calculating costs and prices, securing funding, marketing, and legal considerations for opening your own business. There is a lot of help in planning for those who plan to go straight from school to open their own gunsmithing business.

 Turning some brass for a welding support fixture in the lathe. 

Turning some brass for a welding support fixture in the lathe. 

Second Semester was an introduction to gunsmith machining and welding. For many of us, this was the first exposure to running the lathe, milling machine, and surface grinder. We started out learning the basics; turning parts to diameter, cutting slots, turning threads on a lathe. We practiced this by making tools such as tap guides and firing pin gauges, eventually moving to a couple of barrel stubs to learn to chamber and thread a barrel. At the end of the semester, we fitted barrel blanks from ER Shaw to our Montana Rifle Co. Model 1999 actions which were to be our class final project. I must say now that training in machining was an absolutely critical component to my learning to be a gunsmith and my immediate readiness for a career. It was well worth the additional machining classes and I highly encourage any aspiring gunsmith to take machine tool classes even if gunsmithing classes aren’t available to them.

 Learning to closely fit a stock to an action. Slow and frustrating work for a beginner but very rewarding and made possible by expert guidance.

Learning to closely fit a stock to an action. Slow and frustrating work for a beginner but very rewarding and made possible by expert guidance.

The third semester was stockmaking instruction and exercise. We covered all sorts of wood-working leading up to inletting and shaping a walnut stock for our project rifles from a blank. These arrived partially shaped and opened up for the action, leaving many hours of hand work left to properly inlet the stock to accept the action and barrel and to shape it to a fine rifle stock. Whole days were spent in the process of finely scraping away bits of wood, turning into weeks before it was done. We learned how to bed the action to the stock, install a custom ebony forend tip, and shape a rifle stock to classical lines. We also learned how to sand the stock and apply a hand-rubbed oil and polyurethane finish. After installation of the recoil pad and pistol grip cap, we hand polished the actions and did a hot blue finish on the metal parts. At this point, we also had the opportunity to do some small personalizing touches on our rifles, such as nitre bluing small parts or installing a scope or iron sights. The school estimates that a rifle completed through this program would be valued between $3,000 and $5,000 market price.

The final semester, design and function, required students to complete a certain number of services on class firearms. These could include anything from a detail strip and cleaning to full custom services, repairs, and modifications. Along with these repairs was a requirement to perform full safety checks and keep extensive paperwork documenting safety, services performed, and estimated cost. All of this was intended to prepare students for the experience of working for themselves. It was this semester that allowed the freedom to experiment with guns brought from home.

My Experience 

 Some professional work I did after graduating. Crowning, turning down and threading a barrel to install a Surefire muzzle device. This service is built on the fundamentals of gunsmith machining. 

Some professional work I did after graduating. Crowning, turning down and threading a barrel to install a Surefire muzzle device. This service is built on the fundamentals of gunsmith machining. 

My school experience was a formative one for me, for a lot of reasons. It was my first time living on my own, learning to balance school and full time work, learning a manual trade for the first time, and finding a group of like-minded people who shared a niche passion and came from all over the US to learn to exercise it.  

With all of the options out there today, I'm glad I chose a brick-and-mortar school over an online correspondence course and I'm glad I did it at a very affordable public college where my tuition repayments are very manageable.  

I should note for transparency purposes that I'm not currently employed as a gunsmith, but I have worked as a professional gunsmith for two different companies after graduation and I'm currently working as an aerospace machinist directly using the skills that I developed during my two-year program.  

Everything in life is a trade-off, and it's likely that some people reading this article are at least considering the notion of doing it for themselves. With that said, I'll lay out some of the good and not so good that I experienced. 

The Good: 

 A fixture I machined (with advice from my instructors) to support the thin parts of the CZ75 frame during color case hardening. 

A fixture I machined (with advice from my instructors) to support the thin parts of the CZ75 frame during color case hardening. 

  • Professional hands-on learning with experienced overlooking your process and offering advice or instruction. Not only is hands-on experience with large equipment (lathe and milling machines, bluing tanks, etc.) absolutely essential to properly learning how to use them, it is hard to diagnose and self-correct issues if you don't know what you're doing wrong or even what you're supposed to be doing to begin with! 
  • Freedom to experiment on almost any safe, legal project with qualified guidance. Gunsmithing inherently involves a certain amount of risk. In particular, jobs such as trigger jobs and re-chambering can cause potentially lethal hazards if done ignorantly or without care. Working under gunsmith instructors, a student can still experiment with these procedures while working with safe boundaries that they simply might not be aware of if attempting to develop skills on their own. 
  • Having graduated from a legitimate, in-person gunsmith school makes a person part of a very small group, which can very well stand out on a resume and be your entry into conversations for career advancement (whether you're hoping to work for another professional or start your own practice). 
  • The people you meet while studying your gunsmithing passion will be a class of people unlike any other. They will be all ages, from fresh out of high school to years retired, and may have different interests in specific areas of work; but with the small number of gunsmithing programs across the US and the limited class sizes, everybody who is there really wants to be and many have had to make significant life changes to move across the US and be there. They will be very committed to their craft, and will help you start a network of connections the value of which will be inestimable in your future career - or maybe I'm just biased and had a great group experience. 
  • You will develop skills of a true gunsmith, done "the right way." Of all the gunsmith shops around the U.S., there are a number of gunsmiths who cannot take on advanced gunsmithing jobs - such as high polish bluing, precision re-barreling, hand-polished trigger jobs, or custom stock fitting. Perhaps even scarier are those who will take these jobs without the full field of knowledge to do them the way they should be done. Having demonstrated these skills in practice and learned the right way to do them, you will be able to offer a level of work right out of school that many local gunsmith shops can not offer.  

    My experience was great, but it should be tempered with a number of possible negatives. Going to college is a big commitment for any reason, but very few people will find they have a proper gunsmithing program local to them and many will have to make significant sacrifices to attend such a school. Some things to consider: 
     
  • True gunsmithing jobs are rare to find with an established business, and those offered with big retail chains are known to be low-paying. If you are hoping to find a job under somebody else's employ, I highly suggest you be prepared to relocate (the more flexible you are geographically, the better). You will have to do a lot of leg-work to find a shop that does the type of work you want to do, is looking to hire somebody (many are one-man operations), and are willing to hire a new graduate with potentially little to no work experience in the field. I have done it (and I believe it probably would not have been possible without the college experience) but I had to re-locate both times. 
  • Two years is (in my opinion) not enough to be a full-fledged gunsmith. I don't believe this is the fault of a program. Gunsmithing history and tradition goes back hundreds of years, with several steps of rapidly evolving technology. I do not believe there is any way possible to cover all of this ground and become a knowledgeable expert in such a wide variety of skills. I do believe your chances are much better if you focus on a specialty - such as metal refinishing, stock making, barrel fitting etc. However, as a general rule I would tell somebody to view graduating from a gunsmithing college to be the beginning of their education - not the end.  
  • Gunsmithing schools are very classically-oriented and seem reluctant to teach more modern gunsmithing. I don't believe this is a symptom of the program I attended, but of gunsmithing curricula in general. Classical fine gunsmithing is a dying art and there is demand for it, but I believe there is a huge field of modern gunsmithing work to be taught. Fiberglass stocks, aluminum chassis, CNC slide cuts etc. are a huge part of the modern gunsmithing market but were very much a rarity (or altogether absent) in school. Be prepared to be self-driven and motivated in applying what you learn to more modern equipment and accessories if this is the route you want to go. I found my instructors very willing to help with these projects which I invested in myself outside of the standard curriculum. 
 Working on re-stocking a Springfield 1903A3 with a semi-inlet walnut stock. 

Working on re-stocking a Springfield 1903A3 with a semi-inlet walnut stock. 

My Recommendations 

Gunsmithing - especially "real" gunsmithing with hand-fitted and modified parts - is in some way becoming a romantic trade of a bygone era. That's not to say that there aren't opportunities in it, or that there aren't companies constantly pushing innovation in the field. It is to say that the field is changing and what we think of classically as gunsmithing is sometimes forgotten - until someone needs a capable gunsmith.  

To pursue gunsmithing as a career, especially a lifelong career, is something that few would choose and fewer would be able to make good on. Reflecting this, there are only a few in-person educational programs for gunsmithing and attending one of them can typically be a significant investment.  

For the person who wants to be a gunsmith and is considering attending a trade school, I would cautiously recommend it for somebody who has a rough idea of what they hope to get out of the experience and a very strong personal drive to learn and to succeed. I would not recommend it as a fall-back trade because making a decent living is not a given in the field and there are many other fields where you'll have an easier time of it if your main objective is just to have a trade. 

For the person who knows what they want to do and is not going to let anybody stop them, who has the confidence to decide that they can be successful at their passion and the humility to learn from those who have done it the right way before, going to a trade school and studying gunsmithing is a unique and awesome experience. Those who do it and graduate are part of a very small and specialized group of people, and will always hold a special respect for their fellow tradesmen. 

Maybe you're one of these people, but you just don't have the ability to get up and move to attend a school for any one of a number of valid reasons. In that case, while you may lose out on some specialized instruction, I have some recommendations to help fill the gaps: 

  • Take classes at your local community college. Machining, tool and die making, precision measurement, metalworking and welding are all principal schools for gunsmithing. Although you probably won't be able to work on gun projects in class (at least receivers) you will benefit greatly from learning to run the lathe, milling machine, and surface grinder, as well as to measure precisely-fitting parts and how they function with each other. If you're interested in more modern work such as CNC slide cutting, try to add some classes in CNC machining, CAD, and CNC programming.  
  • Think very heavily before taking online or correspondence courses. I am heavily skeptical of these as means to teach gunsmithing and this view is shared in much of the industry (I have heard many professionals put down graduates of these programs). I don't believe they are useful at all on their own; supplemented with machine tool training and hands-on practice, they may contain value but tend to represent a significant investment. 
  • Read, read, read all the time. Collect books and other information resources. Although many gunsmithing instruction books are older (some close to 100 years old) they often contain still valuable and relevant information. With the right tools and a general set of skills, careful reference from good material can help to complete many jobs that a person may not have seen or attempted before. Sometimes one little, seemingly insignificant trick is all that is needed to take a frustrating nightmare job and turn it into a simple, routine exercise. It's for this reason I recommend building a library and never passing up a chance at good reference material. You never know what little piece of information is hiding somewhere that could be the last piece to a puzzle.  

Although I believe strongly in what I've written here, it's all just one man's opinion. Regardless, I hope it sheds some light on the process and maybe answers a few questions for people who are considering the same for themselves. 

Want to see some projects that came out of my gunsmithing school? Check out my .30-06 that every student built to graduate, or my classmate's custom Winchester Model 70 in .35 Whelen