If you’re wondering how to become a gunsmith then this post is for you. But judging by how often we get that question from readers and from how often it appears on gun forums it is clearly not just for you. How to become a gunsmith is probably the most frequent question we get here at GSHQ.
And the reason for that is quite simple, there are very few sources of solid advice out there on how to become a gunsmith and most sites about gunsmithing schools do little more than rehash old content and add little value – something we at GSHQ hope to improve on. So in today’s post we’ll do a deep, very deep dive into the age old question of how to become a gunsmith.
Do You Really Want to Be a Gunsmith?
But before we go much further you have to ask yourself: why do I want to be gunsmith? And am I committed enough to the gunsmithing trade to do what it takes and live the lifestyle it can support?
You see, gunsmithing is a great trade and can be a lot of fun. You can derive a lot of personal satisfaction out of doing top quality work, but to really succeed as a gunsmith need to be one of those odd people who are never satisfied with a job and always feel they could have done it better.
And you shouldn’t be looking for a flashy lifestyle. It’s pretty well established that gunsmithing won’t make you rich, especially if you work for someone else. Don’t to any conclusions about starting out for yourself as many gunsmiths out there running their own business struggle to make a decent living too. Now that doesn’t mean it can’t be done – it surely can and we’ll show you how. But a gunsmithing business is in most ways just like any other small business and that means plenty of them go belly up and most gunsmithing businesses make little profit.
But that said, the best way to make a good living as a gunsmith is not to work for someone else, but to run your own specialized gunsmithing business.
And that is where our “How to Become a Gunsmith – Seven Steps to Success” approach comes in. Follow these seven steps and you will undoubtedly succeed as a gunsmith both professionally and financially, but beware this is not a recipe for overnight success. It will take years of hard work:
|Step 1: Learn the trade||You can achieve this either as an apprentice or through a gunsmithing schools. Don’t expect to gain enough experience by doing it all on your own.|
|Step 2: Get licensed||You need to get your Federal Firearms License either as a dealer or manufacturer and make sure you are fully aware of and comply with all state and local regulations.|
|Step 3: Get good at it||Once you have marketable skills get yourself a job in an established shop (under their insurance) to polish your skills and deepen your experience. Whilst you’re there figure out what you’re really good at and what you want to specialize in once you start for yourself.|
|Step 4: Learn to run a business||But before you venture out, make sure you learn the business side of running a gunsmithing shop ideally taking some business classes at a local college and developing your business plan over a period time whilst you hold down that job.|
|Step 5: Build an awesome network||Build a strong network of contacts across the business of people who can advise you, help you and of course potential customers for your new business.|
|Step 6: Launch your own gunsmithing business||Once you have done all that and have done it well, you will be ready to venture out on your own and launch your business.|
|Step 7: Grow your business into a success||Having your own gunsmithing business is in a way only the beginning not the end. You now need to grow it and turn it into a success.|
Probably not what you expected in terms of what it takes to become a gunsmith. And sure, we could just say that you’re gunsmith as soon as you’ve completed either an apprenticeship or graduated from a gunsmithing school as part of Step 1. And strictly speaking we’d be right. But to be successful as a gunsmith and make a decent living there is more to be done and that is where Steps 2 to 7 come in. If you embark on gunsmithing as a career then you at least need to know what’s required to succeed.
You don’t have to take this path or follow all 7 steps, but we strongly believe this is the best way to succeed in gunsmithing. Not the easiest way, not the fastest way, but the best way. In the end though it’s up to you to decide which way you choose to go.
Assuming you want the best way, read on:
How to become a gunsmith – Step 1: Learn the trade
After you have decided that you have what it takes to become a good gunsmith and maybe already have some of the required skills, you need to decide what route you will take to becoming a gunsmith. And there are a number of possible paths to becoming a gunsmith. The traditional way used to be apprenticed to a master gunsmith. You would be required to learn the skills of a gunsmith by watching the master gunsmith and performing some of the tasks under the master gunsmith’s supervision. This approach took a long time, typically several years, and in all honesty there just aren’t enough apprenticeships to go around to suggest this as a valid path forward nowadays.
We know that many people still seek apprenticeships and that many of the famous gunsmiths of our time, the gunsmiths who view guns as a form of art and command exceptional rates for their work typically learned their trade learned this way.
But we like to be open and honest: you are very unlikely to find a master gunsmith to apprentice under. If you do you’re lucky, for most others the best option would be either the military or to attend one of the better brick and mortar gunsmithing schools.
If you enjoy the military life, this may be a good option for you since there is always a need for good gunsmiths in the military to repair the various weapons and you can learn a lot this route. This is especially a good route if you can stump up the fees for a good gunsmithing school.
Our recommended option though is a good gunsmithing school where they will teach you the theory behind gunsmithing as well as the practical hands on skills that are needed. You will also learn about the relationship and duty you have to the community where you are practicing your craft. Depending on your chosen gunsmithing school, you can earn anything from a one year certificate program to an associate’s degree. Many of these degrees come with a practical aspect where you would be expected to gain experience under the supervision of a qualified gunsmith.
A more DIY approach is sometimes suggested in online forums and this would mean taking an online course with say AGI or attending short courses from e.g. the National Rifleman’s Association. We do not recommend going this route as in our view gunsmithing is a trade that requires many hours of hands-on work under supervision of a master gunsmith or instructors to succeed.
Remember that your next step to becoming a successful gunsmith is to find work and build your experience. And the simple fact is that businesses that hire gunsmiths want people who they KNOW have learned the job and can do the work. That means a diploma from a solid brick and mortar gunsmithing school. Show up looking for a job as a gunsmith with a correspondence course diploma, and they’ll file your application in the waste can. This is just the way it IS. They need PROVEN skills and knowledge, and you don’t get that by mail or online.
Don’t get us wrong. The NRA short courses have a very good reputation, but they are simply not enough to become a gunsmith. We believe you should see the NRA courses as additional to your gunsmithing school or ideally as courses you’d do before you attend a gunsmithing school.
The same goes for the AGI courses, consider doing some of these before you put down the much higher tuition fees for a brick and mortar gunsmithing schools and not only will you get a head start, you will also get a better idea whether gunsmithing is really for you.
But probably the most important advice is to make sure you really develop a strong background in machining, welding and other woodworking and metalworking skills. Doing a machine shop course before starting your gunsmith training would be time and money very well spent. It also gives you another route of earning your keep as a machinist if you decide gunsmithing is not for you or while you look for a gunsmithing job. There are a lot more jobs out there for machinists than for gunsmiths.
How to become a gunsmith – Step 2: Get licensed
As a gunsmith you need to get licensed.
If you plan on building or selling any weapons, you need to get a Federal Firearms License (FFL) from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives which is a federal law enforcement organization within the United States Department of Justice.
Even if you don’t want to build or sell guns, you still need a different license to repair or modify a gun. This license is called a dealer license. The dealer license allows you to repair a customer’s weapon and then return it to him. You cannot sell or build guns with just a dealer license. If you want to sell guns or build custom guns you will need a manufacturer’s FFL. The cost for a dealer’s FFL is $200 for the first 3-year license and $90 for every 3-year license renewal after that. The cost for a manufacturer’s FFL is $150 for a three year license or renewal.
No matter what you hear, getting an FFL is the easy part; getting a state or local license can be a lot tougher. So make sure you check out your state and local regulations. Each state and each locality has different regulations and licenses for becoming a gunsmith. Do your homework.
How to become a gunsmith – Step 3: Get good at it
Once you have obtained the necessary skills and licenses, it’s time to start looking for a job and build up your experience as a gunsmith. We strongly recommend that at least 6 months to a year before you graduate from your choses gunsmithing school, start looking for a job. Make sure that by graduation day you have a FIRM job offer in your hand.
Where to find a job as a gunsmith?
You can look for work with military or law enforcement agencies or even in a gun or sporting goods store. You can also apply at firearm manufacturers or distributors. Firing ranges may also be another place to search for employment. Basically, if it is a business where they use guns they may have a need for a gunsmith and you should enquire as to whether or not they have any job openings.
Once you have the job, remember that getting the training, knowledge and experience needed to become a gunsmith is one thing, to become a highly successful gunsmith is something completely different. To succeed in the long term you must always strive to be the best you can be and the deliver the best work you can. Some other good tips we gained from experienced gunsmiths:
• Be proud of your work and make each project important
• Work diligently to complete orders on time
• Be accountable for any errors or mistakes
• Safety is extremely important
• Keep up on the latest trends or industry changes
• Head to gun shows and talk with buyers and sellers
• Work hard and show customers are important
• Always be reliable in every facet of the business
• Don’t be afraid to be creative
• Be positive and not negative
How to become a gunsmith – Step 4: Learn how to run a business
As we set out earlier in this article the path to becoming financially successful as a gunsmith will typically require you to start out on your own. And when you do that you have to remember that as a self-employed gunsmith, you’re NOT a gunsmith. You’re really a business man who needs to do both gunsmithing as well as the things that come with running a small business like filling out forms for the government, talking to potential customers, ordering materials and parts, and dealing with unreasonable customers.
And here is where a lot of gunsmiths go wrong. Many gunsmiths ignore the business side of things (e.g. marketing to attract customers) until it’s too late and go out of business. Others simply never bother to learn how to run a business and similarly end up going bust or just scrimping by. Another common mistake is not charging enough for their time. In fact many gunsmiths don’t even know how much they should charge per hours to just pay all their bills and make a living.
If you run a gunsmithing shop you produce income when you work as a gunsmith, not when you are filling out paperwork, ordering parts or talking to customers. Once you understand this you will see the sense in making sure that you spend most of your time working as a gunsmith and get someone else to do or at least help with the business side of things.
So even if you learned a bit about starting a business whilst at gunsmithing school make sure you learn more about running a business. In the evenings turn off the TV and instead read some books on running a small business, explore the many internet sites on start-ups, find out from successful small business entrepreneurs what it is that made them succeed. Read about people who failed. If a local community college has a small business course, take it. Learn about local zoning laws, licenses, insurance, etc.
And don’t kid yourself. Getting your own gunsmithing shop setup isn’t going to be cheap. You’ll easily spend a few thousand dollars on tools. You will need machinery like a lathe, a drill press and probably a milling machine too. Another few thousand dollars. Then you need to hire or organize a premise to work from, get yourself insured, build up some inventory and spend some money marketing. And this is all before you made any money.
So while you are working as a gunsmith start saving money for your start-up costs when you venture out on your own. And at the same time build a comprehensive business plan which must at least address:
• what you’re going to specialize in
• where you’re going to find your customers
• how much money you need to setup
• how long it will take to turn a profit
• how you will maximize your time as a gunsmith
• how you’re going to deal with those non-value adding tasks
• and much more (we might need to do a future post on this)
There are many good resources out there on how to develop a business plan and we might get to that in a later post, but for now we can recommend the US Small Business Administration page on how to write a business plan.
How to become a gunsmith – Step 5: Build an awesome network
This is not really a step on its own, but more something you should always be doing from when you start out at gunsmithing school to when you are running and growing your won successful gunsmithing business.
Having a strong network is key to find that first job, to building your reputation as an excellent gunsmith and to attracting customers. Building, and maintaining a strong professional network is critical to your success – gunsmithing is no different than any other business in that respect.
So how do you build a good network?
There are plenty of great sources on the web to advise you on how to build your professional network so we won’t dwell on it here, but a couple of key points to highlight are:
Meet people – whilst you’re at gunsmithing school, by going to gun fairs, industry events or through volunteering at local gun related events, shooting matches, gun clubs etc.
Stay in contact – once you meet people stay in contact
Help people – and help people without expecting anything in return. It feels good to help others and over time it will build trust, respect and you never know when someone you helped in the past might just do you the favour of your lifetime. And if they don’t just feel good about the fact that you made things a bit better for them.
And finally use a solution like Linkedin to make it all a bit easier to keep track of who is who in your network.
How to become a gunsmith – Step 6: Launch your own gunsmithing business
After you’ve built up your skills, established your reputation as a known quantity in the industry, built up a customer contact base, and bought the equipment a little at a time, THEN you can go out on your own.
However, you’re STILL subject to that 40% bust-out rate for new businesses. Think I’m exaggerating? According to Victor Green, a serial entrepreneur and author of How to Succeed in Business by Really Trying the failure rate is even higher as he claims 60% percent of new businesses fail within the first three years. “Too often people rush into business without carefully checking out their idea to see if it will work,” he says. “Research is essential.”
Having a solid business plan in place, a good amount of cash saved away to be able to survive that initial start-up phase and hopefully a strong network to leverage should significantly improve the odds in your favor!
And remember what we discussed earlier, the gunsmiths who make a decent living are those who have built up a reputation for excellence and who can do excellent work FAST. Most of them specialize in one area and don’t do general gun work.
How to become a gunsmith – Step 7: Grow your gunsmithing business into a success
Once you have established your business and survived the initial start-up period you need to grow it. You need to market your business.
Many gunsmiths that run their own business fail to realize that marketing is one of the best things they could can do for their business. But customers won’t come to you if they don’t know where you are or what you can do for them. When you market your product or service, you are getting it in front of the people who will actually buy it. Marketing is not a waste of time. Sure getting the word out to prospective customers costs money, and it is very easy to spend way too much in the wrong places, but if done correctly this is money well spent. In fact, if it’s one of the best early investments that you can make in your business.
Consider routes like online advertising, local newspapers, local radio, hunting or gun related magazines and don’t be afraid to volunteer your services or expertise to individuals or local organizations that may benefit from your help. You will be surprised how volunteering to help others will come back to help you too one day.
Another key point where many new gunsmiths fall down is on making sure all invoices are paid on time. As a small business cash flow is critical to stay afloat, so make sure you always receive payment on time and in the early stages demand full payment before you return a gun to a customer and simply don’t work with credit. Instead consider accepting credit cards and have an online payment system set up so you make it easy for customers to pay and they can do so with their own credit. Sure it costs a few percent, but to have your money come in on time is worth it.
Now that you have your business established, are marketing and growing it, make sure you take time to realize what you have achieved so far and be proud of it. And above all enjoy it as remember you didn’t become a gunsmith to get rich!