Are you a gunsmith?

I mean, really… Are you? I’m not. I’m fairly handy with tools – even the dreaded Dremel. I can read plans and specs, and I have a pretty mechanical mind, so I can grasp how most of our competition guns actually work internally. But when it comes to taking a set of parts and making a properly working, accurate, reliable firearm out of them, I know better than to delude myself about my abilities.

What’s had me curious lately is the seeming large number of folks who think they are gunsmiths… Oh, they don’t run around telling people that they’re gunsmiths or anything like that… What they do seem to do, though, is to decide how a gun should be built, and then they go tell some ‘smith to do it their way.

Hit the jump for some thoughts on building guns, the insanity we impose upon our gunsmiths, and the side effects we can introduce in doing so…

First things first… many many MANY thanks to my good buddy Yamil Sued for the gracious use of the picture on this page. Yamil is a professional photographer – you can check out his work on his website. You might’ve also seen some of it pop up on your friendly Brownell’s catalog. (update, Feb. 2011 – now on the Dillon Precision catalog covers, too!)

How do gunsmiths make money? For the moment, lets just consider the topic at hand – building a gun from the ground up (though the same principles will apply to most of what they do…). Gunsmiths generally make money on the actual labor of assembling parts to make a gun. Sometimes, they also have some markup on the parts they sell you, of course. If the gun doesn’t work following delivery (at least for a reasonable amount of time), the ‘smith usually is required to repair the gun free of charge. This results in a reduction of the money they made building the gun in the first place. If they spend an inordinate amount of time repairing a gun they built, they effectively lose money on having built the gun in the first place – the time they spent repairing the lemon could have been spent building another new gun, for instance, or taking in other repair work.

For that reason, most experienced ‘smiths arrive at a small sub-set of the vast numbers of parts available that consistently and reliably perform well for them in the guns they build. This may be because certain parts are superior, or because the inconsistencies in the particular parts are known and manageable, or because those particular parts fit the ‘smith’s build methodology better than others.

Yet, the way most of us go about looking for a gun, or deciding what we want in a gun starts in a fashion that is entirely at odds with the ‘smith’s experience and knowledge. Most of us either collect a “box ‘o parts” and take it to the smith, or we decide in advance exactly which parts we want the gun to contain (which is really a virtual “box ‘o parts” anyway). You can see this behavior on the Benoverse even in the Gallery section where people show pictures of their favorite Roscos – they provide a punch list of all the parts in the gun, as if that is the most important factor in the quality of the piece.

Why is that we do this? The reasons vary, of course. We tend to associate quality with certain brand names, of course. Sometimes we want “the cool stuff”. Maybe we’ve got the part on hand, and just want to use it, rather than selling it, or something. In the end, most of us can understand “Larry’s Brand Springs”, or “Hose-master Thumb Safeties”, or whatever. We don’t know the exact details of fitting those parts, or which parts interact well, or (possibly most importantly) which parts the ‘smith we’re planning on using has had the best experience and luck using. Many times we gather information from various sources – the Benoverse, our buddies, advertisements in magazines, whatever… – and use that info as a basis for what parts we think belong in a gun.

Then, of course, we go pop that box of parts we’ve accumulated, or the list of parts we want used down on a gunsmith’s bench and say, “Build it!” Then we have the nerve to get pissed off when the ‘smith gives us grief about the parts we’ve chosen, or we tell everyone he’s no good, and we go somewhere else.

Ok, I hear ya… A skilled gunsmith should be able to take a nominal set of parts and build a working firearm using them. This is definitely true. However… not every set of parts is equal. While a gun can be built from them, the gun may not be as optimal as other parts. Or, there may be reliability issues, or premature breakages simply due to interactions of what turn out to be incompatible parts, rather than lack of gunsmith skill.

Unfortunately, many ‘smiths have to take this sort of work in order to pay the bills. Then they spend a lot of time making that “box ‘o parts” work reliably, all the while their reputation may be suffering, their customer is getting unhappy, and their work ends up falling behind while they address the issues with something they probably would have preferred to build differently for you in the first place.

Let me suggest a different way around the issue that may result in a more successful build for both you, and the gunsmith you’ve decided to inflict yourself upon! Instead of detailing the solution to the ‘smith, consider instead the features you’d like to have or need to have on the gun. How about an example from my experience?

I tend to rub the slide with my strong hand thumb. Arguably, I could fix this by changing my grip, but I’ve not been successful doing so. In order to prevent stoppages caused by my thumb robbing velocity from the slide, I need to have some sort of thumb shield on the gun. There are a few different ways to do that, of course, but I’m sort of partial to the look of the Swenson thumb shield safety. Gunsmiths hate ‘em, of course, cause they require a lot of finishing work. But, they have a shield on each side, and they get out of the way for cleaning the gun. However, is it really critical to have that safety on the gun, instead of one of the other potential solutions? Would a frame mounted thumb shield provide the same feature, and work better for my gunsmith? Would it possibly last longer than a Swenson, or be more reliable (hint… yes!) ??

Ask yourself this? Is it wildly important that you absolutely have to have Brand-X barrel? Or Model-Z compensator? Must the barrel truly be ported with four holes cut at such-and-such a diameter just the right smidge behind the comp? Or is it more important to have a gun that can group 1 inch at 50 yards that shoots somewhat soft and relatively flat? Do you think there are multiple ways to skin that cat? You betcha. Ask 5 reputable gunsmiths for those features, and you’re likely to get 5 different answers, based on the gunsmith’s preference in parts, style, and preferences for looks and feel.

By way of example, instead of listing parts for you, why don’t I list out the features I want in an Open gun? The gun MUST be reliable, no compromise. The gun should be able to manage 1″ at 50 yards, and maintain that accuracy through 20,000 rounds. The gun needs to appropriately fit my hand, not having any sharp edges or interference with my grip. I need a C-More sight with a 12 MOA dot (yeah, a part callout – but the sighting system is a very particular feature, if you think about it, and is critical to the shoot-ability of the gun). I want the gun to track smoothly – not too fast, and not jerky, hitchy, or bumpy. I want the gun to track consistently. I would prefer that the gun shoot relatively flat, with a bias towards soft, rather than hard in the hand – this can mean I need to sacrifice absolute flatness, but is a good compromise for my shooting style, and there’s a range that’s acceptable in there. I need a thumb shield on the strong thumb side of the gun (left side) at a minimum. Because of the thumb shield, I also need a cocking handle – no compromise here; if the smith won’t install a cocking handle, I go somewhere else. I prefer the gun to be relatively lightweight, weighing under 43 ounces, and preferably more like 40-41, if that doesn’t compromise the other design goals too much. The gun should balance at or slightly behind the middle finger of my strong hand when its gripping the gun.

Let me tell you, without a doubt, there are many ways to build a gun with those features. Handing the ‘smith I’ve chosen this set of features starts a much different process than dropping a box of parts on their desk. The ‘smith can ask clarifying questions, and start a dialog with you about the features you need, and get an idea about what things like “flat” and “soft” mean to you. He might have several guns you can try to shoot and compare features. Then he can pick out the parts that he KNOWS will work and will keep your gun out of his shop in the future, except for the usual checkup. That translates to reliability for you, which means fewer problems in matches, more points, and therefore better finishes!!!

Check your ego at the door, and let the gunsmith build you a better gun than you could’ve planned for yourself. You’ll have fewer headaches, better success on the range, and a gun that meets all your needs without driving your gunsmith up the wall!

About the author


USPSA Grand Master, NRA Instructor, http://re-gun.com/about/

Permanent link to this article: http://re-gun.com/2008/04/are-you-a-gunsmith/

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