How Metalworking Skills Help the Gunsmith

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. The environment in which all this takes place often varies depending on the specific locality, with some gun stores featuring one or a handful of individuals while others resemble large scale specialty shops.

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 or blacksmith, a woodworker and 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).

While some gunsmiths are general practitioners in this trade, some of the more important specializations are:
Custom builder/designer

Builds guns to customer’s specification, from raw materials and shelf parts. Gunsmiths specializing in custom areas can be called upon by professional target-shooters, avid sports shooters, or anyone that wants custom attributes added to their firearm to create highly accurate or custom looking firearms. A Custom Gunsmith also builds high-end firearms for hunters and shooters with needs and desires that cannot be served by standard catalogued firearms offered by gun manufacturers. They may work in partnership with engravers and other specialized artists to produce unique finishes and decorations not possible on regular mass-produced firearms. Some highly specialized Gunsmith’s can complete all firearm modifications without anyone else in the industry helping them. This is 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 firearm finishing and machining, in order to manufacture the individual components and even 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. They may also apply case hardening to low carbon steel parts. Case hardening is a combined chemical and heat-treatment process which introduces carbon into the surfaces of low steel alloys that does not contain sufficient carbon to allow total (“through”) heat treatment. This carbon rich surface is then heat treated resulting in a thin, very hard surface layer with a tough, malleable core. This process can be done solely for the mechanical properties (hardness and toughness) it imparts, or, by packing the parts in bone charcoal and other chemicals and heating in a heat treatment furnace for varying time periods, it is possible to introduce rich colors into the carbonized surface. This type of case hardening, known as color case hardening, is prized for its rich mottled blues, purples, browns and grey tones. It is possible, with highly skilled craftsmen using highly proprietary processes, to control the hues and patterns so closely that one familiar with high grade custom firearms can usually recognize the maker of another shooter’s firearm solely by the colors and patterns on its parts; an important distinction on extremely costly firearms of the highest grade. Typically, its use is usually restricted to receivers, rarely barrels. Although providing corrosion resistance, the colored surface layers are subject to wear and may also fade with time. Antique firearms for sale frequently note the specific percentage of the factory original case coloring remaining on the receiver and lockplates. Renewing this color case hardening to the specific patterns of the firearm when it was new has become an important sub-area of the gunsmithing field.

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. With custom made shotguns, the fit to the individual shooter is vital, as the shot cloud’s impact is largely determined by the way the stock fits the shooter. Very high grade firearms may have stocks fashioned from very costly blanks, mostly of one of the walnut varieties, specially chosen for its rare and highly figured grain. The fashioning of high end gunstocks calls for an extremely high level of skill and craftsmanship, as the finished product must be pleasing aesthetically, fit the shooting customer like an orthopedic device, all the while having the ability to withstand high levels of recoil from the firing many thousands of rounds. Wood gunstocks may be fashioned with automated machinery (for production firearms) while high end gunstocks are hand made using saws, chisels, gouges, rasps, and files. The surfaces are then finished by sanding, scraping, staining, oiling, or lacquering.
Simulated checkering on plastic pistol grips.
Checkering tools, showing tiny saw-teeth used to create v-grooves.
A gunsmith checkering the fore-end of a rifle.

(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 and 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.
Gun engraver
Hand Gravers: hand-powered tools to engrave metal.

Uses hand-gravers or die-sinker’s chisels to cut designs or pictures into the metal surfaces of the gun, primarily the receiver. The firearms engraver must first be a highly gifted and capable artist that can first compose the desired design freehand on paper. In many cases, the customer must be consulted and must approve the design. In some cases, the engraving may incorporate a favorite scene, a revered hunting dog, or even family members and residences. The engraver must have a through knowledge of human and animal anatomy, perspective, botany, and composition. The smallness and geometry of the parts must also be considered, and harmony between all these factors must artistically agree.

These designs must then be cut freehand into the tough hardened steel surfaces of the firearm. Pneumatically driven engraving systems, such as the Gravermeister, developed by GRS Tools, may be used to replace or supplement hand-powered engraving, but the guiding of these powered tools is still provided by the artist. 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. 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 is very expensive but well executed, tastefully designed engraving always adds significantly to the value of quality firearms. Many of the world’s foremost art museums have highly decorated firearms in their collections because of the high artistic merit and craftsmanship of their engraved, chiseled, and carved decoration. Many books exist on the subject of highly decorated firearms, with detailed illustrations showing their “art in steel”.

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 making it better suited for its intended purpose. Target pistols usually start out as standard models but receive extensive reworking by skilled pistolsmiths resulting in a firearm that is capable of much greater accuracy than the standard versions of the same arm. Or, a pistolsmith may construct a completely hand fitted target arm using a serial numbered frame as the base (as required by law) with the rest of the parts supplied with excess metal in certain areas by specialist manufacturers so the pistolsmith can fit these parts together to exacting tolerances. Using these methods, the pistolsmith can build highly accurate firearms that greatly exceed the usual accuracy of standard models of the same model. Some highly specialized Pistolsmiths are very well trained in machining and can completely change the way the firearm handles. The more highly trained a Pistolsmith is, the more firearms they will work on. Some only work on one or two types of manufacturers pistols, while the more advanced will work on more. Some specialty Pistolsmiths will even add a hard mounted red dot onto the pistol’s slide for quicker target acquisition. One of the earliest examples of this new trend was done in 2011 and showcased at the beginning of 2013 by Hk.
(Niche) manufacturer

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’)

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:
This is usually at the “Armorer” level, but some, notably the Army Marksmanship Unit (AMU) may have individuals specializing in Sniper or Service Match (Target Competition) arms. These highly gunsmithed (“Accurized”) rifles and pistols are derived from standard service models and are used in target shooting and combat marksmaship roles.
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, learning directly from professional gunsmiths:
The National Rifle Association offers short courses in many common tasks and skills of professional gunsmithing. It also sponsors educational programs such as the one at Lassen College in Susanville, CA, and most notable at Trinidad State Junior College in Trinidad CO.

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.

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