How to Become a Professional Gun Designer

The introductory clip was from my interview with Tony Neophytou, a talented and successful South African firearms designer (his work includes the Neostead 2000, Inkunzi PAW, and NTW-20 rifle). He doesn’t mince words; it’s a very difficult field to succeed in – and I regularly get inquiries from high school and college students asking how they can do what he has done.

My answer, in short, is that is you enjoy hands-on fabrication you should get an education as a machinist. If you don’t enjoy that work, you should pursue a career unrelated to guns and make them your hobby. I think that has a much better chance of leading you to happiness and success. For a more detailed written take on the question, I would refer you to my blog post on the subject.

 

19 Comments

  1. A very good talk about the reality of how to pick a career, bring young people down to earth to be realistic on what they should focus on in education to career choice. Not to make mistakes in picking a career they would end up hating ,or not being very good at.

  2. Living near the Browning Arms Museum and reading about John Moses Browning–and how he prospered–that’s enough for me to second Ian’s recommendations. Do something that will pay your bills and do guns as a hobby. Browning claimed that he was blessed to be in the right place at the right time with the right talents. Browning’s father was a gunsmith in the days before Colt and Winchester and Remington became big manufacturing concerns. Patent laws had teeth back then, but Browning grew up on the frontier and away from most of the lawyers. Even so, the big companies spent more on lawyers protecting their intellectual property than they did on R&D because if they hadn’t, then they lost their patent rights and in essence threw away those R&D expenses. Even the US government lost a firearms patent fight with Mauser over the M1903 Rifle. Visit the Browning Arms Museum on-line at:
    https://ogdencity.com/1333/John-M-Browning-Firearms-Museum

    Look at the large number of firearms Eugene Stoner designed. How many of them survive today? There’s the M16 family–wildly successful. There’s the AR-7 as built by Henry Repeating Arms. You might mention that the L85 family is based on Stoner designs. But look again–Stoner and ArmaLite sold the AR-15 to Colt because they ran out of money. The AR-7 wound up being manufactured by Charter Arms and then another company before eventually winding up with Henry Repeating Arms. See Ian’s posts on the L85 here on Forgotten Weapons. It’s almost as if everybody but Eugene Stoner wound up profiting from Stoner’s guns.

    I am an experienced military armorer–in the Army a unit armorer is a supply function and the general support armorers are often civilians (due to troop ceilings and expertise required for below depot overhaul). I fell into that through a back door. My support battalion in Fort Riley had to provide its own specialists from within due to how we deployed. I had joined Mensa while in Berlin because I kept getting accused of cheating when I passed Army tests–the Mensa card did keep me out of the stockade (cheating is serious business) but I seem to have wound up with a lot of school slots such as tracked vehicle driver (I became my battalion tracked vehicle driver instructor afterwards), the unit armorer course (I was on my battalion’s combat rifle team and did some small arms instruction in classroom environments and then served as a safety NCO on live-fire ranges), and took part in unit training with Air Defense Artillery and the scouts. I speculate now that my sergeant major was using me for bragging rights–because I was at the top of each course. These schools benefited my battalion because I could pass on what I learned to others, perform the service functions (breaking track is okay as long as it’s done in a garage and not in the freezing mud) and most of those skills I could use at my primary support job. I still use some of those–I volunteer at an Air Force museum once a week and my skill at aircraft recognition helps the gift shop because many of the items they stock come from overseas suppliers and the gift shop staff needs help identifying aircraft types. In the Army my “gunsmithing” was a part-time job. Out of the Army I volunteer at a public rifle range as a range safety officer. There’s not many paying jobs for gunsmiths–unless I set up my own shop, and then it’s a business.

    Do something that will pay your bills. Do something that will fund your passion. If you are in the right place at the right time with the right talents, you’ll become rich and famous. Or you’ll make someone else rich and you might become famous.

  3. good advice. i did the same with the “want to be a gun smith” but then i learned basically that is not teachable skill. about the only way to do that is to become a known competition shooter then start offering action jobs. which is a long road. some have done it like Mike Mink but it takes a lot of dedication and money. and it will not last forever. then back to square one.

  4. Based on my experience I can say – Ian is spot on. Indeed, there is a precipitous difference in doing something as a hobby and doing it as a profession. Believe me, I was in it too. And I was pretty good at it, even have some patents with my name on it. But, at the end – so what!

    When you do something as a hobby, you have completely enjoyable and unadulterated activity you are in control of and you can enjoy and build on, or use it something non-related.

    And you can chat about it on FW to benefit of all. Good luck!

  5. I was a Design Engineer for an ammo company for 30+ years and I dealt with my counterparts in the gun industry on a frequent basis. This is what I would recommend if you want to be a gun designer. Get a Bachelors degree in Mechanical Engineering and learn modern CAD programs. Having a great interest in firearms is great but a sound education in engineering is better. Your first design jobs will be assigned by senior people at the company and they will guide you to some degree. Everything easy has been designed so future designs will likely be more complicated and hence the need for CAD. Incorporating existing ideas into new designs is important so studying the designs of the past helps a lot. After getting your education get a job with any company that makes guns or OEM gun parts and get some experience. Having lots of successful projects in your past builds a reputation that can be sold to the company you really want to work for.

    • “Everything easy has been designed so future designs will likely be more complicated and hence the need for CAD.”

      True, but not only CAD; there is myriad of engineering tools, such as kinematics-analytical equipment based of photo-electronics, temperature variation sensing and avaluation, fluid analysis and so on.

      Also, as you may observe on current developments, direction is toward optimization with objective to squeeze maximum performance out of existing propellants combined with minimum weight of system. Difficult task indeed. If you manage to get that far, your ‘enthusiasm’ will gradually dissipate and it will become a “job”, just like any other.

  6. Mind you, it’s important folk try to at least understand; Explosive generated emp, nuclear pinch shells etc otherwise the Terminators will only have them.

    Yes those Sarah Conner told us about, weee!

  7. Well explained, Ian.
    I went through a long learning curve from age 14( learnt to shoot) to early 20s( startedcollecting Milsurps and SeriousGun books…in the meantime, did Medical School, practised 3years, changed to Food Manufacturing &Vinegar Brewingforcloseto 20years, Then Law School
    (JD) and Bar for 11 years.
    In all that time, taught myself “Gunsmithing” (fitting, turning,milling, etc) with the aid of books,
    MODEL engineering journals, esp. “The Model Engineer”
    (UK since 1898) and good choice of Machinery…and a Home Workshop.
    Also in 1989, got into Film Gun Supply ( incl. MGs).

    Now “retired” fromthe Law
    (2015…Heart valve and other issues), I have concentrated on my “gun business” (Obsolete Cartridge cases, projectiles-film gun hire and building MGs)
    But like they say in the film industry, “Don’t give up your day job”…in my case, a good retirement inheritance, and investments, and the business of “Guns” can self sustaining, at least.
    But it has been a long hard road…
    Doc AV
    PS, Ian, please contact me on info@avbtechservices.com.au for further info on some of your Forgotten Weapons videos…esp. Italian SemiAutos…”9-round strippers and Magazines”

  8. Dual use technology makes for strange weapon makers

    Two examples are TRW M14 rifles and Food Machine Company M113 armored personnel carriers

  9. A modern “arms designer” spends a lot of time on stuff such as, say, optimizing the shape of a locking lug to make the casting process of the bolt head more efficient.you got to like that kind of work, else find a different job.

  10. Historically, I think the answer is – become a dentist. An inordinate amount of old gun design seems to have been done by them.

  11. I brought the idea of shotgun silencers to France as agent for the uk hush power shotgun silencers. I only sold 2 and everybody told me there would be no interest from the public. This was in about 1990
    Well it took almost 30 years but 2 years ago the french government legalized silencers for hunting and look at the number of silenced shotguns for sale

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