How to Become a Professional Gun Nerd

Cei-Rigotti actionI get an email every so often from a young person in high school or college who is interested in firearms, and wants to know what I would recommend for getting into the industry. I’ve have gotten this question enough that I figured it deserved a public reply. The following reflects my own experience, and nothing more – if you are a person who has made a career in the firearms industry and would be willing to share your thoughts in the comments below, I would appreciate it! More perspectives would make this a more valuable read for the aspiring gun aficionado…

Now, most often when someone asks me this, they say that they are looking to build guns for a living. This immediately brings to mind my own abortive pursuit of a career building interesting aircraft. That’s what I wanted to do when I graduated from high school – I was fascinated with aeronautics and wanted to be a guy who built airplanes (or spacecraft). I applied to several very respectable universities based on the reputation of their Aeronautical & Astronomical Engineering schools, and I was accepted by Purdue. It took me two full years of undergrad classes to realize and accept that in today’s industry, there are not “people who build airplanes”. Commercial aircraft are designed by teams of engineers, and the actual work is basically just math, not a 17-year-old’s vision of sketching something out and then heading down to the shop floor to fabricate it. This was really solidified for me when a roommate friend got a job upon graduating (he was a couple years ahead of me) working for NASA via a major aerospace company. He was part of a multi-dozen person team redesigning the steering gear on the Space Shuttle nose wheel. That was not what my job fantasy entailed.

Now, there are a few placed where a young aeronautic engineer might be able to actually “build awesome things”. Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites is one of them, The Vintage Aviator is another, and I’m sure some of the new private spaceflight startups would be amazing places to work. But I decided that my chances of getting a job with one of those places were vanishingly small, and so I bailed out of the Aeronautical Engineering program (so to speak). I transferred into the School of Mechanical Engineering Technology, which was the most hands-on thing I could find – it was basically a degree halfway between being and engineer and being a machinist. I then proceeded to never actually use my degree directly – but that’s neither here nor there.

You may wonder why I took this tangent off into my educational background. It’s because I think that someone who wants to get a job making cool guns is having the same mistaken view of the job that I had with airplanes. In the real gun industry, the actual work of making guns is done by CNC operators monitoring automated machines. CNC work can be rewarding and enjoyable, but it is not the same as what people have in mind when they think of “making guns”. If you go to work for a major gun company on the manufacturing floor, you will be doing machining and it will just happen to be on gun parts. Just like aeronautical engineers do math, which happens to be applied to aircraft. As there are some boutique aviation companies, there are some custom gunmaking shops that would be great for out hypothetical ambitious young person…but your chances of hiring right into such a company are very, very small. Too small to risk betting your career path on, in my opinion.

At this point, my advice splits into two paths, based on how someone would answer these questions:

Are you a mechanical nut? Built yourself a hotrod in high school? Rebore engine blocks for fun? Built yourself a not-quite-legal submachinegun in the back yard just to see if you could? Take part in arguments over which brand of calibers is best?

If this is you, I would recommend finding a good trade school in your area and becoming a machinist. Welding and sheet metal and casting if you like, but definitely CNC mill and CNC lathe. This is the skillset that will get you a job on a gun company’s shop floor, and one you have that job you can develop your career with them in whichever direction you want. At the same time, you will be building a marketable skillset. If you can’t find a job with a gun company, you will still be able to find a good-paying job with someone. Get a degree in gunsmithing from the Colorado School of Trades (as many of my emailers have expressed an intent to do), and then see where you are when a gun company position is not forthcoming. Also, keep in mind what the bread-and-butter work for most commercial gunsmiths consists of: mounting scopes, reassembling gun for people who can’t figure out how screws work, and replacing broken parts with new ones you ordered from Numrich. Glenn Fleming (one of the very few Sons of Guns cast members who was interesting to talk to) has a video on just this: The Reason There Isn’t a Gunsmithing Show on TV. If you really want to be a gunsmith, by all means go for it – but make sure you understand what it really entails before you make a commitment. Having a general machining background will be far more widely useful than a gunsmithing degree, and it won’t put you at any disadvantage in getting hired by a gun company. FWIW, I can mention that none of the people involved in building the guns at GunLab has attended a formal gunsmithing school.

If that first set of questions didn’t really sound like you, then my advice would be to pick a totally different view of employment. That may sound harsh, so let me explain. If you would not find it at least reasonably pleasant to have a job making, say, car parts, you will not enjoy working in commercial gun production. If you are not a person who enjoys manufacturing in general, you will not enjoy the jobs you are likely to get in the gun industry unless you have a degree in Mechanical Engineering (and if you have that, then go nuts – and know that you can find a good job with a million other employers should the gun work not be forthcoming). So what I recommend is to find another field which you enjoy and have an aptitude in, and get yourself a good-paying job in that field. Let guns be your hobby.

As an individually-directed hobby upon which your basic living necessities are not dependent, you can work on making guns at whatever pace you enjoy. If a project fails spectacularly, or taking months longer than planned, or you have to take a break from it to go visit family, there are no serious consequences. Pick the right “real” job, and you can have a lot more disposable income to put towards your gun projects than the person who is working as a machinist or gunsmith. Should your gun hobby really take off, you can always quit the day job and dive in – already having successfully gotten something started and working.

Most of the gun builders – in the sense that a young person asking this question think of it – I know are not professionals in the gun industry. They are gun enthusiasts (fanatics, even) who have had successful careers in totally unrelated fields and who started making guns in their garages and backyard shops. The machine tools to do this aren’t really all that expensive, compared to lots of other big boy hobbies. A decent manual mill and lathe are certainly cheaper than a good boat or jetski or ATV. These people have been able to fabricate some absolutely amazing guns because they are able to do so at their own pace, without any financial pressure. You know how a lot of the really, really impressive gun collections are built? By the owner inheriting wealth or having a job as a surgeon, pilot, lawyer, or other very lucrative occupation (I have at least one specific example of each of those that comes right to mind).

I’m no gunmaker myself, but this is also how I got myself into this web site thing. After college I bounced around a number of disparate jobs before finally winding up in the solar power industry, making pretty decent money. Forgotten Weapons was a project on the side; something I did simply for the enjoyment of it. After several years it became something more viable, and capable of supporting me fulltime (in conjunction with a number of other lifestyle circumstances).

I hope this is useful for you guys still in school and trying to decide what to do! If you are in the gun community and have differing advice, please do share it below…

 

60 Comments

  1. I can entirely second the sentiment expressed above.

    What I really wanted to do after University (studied Engineering) was go & do R&D work for FN or HK. Even got as far as interviewing at FN on the basis of a speculative CV sending. There wasn’t a post open, but they wanted to see me anyway, which was nice. Had a very pleasant interview in the room in which John Browning died.

    Turns out that Herstal is a dive though, as is the rest of Liège 🙂

    Anyway, I ended up in patents with a primary area of expertise in fine mechanics. I’ve got one or two clients in firearms, so it’s nice to dabble professionally in the hobby occasionally. But the hobby remains a hobby.

    Which brings me to another point – if you do something related to your hobby professionally, and it becomes the 9-5 (or worse, a 12-hour-a-day) grind, there is every risk that you lose the spark of your hobby. Doesn’t happen to everyone, but imagine if you do what was once your hobby all day every day, not on your own terms and to your own schedule, but to someone else’s. If that loses its spark and its interest, are you going to want to do it for fun too on the weekends? If the answer is yes, then you are lucky.

    • Truer words than your last paragraph were never spoken. It took me five years to recover my interest in firearms after an intensive 30 month stint in military weapons in the 1970’s.

  2. I used to work as a career counsellor (Canadian spelling). I recall one student who had decided he’d like to be a ‘photographer’. I asked him if he owned a camers? (No.) Did he take pictures all the time? (No.) Was he constantly looking to see how he could compose a photo? (No.)
    I recommended more interest and aptitude testing. I would think that similar questions would need to be asked of anyone expressing a ‘passion’. Mine is hunting and I do parallel things ALL the time. So I think your advice is spot-on.

  3. Well, I worked for one of the largest gun companies in the US for five years. I had no machining experience, but I had previously been in the USMC, where I learned nothing about firearms at all. I was a gun nut in high school, and read gun magazines voraciously, and firearms manuals and books, but this didn’t get me the job; being a military veteran got me the job.

    I happened to live in the same town as said manufacturer, which certainly helped. There’s several in my area, which is a fairly new development. I worked on the night shift for about a year and a half, as a CNC Machine Operator (not a Machinist, which I became later, after a four year apprenticeship) and every time the owner would come around, I’d say “Hey, Mr. x, why do we do this when it would be more efficient to do that?” Exactly the kind of thing that got me in trouble in the USMC, having ideas, was what got me promoted to R&D Technician for the company.

    For the next four years, I managed experiments, did test firing, spoke to customers, did surveys, wrote instruction books, did radio and TV interviews, attended shows and conventions, did endurance testing, and even modeled this company’s wares. My office was right next to the president/owner, and I would BS with him about politics or brainstorm with him about designs most of the day. There are still a few Youtube videos with my face on them selling product X or Y. But I didn’t want to do any of this; I wanted to design guns.

    But I wasn’t allowed to, because I didn’t have a shingle for the wall. I never wanted to go to college, which is why I went into the military. I thought practical experience and a vast knowledge of the subject, including being a certified machinist would qualify me to at least design parts for this company, but after several years of proving my knowledge and worth, I was told that I would never be allowed to design anything for the company, and so I left.

    I was regular machinist for some other shops for a few years, and I’ll tell you this: Machining is difficult, dirty, and extremely stressful. The pay is “okay”, but the level of stress in incredible. You will be lorded over by incompetent idiots who have simply been there longer than you. You will see why nepotism is the death of any shop. You will meet people who are in charge of deciding which tools will be purchased who don’t know the difference between High Speed Steel and Carbide, or don’t know what an endmill is, but will insist that you don’t need a 3-flute end mill to cut aluminum when a 2-flute is cheaper, or who don’t know what a cutoff-tool is, but will insist you don’t need one for the lathe, because they have a band saw in the back (yes, this actually happened).

    So, I gave up both working for a gun company, and then I gave up being a machinist, because if I want to build my own guns, I don’t need to program CNC machines for other people, or test other people’s designs, I need to be able to buy my own CNC machine. I now work armed security (because gun) and go to college so I can get a degree where I make enough money to afford a decent used CNC that I can set up in a shed in my backyard, so I can finally realize my dream. IF you want to build guns and your uncle or your buddy doesn’t already own a shop, you’re going to have to build your own, or make enough money that you can lease your own machines, or pay another machinist to build your stuff for you. Knowledge is irrelevant without capital.

    But I do highly recommend security work. It’s great. You’ll have plenty of time to study.

  4. I agree totally. Retired (1.Lt) after 16 years in Finnish army/navy/coast guard and 13,5 years of those as an masterarmourer. Went there cause I love guns and shooting (I was Finlands youngest guncollector in my youth). I thought that ammunition would not be an issue – oh brother how I was disapointed…

    Guncollector friend of mine and a former subordinate bought a gunstore but found out that it was too expensive job. He still has that shop but his main income (99%) comes from farming.

    Dont make your enthuaism your dayjob – Keep it as a hobby, you`ll enjoy it much more and you will most likely make a helluwa better income doing some other line of work.

    Worst-case-scenario is that you will get bored (and that will happen, it`s just a matter of time, I guarantee you that) and even start to hate your job – think how you can relax in your freetime after that doing the stuff you used to like/love?
    If you work in some other field and work sucks – fortunately you can find happiness through you hobby.

  5. You hit it right on the head for the most part. A few comments based on my experience. This is what I tell the young people if they want a job/trade/profession that will allow you to work in any state in this great land and make a good living. CAD/CAM design, CNC machine operation/programming and TIG welding. Most of the famous firearms designers were not degreed engineers……A degree is not not needed to design stuff….if needed the engineers can be hired. Every day firearms manufacturing is for the most part pretty boring. There are moments of excitement (test firing new weapons – finished new parts coming off the CNC mill). I get asked how I learned what I know about firearms …..I grew up around firearms at home, I bought books (Small Arms of the World, etc.) and I never thought that “I know everything”. Books are a great resource even with the internet – buy them every chance you get. Stay open mined to new ideas or suggestions others might make about your designs.

  6. I actually graduated from PGS (Pennsylvania Gunsmithing School) back in 2005. I then went immediately into working in the field, first doing repair work and parts replacing, then moving into management of a gunshop/shooting range. So there are jobs out there in the field through the trade-schools… they just tend to train you to run a shop, not design/create new weapons.

    I think the major difference between those that made it in the field and those who didn’t (from my own experience), were those who took the opportunity to learn and those that just wanted to get the day over with. You had to keep your skill set varied and not look down on a project just because it was basic, you had to realize that was your paycheck and look forward to the more interesting things that came around every once in a while. The jobs are there, you just have to be willing to do customer service, bookkeeping and dozens of other things so you can keep the customers flowing. The custom bolt-actions just are not enough to pay bills unless you are extremely skilled/lucky.

  7. There is an old, and very wise, saying that I will share with you now. You know the best way to make a million dollars in the firearm business? Start with two. Enough said.

  8. I am a professional sailor with the RCN. I’ve got 22 years in uniform now, and have been lucky in terms of my work….I’ve been on the Navy’s shooting team since 1993, and have fired a *few* rounds in various locations. I’ve been as high as #2 nationally in rifle (our version of Camp Perry at Connaught Ranges) and as high as #3 nationally in pistol. I’m a pretty good shooter and have represented my nation overseas several times in shooting matches.

    That said, I want to build guns….but for me, it is a hobby. I am using my career in the Navy to fund my hobby, so I’ve gathered an interesting collection of firearms, and have bought a few machine tools. I started a basic machinist course before I joined the mob, and my one regret is not completing that before I joined. Oh well. I now have an old south bend lathe or two in the shop, a Chinese mill, and with some deployment money from 2011 in Libya, I picked up a little baby CNC Mill from Taig. (Still in the box, not yet setup.)

    I’m intent on setting up a prototyping machine shop and gun build-ery, but on my own terms, and on my own time, once I retire.

    If I retired today, I’d be pulling in a $33K pension, which means I get paid $15 an hour for doing nothing…if I pulled pin now. So, whatever my underlying costs are, if I look at billable hours from a local machine shop at $60/hr, I can undercut at $45 an hour and make the same money…

    I’m not ready to pull pin yet, but having the equipment, and the plans in place down the road when I do (sometime in the next 10 years) means that as my hobby continues to mature, I’ll be able to progress into my chosen field for retirement more easily.

    Oh, and the military will pay for me to do retraining when I leave…so yeah, I’ll get that machinist course in the end.

    🙂

    Brad

  9. Or you could go and do it the hard way, three years apprenticeship in Ferlach, followed by few years working in Suhl and London, culminating in two years of master craftsman school.

  10. Having worked in gun sales for over 15 years (part time)I can attest to the fact that the market is very competitive. I work for a “mom and pop shop” in North Texas. My other job is engineering tech with a large multinational corporation. Most of the big boys in the firearm industry control most of what is offered in this country and to the American public. ATK, Cerberus Capital, and Beretta are some of the biggies and act as umbrella corporations for a multitude of firearms manufacturers. These guys are the 800 pound gorillas in the room. I am not trying to discourage anyone from seeking a profession in the industry or attempting a start-up, but as has been touched on here, large corporations tend to break-off chunks in teams. Engineers become cogs working with CAD designers and supervised by department heads who are supervised by VPs (Powerpoint anyone?). Cost reduction becomes the main focus in many of these organizations. I had a customer complain that a Thompson Center Encore receiver he ordered contained carbon steel and blued pins instead of the usual polished stainless. Remington has taken over Thompson Center. Has anyone handled the “new” Ilion manufactured Marlins? Unless you passion is board room meetings working with procurement to find more cost effective vendors within material and manufacturing requirement specifications, or you bring something really special to the party, I suggest you love your hobby. It is the definition of amateur after all.

  11. Great post and comments. And of course, what some of those writing to you are really asking is “how do I become next the John Browning…” to which the answer is “if you have to ask it most likely won’t be you…”

    On a related thought – even “glamourous” jobs – the sorts of jobs where you end up on TV and get paid a lot of money, are often simply buried in the correct execution of mundane detail. High stress because if you make a mistake it is Very Bad.

    Even the ME with Prof Eng status who really is designing new firearms surely spends most of their time on such things as protracted studies of the fracture resistence of various flash suppressor attachment screws, and perhaps thinking about effective lab studies to reveal if the new firearm will actually work reliably in sandy environments, without blowing the testing budget on plane tickets.

  12. I think there needs to be some explanation of terms first. There are designers and there are engineers and they might not be the same thing. John Browning was a designer but he was not an engineer. Every one of his designs were engineered by a team of engineers at the companies that bought his designs. Every design requires huge amounts of analysis to design a durable and manufacturable safe product. Granted guns can be built through simple intuitiveness but with today’s litigious society a company that intends to make money and stay in business better be able to prove that their design is safe in the court room.

    Engineers used on guns design are used to figure out tolerances, metallurgy, stresses in the parts, develop the required test and the methods that they are done, as well as solving manufacturing issues. I learned the hard way once when I designed a straight pull bolt action for 45ACP that had a unique locking arrangement that worked great on computer but you couldn’t assemble int he real world. I still have a box of parts from the design that can’t be assembled into a working prototype because you can’t assemble it.

    Most likely if you are going to go the engineering route and you get hired by a large firm like Remington you will spend your first 5-15 years as a junior engineer and will never get to even think of a new design for the company.

    These days JMB would have to start his own company to get any of his designs to market. That is why you are seeing so many new small manufacturers opening up. There are niche markets that the majors will not address that a small company can survive in.

    • JMB apparently had a very nice deal with Winchester, where they got first refusal for all his designs. There’s a very nice patent of his for a smallbore rifle with only a single moving part and a spring – the trigger is integral with a diagonally-sliding breech block – you push the block down and the trigger catches on the trigger guard. Stick a cartridge in, then pull the trigger. Breech block (with trigger attached) slams upwards, and the fixed firing pin hits the rim. Super simple.

      I can’t confirm this as yet, but apparently Winchester bought the patent just to prevent H&R or one of the cheap makers from making it and vastly undercutting their market.

      This model of inventing, patenting and selling/licensing the rights almost certainly wouldn’t work these days. JMB was working in a time of great innovation and rapid technological change, whereas today the technology is mature and the basic successful designs are old enough to be off-patent. You’d struggle to invent something so good that the big makers would be willing to pay, when they are happily making basic designs that are 30+ years old.

      • There probably is problems of that nature abacab, you hear about potential inventions relating to engines, pharmaceuticals that never appeared because they were not in the interest of vested interests etc. There’s perhaps millions of patents which just never get made for those sorts of reasons.

  13. Excellent Post. SO relevant to SO many college students. Though I am not a gun designer, manufacturer nor a fully fledged gunsmith. I grew up in a family business involving farm machinery. I learned from floor sweeping to hanging with mechanics and on for better than 15 years. With no school training, I can do Lots of things including building and repairing weaponry, mostly with other factory supplied parts & components. I have gone to a few factory sponsored armorers courses in my current LE profession. Even with this I would not expect to get hired into the trade without more specific training. The reality of life.

  14. I’d like tho point out that there is plenty of room for innovation in firearm design, e.g. in designs using caseless ammunition.

    The thing is, innovation (designing something new, better, and achievable) is very very hard, much harder than most people think, and our culture (in the U.S. anyway) doesn’t always support the idea of “it’s OK to fail at something” – there is a lot of cultural emphasis on SUCCESS. Of course there are subcultures where “fail early, fail often” is celebrated, but these are sub-cultures, not mainstream.

    I think the whole modern “maker” subculture is super healthy in these regards, and if a young (or old) person has passion for making things my advice would be to embed yourself somewhere where others also celebrate trying to make thing, and spend your energy there.

  15. I for one am considered a “FIREARMS FANATIC”. The gunsmithing business is not an extremely profitable one. It is long hours and slavish devotion to detail. In my case, I hold a Bachelors degree in MECHANICAL ENGINEER, trained in Tool & Die making while getting my Degree, and spent time in the military.

    As to getting rich working with firearms, I hold 15 Patents and the amount of money I made from these in so has not covered the cost of getting a patent. Most of the current 20th Century Gun Designers are out of the box thinkers.

    I suggest that anyone who thinks about Gun Designing start with a good background on firearms by reading everything that is written about the existing designs, getting a full time job and work on your ideas on your own time. In today’s world, you will need to be able to use Computer Aided Drafting software, and numerous incidental sciences like Metallurgy, Welding, Manufacturing Process Development, and a lot of Hard work to succeed.

  16. I’ve been a military small arms analyst for about 6 years now. I don’t do detailed firearms design work, I build performance estimates that feed the military’s wargaming, training, and doctrine functions. In my job I end up knowing a little about a lot. I read R&D reports. I read Program Manager reports. I read intelligence reports. I do not get to do any sort of detailed firearms design. But I do get to do a lot of professional gun-nuttery.

    I have a Bachelors and Masters in Mechanical Engineering. My coworkers have similar degrees but possibly in math, physics, or computer science (for the modelers). Honestly it’s a pretty small community and if you’re around long enough, you get to know everybody. If you want to do firearms concept design on the military side, you’ll need an education. The jobs in design are probably in northern Jersey at Picatinny or with ARL in Maryland. But good luck because we’ve been on a hiring freeze for years now. Testing is scattered about more and is more available to people without college degrees, but then you just get to play with the guns not build them. And to get anywhere in that you still need a degree.

  17. This is one of the best explanations on the whys and why not’s that I have ever read , I as many others have dreamt of becoming the great gun-building god and while I have turned out a couple of nice bolt guns actually making a living out of it is far from feasible , I work for Boeing so I know what you mean by the small cog in a large machine fact of life with manufacturing , in order to set up as a gunsmith or firearm manufacturer even here in America is so prohibitively expensive and filled with legal pitfalls (and getting worse all the time) it is way more likely that you will have fun and enjoy building guns as a hobby for yourself and your friends (law allowing) .
    Machining skills are a good thing to have , I went to the local community college to get the basics of mill and lathe work the rest I have learned from books and AGI videos along with practice.
    To finish the most important thing to remember is to read the specs and measure twice cut once , be safe and enjoy what you do.

      • I developed an interest into the Pedersen principle as used in certain Remington pistols awhile back, not being familiar with it and I came across a .45acp calibre pistol made by a chap named Ross Rudd. This worked on the same principle, and it appeared to be roughly along the same lines as a M53. There’s a video on youtube on it, and various mentions/articles of it to be found via a web search.

        It seems alright on the face of it, he didn’t appear to have put it into production though or sold any etc, bit like that Wilson Match pistol on this site, so it might be quite difficult to achieve.

  18. Excellent post and comments, so little to add.

    The single most important thing is to learn to enjoy work. There is a reason they pay you. If it were all fun, you’d be paying them.

    If you’re interested in what the people you work with do and make an effort to learn how it relates to what you do it will improve your interaction with them. It will also open up an opportunity for you if someone leaves.

    If you’re not motivated to spend 4 hours a week learning things you think might be useful to you on the job, you will get what your deserve. You will also not like it. If you won’t invest your time and money in yourself, why should anyone else?

    If you take the view, “I don’t need to learn that.” you will fail. No one can predict the future. I once spent the last month of a 5 month stint without a job learning to use a complex software tool. I then got my first job as a contractor. They’d allotted two months for me to complete my first assignment. But the software skills I’d just taught myself allowed me to complete the work in 2 weeks. Pure serendipity. But I didn’t loaf for the next 6 weeks, I went and asked for more work. They thought I walked on water. I came to work when I got there and went home when I left. They thought I worked much longer than I actually did because of what I got done.

    I have 72 ft of computer books I bought with my own money and read on my own time. Some of the bets paid off, some didn’t. When it was fun I kept going. When it wasn’t I tried something else. But all the time I was working to improve my skill set so I had more to offer my employers. I got paid very well because I was quite happy to spend $100 on a book that allowed me to complete my work more quickly. I got paid for fewer hours, but I got to charge a lot more per hour.

  19. I wanted to get into guns because my mother is about as anti-gun as it gets. Seriously when I was a child and someone bought me a toy gun it would end up in the attic. Even the ones that don’t look anything close to real. I was always fascinated by their design and history. A fascination that was heightened when I discovered Forgotten Weapons. When I was in high school the Clinton ban came along and then the government was telling me I could not have the guns I wanted. I remember being 14 and arguing with some anti gun lefty in debate class about why the AWB was destined to fail and my teacher telling me I was wrong though presented a compelling argument. In my mid 20s I got a job with the local power company which led me to become friends with people who had experience with machine work and I learned a lot from them with regards to building guns. As I got to where I was making decent money I was able to start buying tools and parts kits and learned from trial and error. I messed up more than one AK build before I got pretty proficient at it. I had a rule that I would purchase or build at least 1 gun a month for several years. Now I am 35, have been married for 3 years. I have two small children and more guns than many small police departments. The kids and family life mean I don’t have as much money or time to spend on guns and building as I did up until a couple of years ago but now I have a reputation and when people I know want to sell or fix a gun they come to me first. Im no machinest by any means and my collection is mainly different types of not so rare military surplus arms but I think its pretty respectable for a man of my means. Ive learned a lot and even made some money messing around with them plus had loads of fun. My collection doesn’t have many rare or historically significant firearms in it mainly because I prefer performance and function to historical significance but its respectable none the less. The rarest thing I own is a bushmaster arm pistol. I like to read about them but I leave most of the oddball 100 year old stuff to folks like Ian. I subscribe to the theory of why pay thousands for a single luger or 1911 when I can buy a dozen other guns that work better for the same price though I understand why some folks do. I guess when it people ask me why I am so into guns the answer is its all because my mama said no you will put your eye out. I am sure that if I had to depend on them for a living that I would not enjoy them nearly as much as I do.

  20. Ian knocks one out of the park. This is one of the greatest posts going, in my humble opinion.

    However — one thing I’d like to point out is that there’s more than just the extant firearms firms. The secret is to meet a need. Even John Freaking Browning didn’t start off as The JMB His Ownself. (He started as an apprentice in his father’s shop, and he was one of some huge number of children, so it’s not like he was The Heir Apparent). And the big firearms firms are succeeding, but they’re succeeding with very old intellectual property or with derivative products.

    The guy who can, in one person, manage the invention of a firearm from spark of idea to mass production line is very rare. (Not Browning. Certainly not Stoner. John Garand. Fyodor Tokarev, maybe). But the big companies are struggling with a lack of ideas.

    If I were advising kids (occasionally, I am) I’d say this:
    1. A bachelors’ degree, after being the union card for the white collar union for 100 years, is overpriced and overrated these days (and it underdelivers useful knowledge in most majors. In some of them, it leaves a person less employable than his or her status quo ante). We’re in a bubble… just like the mortgages bubble, it isn’t the healthy mortgages, but the oversold crap ones.

    2. You can outsource your software (which may be a mistake, but you can), your marketing and packaging. You can’t outsource your plumber. A skilled hands-on trade is always a safety net. Several are even better. (If you can weld, machine, and do composite layups, almost every space startup in Mojave will make room for you).

    3. Manufacturing technology is in a slow-rolling revolution, caused by computerizing of traditional manufacturing processes, rescaling of those processes, and additive manufacturing. In addition, we’re seeing true precision come up in volume and down in cost. Basically, it’s a lateral move of Moore’s Law into technologies that were thought to be mature.

    We’re at the dawn of a Big Bang of industrial creativity.

    Yes, there is room for new entrants. Look at Magpul. Big, successful company, right? Big enough that an entire industry in a whole state depended on it. It started with a guy with a problem, and an idea for solving it. The problem was tight-fitting ammo pouches that made it hard to extract a magazine. The solution — a plastic tab or handle for the magazine follower, the “mag pul”. Every success followed from that one idea.

    But one of the things that is going to happen is a lot of shorter-line runs of things, and a lot of disintermediation in manufacturing. And obsolescence of parts? If somebody wants the parts, it’s going to go away. Everything that ever was is going to get reverse engineered, and manufactured to meet the market.

    Here’s a shop in New Zealand that’s doing just that. They’ve reverse-engineered the Gnome Monosoupape (French for “single-valve,” it uses the same valve for intake and exhaust rotary engine of WWI. And they’re working on a V-8 that was used in some English warplanes of the Great War.
    http://cams.net.nz/index.html

    A couple of years ago, if you wanted to fly one of those obsolete engines, you had a problem. Now, you have an expense. That’s progress.

  21. My interest in firearms was what led me into criminalistics. I had to become expert in everything from photography to blood typing (this was pre-DNA analysis) to get my degree.

    As the lab’s designated “ballistics expert” (actually, my official title was “firearms trace evidence analyst”), my job consisted mainly of examining fired projectiles and cartridge cases to determine which firearm they came from. Much of it consisted of post mortem work, in that if we had a decedent who died of a gunshot wound, I had to be there to actually see the bullet removed to maintain the chain of evidence. I had studied forensic pathology, but I ended up knowing it at about the ABD level.

    It was nothing like “CSI” on TV. Yes, I was armed. Yes, I was a sworn officer. But if I ever saw a suspect anywhere other than when taking samples for a dermal nitrate test (the ancestor of the modern GSR test) or when testifying in court against said suspect, my usual response was to wonder who above me in the chain of command had screwed up by the numbers. If you’re doing “lab work” right, it’s not exciting- and if it gets exciting, something is seriously wrong.

    The most exciting incident in my career? The day the electron microscope blew all the fuzes due to a malfunctioning magnetron. FZZZ- lights out.

    OK, there was also when we had to call the Bomb Squad because some Mother’s Son had sent a box full of a suspect’s pocket contents down for test, including a cough syrup bottle they thought had booze in it. Suspect was a safecracker. The “booze” turned out to be nitroglycerin that was so old that instead of having brown streaks through it, it was entirely the color of maple syrup. (Anyone who knows NG knows what that means- it’s “never mind ‘nobody sneeze’, it’s ‘nobody BREATHE’ time”.) My boss had a few things to say to the sheriff’s department in question about that, and most of them aren’t repeatable.

    (When safely detonated by the EOD gang, in a two-by-one-foot hole dug in a field for the purpose, said bottle left a crater six feet wide by four deep.)

    I was also a small-arms instructor at the time, in my (sort of) spare time, servicing three sheriff’s departments. The “excitement” there was usually when somebody did something dumb. Like holstering a S&W M39 after firing a five shot string, with a round in the chamber, a cocked hammer, and his finger inside the guard. Yes, it went off. The slug went into the dirt six inches from my left foot.

    That time I had a few words to say- to his boss. (When he showed up for class again, it was with a S&W M10 .38 revolver.)

    I retired early on medical grounds (not work-related) and went on to work in my “other” love, the hobby industry. Believe it or not, I probably know at least as much about aircraft as I do about firearms, mainly from growing up around aviation buffs and actual pilots.

    One of my most cherished memories is the evening that our IPMS chapter got a guided after-hours tour of the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Fairborn, OH, and they opened several planes up for us to snoop in. I got to sit in the pilot’s seat of the SR-71 Blackbird; two things about it are that first, contrary to what some people claim, it’s genuinely Satin Black all over, not “midnight blue”, and second, that with its narrow windscreens and high instrument panel coaming, the pilot was “on IFR” as soon as he sat down and strapped in.

    The eeriest thing was sitting in the pilot’s seat of Bock’s Car, the B-29 that dropped the “Fat Man” plutonium A-bomb on Nagasaki on 9 August 1945. Probably made more so by the fact that one of my high school teachers had been a senior security officer at Oak Ridge during the war. (He knew Dr. Oppenheimer and Dr. Compton quite well.)

    I guess you could say I’ve been lucky enough to “follow my bliss” in making a living, as Joseph Campbell once recommended. But firearms, while certainly important, were only a part of it.

    Happy Holidays, everyone.

    cheers

    eon

  22. Wonderful article. This and other discussions like it should be mandatory for any child coming up through the education system, because there is a vast difference between getting a job versus what is actually necessary to achieve a dream. As mentioned here, too many jobs that seem like they would be fast tracks to goals and dreams really are not. They’re simply in proximity to them; close, but never within realisitc reach or won’t yield what you want.

    In all honesty, this should be mandatory reading for anybody looking to make their mark in any industry.

  23. Well now my feelings are hurt. I did go to gunsmithing school. I just don’t like putting scopes on other people rifles. I also served two different apprenticeships as a machinist, back in the day of stone tools. I also put myself through college to get my engineering degree and then back to school to learn, or at least attempt to, that new fangle computer stuff. With all that I have said I do agree with Ian. I have own a couple of gun stores over the years and just ended up hating the people that walked through the door. I really enjoy working in my shop, but I could not have gotten the shop I have working in the gun industry. Find your passion and enjoy that passion then get a job that really pays.
    Chuck at GunLab.net

  24. Making and building high end custom stocks, forends and grips takes as much determination and skill that many gun makers have.
    Just as much of a art as it is a skill.
    About the time you are ready to retire you finally will have the knowledge and experience to make stocks that we will drool over.
    But if you have the drive it can be a fulfilling career.

  25. Of course there is no answer. Most innovation comes from mavericks-people who come out of left field with something which, if they pay attention and are lucky, clever, etc. make it into the canon. No big gun companies hire mavericks. As a person attempting to do what this post is all about with the jury still out all I know is if you want to design weapons design weapons, build them, show them to pertinent people, listen to what they say and re calibrate as you must, if you are lucky, clever etc. they may become part of the canon.

    • Unless it’s a “supergun” to Saddam Hussein, in which case don’t bother. The rocket industry doesn’t appreciate the competition or something…

  26. I would say if you are only interested in designing guns, then you are probably more interested in the guns aspect than the design aspect. But if you are interested in designing things in general, and especially interested in designing guns, then consider pursuing a career in engineering. If you can get a position in firearms design, that’s great, but if not, you can still have an interesting career designing other stuff. And a lot of the engineering knowledge/skills you develop over the years will transfer over to firearms design, if you still wish to pursue that as a hobby or side job.

    • Also, don’t overlook a career in industrial design. For anyone who thinks it’s just designing automatic-drip coffeemakers, Google “Syd Mead”, “Alex Tremulis”, “Luigi Colani”, and/or “Raymond Loewy”.

      Fifty years down the road, your creations could be the subject of an exhibition at MOMA, too.

      cheers

      eon

  27. I love this topic. Lots of good advice and because talents and circumstances vary so widely there’s no wrong answer. As Mongo points out, there are designers and there are engineers. I’ve spent most of my career in new product design in a variety of fields so I have a lot of observations (or maybe just opinions) based on my personal experience regarding that part of the topic. I scarcely know where to start. If you’ve never asked “where can I get plans to build _X_”, you might be an innovator. If you have a fertile mind, you’ll do better on your own or in a small company than in a big company. I’ve done all three. A small company with the right management may be the best because they usually have more resources than an individual but the challenge is finding one with the right management. Years ago I had the good fortune to go to work for a small family owned company that had 3 generations of engineers running it. The old man was a lot like I picture John Browning. Even looked a bit like him. Brilliant creative man with an 8th grade education. I couldn’t have purchased the knowledge I got from him at any university. That company sold to a Fortune 500 company and I was hired to go along. I lasted 3 years before I quit. Loved the work but the silly company politics was maddening.
    Best in terms of opportunity is your own operation if you can stand the lean times and keep enough cash flow to fund projects. Acquire skills and tools to be able to make your ideas real. I think there’s still plenty of room for innovation in firearms as well as other fields. Branch out. As a story in an old grade school reader I have said…”it’s ideas that count”.

  28. I had a lemon mascarpone cheesecake over Christmas, and I thought if you had a series of them in a line with a circular cut out running centrally through each so they align “and they were metal discs, rather than cheesecakes” each one could be sliced individually as you would with a cheesecake i.e. Segments in the manner of a clock face, triangular type shapes running from the 12 o’clock position down to the centre back up to the 1 o’clock position etc. So if the cut out sections went 12 to 1 then 1 to 2, and were aligned in the corresponding order by the time you got around to 11 to 12 the inside cut outs would resemble a spiral. Now large Naval guns such as those firing 16″ diameter shells from WW1 etc were apparently quite harsh on the barrels rifling, as you may imagine. But if you put a series of recessed grooves onto the rear of the shells outer, which form a spiral type patten – flaps if you will, around it. Then the “cheesecakes” were inserted into an outer sleeve in the above manner, which are secured by say two parallel rods running through each the ends of which fit into end caps which attach to said sleeve at either end. You might create a barrel, which imparts spin onto the projectile by gas acting in the manner of a propeller via it being forced into the internal spiral pattern aforesaid in conjunction with the recessed patten on the shell thus keeping the barrel smoothbore – Avoiding damage to the rifling.

    Just a thought, merry Christmas.

      • Sounds conceptually a bit like Whitworth rifling, except that his polygon was a hexagon, which was invented in the 1850s and widely used:

        For this purpose it occurred to him to construct a rifled barrel, cast in longitudinal segments, in each of which, the line of junction was to follow the course of the spiral. These, when placed together, so as to form a barrel of a spiral polygonal shape internally, were to be secured externally by hoops of wrought iron or steel, applied in one or more layers. From this design a barrel about 13 inches long, made to musket size as to bore, was found to shoot with such accuracy, as to excel all others tried in competition with it. This idea was developed in barrels of all sizes up to the heaviest guns.

        See here:
        http://corregidor.org/acgq/web_redirect_3628.3645.8883/forum_pages/student%20of%20arms/soa_rifling_02.html

        It's a forerunner of HK and Glock-style polygonal rifling.

        Fun fact about polygonal rifling in a mandrel-based cold-hammer-forged barrel: ballistics techs can't tell a slug from one from one out of any other made on the same mandrel anywhere around (months, 1-2 years) the same time. They testify they do all the time, but they're slinging bull and they know it.

        And yes, he's the same Whitworth behind the once-common British screw thread system some years before that, and the guy who created one of Britain's great defense conglomerates which survived until nationalization post-WWII destroyed most British defense and aerospace industry.

        If you've ever had to wrench an XK140 or MGTC you've probably got a set like this somewhere:
        http://www.britishfasteners.com/threads/bsw.html

        You also find Whitworth threads on very old (Iron Age, not Steel Age) American machinery. I think it was the first really successful system of thread standardization. Whitworth standardized stuff like measuring and surface finishes, also. He was as important to interchangeable parts as Whitney or Blanchard or any of those guys who were a few decades before him. It now seems totally weird to have different, non-interchangeable systems of bolts. Imagine what it was like before Whitworth: Every bolt and every hole stood alone, and interchanged with nothing.

        Fun fact about whitworth bolts: the bolt size is not what we think of as the bolt size. Instead of measuring the bolt head across the bolt head, you measure the length of one flat of the head to match with a Whitworth wrench. As a result, every Whitworth wrench and socket is much larger than its metric or SAE opposite number.

        • Interesting information Kevin thank you, clever stuff.

          Think I was suggesting gas would fit into the sections above the bore but in sequence, essentially it’s creating a spiral of holes, slots rather around the bore which would be revealed individually as the bullet passed with the gas behind it. The recessed flaps/fin things on the bullet would receive a spurt of gas sequentially from each individually angled spout i.e. From within the spiral slots, given the gasses travel is restricted by the bullet so the gas enters but is repulsed onto the projectiles “propeller” arrangement with the intention of imparting that degree of rotation upon it then etc, etc rotating it. If it does, which it might not, it might with the correct design of projectile.

          All good 🙂

          • Ah, OK.

            Take a google at the V-3 that was set up at Mimoyecques and additionally to bombard Antwerp. It was also called the Centipede (Tausendfußler) and Busy Lizzie (Fließiges Lieschen).

            It had a series of chambers with powder loads, and as the projectile passed each one, it was timed to go off. The projo was a Röchling type — very long with FS subcaliber round with a sabot and high sectional density. It was murder hard to get working with an analog electronic firing train, but given modern electronics it would be much easier. It is completely different from what you’re describing but I think it will catch your imagination.

            Gerald Bull did a decent study on it which was at least partially published postmortem, but I can’t recall what he said.

  29. A sufficient glance at small firearms history shows that most inventions came from personal merits rather than educated persons. Very small amount of them needed engineering and math like Kiraly’s lever delay. A firearm
    design should begin thinking with hands and starting with a basic type like a single shot pistol and if a succesfull working machine is obtained, going into educating through books and schools. Production is another story needing dare in trade business and most inventors are in fact, bad merchants. Best way is matching with a skilled partner in business, which needs a good fortune. Patenting the ideas is a must for a few ones which certainly resulting as understanding the useless of these efforts since only a very small percent of whole register’s amount seeing production stage. Though changing from one country to another, a gun designer will catch success only settling his own business if he can.

  30. Some mention should be made of ammunition design and production as a career option. A far more stable field of endeavor than firearms design and production, but with many of the same benefits. Military organizations today regard firearms as little more than processing units for ammunition. This is why most firearms producing entities are run down and traded like playing cards at the corporate level, but ammunition producing entities are the core of conglomerates.

    Approximately 10 million firearms composed of less than 100 million parts are produced in the United States every year. Something in the range of 10 to 15 billion rounds of ammunition are produced in the United states every year, composed of 50 billion components. Although ammunition production is highly automated, it still offers a lot of interesting employment opportunities.

    This said, there are still opportunities in the firearms industries for people with the right skill sets. Mechanical engineers have been mentioned, but statisticians, CAD designers with GD&T skills, illustrators, technical writers, tool & die designers, and even a few metallurgists are needed – a few specialties not mentioned heretofore.

    Ammunition production is a high volume game, so packaging and packaging equipment engineers have the inside track. But they also use CAD designers with GD&T skills, statisticians, chemists, metallurgists, ad writers, illustrators, and the ubiquitous mechanical engineers.

  31. Great post

    Education Education Education
    Love with passion of firearms & more
    Reading everything related to firearm
    A technical engineering education e.g. manufacturing engineering Technology
    Shooting & more shooting
    Love to participate in shooting sport with hate to other sport
    Following everything on forgottenweapons.com (-:

  32. Probably should have mentioned aftermarket firearms accessories as another allied field with good opportunities. Not much data available on its size, but probably in the same league as firearms. Everything from optics, mounts, sights, slings, furniture, and other attachments to gun safes, boxes, all manner of cases, cleaning & maintenance equipment, even software. I would bet that electronics and software pertaining to or integrated into firearms and ammunition will be the major growth field over then next 50 years.

    • well said , the accessory field needs less in the way of licensing too, ballistics computers seem to be making their way into the long range shooting scene now as well as sniper applications , not my bag but there are a lot of nerds out there who could follow that path.

  33. One (or more) observation: formal school as in college isn’t the only way to learn. With the possible exception of some thing like higher math, it’s not even the best way. Granted, a degree opens doors even for the incompetent and no HR person was ever fired for hiring an incompetent with a degree but if you really want to KNOW, learn by doing and by working with others who know. Want to learn machining? Buy a lathe. Buy a mill. Use them. Community college machining courses and YouTube videos are better than nothing but nothing like hands on with an experienced person.

    The best way to learn how a particular gun works? Buy one. Take it apart. You’ll see things you won’t learn from any book. Granted, in much of the world this isn’t an option but in most of the US it is. Do this with guns and assorted other machinery for enough years and you won’t have to re-invent the wheel on your new idea.

    Finally, take the long view. Rome wasn’t built in a day. It takes years to build the knowledge base. Get started.

  34. My general advice is to take a realistic look at what careers are available and are likely to stay around, how much they pay, what you have an aptitude for, and what you will LIKE (not “love”) and find intellectually stimulating that pays as much money as possible. Make as much money as you can while staying legally and morally correct, then follow your “dreams” in your time off. Most people that use the phrase “American Dream” or “follow my dream” are leaving in a fantasy world. Never trust people that are trying to sell you something without verifying it for yourself. Most people take the easy way out and just latch onto the first line of BS that sounds good and engage in a great deal of wishful thinking….. Then find themselves totally screwed when they find out their “dream” job is a nightmare. Most people see the world as they wish it to be instead of how it is, then spend the rest of their lives angry and bitter. I could give you many examples that I have witnessed firsthand.

  35. Regarding guns as a career. I would not do it. Firearms are a heavily regulated industry with low profit margins. Most guns other than AR15 types are imported. ARs are a commodity with low profit margins. Gunsmiths make little money. My advice is to become a highly paid professional or start a business (my plumber makes 120/hr), make a ton of cash, then buy tons of guns and ammo, airplanes, whatever, and have a blast on the weekend. An acquaintance of mine owns a very humble looking metal fabrication business and I am sure every soccer mom in town looks askance at him….. but he is VERY wealthy, owns a large ranch, literally tons of guns, has his own airstrip and airplanes, etc. I have no doubt that he LIKES metal fabrication, but I doubt he dreams about how awesome it is. Does he make guns? No….. Just all manner of mundane non gun shapes that are used in construction and manufacturing….. that pay big bucks. Another acquaintance has a fleet of airplane toys and his own airstrip. He makes HUGE money in ……. his gravel quarry. I could give you many more examples. The one thing they have in common is that they dream about how they are going to spend their piles of cash made doing things that most “dreamers” consider mundane.

  36. Ian, that is some of the best advise I have ever heard, especially as it applies to young people and their dreams.
    No one wants to pour cold water on a young person’s dream, but there are too many examples of young folks getting a tech or college degree in a field in which they will never be able to support themselves or a family.
    I also believe that not everyone needs a college degree and that there is nothing wrong with learning a skill or a “trade”. It appears that these days it is below a young person to get his hands “dirty” while earning one’s daily bread. Knowing the electrical or plumbing trade will probably, in the not to distant future, earn some folks as much money as doctors make in the health care industry of the future.

  37. I made the mistake of heading to a custom shop with nothing but a lot of reading and a little fooling around with gun parts. It did not go well and that’s expected.

    It takes a lot of time, a lot of experience, a good bit of space, and definitely some money. Your best chance is probably to open up your own place and do your own thing. Until then, why not get some machining or metalworking skills under your belt? As Ian and many in the comments have said, not everyone’s ready to turn a hobby into a job – After re-evaluating many times, I know I’m not. If push comes to shove, you can always work out of your garage for yourself and a few friends while enjoying a life that insulates your great passions from the misery of dependency and obligation.

  38. Difference between an engineer and a machinist? An engineer knows why the distance between A and B should be 3mm and puts A and B at the easiest places where this 3mm is the easiest and least expensive to happen. A machinist knows how to make the 3mm happen.
    Guns are in a grey area. A lot of designers do not have formal degrees yet with intuition and good knowledge about mechanics, great guns can be designed. But to hit the head on the nail of nature, advanced mathematics and physics must be learned. A Dutch windmill would certainly grind wheat, but the complex curves on the modern wind turbines which give them great efficiency are not something somebody without an understanding of advanced math and physics can design. And only an engineer knows after how many take off and landings does a sheet of metal on an airplane reduces its strength by half.
    Any design without a good command of engineering knowledge is a primitive and coarse approach to nature, unless luck strikes the design is usually not optimal in all aspects. However designs built up from engineering analysis and knowledge can be elegant. Just to through some examples, what is the best weight of a pistol slide? What is the optimal distance of travel before unlocking? What are the best curves that can be used in roller locking shoulders?

    • The problem with engineers is that while they know the theory behind what they design they don’t always know the best way to actually build their design or make any thought to repair or servicing afterwards , a good example is the modern car , wonderful engineering but a bugger to work on and way too complicated , modern guns are the same way everything working in perfect harmony until they don’t , also many engineers build to price not ease of manufacture or longevity .
      I have always thought that the design process should involve all levels of the build process as well ,that way the engineer can build in ease of manufacture and ease of service into the design , or more so than they seem to now
      .

  39. I’d like to add my 2 cents to this topic.

    First, I do quite a bit of work in the Arms industry, but on the business/logistics side of it, not manufacturing. I’ve no formal education in this respect.

    The greatest advice I could give to anyone aspiring to work in the Arms industry is to find something else; I say this because unlike Automobiles (another industry I worked in doing similar stuff), it is more lucrative and subject to political pressures on a routine basis. I do not mention my work to most people, or even talk about it with my family because of the controversial nature of ‘guns’. It is certainly a volatile field, especially for importers. Remember; all it was a simple Import-Ban in 1989 to cause a huge number of businesses to close for good and thousands to seek new work.

    The second greatest advice for those insisting on working in Arms/Defense is the same advice I would give to any other field of work; be creative. Don’t fall in line with the routine just because “that’s the way it’s always been done”. That type of thinking has killed off many businesses, large and small.

    And of course, do not give up!

  40. i went through this. i thought i would get into gunsmitthing, then i realized its like every other profession. the places that WILL hire a “gunsmith” fresh out of school are not the places you want to work at for long. I know(of) a guy from arkansas that was an electrical engineer, quit that job making dang good money, got a LOT of professional training to eventually qualify as a Grand Master, then used that to solidify his name then went on to be a gun smith. you may have heard of him, Matt Mink. it all depends on how badly you want something.

  41. The only thing I could possibly add is: Your future hinges on what you DO today, not what you plan for tomorrow.
    You want to make guns? Make them. I wasted years dreaming. My most disastrous experiments were far more satisfying than my wildest dreams.
    …and don’t quit your day job.

  42. I haven’t read a single post that I really disagree with. I do some design work in the gun industry. My advice: look elsewhere, as I am. I have worked for more than 1 gun company, and I can promise you, you will be taking marching orders from scientifically and mathematically illiterate people, who will override your carefully thought-out decisions because they weren’t what they wanted to hear. It is incredibly frustrating to see so much wasted potential in myself and my peers. I can also tell you that the regular posters on this website are a vast wealth of knowledge that you probably won’t find at most actual gun companies. That should tell you something. It is common to encounter management types who don’t have a basic grasp of how simple, modern guns like AR-15s or Glocks work.

    I would tell a young person to study engineering, tool & die making, metallurgy/heat treating, or welding (or all of them) if they have the aptitude and interest. If they didn’t have the aptitude, I would not tell them to pursue any of those. If you live in a geographic location that happens to have a gun company, then hey, go for it. You don’t really have anything to lose. I wouldn’t get my heart set on it, or move to a new area to work at a gun company.

    I am looking forward to guns just being a hobby again.

  43. Coming back to this post, I wanted to comment on with my own story. My love of designing and engineering came long before a firearms interest, and long before any machining interest or skill. Even when i was starting in college I had no real idea who i want to work for or what i want to do. I took electronics engineering, mechanical engineering and machining/design/fabrication classes. I’m not yet done, but I can honestly say my plan is to try to roll it into making my own guns and selling them. I doubt it will work out great, but I want to try.
    If anything, it wasn’t even wanting to go into firearms. My interest was robotics and my hobby is firearms. If anything, the idea was a random realization when i was working on an idea for a muzzleloader design, I stopped and though “Wait, i could build that and people might buy it”.

  44. First, people need to understand that there’s several different aspects to the idea of a career spent “working on guns.”

    Much of what was written above has to do with making military of mass market guns. IMO, that’s largely a dead end career now. Guns are a very mature industry, and most of the “advances” that will be touted will actually be manufacturing engineering and cost reduction, not “making better guns.” The guns extant today work just fine, and there’s little need of huge improvement. There are some who pine for the day that the US DOD will replace the M4/M16 with a new design. I seriously doubt that day will come anytime soon. Getting a MechE degree can be a good thing, and if you can find a job in the firearms field, hey, so much the better. Just realize that for those MechE’s who know quite a bit about firearms and firearms design, their prospects will be about as hot as mine were as a EE who knew vacuum tubes and high-powered shortwave radios when I came out of school. Useful knowledge… to a very small segment of the market.

    The advice to get a background in machining is good, but know this: gun companies don’t pay machinists as much as a machinist can make. There are some machinists making very tidy salaries, but they’re not working on guns or anything remotely like guns. Here in Wyoming, a good machinist in the repair shops for large mining equipment can pull down $25/hour in straight time, then 150% of straight time for OT. Some shops give tool allowances of up to $1500/year – to be spent on tools you keep, but that you find are necessary for your job. Machinists in mining repair jobs can make a pretty nice living.

    These shops don’t work on anything so small as gun parts. They work on pieces of metal that are large enough to squash you flatter than a tortilla if there is an accident. You’ll be using cranes to get your workpieces in/out of mills, lathes and jig borers. You’ll also likely be using smaller cranes, but still a crane, to change the chuck on your lathe, put a rotary indexer or super spacer up onto a mill, etc. Nothing about this work is small. But it pays well and it puts you into a state where hunting and shooting are big-time activities.

    Now, as to being a gunsmith: Gunsmithing can be a very rewarding job, but it won’t pay much. American gun owners are skinflints – they want Merkel quality for Budweiser prices. Working on AR-15’s and Glocks won’t really pay the bills unless you’re doing something truly unique to those guns – which is difficult to convince customers of. I work on double guns mostly, because there aren’t many smiths who will do these jobs. I’ll also work on revolvers – again, because there aren’t many smiths who want to work on wheel guns any more. Much of what I do has nothing to do with machining, and much of what I do machinists can’t do. They simply don’t have the bench tools skills necessary to work on hand-fitting guns. I do machining, I like machining, but most of what I do in gunsmithing rarely involves a lathe or mill. It involves files, polishing stones, polishing paper, rasps, saws, etc. Old-time hand tool skills. The best way to get these skills is to go into a gunsmithing program that emphasizes old-time bench skills, which will include learning how to drive a hand file, polishing, welding (esp. TIG welding), heat treatment of steels, metal finishing, wood shaping & finishing, etc. Some parts for older guns aren’t available any more, and a good gunsmith can make new parts from raw steel. Sometimes this will require machining, sometimes it will require filing a piece of metal into the part. You can make a lot of small parts with a hand file if you know what you’re doing. What you see Glenn doing above is pretty much nuts-n-bolts gunsmithing. That’s what is really happening on a gunsmith’s bench.

    As for why there isn’t a gunsmithing TV show: Because producers need drama, and drama is an indication of a gunsmith that is a complete idiot. When you walk into a gunsmith’s shop, there should be no drama.

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