A gunsmith is a person who repairs, modifies, designs, or builds guns. This occupation differs from an armorer. A gunsmith does factory level repairs, renovation (such as applying metal finishes), and makes modifications and alterations for special uses. Gunsmiths may also apply carvings, engravings and other decorative features to an otherwise finished gun.
- 1 Overview
- 2 Responsibilities
- 3 Common Tasks
- 4 Specializations
- 5 Training and education
- 6 DIY gunsmithing
- 7 Notable gunsmiths
- 8 Legal Requirements
- 9 References
Gunsmiths may be employed in:
- factories by firearms manufacturers,
- armories by military or law-enforcement agencies,
- sporting goods stores, or
- small gunsmith shops, as either the owner, or as one of a handful of employees.
To pursue the entirety of this trade, a gunsmith must possess skills as a parts fabricator, a metalworker and/or blacksmith, a woodworker, and/or an artisan; be knowledgeable in shop mathematics, ballistics, chemistry, and materials engineering; be knowledgeable in the use and application of a variety of hand, power, and machinists tools and measuring devices; and be capable of working accurately and precisely. Those who are (self-) employed in small gunsmith shops must also possess skills as small business operators; work effectively with a wide variety of customers; and remain abreast of, and comply with federal, state, and local laws, ordinances, and requirements.
Due to the great breadth of subject matter to be mastered, many gunsmiths specialize in only a few of the skills required of the general gunsmith. Alternatively, some gunsmiths learn many of the skills of the trade, but only apply them to a few weapon types (e.g. only pistols, only shotguns, only specific brands or models).
The primary technical responsibility of gunsmiths is to ensure that the guns they work on function safely.
They accomplish this firstly by always properly observing gun safety handling procedures: both in their own actions, and in the actions of their customers and the people around them.
They accomplish this secondly by inspecting guns to ensure safe mechanical operation. Gunsmiths use their in-depth knowledge of guns to guide these inspections: either repairing deficiencies; or notifying customers of unsafe conditions and taking steps to prevent catastrophic failures.
Some of the ways that even properly handled guns can fail and endanger their users and those around them are:
- Improper Assembly
- Missing Parts
- Cracks: all cracked parts are cause for concern, but especially so in the chamber-area, bolt, bolt-lugs, or buttstock.
- Bore Obstructions: being either dented or bent barrels, or foreign material in barrels.
- Improper Headspace: dimensions concerning the relative locations of the chamber and the bolt are not within specified tolerances.
- Improper Timing: (applies to fully automatic firearms and revolvers).
- Safety-Mechanism Malfunctions: potentially allowing a gun with the safety mechanism supposedly engaged to unexpectedly fire.
- Worn Sear Edges: potentially allowing a firearm to unexpectedly fire when the safety mechanism is disengaged.
- Firing-Pin Tips Deformed: leading to the possibility of primer-rupture.
This list is not comprehensive. Many failure modes are dependent on the particular model of firearm.
(listed in approximate, but not exact, order of increasing difficulty)
- Disassemble, clean, inspect, lubricate & reassemble.
- Remove corrosion and touch-up finish.
- Repair burred or damaged parts with files & stones.
- Replace defective parts with factory-made replacements, hand-fitting as necessary.
- Add after-market customizations:
- grip caps
- butt plates
- Repair and re-finish wooden stock parts.
- Checker or re-checker grip areas.
- Deepen or clean up worn or damaged engravings & markings.
- Re-crown damaged muzzles on a lathe.
- Repair dented shotgun barrels.
- Install (solder) or repair rib on shotgun barrels, or repair double-barrel assemblies.
- Measure & correct head-space dimensions.
- Check for excessive bore erosion.
- Troubleshoot and repair feeding, ejecting & firing problems.
- Test-fire guns with conventional loads to ensure proper operation.
- Fabricate wooden stocks to customer specifications and body dimensions. Fit same to existing receiver and barrel.
- Glass-bed actions to stocks to improve accuracy.
- Remove existing metal finish, and re-blue metal parts.
- Fabricate replacement parts from metal stock.
- Modify trigger-pull weight through careful stoning of trigger mechanism parts.
- Fire proof-loads through weapons to insure sufficient strength of parts under over-load conditions.
- Replace worn barrels, which have fired so many rounds that they are no longer of the specified caliber (which leads to loss of accuracy).
- Change caliber or cartridge of existing rifle, by changing barrel, and modifying receiver.
- Re-cut rifling and change caliber of existing barrel.
- Design and build complete rifles by fitting stock barrels to stock receivers; fabricating or purchasing additional parts as needed, and fitting same to rifle. Fitting custom stock to same.
- Design and build a complete rifle starting with several pieces of blank steel and a slab of walnut; using nothing more than a lathe, saws, files, chisels, & rasps.
While some gunsmiths are general practitioners in this trade, some of the more important specializations are:
Builds guns to customer's specification, from raw materials and shelf parts. Called upon by professional target-shooters to create highly accurate custom rifles. Likely the most highly skilled of gunsmiths, as they are required not only to have proficiency in the other areas of gunsmithing, but must also be well educated in machining, in order to manufacture the individual components and springs before assembly takes place.
Applies various chemical processes (browning, bluing, Parkerization, among others) to the metal parts of guns to develop corrosion resistant surface layers on the steel. Cyanide case hardening is a combined chemical and heat-treatment process which develops mottled tempering colors on steel surfaces: greatly valued for their appearance. Typically, its use is usually restricted to receivers, rarely barrels. Although providing corrosion resistance, the colored surface layers are subject to wear: antique firearms for sale frequently stating what specific percentage of the factory original case coloring remains.
Carves gun stocks from wood (usually walnut; although birch, maple, and apple wood, among others, are frequently seen). Fits stocks to the metal parts of the gun (receiver and barrel), as well as to customer's body dimensions. The form of stocks are executed using saws, chisels, gouges, rasps, and files. The surfaces are then finished by sanding, scraping, staining, oiling, or lacquering.
(This specialization is frequently combined with that of the Stockmaker) Uses checkering tools to create an ornate pattern of small raised diamonds in the wood surfaces which are to be gripped. The checkering tools are in effect tiny saws, designed to leave a v-shaped groove (of approximately 60 to 90 degrees) in the surface of the wooden gunstock. Special checkering tools consisting of two saw blades in parallel are used to set the spacing (between 16 to 24 lines per inch). The area to be checkered is covered by one set of such grooves parallel to each other. A second set of parallel grooves is then executed across the first set, at approximately a 30 degree angle, leaving the area covered with small pointed diamonds. The edges of the checkered area are frequently ornamented with simple bas-relief wood carving, frequently variations on the fleur-de-lis.
Uses hand-gravers or die-sinker's chisels to cut designs or pictures into the metal surfaces of the gun, primarily the receiver. Pneumatically driven engraving systems, such as the Gravermeister, developed by GRS Tools, may be used to replace or supplement hand-powered engraving. Other metals (especially gold and silver) may be inlaid and engraved to further the design. Designs usually consist of elaborate scroll-work based upon Acanthus leaves or vines, or may be of purely abstract spirals. The pictures are usually of game animals or birds, and hunting dogs. Before the development of corrosion resistant surface treatments for steel, gun surfaces were engraved to retain more oil to prevent rust. In modern usage, guns are engraved purely for artistic reasons. Top grade engraving may add significantly to the value of quality firearms.
Specializes in work on pistols and revolvers. Pistolsmiths should be proficient in a range of skills such as woodworking, checkering, machining, metal finishing and metalworking. They must have an excellent understanding of the mechanical characteristics and function of the guns they work on. Often a pistolsmith is called on for extensive customization of a handgun. A good pistolsmith can turn a poorly constructed firearm into one that looks and handles much better.
Some gunsmiths used their experience and skills to become small-operation manufacturers, specializing in making only a few types of gun parts, for sale to other gunsmiths and gunmakers. Some of the more important part categories are:
- trigger assemblies
- locks (as in 'flint-locks')
Training and education
In general, gunsmiths develop and expand their skills through years of experience.
Some common ways to get started in gunsmithing include:
- Community colleges and correspondence courses offer various courses of study (less than two years long) leading to a degree or a certification. Well-known schools offering training in the trade include the Murray State College gunsmithing program, the Pennsylvania Gunsmith School, the Trinidad State Junior College Gunsmithing program, the Yavapai College Gunsmithing School and the Colorado School of Trades.
- Military Training:
- The U.S. Army trains and employs MOS 45B – Small Arms Repairmen. (was redesignated MOS 91F in Spring of 2004)
- The U.S. Air Force trains and employs Combat Arms Instructors (Firearms instructors and small arms repairers)AFSC(MOS) 3P0X1B.
- The U.S. Marine Corps trains and employs MOS 2111 and MOS 2112.
- The U.S. Navy trains and employs Gunner's Mates (GM).
- Apprenticeships: learn directly from active gunsmiths. Talk with gunsmiths in your area, and offer your help around the shop in exchange for learning about this trade.
- The National Rifle Association offers short courses in many common tasks and skills of professional gunsmithing.
Basic machinist skills, while not limited to gunsmithing, are of great help to aspiring gunsmiths. These may include both machine and hand-tool operations, such as metal turning, drilling, filing, stoning or polishing.
News of the most highly skilled and talented gunsmiths typically spreads by word of mouth, based on the quality of their work. The very best and most talented gunsmiths command premium prices for their services, and may have waiting lists booked for several years in advance.
Do-it-yourself gun making has been practiced by many people around the world. Especially in certain third-world countries as Afghanistan, Yemen and other countries in the Middle East, diy-gunsmithing has become a necessary expediency.
- John Browning, American firearms inventor. The designer of the Browning Automatic Rifle and father of Val Browning.
- Jonathan Browning, the American pioneer and firearms inventor and father of John Moses Browning.
- Val A. Browning, American firearms inventor.
- John Garand, Canadian-American firearms designer. Noted as the designer of the M1 Garand
- Dieudonné Saive, Belgian small arms designer who designed the FN Model 1949 and the FN FAL.
- Eugene Stoner, American firearms designer. Noted as the designer of the AR-15, later adopted as the M16 Rifle.
- Mikhail Kalashnikov, Soviet Russian firearms designer. Noted for creating the AK-47 and AK-74 line of assault rifles and sub-machine guns.
In many countries of the world, the possession and ownership of firearms by civilians is highly restricted or outright illegal. The practice of gunsmithing is therefore typically restricted, licensed, and/or regulated. In some circumstances the only legal firearms-related repairs are by individuals trained and employed by the military or police. These individuals are known as Armorers. Typically, their skill level is usually far below that of the private or artisan Gunsmith. Where the Gunsmith frequently has to design, manufacture and fit parts ranging from small internal parts and assemblies, the Armorer usually only has to replace standard interchangeable parts belonging to only one type, series, or family of military-related firearms. They typically are furnished a large inventory of standard parts that are known to wear and cause malfunctions in the "weapons" they will encounter, and they are simply trained to replace these items until satisfactory function is restored.
In the regions where ownership is permitted but limited and/or restricted to those individuals able to afford the costs of acquiring and owning a firearm, the firearms that are allowed tend to be fewer in number and possess levels of craftsmanship and decoration that approach that of an art object instead of simply a device to expel a projectile. Gunsmithing in these regions (as in Germany and Britain) is concerned with the hand-crafting of completely custom-made firearms tailored to the requirements of the owner.
Germany has a tradition of hunting, but this is generally a complicated undertaking that limits its participation. Firearms possession is highly regulated by the police, and most hunters own only one long gun and perhaps a single pistol. One of Germany's more unique firearm developments is the Drilling, a multi-barrel gun that may incorporate a double-barreled shotgun above with a high-powered single-shot barrel below. These typically have highly sophisticated breech mechanisms, precise fitting, and are hand-engraved by artists specializing in this work. The stocks are usually fitted to the individual and are very expensive wood with highly figured grain.
Italy has a rich history of gunmaking and gunsmithing going back several hundred years with the production of matchlock, flintlock, and caplock rifles and pistols. The city of Brescia, Italy and specifically its suburb of Gardone Val Trompia is historical home to a number of firearm manufacturers and gunsmiths. Firearm ownership is heavily restricted by the Italian government. Private ownership of various types and numbers of firearms is allowed
During the Tokugawa period in Japan, starting in the 17th century, the government imposed very restrictive controls on the small number of gunsmiths in the nation, thereby ensuring the almost total prohibition of firearms. Japan, in the postwar period, has had gun regulation which is strict in principle. Gun licensing is required, and is heavily regulated by the National Police Agency of Japan. The weapons law begins by stating "No-one shall possess a fire-arm or fire-arms or a sword or swords", and very few exceptions are allowed.
England makes some of the most expensive hand-crafted firearms in the world, despite a highly restrictive ownership environment. But, as the Gunsmith's patrons are usually well able to afford the high ownership fees and stringent storage requirements, the price of the arm is only secondary. Decoration of these arms, typically double-barreled shotguns, is on par with the plates used to mint currency and is priced about the same. Several of the other European countries follow this pattern, as in Italy, where the art of the Gunsmith has also reached a high level of sophistication. These craftsmen may specialize as in the case of the Gun Engraver and Stockmaker. Generally, these craftsmen-artists serve long apprenticeships under Master Gunmakers. They may also be members of Guilds which sets up apprentice programs (often sponsored by the Governments in these countries as highly crafted firearms are important items in the export trade), supervise training, and conduct exams where the Journeyman-level Gunsmiths submit sample firearms of their own work in order to be admitted the Guild membership. Many of these artists can only be regarded as "Gunmakers" instead of Gunsmiths, and do repairs only on the very highest grade firearms. Many are able to make substantial livelihood. Many women also participate in these firms, with some of the most exquisite engraving decoration originating as their work.
United States of America
In the United States, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is the primary federal agency overseeing all legitimate businesses that deal with firearms, with the exception of firearms made before January 1, 1899 or muzzle loading firearms. The ATF is in charge of the licensing of all legitimate firearms dealers and Gunsmiths in the US that engage in business with the public. The issuance of a Federal Firearms License (FFL) involves a thorough background investigation and an inspection of the Gunsmith's premises by an Agent of the ATF. The ATF requires all gunsmiths to record all repairs, noting the serial numbers, type of firearm, caliber or gauge, and full particulars of the owner, with an accepted form of Identification ID to be presented and recorded. Gunsmiths are required to maintain these records in a permanent, non-alterable form.
The ATF inspects the premises of all licensed gunsmiths with unannounced visits at periodic intervals. The ATF is granted the power by the US Government to initiate the prosecution in US Federal Court of gunsmiths that wilfully omit or violate these provisions. Punishment can range from losing their FFL (and therefore the privilege to engage in any firearms-related business), to fines and in severe cases, such as conspiring to supply the criminal element with black market weaponry, imprisonment in a Federal prison.
Gunsmiths who lack sophisticated machine shop capabilities must understand the law. Enlisting an unlicensed (no FFL) machine shop to create gun receivers can be illegal. Other common parts such as grips, barrels, triggers, sights, magazines, recoil springs, and stocks can be manufactured freely, but all receiver development work does require licensing.
Generally, gunsmiths cannot undertake the repair of a firearm they believe is illegally held by a person not permitted to own a firearm (a convicted felon, for instance) or one that otherwise violates the laws where the owner resides. The ownership of firearms in the US is governed by local laws. These laws and regulations vary greatly from state to state, county to county, city to city, and potentially across all jurisdictional lines.
Additionally, modifications to firearms made by gunsmiths are restricted as well. The ATF specifies what modifications are permitted or not permitted and to which firearms that may or may not be applied.
These laws may also vary by:
- firearm type (handgun? longarm? rifle? shotgun?)
- firearm model (semi-automatic? full automatic? caliber?)
- intended modification (minimum barrel length? magazine size? fully automatic?)
- customer or recipient (legal owner? felon? background check?)
- quantity of firearms (how many per week? per month?)
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- United States Marine Corps
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