Read as Ben Worthen talks about his career as a gunsmith. You can find Ben at www.netgunsmith.com and on his Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.
What do you do for a living?
I’m a gunsmith but lately I found a calling as a gun expert, writer/blogger and a gun designer.
How would you describe what you do?
Essentially I take guns that aren’t working and put them back together properly, replace parts to bring back functionality, modify them to perform a specific task or work from scratch to make in addition to a firearm or a completely new firearm. Much of what I do is return guns to their original condition to ensure proper function, safety and appearance; often times that requires a lot of handwork and tool operation to achieve.
What does your work entail?
It depends on the type of work I’m performing, but most often I’m required to assess a specific firearm and determine where shortcomings or failures are originating and then bring them back into specifications. Often times that’s not as cut and dry as it may seem; it’s not simply looking at a schematic or exploded parts drawing and piecing together. A majority of the time the inefficiency or safety concern or part malfunction it’s hard to see with the naked eye or is so small that it has to be systematically determined. A lot of the gunsmithing work that “General gunsmiths” do involves metalwork, wood work, fabrication and parts fitting. But that doesn’t exclude large machine work like lathe turning, milling or drilling operations, grinding, sandblasting and other material preparation as well as chemical work.
What’s a typical work week like?
I consider myself a specialist, and I mostly design firearms for proof of concept projects. But the majority of my gunsmithing career has been spent as a general gunsmith or a custom firearm maker, using semi off the shelf parts to put together custom creations. As a general gunsmith one could expect a large majority of their time to be spent cleaning disassembling and examining all types of guns, and then performing minor parts replacement and obvious, straightforward repairs.
Often times as a gun expert, I’ve been asked to opine on values, give assessments as to condition and rarity of firearms or even to testify on capability of strength of parts or the general use an action of firearms in court. Most gunsmiths don’t desire to be too far into the limelight, and have a real love of firearms and a desire to make it personal and positive impact on their customers guns. During large portions of my career I have been a 1911 style builder and have designed many parts as accessories for popular platforms like the Ruger 1022 and the AR15. Putting together guns from parts has been a large portion of my sales and experience for several years.
More recently I’ve decided to become a blogger I run a website at www.Netgunsmith.com to help others become more involved in gunsmithing or lease understanding firearms at higher level. So my workweeks now are less focused on cleaning and repair and general gunsmithing, and more focused on firearms designed for contract work (like military and law enforcement contracts) and on writing about gunsmithing and firearms in general. You could say I live a dream job lifestyle
How did you get started?
I started very young, perhaps at 12 years old or so sitting watching my grandfather repair guns. He had a gun shop called Deer Valley Gunsmiths, located in San Diego California; a company he started in 1958 producing mostly sporterized military rifles. In the 1980s he became a more mainstream gunsmith and started working on custom builds as a major source of income.
After a few years of watching him asking questions and probably bugging him to no end, he finally let me start doing some actual work where he didn’t have to supervise. It was around the age of 14 or 15 that I started making custom pistols and rifles with my own “makers Mark”. When he died in 2000, I decided to take a different approach to the family business and it has evolved into what it is today.
What do you like about what you do?
Being able to manipulate and change the capabilities of a piece of mechanical genius like a firearm has a sense of awesomeness. Knowing that my own personal touch becomes part of a specific gun that I work on or customize has a feeling of legacy. While it can be difficult to maintain consistency at times, the hours are good as a self-employed gunsmith, allow me to take care of and enjoy other things in my life that are important to me. Mostly I like being great at something, gunsmithing like that every gunsmith have their own personal specialty, and it would be hard to challenge their expertise at that specific capability.
What do you dislike?
Often times there are unrealistic expectations of gunsmiths, and in the last 10 years or so it seems to have lost some of its appeal on broader society and has certainly lost some of its specialization, what with so much industrialization and design improvement in the industry. It’s difficult to be a true artisan anymore and make a consistent income, as most people can get a quality product at a great price straight from the manufacturer and don’t necessarily have a need like they once did for custom gunsmithing work. Among the more affluent sections of society and areas of the world, however, I’ve personally noticed a trend towards much more expensive, much more elaborate custom firearms; a trend that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere but up over the next decade.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
Because I’m self-employed I make money based on the amount of work I produce and the hours I charge for as well as a small percentage on parts of majority of the time. Often times my highest margin tasks or services tend to be the ones that are more mundane and uninteresting to me, like cleaning firearms or installing recoil pads or boresighting. It’s all part of the game, you take the mundane with the spectacular and you find a middle ground that helps pay the bills.
How much money do Gunsmiths make?
It really depends on the area of the country and the type of work a specific gunsmith does as to what they’ll make. Very few gunsmiths become ultra-rich doing what they love, it is truly about a combination of work/lifestyle and gives an opportunity to those who are mechanically inclined and artistic or at least focused to work on something they love: guns when I first started I made what I thought was an amazing amount of money as a high school student making between 20 and 30 grand a year working part-time afterschool. After settling in working as a general gunsmith from many years I realized that a more accurate amount was today’s equivalent of about 50 or $60,000, assuming I had a consistent customer base.
Industry standards are between 35 grand and 75 grand to work as a gunsmith in a specialty shop or at a major manufacturer. Of late I’ve done incredibly well for myself making a decent income from blogging and writing as a gun expert, and landing a job working for a defense contractor designing firearms to the tune of about $150,000 a year. I also make between five and 10 custom guns a year typically netting me an additional 15 to 30 grand. I would say that this is not particularly common in the industry but that’s someone who works in an area like myself (affluent Southern California) would make more than someone in say, the middle of Texas or Montana on a per project basis.
I would imagine the average salary for gunsmith is between about 30,000 the year and 60,000 the year on consistent basis. Recently industry has seen major upswings in new clientele and the need for qualified repair professionals. This will quite possibly lead to increased salaries in the sector. Those with major specialties or those with great name recognition or excellent resumes can expect to make at least twice that depending on location and the amount of time they spend on gunsmithing. Landing one contract for local law enforcement group or having a patent to test your name will put you in the elite status and could even make you high six figures per year.
How much money did/do you make starting out as?
As I mentioned above, salaries aren’t particularly high in tell you have name recognition or a very established customer base one can probably expect to make between 20 and $80 an hour depending on the type of work provided as a new gunsmith.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
Most companies hiring one even look at a gunsmith unless they have formal training. Personally I learned as an apprentice and had no formal training aside from armorers courses and actually at one time decided to get out of the industry for a couple of years to study risk management and business management, which eventually helped me to land higher-paying and more interesting work in the gun industry. Gunsmithing schools are just about everywhere, with some community colleges offering incredibly high level coursework. Yavapai and Lassen colleges are a couple of examples.
Apprentice work shouldn’t be discounted however, with the right outgoing attitude and some good connections as well as the proper skills and some good recommendations can lend you a good paying job at many of the major manufacturers. The gun industry is still kind of an old boys game; many of those in high places take care of those friends and friends of friends which seem to perpetuate their agenda or their ideals.
What is most challenging about what you do?
There is an expectation that a gunsmith can easily ascertain information or understand the root of a problem. This tends to be one of the biggest misnomers in the industry. Often times it’s difficult even to diagnose a concern on a very mainstream firearm. Just trying to understand well enough the workings of a specific firearm and the outside influences that come along with the shooting industry and guns makes it very difficult oftentimes to determine the reason the gun is not functioning or how to fix it.
It’s challenging to try to maintain a high level of value for the customer and yet all high level of workmanship without going into the whole a few times losing money by spending too many hours diagnosing or fixing a problem that you just might not feel comfortable charging the customer for. I chalk it up to experience and realize that each day when learn something that will help me the next time around. For many this is a very difficult reality.
What is most rewarding?
Seeing the customer when they realize what you’ve done with their gun and are able to derive pleasure from it. Knowing that something you did has become a trend or become widely accepted as a standard.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Expect the for several years to be very difficult, and realize that it’s not just about book knowledge it also requires people skills General knowledge, elbow grease and ingenuity, not to mention a little luck and the occasional hefty dose of risk-taking.
How much time off do you get/take?
I tend to stay pretty busy, but consider it part of our lifestyle and therefore don’t feel like I’m overworked. Very few times in my career have I felt pressured to stay on at work rather than be able to do something I’d rather be doing outside of work. It depends on whether you’re self-employed or employed by a particularly harsh business owner I guess when it comes down to how much time you’ll actually be able to take off. I would say many gunsmiths probably spend 60 to 70 hours a week working, but claim or truly believe that they’re only working between 20 and 30; a lot of that could be attributed to the gunsmiths love for what they do.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
That the job is glamorous. Even though I consider myself to be the 1% in gunsmithing doing exactly what I like and feeling challenged each day without having to get my hands dirty that often, it’s still not a glamorous job, or at least not as glamorous as most people make it out to me. There are only so many times you can test fire a weapon and still get maximum enjoyment out of it. I’m not a lie, it’s better than working on the assembly line somewhere, but it’s not quite as cloak and dagger or military special ops as one might think.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
I like to eventually retire sitting on top of a bunch of patents making royalties for them and be remembered as a revolutionizing an innovative gun designer and be making custom firearms for friends family and customers.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
Gunsmithing is much more achievable than most people assume. It’s more than a job, more than a career, it surely is a lifestyle. Without a love of firearms, or at least a heavy interest in all things mechanical it would be difficult to take on a position as a gunsmith and feel good about it. My approach to gunsmithing is much more practical than most; it involves a very focused and specific approach to determining what’s necessary and what’s next that is very similar to how someone lives their life.
Decisions are made systematically and have a specific outcome most often, yet the personalization is what makes the project or the journey that much more interesting. I started my website to give an insight to those from the outside looking in, I would invite anyone who is aspiring to be a gunsmith to take a look at the gunsmithing specific information on the website as a primer to those things of which you can expect if you truly start working towards a career in gunsmithing. If you even have a remedial knowledge or understanding of firearms, tooling, mathematics, or fabrication (or a whole host of other basic skills) and think you might want to be a gunsmith, expect that you can be and that it won’t be as difficult as someone might have told you it was.