These days, thanks to all of you who read Clay Shooting Magazine, I am so overwhelmed with requests for work to be undertaken and advice that I only get the time to turn on my computer once or twice a week. Please don’t think I am complaining! I am flattered that so many of you think highly enough of me to seek my services or opinions, but it invariably means I am not able to come back to everyone with their queries. So this month I decided to write about one of the requests I most frequently receive by email; how do I become a gunsmith, or can you offer me an apprentiship?
A lot of the people who ask these questions are school leavers, some are people looking for a career change and others are taking early retirement and looking for something new and interesting. Most enjoy shooting and see gunsmithing as an extension to their pleasure or a prequel to help them become better shots. Indeed, I started to learn my trade as a way to pay for my shooting by repairing and renovating guns in the evening; weekends were for shooting! Be warned, that was the end of my first marriage!!
Let me start by dealing with apprentiships. Very occasionally a large gun maker or gun repairer may be looking to take on someone to learn the trade. These opportunities are very rarely advertised, most positions are filled by word of mouth or by friends of the family. Small “one man band” operations such as myself can rarely afford to take on a trainee; in my case as my workshop has developed over the years to occupy the space of a double garage with a large number of older, second hand machines, health and safety prevents me from employing anyone due to a lack of floor area and the machines which I use everyday not being to the standard of the aforementioned health and safety act.
I had a costing done last year to ascertain how much I would need to spend to have an employee; it came to around £60,000 for a new, larger workshop to be built and to update/upgrade all the machinery; a considerable sum of money if you add interest from a loan to facilitate this kind of expenditure. When I factored in a basic wage plus tax and national insurance, my trainee would have to earn me an additional net profit in excess of £20,000/year before I broke even on his employment. I soon realised the whole exercise could bankrupt me. My wife also says that I am far too grumpy to be inflicted on some poor innocent, so that completely scotched the idea. I may risk bankruptcy but not the wrath of my wife!!
If you are still at school or just leaving, approach your local college and see if they offer any skill based courses in engineering or woodwork. The engineering courses should be of a practical, hands on type involving the use of lathes and milling machines and if possible honing. The woodworking courses should not be for the construction industry but geared more towards cabinet making and finishing. Try to find courses that can be utilised in gunsmithing! This not only applies to school leavers but to all who want to be a gunsmith but have no practical skills. See if there are evening classes available at your local adult education centre. Not only can you learn new skills but you may meet new friends with common interests. Model making clubs can also be very useful as most actions contain small parts which will need to be made.
If you still cannot find employment in the trade but your passion has not been extinguished over the time it has taken to gain basic skills, my next suggestion is to apply for a shotgun certificate (yes, believe it or not I do hear from some people who don’t have any kind of licence for shooting) and when it is granted, go up on line or approach your local dealer to find an old but simple gun to start work on. I would suggest an o/u such as a Beretta or Browning/Miroku, all three makes are simple, well made and a pleasure to work on and can be brought for a reasonable price. Failing that, find a really cheap single barrel gun which can be bought for peanuts, £25 or less and use this to practice on. While you are up on line, have a look for books on gunsmithing and wood re-finishing .
Before tackling your new purchase, take time to read these books. Even the most basic or poorly written one will probably impart some knowledge which you didn’t already have. I still buy or receive as gifts such books and never fail to read them. I then invariably sit there alarming my wife with outbursts such as “you b@@@dy idiot! It’s much easier to do it this way or “Christ, I have been doing this job for 30 years and I didn’t know that!” you may not be able to become a gunsmith by reading a book, but some will certainly point you in the right direction.
Taking into account the security required by your local Firearms Licensing Authority, set yourself up a small workshop and start to collect some basic tools. Always buy the best you can afford and build up gradually, purchasing tools as you need them for the job in hand.
Until you become familiar with the rules of proof and have a large enough budget to afford an internal bore micrometer, a barrel wall thickness gauge, a dent raiser and indeed either a honing machine or have the basics of lead lapping, all of which can cost thousands of pounds, don’t try barrel repairs. Don’t be tempted to stick back a loose rib with glue and please don’t try any of the cold blacks available to attempt a complete re-blue of your barrels, or, as I heard from one chap “I coated the inside of my old hammer gun barrels with rust remover but it doesn’t look very good now! What should I do?” This kind of major work is best left to the experts unless you want to completely ruin the gun you have purchased or pay a lot of money to have it corrected. Botched barrel repairs can literally “Blow up in your face!” so be warned.
Taking apart a basic action should not be beyond most intrepid novices but don’t start it unless you know you can finish; gunsmiths will generally charge a lot of money to re-assemble a Sainsbury’s carrier bag full of bits. If you do succeed, make sure everything is rust free and clean (I love WD40 for this job if you don’t have an ultrasonic cleaning tank) and then generally lubricate it with a small amount of light grease as you put it back together. Most actions can be dismantled with a few pin punches, some descent hollow ground screw drivers or “turnscrews” as they are known by apprentice served gunsmiths, and a good pair of needle nose pliers. You may also need a set of ball end hex keys. .
However, I would suggest starting with the wood of your purchase. Basic repairs to minor cracks, stripping the old finish and perhaps cleaning out the chequering with chequering tools available on line, then applying a finish you will have found by reading one of the books you purchased should improve the looks of your purchase if you have taken your time and paid attention to detail. If you have gone wrong, start again, and if need be, again until you are proud of the finished article.
Most of the above is how I started as a gunsmith some 33 years ago. My Dad was a trained cabinet maker in his youth which helped me, but the rest of my knowledge has been gained from books, some very good friends and one or two enemies who deliberately pointed me in the wrong direction, but trial, error and time has for me overcome all these setbacks.
Don’t forget, if you start working on a friend’s gun, even if you are not getting paid, you are required to obtain a Registered Firearms Dealer Certificate from your local Police. You will need to present them with a business plan of your intentions, upgrade your security and insurance, all of which can cost a small fortune.
I guess what I am trying to say in this article is, if you really want to become a gunsmith, over many years you may succeed, but don’t expect it to be a short or always happy road. And above all, don’t expect to earn a fortune. If you do it for the love of producing good work, one day you may earn a good living. If you do it for the money, you will always be disappointed.