I 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…