Sunday, February 27, 2011

Choosing a Gunsmithing School

"He's too old, yes..too old to begin the training... " 


The first hurdle I encountered in becoming a gunsmith was choosing a school. My criteria were simple. It had to be:
  • Close to my home in Arkansas.
  • A legitimate school.
  • Not buried in snow all winter.

The schools I found broke down into four basic groups:

NRA-sanctioned schools
There are only four community colleges in the US that offer gunsmithing programs that are sanctioned and supported by the NRA:
  • Lassen Community College in Susanville, CA
  • Trinidad State Junior College in Trinidad, CO
  • Murray State College in Tishomingo, OK
  • Montgomery Community College in Troy, NC

As you can see, these schools are scattered equally across the nation. Murray State College was my first choice because it's only a five hour drive from the Remote Ranchito, so I can go home on the weekends. MSC also has the best dorm situation of the four, in my opinion.

These programs attract the best instructors and receive material support from the NRA and several firearm-related manufacturers.

The thing that surprised me was how hard it was to apply for the program. My parents were both instructors in the community college system, and I had always been taught that anybody could enroll, no matter what. But the program at MSC requires a background check, a face-to-face interview, and they only accept 20 students per-year. And you have to apply early; they form the classes in April for the following fall. If there's a tie between candidates, they use the date of the application as a tie-breaker, so get your applications in early.

Non-sanctioned schools
The only non-sanctioned community college program I've heard about is at Yavapai College in Prescott, AZ. I was sorely tempted to apply to this program, as one of my best friends lives in Prescott and I could have crashed with her. But there was a lot of drama involved in her life and I couldn't be sure that the living situation would last two years. If that happened, I would be stuck there with no friends and no way to get home easily.

Besides, the fastest way to kill a friendship is to live with a friend.

Some master gunsmiths offer apprenticeships in their shops. Basically, you work in thier shop for little or no money, and then once you are trained you work for them for a certain number of years. The main advantage is that it doesn't cost much money to the student, and the mentor gets a lot of free labor.

I don't think the apprentice model is a good idea for me. Here are my reasons:
  • It takes five years to complete a basic apprenticeship, and then you have to work for a certain number of years before you can strike out on your own.
  • Your "diploma" is only as good as the reputation of your mentor.
  • Your mentor can fire you at any time, simply because of economics, and you have no recourse.
  • You only learn the things that your mentor works on. This leaves large holes in your knowledge.
  • Most importantly, you can only learn from your own mistakes. In a classroom environment, you benefit from everyone else's mistakes.

If I was much younger I would be  more open to apprenticeship, but I'm running out of time.

Video Courses
If you're planning on opening a shop and becoming a professional gunsmith, video courses are a waste of time and money.

If you are NOT planning on working on anyone else's guns, then you can probably get away with the various video courses you see advertised in gun magazines or on the internet. The only life you are risking is your own. But if you plan to work on other people's weapons, you must get hands-on experience under the direct instruction of qualified teachers.

It's like learning dentristy by mail. If you want to pull your own teeth and save a few bucks, go right ahead. But if you say you're just as good as a real dentist and start working on other people's mouths, you're a douchebag.

Tune in next week when I find out what my father thinks of all this.

Tar isteach agus a chur orthu!

Thursday, February 24, 2011


"Well, how did I get here?"
~ Talking Heads

I want this blog to document my journey through the process of becoming a gunsmith. But in order to write that story, I need a prologue. If you don't know where I came from, you won't know why I'm going down this path.

This is probably only interesting to me. Feel free to skip ahead.

First off, I'm fat. Always been fat. Probably always be fat. I got depressed when I was 10 and my parents divorced, and so I got fat.

When I was 13 my mother put me on an extreme diet which got rid of the fat, but I was still depressed, so I got fat again.

Once I moved out on my own, I got over being depressed, but I never got rid of the fat.

Being fat limits you to certain professions, all behind a desk. You don't see a lot of 400 pound Broadway dancers out there. Spending 9 hours a day behind a desk doesn't lead to svelteness, either.

In high school I was tested and I have an IQ of 150.  I managed to graduate high school because I could get A's and B's on most of the tests, but never bothered with the homework.

150 IQ + depression = 1.7 GPA + virginity

When I got out of high school, in 1984, and into my own place, I tried going to go to community college while working a full-time job to pay the rent. I even worked out a deal with a security guard company that would let me pull 16 and 24 hour shifts on the weekends. But, of course, it didn't work; and with my GPA, scholarships were out of the question and I was terrified of student loans.

So I became an autodidact. The PC industry was just heating up then and I had picked up a basic understanding of how PCs worked through books and the few college courses I had managed to complete. I turned that into a PC repair job at a local electronics store, which turned into a phone tech support job at a local software company. While at that software company, a publisher asked me to write a book about the product I was supporting, which I turned into a Junior Technical Writer job, which I have been doing for 13 years. Again, I taught myself to be a technical writer by reading books.

But being in a white-collar job without a college degree makes you low in the pecking order. You're always the first one laid-off, you make less money, and there are always holes in your knowledge when you are starting out. Plus, there are always snobs who equate BA and MA with IQ.

In 1998, I tried moving to another part of the country, hoping to find lower taxes, better climate, and cheaper housing. That's when I learned that I was a Silicon Valley slave. The only place my hard-won skills are in demand is in San Jose. Anywhere else, I'm just a fat nerd.

I began searching for a way I could make a living doing something I actually enjoy, but was in demand anywhere in the country. I have researched six dozen careers, and almost all of them are either out of my price range, would take too long to train for, or I'm not physically capable of performing the tasks.

I had almost given up hope, when I thought about the phrase "Do what you love, and you'll never work again." I looked at the pile of books and magazines on my nightstand and thought, "Well, there's no call for 400 pound pornstars."
But there were a lot of gun magazines lying there too, and I thought, "How can I make a living with guns?"

"Gun writer" is the first job that leapt to mind, but that's like saying "I've decided to become the Secretary of the Interior." The people who control those jobs don't hand them out to just anybody, and usually only to their friends.

Besides, the part I hate most about working in the Silicon Valley is having your fate in the hands of others. I really want to be "the Master of my Fate, the Captain of my Destiny."

In 1999, my best friend at the time, Stinky, and I visited her father, Cranky, out in the Nevada desert. He was a master gunsmith. He made more than one custom gun for me over the years, and his work was always superb. He was cranky, mean, and cruelly honest. I liked him.

(As a side note, it's astounding to meet a truly honest person, especially when you've grown up in the Bay Area. I'm not saying he was RIGHT, because he wasn't, but I swear by Nipples of Venus, he was an honest villain!)

Cranky had a big place out in the middle of the Nevada desert and he worked on guns in his workshop. The first time I met him in 1999, he let Stinky and I test-fire a couple full-auto submachineguns he had just finished repairing, a Thompson and an M4. Man, that's the way to end your work day!! Stinky is 5'2", and weighs about 100 pounds. At the time she had blue and purple hair, and wore combat boot with stripey socks. I'll never forget the sight of Stinky  blasting away with that giant Thompson, giggling like a cheerleader and bouncing up and down like Tigger. Now THAT was a happy dance!

Now, I had assumed he had always been a gunsmith. He was a Vietnam vet, and one of those scary MAC-SOG guys. In early 2009 he was very sick, and had been sick a long time, so I went up to see him one last time. While we were having some whiskey shots at the kitchen table, he got to talking about his life.

That's when I found out he'd worked for IBM as a troubleshooter! Big time money, white collar, wore a tie, etc! Then one day he found out IBM was, well, lets just say IBM was acting about how you'd expect a giant, soul-less, multi-national corporation to act.

So Cranky up and quit, went to a little college in Susanville to get training, and then moved out to the sticks and was happy. Well... as happy as he could get.

On the drive home from Nevada, I thought about my situation. I thought, "Shit, I have a nice piece of property way out in the sticks. I'm debt free. I love guns. Why can't I do that too?"

My wife and I have been saving for years to escape California, assuming that at some point we'd find The Business that we would invest in. When I suggested an AAS degree in Gunsmithing, she cocked her head at me and said, "Yeah! That would work!"

We then spent three months trying to tear the idea apart. The only problem we could find was cash. How could we pay for schooling, support the Remote Ranchito, and not have to work full-time? We figured it would take a large chunk of change to pay for it all.

We had saved about a third of what we needed, and we hoped to have the rest within three years. Then in June 2009 my mother died very suddenly, leaving me the other two-thirds (AFTER TAXES), a 2006 Honda Accord, and the stunning realization that Life Is Too Fucking Short.

I spent 2010 paying off the taxes on my inheritance, and getting things arranged by researching schools, exploring loans, and so on.

So that's where I am now. I've applied to the college of my choice, filled out the paperwork to start student loans, and at night I dream of all the problems I'll have running my own business (and wake up smiling.)

My hope is that you'll come along with me on this journey, now that I've finally decided what I want to be when I grow up. I'll cover the ups and downs, pitfalls and advantages, and share my progress reports on the various projects I  need to complete in order to be awarded an Associates of Applied Science degree in Gunsmithing.

Tar isteach agus a chur orthu!