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Sonoran Desert Institute

All the Latest News, Reviews and Developments happening with the Sonoran Desert Institute!

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ShopTalk With Kip Carpenter: The Essential Gunsmithing Tools List

“So, what tools do I need?” It’s one of the most common questions we see from students. We have already reviewed The Top 10 Mistakes New Gunsmiths Make and it is highly recommended reading to figure out what you should steer clear from regarding tools but this does not address what you absolutely need to start out as a gunsmith. SDI senior gunsmith Kip Carpenter recently took the time to review a list of tools he has helped to compile with the input of several of SDI’s most experienced gunsmiths.

Hand Tools:
  • Ball peen hammer (Recommended to have one smaller and one larger ball peen hammer.)
  • Delrin-tipped/brass hammer combo
  • Roll pin starters
  • Standard pin punch set (Steel and brass recommended. Brass is soft and does not risk marking a firearm but they are easily bent so it is recommended to have steel punches on hand as well.)
  • Allen keys
  • Torx head drivers
  • Needle nose pliers
  • Armorer’s wrench
  • Slotted screwdriver set
  • Bench block
  • Laser boresighter
  • Vernier caliper
  • Micrometer
  • Feeler gauges
  • India Stone
  • Needle files
Power Tools:
  • Power drill
  • Drill press
  • Cross slide drill press vise
  • Router
  • HSS Drill bits
  • Foredom™ or Dremel™ Rotary tools
Optional:
  • Belt sander with disc attachment
Supplies:
  • All-caliber cleaning kit
  • Non-chlorinated brake cleaner
  • Solvent
  • Gun oil
  • Propane hand torch
  • Patches
  • Shop rags
  • Q-tips
  • Hobby visor and protectives glasses
Heavy Equipment:
  • Vise with reciprocating head
  • Work bench
Optional:
  • Barrel vise with soft jaws

Additionally, as Kip Carpenter stated, “It’s a great idea to have a hacksaw for tasks such as shortening a barrel. I also highly recommend an extension attachment for your sockets. There’s simply no better way when disassembling a shotgun.” Kip also had input regarding specific firearms tools. “Wait to purchase specific tools for 1911’s and AR’s or any other firearm until you need them or if you start to specialize in those firearms. When you get into those firearms specific tools, they start to get expensive and that could hurt your bottom line as a business owner. You can also live without lathes and mills unless you have experience with them already of unless you expect to specialize in that kind of work.”

Kip also highly recommends seeking quality tools for your workhorses such as screwdrivers, hammers, wrenches, pliers, cleaning compounds and oils, and wood saw (for recoil pad work). These will be your most often used tools and it is essential that you can rely on them. One overlooked piece of equipment recommended by Kip is optical magnification. “Sometimes you need to really get in there and there is no better way than to use magnification glasses. Often, they come with light attachments and man, you can never have enough light,” stated Kip.

Kip’s last bit of advice, “Get yourself a big old pack of painter’s tape. I tape off every piece I work on just in case slip off a screw while working on a firearm. It’s amazing how much damage you can do with a minor slip so I like to eliminate that risk.”

There is a lot opinion out there when it comes to tools and you probably have your own preferences. This list is viewed as the most essential items that you will need as you begin a career as a gunsmith. Your accumulation of tools will likely increase as your career advances and as most gunsmiths will agree, you can never have enough tools.

As part of SDI’s curriculum, most of these tools are supplied to our students. Each program requires different tools that will be supplied. For full lists of our tools, view our programs here: https://sdi.edu/programs/ .

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ShopTalk with Kip Carpenter: Gunsmithing Opportunity in the Emerging Sport of Cowboy Action Shooting

“I’m your huckleberry. That’s just my game.” Most people have heard the line if not said it. Most who have seen the movie Tombstone have wanted to do so while wearing a cowboy hat and looking as stylish as Val Kilmer when they pull it off. Enter the world of cowboy action shooting, under the supervision of the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS) and the Cowboy Fast Draw Association (CFDA).

While discussing article topics, Sonoran Desert Institute (SDI) guru Kip Carpenter brought up cowboy action shooting with a fair amount of zeal. “I really think that this part of the industry is a true untapped resource. This is one of the fastest growing segments of shooting sports and there is simply much more demand than there are specialized gunsmiths to cover it.”

In the last few decades there has been an emphasis on military-based, tactical, precision shooting. The most sought-after firearms have been military staples such as the AR-15 and 1911 platforms. These areas of business, as well as hunting and family heirloom firearms, have been staples of the gunsmithing trade. Kip sees the emergence of cowboy action shooting as a terrific opportunity for emerging gunsmiths to specialize their business. Kip stated, “Man, there’s only a few gunsmiths in the country that specialize in this type of precision firearm. These guys get a lot of business.”

The emergence of these competitive organizations is relatively new with the forming of the SASS in 1987 and the Cowboy Fast Draw Association in 2006. The sport, however, is nothing new with shooters, who have been specializing in fast draw since the post-Civil War Wild West and a heyday of fast draw shooting in 1950s based on television shows like Gunsmoke and Western genre movies that romanticized it. Despite the popularity of these sports, there remain few gunsmiths who claim true specialty in these firearms.

Cowboy Fast Draw Association Executive Director, Cal Eilrich (Quick Cal), was generous to give us some time for this article. Cal started the CFDA in 2006 after a lifetime of competitive shooting experience. The association is family-owned and keeps to its roots by remaining family friendly. Safety is a founding principle of the CFDA and they keep their rulebook conservative. The CFDA limits their firearms to post-Civil War era and no later than turn of the century. There can be no modifications to the firearm outside of the smoothing of internal parts to increase efficiency. The SASS, while not as strict in their regulation of modifications as the CFDA, is equally conservative when compared to sporting groups such as the USPSA. Cal stated, “We allow some work on the action or the smoothing of the hammer so as not to hurt your thumb.” But it is important that the gunsmiths really know what they are doing. “Unfortunately, there just aren’t many gunsmiths that understand,” said Cal when discussing the importance stressed on keeping these firearms within their original factory specifications.

The CFDA and SASS could reduce their restrictions to facilitate easier work on their firearms, but as Cal noted, “Once you let the horses out, it’s hard to get them back.” Reducing restrictions would directly reduce the integrity of a traditional shooting sport such as cowboy action. Once there are modifications allowed to the firearms, it would move the genre into the realm of fighting for competitive advantage, and this is seen by many as a slippery slope. Kip Carpenter reflected a similar sentiment but more from an historical perspective. “My biggest fear as a gunsmith is that the history side of gunsmithing will be distorted and that people will forget our true history.” Whichever stance you take, it is easy to see how important it is to know exactly what you are doing if you decide to work with these traditional firearms.

Just how important is it to be specialized and experienced before working on these firearms? Cal Eilrich mentioned the career of his son, who works with him at the CFDA, and who was sent by his father to study under the famous Bob James (The Arizona Thumber), a custom gunsmith based in Phoenix, Arizona. Cal’s son now works on every firearm at the CFDA facility.

Not every smith can specialize on turn-of-the-century firearms and there’s not many of us who can study under somebody like Bob James. In this case, experience must be the crucible that forms your specialization. It would also not hurt to reach out to organizations like the SASS and CFDA. This work requires absolute care of the firearms. These competitors are extremely serious and you may even see some relic pieces across your bench. So, you really don’t want to mess something up.

Just how fast are cowboy action shooting sports growing? The SASS now has a membership of 90,000 members and the CFDA has grown from 30O in 2006 to their current membership of 5,000. Organizations such as the CDFA use wax bullets, which can be stopped by archery netting. This means that there is no restriction on where members can compete or practice. They have held competitions on city streets, rodeo grounds, and in public parks. This creates an opening not typically seen in shooting sports for anybody to participate, not just those with access to a shooting range. “Some guys even practice at home in their garage with wax ammunition,” Cal stated.

Cowboy action shooting sports are now in every state in the U.S. and there is a growing foothold in worldwide audiences. It is easy to see how Kip Carpenter can get so enthusiastic about the opportunity to work with such firearms. There is definitely an opportunity to do so for the right gunsmiths.

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ShopTalk with Kip Carpenter: Top 10 Mistakes New Gunsmiths Make

“Excuse me sir, I’m really sorry, it seems that my screwdriver slipped and I scratched the surface of your pistol. No, I did not realize this was one of Wyatt Earp’s revolvers. I have not put together my insurance but I can make payments to reimburse you.” This is the conversation that you may have right before you put a “closed” sign on your business doors…and leave it there.

You may never work on Wyatt Earp’s revolver, but you will work on firearms that mean a lot to the people who own them. With a little bit of advice, you might avoid mistakes while starting out as a gunsmith. Like any school, you will emerge from SDI with the fundamental knowledge and skills to pursue a career, but these assets can only take you so far. You must be an employable commodity, you must gain workplace experience, and you must avoid serious mistakes. The following is a conversation with our resident guru, Kip Carpenter, regarding the top 10 mistakes he has encountered from new gunsmiths.

10. Buying all the latest and greatest.
When starting out as a gunsmith there are a lot of tempting, shiny tools out there that you would love to get your hands on. In Kip’s words, “You have to consider your return on investment (ROI). I advise new gunsmiths to buy as they go and if it is a unique situation, borrow or rent equipment. There is no reason to buy a top-of-the-line lathe if you are going to do one or two barrels per year.” It is easy to run out of startup capital on tools. Instead, use your money wisely. If you decide to make any major investments, look at inexpensive advertising or any other spending that might increase your business. Then worry about diving into the Brownells catalog.

9. Verify your licensing.
In every state, there are rules and regulations on what it takes to be an operating gunsmith. New gunsmiths need to make sure their business is completely covered, especially with your FFL. Kip has seen this on several occasions. “One time there was a new gunsmith I knew that was chatting at a local gun shop about his first business. They asked him about his FFL and he stated that it was supposed to arrive the next day. As it so happened, there was a firearms inspector at the same counter and this gunsmith’s business was immediately ruined by fines as well as risk for jail time.” Under no conditions should you start working before you have the proper paperwork in order.

8. Set up your shop and use what you have.
When starting out, it is very tempting to find a large space to set up shop. Like buying all the new tools out there, don’t spend your capital on the biggest and best shop location. Don’t be afraid to use your garage or home shop. It is very difficult to effectively set yourself up for success with a huge rent hanging over your head. Consider your funding and manage it conservatively.

7. Get insurance.
In the beginning of this article, a situation was presented where the gunsmith could not cover the damage to a firearm that was under their care. Operating without insurance can be a slippery slope and it is easy to overlook as a business owner. Insurance costs money, but not nearly as much as a potential mistake on a customer’s firearm. As Kip warned, “Attorneys are sharp. And if you are not covered, you can kiss your business goodbye. Under no condition should you operate as a gunsmith without insurance to cover you. Mistakes happen in business and you must keep yourself safe for when they do.”

6. Stay honest.
Honesty in business seems to be a no-brainer, but little white lies in business are easy. They usually go something like, “Yeah, I can totally do that for you.” Overpromising and underdelivering is a sure path to destroy your startup. When starting as a gunsmith, be careful and realistic about your abilities. Be honest with customers if they have requested something you are not familiar with. Let them know that you can outsource the service or that there will be a learning curve as you go. If they have made too large of a request for you to cover, do not be afraid to recommend somebody else. You may lose a small amount of business to this honesty, but it will not be nearly as bad as the damage that your reputation could take if you tell a customer that you can do something if you have not developed those skills.

5. Buy good tools.
Eventually, you will be required to buy tools. If you have managed your finances conservatively, you will have the budget to do so. Kip has sage advice for these purchases, “When you need to buy a new tool, make sure you buy a good one. Nothing is worse than spending your hard-earned money on a brand-new tool that breaks after a few uses, or worse—something that damages the firearm that you are working on. Files are a great example.” Make sure to find quality brands from reputable sources and do your research on consumer forums before purchasing the tools. When your livelihood depends on it, make sure you use equipment that will hold up.

4. Time management.
Managing your time covers all aspects of your business. You must be wise with how you spend your time at work. Allocate your time to activities that help your bottom line as a business owner. There are a lot of distractions when working for yourself, so it is important to make sure that your choices are helping your business. Managing your time also becomes important when it comes to billing. Kip explained, “Try to avoid billing by the hour. Some gunsmiths are faster than others and some tasks can run into complications. It is important for your reputation not to end up in a situation where you have exorbitant costs passed unexpectedly to your customers. Instead, gauge a cost for the proposed tasks and stick to those estimates. This will ensure that your customers get what they expect.”

3. Be careful.
Mistakes happen to the best of gunsmiths. Kip knows this well and exercises absolute caution when working on a project for a customer. In Kip’s words, “You wouldn’t believe how much painters tape I use on a project. Even if I’m removing a screw, I will surround it with three layers of tape just to make sure I don’t slip and damage the firearm.” Kip also recommends getting a hold of some cheap practice firearms to perfect your process and ensure the greatest care for your work.

2. Don’t overextend yourself.
This falls in line with staying honest with your customers and extends to being honest with yourself. While working on a project, you will encounter situations where you must try something new. It is important to recognize when you are in over your head. This is another situation where purchasing practice firearms will be beneficial. If you find yourself challenged by a project, try to obtain a duplicate part or firearm to make sure you have honed your skills to complete the task at hand. If this is not possible, reach out to your customer. Instead of diving in to tackle a possibly risky situation, use open communication with your client and be honest with yourself about your abilities. Your reputation depends on it.

1. Check your ego.
With youth comes exuberance. Exuberance also comes with developing a new business. Kip noted this as the single most common and biggest mistake that he sees from new gunsmiths. Firearms create a lot of opinions and it is easy to develop your own. It is of the utmost importance as a business owner to forget much of your skill in conveying your opinions and to concentrate on your listening abilities. As Kip says, “You’ve got to keep yourself humble. I have been saved several times by doing this. You never know when the client standing across from you might have been the inventor of the trigger mechanism you are about to discuss negatively. More practically, you will often talk with clients who have done their own work on their firearms. Some of these clients have more experience than yourself and just might not have the time to do their own work. Keeping yourself humble will ensure quality relationships throughout your business life.” Your number one commodity is you and your reputation. Clients return and recommend people that listen and people that they like. Keep this in mind as the single greatest investment you can make in your business.

Opening a new gunsmithing business is difficult and a significant number of businesses do not make it past five years. Avoiding these pitfalls will help you on your path to success while trying to forge your gunsmithing career.

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ShopTalk with Kip Carpenter: Choosing an AR-15 Trigger

They’re easy to recognize. They come to their local gunsmith with a sheepish look and a white complexion. They lay their AR down and say something along the lines of, “I think I messed up.” The firearm looks perfect except the trigger is missing. This is typical when someone has done their own trigger work and has taken too much off the sear, creating a fully automatic firearm. Fully automatic firearms are highly illegal and this person is now facing jail time and a hefty penalty for their mistake. That’s because legally you may only modify your existing trigger or purchase an aftermarket trigger for your AR-15. The following dialogue is meant to give you some guidance on your choice.

Kip Carpenter of Sonoran Desert Institute told this story with a chuckle when talking about the previously mentioned situation, but he then switched to a serious tone. “First off, I ask if they have destroyed the faulty trigger. You don’t want any part of that liability.” Kip has worked on firearms for decades and has seen the results of shaving the sear on a trigger several times. The results are rarely good. “Honestly, it’s so easy to mess up and take off too much. As a business person, I won’t even touch a trigger if it involves taking off metal. Once you modify the mechanism, the liability switches to you as an individual or as the gunsmith involved. Even having a modified trigger that goes full auto can get you into hot water. You also void any kind of manufacturer warranty once you modify the mechanism, which is bad for your customer.”

In terms of trigger modification on your AR-15, Kip does support the buffing of the sear. “There’s no problem with buffing out the sear. In most instances, it will make it a smoother action for the shooter and can increase accuracy. Just as long as you aren’t removing metal,” said Kip. As a note, Kip followed this by stating that even this modification can void your warranty with the manufacturer should something fail, and that somebody without training should not attempt it. He stated, “It’s just one of those things. You have to weigh your risk versus your reward.” Most shooters want the most effective mechanism possible when it comes to triggers on their AR-15, or any firearm for that matter. When it comes to ARs, your options will fall between a single stage trigger and a two stage trigger. What is the difference?

With a single stage trigger, you have a steady pull in one fluid “or sometimes gritty” motion that disengages the sear and releases the hammer. These triggers can vary in weight (the amount of pressure that it takes to disengage the sear). Sometimes there is a bit of walk in the trigger, meaning that there is movement in the trigger at a steady or increasing pressure until the sear disengages. This is the most common type of trigger found on rifles directly from manufacturers as well as military issue firearms. The weight on these manufacturer rifle triggers, especially military models, varies between 5.5 lbs. and 8 lbs. Rifle triggers can also be found with weights between 3.5 lbs and 5.5 lbs for more precision shooting needs. Kip Carpenter stated, “You really don’t want to take a trigger below 3.5 lbs. It can create an unsafe situation with an unfamiliar shooter. The slightest amount of pressure can cause a discharge and I like to play it on the safe side.”

Two stage triggers are a different story. As Kip states, “These are precision firing mechanisms. They are great for competitive shooters.” They operate on a principle of a crisp release after some slack on your trigger pull. The initial trigger pull will be light, typically half the weight of the trigger’s weight. For instance, on a 5 lb. trigger, the initial weight may be 2 – 2.5 lbs. until you feel it stop. This is often referred to as a “wall.”At this point, the pressure is increased to the full 5 lbs. for the shooter, “the wall,” and the sear will release with very little additional movement. This enables the shooter to know exactly when the rifle will fire.

Outside of your choice on trigger types (single stage or two stage), your options are almost too many to count. These options can be categorized into two different types: standard trigger assemblies and drop-ins.

Aftermarket, standard trigger assemblies can be purchased with innumerable options at varying weights. The name of these triggers describes what you need to know. You will receive the trigger parts and assemble them in your AR. This is a fairly simple process if you are familiar with the assembly of a trigger, but for those less experienced with firearm mechanisms, you should take this to a professional.

Drop-in triggers are an altogether different story. These function like LEGO blocks. They come in a unit and are fully assembled. You simply drop these into your AR and secure them with a pin. These are very difficult to mess up, but as Kip stated, “You can run into problems if you have not verified that the drop-in unit is compatible with your lower receiver. In this case, the pins might not line up.”

Kip Carpenter is enthusiastic when discussing drop-in triggers. “I highly recommend drop-ins to my customers. Unless you have blatantly not followed the directions, you will know exactly what the trigger will do and what weight the trigger is.” When choosing a drop-in, Kip has this guidance, “Make sure it is compatible with your receiver, make sure it is within your budget, get help if you are not confident in your install abilities, and make sure to use a reputable manufacturer. Choosing parts for a rifle is serious business. Your life can be at stake, so you definitely want to use something produced by a reputable source.”

Choices of trigger, as previously stated, are numerous. Will choosing an aftermarket trigger make you a better shooter? “Lordy, no,” said Kip. “Technique will trump your trigger every time. But you can see a good amount of improvement on your existing technique with the use of a precision trigger. What it all comes down to is personal taste.” Choosing the right trigger for you depends on the type of shooting that you do. More importantly, it depends on your own technique and which type or trigger helps you to be a more accurate shooter.

Two stage triggers are often recommended for shooting that requires single, precise shots. Single-stage triggers are often recommended when one wishes to use rapid follow-up shots. Even in these instances, a shooter may choose the opposite use for these triggers. The most important part in choosing a trigger is trying out different styles until you find a weight and trigger type that fits you as a shooter. So get out there and get shooting, because even if you don’t find the right trigger, there is no substitute for experience and technique.

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Chris Miller 1

Pending Graduate Spotlight: The Success of Chris Miller

“This is the best decision I’ve ever made.” Chris Miller gets excited when he talks about Sonoran Desert Institute. He is currently working full-time as the head gunsmith at Phelan Gun Range and part-time as a scuba diving instructor in Southern California.

Like many ex-military, Chris developed a fondness for firearms while serving. It was a passion that stayed with him after he left the service. “Everybody I work with is ex-military. We get to work with firearms all day, and we love what we do.”

Chris was previously working full-time as a scuba diving instructor for a sporting goods store, but the store closed and Chris found himself with a lot of time on his hands. As he began to explore his options, he realized that there was not a lot of opportunity for scuba diving where he lived in SoCal. “I always tinkered with guns. It was a hobby of mine and I wanted to see if there was a way to get into the industry. I figured my best bet was to gain some certification to increase my chances. I was home a lot after my employer went out of business, so I figured it would be a good time to put my G.I. Bill to work for me.”

When Chris was investigating his options, he centered on SDI’s programs. Chris had this to say about his time at SDI, “It was really convenient. My wife was in school as well, but she had to leave the house for class. I could hang out at home, take the kids to school, and concentrate on my own education.” Chris completed SDI’s Advanced Gunsmithing Certificate, Advanced Armorer Course, Ballistics and Reloading Certificate, and wants to come back for the Associate of Science in Firearms Technology program.

One of the duties that Chris has at his current job is function checks. These, he remarked, are the best part. “I can’t believe I get to do this every day. This is really a dream come true for me. I leave work three times a week, load up the dog, and go to the range for function checks on rifles that I am working on. Seriously, part of my job is to go shooting three times per week.”

Working in Southern California, one might expect the state’s strict gun laws to negatively influence his workload. “Not the case,” said Chris. “With all the gun laws passed in California over the past few years, the firearms that were all owned before the laws passed required modifications to make them legal. I would say that a majority of our business involves bringing firearms up to legal specifications.” This, combined with the numerous 3-gun and cowboy action shooting tournaments, has made Phelan Gun Range a busy place.

Chris is ambitious about his career as a gunsmith. He has recently expanded his role by working on the marketing side of the business. He has taken the lead at Phelan Gun Range by creating YouTube videos, keeping the website up to date, and working on Facebook. “In six months, we have accumulated the same amount of traffic as our local sporting goods store as well as Bass Pro Shop. This feels like it’s just the beginning for us and I’m always trying to grow our viewership.”

Chris shows a special amount of determination. He took ownership of his career by gaining the credentials necessary to make himself appealing to potential employers. And he has further developed into a contributor in the firearms industry by working on the marketing side of the business. His is a story of success in the firearms industry, and SDI is glad to play a role.

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Garett at the Raider Project

The Raider Project

You served your country for four or more years in the military, traveling with a group of men and women you considered family. You left your home after high school and learned to rely on these people. Now, out of the service, you are alone.

But thanks to the Raider Project, you don’t have to be.

The Raider Project is an organization that serves the purpose of helping Marines transition to civilian life while also providing constant support after they have made the transition. This year, representatives from Sonoran Desert Institute (SDI) had a tremendous opportunity to speak at the Raider Project Transition Seminar. This seminar is not specific to the Marine Corps but rather is open to all servicemembers who will be separating within two years, or to veterans who are still within a transitional period.

The Raider Project refers to the direction and guidance that service members utilize in their transition to civilian life as their azimuth. For those inexperienced with orienteering, this is a reference to navigating, typically from true north. According to the Raider Project, “Straying a couple of degrees over a stretch of years can result in broken relationships, crushed dreams, financial ruin, lack of purpose, and despair. The longer you spend off-azimuth, the harder it is to get back—but it’s never impossible.” SDI’s presentation to this audience showed that there are indeed paths on which you can orient yourself in civilian life that allow you to work around the elements of the Marine Corps that you loved.

This was the first time that Sonoran Desert Institute has been able to speak at an event hosted by the Raider Project. The seminar, hosted at the Hilton Dallas/Southlake Towne Square, was held on May 19–21, 2017, and SDI’s Chief Education Liaison, Garett Bischoff, was honored by the opportunity to speak at the Saturday Wrap-Up for the first day of events.  In Bischoff’s words, “The speakers at this event were amazing! It was really a unique experience. We had the opportunity to address the audience, but the best part was the amount of one-on-one time we had to speak with service members attending the event. The SDI team had the chance to answer any questions that attendees had as well as address any possibilities for the attendees’ future education.”

The Raider Project Transition Seminar carried a heavy lineup of speakers. Topics included various facets of behavior, optimizing hormonal output, balancing stress through yoga, integrity, brain health, and nutrition. Attendees were also able to interact with all of the speakers throughout the weekend. The environment of education, interaction, and peers all seeking the same goal provided for a high-energy and motivating weekend.

There is an evident pride when the staff of Sonoran Desert Institute speaks about helping veterans. As a staff comprised of many former military service members who have already transitioned to civilian life, it makes sense they would carry a vested interest in students with a similar background. SDI has created curriculums that are easily accessible to military and former military servicemembers.

There is an evident pride when the staff of Sonoran Desert Institute speaks about helping veterans. As a staff comprised of many former military service members who have already transitioned to civilian life, it makes sense they would carry a vested interest in students with a similar background. SDI has created curriculums that are easily accessible to military and former military servicemembers.

As Garett Bischoff so brilliantly summed up the event, “There could be no greater honor than to help service members.”

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Theo Susuras

Get to know SDI: Theo Susuras

There’s nothing quite like getting a sunburn on top of your sunburn. That is exactly what Theo Susuras stated that he was doing a few months ago. “There is nothing pleasant about working outside when it is 117 degrees outside. Some people say at least it’s a dry heat but that doesn’t make it any better,” said Theo. He decided to look elsewhere for employment. His life passion was shooting and he wanted to work in the firearms industry. He found Sonoran Desert Institute of Firearms Technology (SDI).

Theo lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, and was working for the city as a maintenance worker before starting at Sonoran Desert Institute. Masonry was his specialty. It was active, labor intensive, and he was familiar with a bull float. He was not accustomed to sitting for long periods and he was not used to being evaluated on his interactions with others. Interpersonal communication proved to be a talent Theo possessed, and he made a great impression in his interviews. Not just anybody could make this kind of transition. Before he knew it, he was beginning a new career as an admissions advisor with SDI. Theo said it best, “Honestly, I didn’t know if I could do it. I was used to working outside. It was all about coming home feeling physically exhausted. This was different; it was mental exhaustion I was coming home with.”

Theo credits his quick transition to his training. “Roxanne Palmer has been working with me. She makes it easy. She’s the smartest person I have ever worked with and I have yet to find a question she can’t answer in full detail.” When asked how he likes his new duties, he was quick to answer, “This is the best job I’ve ever had. I love it.” He also noted that, besides his training, it was equally great to work in such a team-oriented and positive environment.

Mr. Susuras works as an admissions advisor at SDI. He stated that his role is to meet prospective students and get to know them. His favorite part of the job is the fact that he is there to help others. Theo finds fulfillment in the fact that he gets to be of service. He takes pride in evaluating what will make students successful should they attend school. “The only times I haven’t been able to get prospective students on track have been when they are on deployment and travelling with a bad internet connection. Outside of that, I have been able to be helpful and have had countless great interactions.”

Theo has gone from being unsure about his role at SDI to passionately serving those that are seeking information about the school. His zeal for the firearms industry does not stop there. He is also a competitive shooter with the United States Practical Shooting Association (USPSA).

USPSA competition is what inspired Theo to work with SDI, and he works extremely hard. He practices drawing and dry firing up to 90 minutes per day. Many competitive shooters in the industry claim that 20 to 30 minutes per day is enough to be a competitive shooter. This is simply not enough for Theo; he wants to be the best. He competes throughout Arizona and Southern Utah, routinely wins, and rarely places below 5th place, which is more impressive when considering there are often over 150 competitors.

The open division is where Theo makes his home when competing. While other divisions are highly restricted in what types of handguns are allowable, this division allows for countless modification and 9×19 and up ammo. For those unfamiliar with handguns used in the open division, they resemble something straight out of a sci-fi film. It requires a lot of knowledge and an exceptional amount of discipline to compete at this level. Theo has even developed himself into an expert at reloading so that he can ensure consistency with his ammunition. He is currently three percentage points from reaching the level of grand master in the USPSA, which is a crowning accomplishment.

Part of what has thrilled Theo so much about competing in shooting at a high level is getting to meet his heroes. Since his boss first showed him how to shoot two years ago, and Theo purchased his first basic 1911 for competition, he has followed the professionals and their competition results. “It’s really amazing. For example, if you attended an NFL game, it would be very rare to meet a professional football player. If you did have a chance to meet one, they probably wouldn’t take the time to talk with you. With the professional shooters, I have gotten to meet my heroes. Not just casual conversations but I have been able to call several of them my friends.”

Theo Susuras has had a year that is full of change. He has a new career that he loves, he hopes to be a grand master level shooter within the year, and he is currently engaged to be married. He credits the support of his fiancé for his success in competitive shooting as well as his pursuit of a new vocation. Theo is learning quickly at SDI and is consistently taking on new responsibilities. With the work ethic Theo has already shown in competitive shooting, combined with the commitment to his relationship and the love that he has for SDI, the school is mightily privileged to have him.

Welcome aboard, Theo! We hope you avoid sunburns on top of sunburns for many years to come.

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Joshua Stevens

A Story of Inspiration: Joshua Stevens

“There is merit without elevation, but there is no elevation without some merit.”
~Nobleman and writer François de La Rochefoucauld.

Veteran, published author, college graduate, and future gunsmithing business owner Joshua Stevens’ name may seem familiar. Joshua’s winning essay, “The Rise of 80 Percent Firearms,” was published by Gun Digest as part of a large essay contest, and he has been the focus of various news releases put out by Sonoran Desert Institute (SDI), where he attended and graduated. Recently, Joshua was picked as SDI’s Famous Alumni. He was selected for this recognition because his work, personality, and accomplishments outside of the classroom were exemplary. Nobody was aware that he did all of this while undergoing diagnosis, surgery, and recovery for a large invasive tumor inside his head, which was the result of a traumatic brain injury while on deployment. He did not want help—he needed to complete school on his own.

SDI Director of Curriculum and Assessment, Mike Olson, went on to say, “You know, the best part about this guy is that he stood out right away. He was always engaging with professors and meticulous with his work. I called him up to tell him we had selected him for our Famous Alumni award after he was published in Gun Digest and it was not until he received the award that we saw his video detailing his struggles with a traumatic brain injury. He never said a word about it to anyone.”

Joshua Stevens went on to earn a 3.83 GPA and never missed a step. It was a point of pride for him to graduate. For Joshua, it was difficult to go back to school. He had been in the military for six years and was nine years removed from high school. Remaining thankful, he credited Sonoran Desert Institute’s advisors for helping him every step of the way as he went through the enrollment process, and they continued to do so as he worked his way through his degree. In a school setting where attendance is required, Joshua most likely would have had to withdraw from his program. There is no possibility that he would have been able to work through his trials without anybody knowing. Attending SDI, though, enabled him to pursue what he really loves, keep a flexible schedule, and keep his health status guarded so he could go through school on his own terms.

Joshua’s statement on his time at SDI shows humility and sums it up best. “I actually really enjoyed my time with SDI. Initially going into things I was I guess a bit arrogant and didn’t really think I’d end up learning much, I knew having a certification or degree in the field would set me apart from the other gunsmiths in the area and that was my main motivation for enrolling. I was quite happy to find out I didn’t know half as much as I thought I did and not only did I learn a lot while attending but I was able to ask myself the right questions and really ensure that gunsmithing was the correct career choice for me. Graduating despite adversity was really just the cherry on top of everything.

When I first found out I had a brain tumor and then everything else that happened school was one of the only things in my life that was still normal in a sense. I guess in a way it was one of the things that kept me grounded and provided a light at the end of the tunnel, a goal that gave the storm purpose. Being as successful as I was, getting published, and now being honored as a Famous Alumni were all unexpected and tremendously humbling, I just gave everything my best effort and have been amazed at where that’s taken me, everything has really reassured me that I’m on the right path and doing something that I’m good at.”

This piece starts with a quote from François de La Rochefoucauld for a specific reason. Much like Joshua Stevens, François was a military man, a businessman, and a writer, and he found success after overcoming a traumatic brain injury. Joshua has already amassed an impressive body of gunsmithing work and he has found success in writing. There is no reason to believe that he will not reach every goal just as he did with his education. He will be elevated by his merit.

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