Sonoran Desert Institute

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

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SDI Staff Attends IFSA GunLearn Seminar

When offering an education in firearms technology, it is important that your staff be knowledgeable about the subject. Sonoran Desert Institute (SDI) takes pride in the fact that they have a well-qualified staff of experienced firearms experts. And they recently took it a step further by sending three of their staff to St. Louis for the International Firearms Specialist Academy (IFSA) GunLearn Seminar. SDI President, Traci Lee, Vice President, Wesley LeMay, and Director of Faculty Services, Sara McGilvray, took the trip to St. Louis, and this is what they learned.

The IFSA GunLearn Seminar specializes in the training and accrediting of firearms professionals to become Certified Firearms Specialists. As written on the IFSA GunLearn website,, “CFS certification establishes that a person is a competent professional in the field of safe and accurate firearm and ammunition handling, and identification.”

While Wesley LeMay has a strong military background and is no stranger to firearms technology, Traci Lee and Sara McGilvray have strong backgrounds in education, but are relative novices in their experience with firearms. Despite the varying degrees of firearms experience among the three, they were all able to take away valuable information from their experience with the IFSA GunLearn Seminar.

The three-day event put on by® provided all attendees with a challenging environment regardless of experience. Traci Lee had this to say, “The course challenged the various levels of experience that were in the room, without completely overwhelming a novice like me.” Wesley LeMay echoed this sentiment, “This was my second opportunity to see Mr. Dan O’Kelly teach this seminar, and I continue to learn something new each time.”
Attendees were instructed on firearm safety, mechanical operation, ammunition, silencers, destructive devices, court testimony, gun parts, and categorization based on GCA and NFA guidelines. SDI staff was also educated on the firearms regulations surrounding the school, which utilizes 80% lower receivers and muzzleloaders. Follow-up discussions were engaged after each day’s lesson to ensure that each attendee could address all of their questions.

GunLearn Seminars are offered in person and as online-based programs much like Sonoran Desert Institute’s School of Firearm Technology. All of their instructors, including Dan O’Kelly, have at least 30 years of experience and are always able to bring a substantial amount of knowledge to the table.

SDI was grateful to have the opportunity to send staff to a seminar that could provide so much education in such a short amount of time. The fact that both experienced firearms experts as well as firearms novices came away with enough knowledge to feel comfortable fielding firearms-related questions speaks to the strength of GunLearn’s program. This seminar is highly recommended and the school’s staff can rest assured that SDI will continue to educate them through this program.

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Staff Spotlight: Caitlin Mullins

Five years and still going strong. Caitlin Mullins started working at Sonoran Desert Institute (SDI) while in college and needed a part-time job. She graduated from Arizona State University in 2015 with a bachelor’s in Anthropology but has stayed on with SDI, playing an increasingly important role in the school.

A lot of college students seek part-time work just to earn some money while attending school. These positions are usually vacated after the student graduates and they decide to move on to a position related to their degree. Caitlin has taken a different route. She has fallen in love with the school, her co-workers, and the overall culture at SDI. The reward has been an increased level of responsibility as well as making many friends along the way.

You might not recognize Caitlin’s name, but if you are currently a student, chances are she has seen yours. Caitlin has taken on an increasing role in student services and is one of the engines that make the school work. One of her primary duties is to update student information, help with acclimation to the school, and process transfer credits. If you have enrolled at SDI or if you have transferred credits into an SDI program, Caitlin is the person to thank.

One of Caitlin’s favorite parts of working for SDI has been helping students who have never taken courses in higher education or students who have not attended school in a long time. She makes sure everybody has all the information on hand to help them succeed. Caitlin stated, “While we put students’ success at our school in their own hands, I take a lot of pride in making sure they have everything they need to do so.” This part of giving responsibility to students can be a bit of a tightrope. There is a delicate balance between trying to help everybody and making sure that students are taking their own initiative.

Between the work that Caitlin does in admissions as well as in student services, she wears a lot of hats. “I can definitely say that no day is ever the same.” Whether it is updating student information, transferring their credits, answering their questions, or addressing concerns by sending out informational packets, Caitlin takes pride in the help that she provides. The enjoyment that she gets out of the job is reflected in the many success stories of SDI’s graduates. It’s one of her favorite parts of the job—seeing a student graduate and find success after attending the school.

SDI, being a school that revolves around gunsmithing, also gives Caitlin an opportunity to immerse herself in the firearms culture of American society. This is a cultural segment that Caitlin is familiar with. She grew up in Kentucky, shooting with her father and her friends. While she does not do her own gunsmithing, firearms have always been a part of her life. This aspect of the job has been a large part of why she has spent five years working for Sonoran Desert Institute.

Caitlin loves her job, which is evident in her enthusiasm and commitment to the school. But when it comes time to decompress, she enjoys attending concerts in the Arizona area, gardening, and, as she stated, “Lots of reading.” Caitlin also has a special interest in sign language and seeks out opportunities to volunteer for interpreting.

While you may not know her name, if you attend SDI or if you have already graduated, you can be assured that Caitlin Mullins has put in a lot of hard work on your behalf. She has seen the school grow from students having to mail in projects to now being able to use the dynamic online environment offered. And she is excited to see what the future holds for Sonoran Desert Institute.

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So You Want To Be A Firearms Journalist?

“It’s a great program but there is way too much writing!” This is a comment seen often on SDI’s Facebook page as well as in email correspondence the school receives on a regular basis, especially regarding SDI’s associate’s program. Without going into the details of how writing is an essential part of higher education, it is easy to empathize with this feedback. Writing can be a drag if you are forced to do it. Somebody enrolling in a gunsmithing school may not be accustomed to writing a great deal and it may not be an expected part of the education. Seeing value in writing can be difficult, but seeing writing as learning to communicate…that’s a different story.

“So, you want to be an outdoor writer?” This was the subject of an article that floated across our emails at SDI awhile back. It detailed the competitive world of trying to make a living by writing about outdoor pursuits. Many people pursue this route and visualize making a living by hunting and fishing. This article on outdoor writing introduced prospective writers to the grind involved in this line of work. Writing is indeed a difficult career and is highly competitive between writers. The intent is not to tell Sonoran Desert Institute (SDI) graduates to go out and become writers. The intent is to demonstrate an avenue to gaining more business as a gunsmith by utilizing writing in your approach to marketing.

When a gunsmith opens his doors for the first time, it is a daunting exercise. The gunsmith typically has their nerves wracked with the stress of constantly trying to find new clients. Writing about gunsmithing, about your experiences as a gunsmith, and about the various firearms you encounter can be a terrific way to expose yourself to a wider audience as well as gain credibility in your industry.

“Isn’t marketing expensive?” Nope, not at all. Utilizing writing as a method of marketing your business may possibly be one of the cheapest routes you can take. Most businesses need a website and there are countless free blog-based websites out there. WordPress is one example. Your domain name will be your only cost. You can literally have a domain name and create a website in about a half a day. Your website does not have to be fancy; it just needs to communicate what you do and why your services are valuable. And that’s where writing comes in.

Once you get your website up and running, just start writing. You can write about your daily projects, your challenges as a gunsmith, problems you see with certain firearms, and heck, you can write about anything you like so long as you make it relevant to your business. Expand the viewership of your writing by starting a business page on Facebook. Your writing will now be exposed to those who have liked your page, and in turn, those writings will be exposed to their friends. No purchasing of ads, no radio spots, just free marketing.

Let’s say you don’t like writing articles. Let’s say you would rather make YouTube videos and post them as part of your marketing. Without a solid foundation in writing, your YouTube videos may lack needed coherence that could validate you to a viewing audience. By utilizing your writing skills to refine your ability to tell a story, you can start producing higher quality videos.

“What does writing have to do with gunsmithing?” By itself, not a lot really. However, if you have a business or plan on starting a business, the ability to communicate will be one of the most significant keys to your success. If you want to operate a gunsmithing business, now writing becomes a very important part of gunsmithing. The reason for this is that writing reinforces the ability to effectively tell a story to an audience. That ability will be a daily requirement for you as a business owner.

“So, you want to be a firearms journalist?” SDI’s programs teach students to be effective communicators. It is an essential part of owning and operating a business. Writing is not a nuisance that you merely need to get through. It is an area that should be concentrated on as you advance in your career. Writing should be incorporated into your business on every level. Will you be an acclaimed journalist? Not unless you pursue that career path. You will, however, be effective at communicating the message of your business to a prospective audience.

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Brakes, Flash Suppressors, and Compensators, “Oh My!”

Most AR-15 platform firearms are equipped with some form of muzzle device. Muzzle devices can be attached to almost any firearm, and for those who do not wish to attach one, there is the option of porting your barrel. This presents a huge variety of options for firearm owners, and so SDI is often asked for recommendations. The following are some basics to help you better understand the world of muzzle devices.

People often refer to a muzzle break as anything that goes on the end of a firearm barrel. This is like calling a Mountain Dew a Coke. Muzzle devices fall into six primary categories: flash suppressors, brakes, compensators, sound forward/blast deflectors, combination devices, and sound suppressors. Firearms are loud and utilize a controlled explosion. The sound and explosion have to go somewhere, which is where muzzle devices come in.

Flash Suppressor Devices

Flash suppressors, like most of the devices on this list, are fairly self-explanatory. When the primer ignites the powder in a shell case, the resulting gas has no other route than to follow the bullet out of the chamber. This creates a flash as the heated gas rapidly exits the barrel, expands, and interacts with the oxygen outside of the barrel. Adding a flash suppressor to the end of a gun barrel disperses the gas, keeping it from heating to the point of combustion and thus suppressing the flash of the firearm. This device is meant to be used to hide the location of a shooter in low light or nighttime situations; there is no other added benefit such as a brake or compensator. Another solution to muzzle flash is by using chemicals to increase the burn efficiency of the gas expelled from a cartridge. Since this article concerns devices, chemical flash suppressor technology will not be highlighted.

Muzzle Brake Devices

A muzzle brake is a muzzle device intended to reduce the felt recoil of a rifle (the force that causes the rifle to push into your shoulder). The muzzle brake does this by deflecting the gas created when the rifle is fired out of the ports of the brake. This sounds similar to a flash suppressor as well as a compensator, but they all do very different things. The deflection of a muzzle brake does not cool the gas; therefore, the flash is still visible. The gas being deflected by a brake pushes the energy of the rifle in an outward direction, therefore reducing the force felt by the shooter. Something to keep in mind is that if somebody is standing next to you, they will be subject to a significant amount of sound, hot gas, and potential debris.

Compensator Devices

A compensator device is designed to reduce the amount of climb on your barrel after the shot. This device by itself does not reduce recoil or flash. It is often combined with a brake, and you will often see ports for compensation on a muzzle brake. For the purposes of this article, though, these two devices are completely separate in function. Compensator devices can be recognized because the ports are in the opposite direction of muzzle climb. These ports push gas out of the top of the device, which pushes against the climb of the barrel.

Sound Forward/Blast Deflector Devices

Sound forward or blast deflector devices should be renamed “Good Neighbor” devices. These devices have in mind the ear drums of those standing next to you at the range or those comrades in arms that may be standing alongside the shooter. Muzzle brakes have a disadvantage that involves projecting the energy of a firearm straight out to the side of the shooter…directly into the face of the person standing next to them. Sound forward/blast deflector devices solve this. Often these devices will fit over existing muzzle brakes as long as they are compatible. These devices function by taking all of the gas and debris that was projected to the side of the firearm and redirecting it. Keep in mind, sound forward/blast deflector devices are blocking some of the functionality of a muzzle brake, but your friends at the range will thank you.

Combination Devices

You can’t have the best of all worlds, but sometimes you can come close. Combination devices will perform both flash suppression as well as muzzle brake tasks. Sometimes, you can even find them with compensator ports. Keep in mind that with combination devices, the more diverse the function of a device, the less efficient it will be. Compensators work because they push out enough gas to stop the climb of the barrel. If there is less gas to push out of these ports because they are being directed out of the brake as well as the flash suppression ports, the effect on muzzle climb will be less effective.

Sound Suppression Devices

For the purposes of this article, we will focus on the functionality of a sound suppression device and not the legality of the devices. Sound suppression devices function by deflecting the hot gasses produced when shooting a firearm and keeping them inside of a contained unit. This prevents the gasses from exiting the barrel at the typical 3,000 psi and reduces them, in some cases, to around 60 psi. Sound suppressors also require subsonic ammunition (below 1,100 fps) in order to function properly. If you use sonic ammunition, you will hear the bullet breaking the sound barrier regardless of the suppression on the firearm. Sound suppression devices are subject to high heat and will do so very rapidly. These devices function by containing hot gas, and therefore the transfer of this heat happens quickly. Too many shots too fast and you will not have a functional sound suppressor anymore due to heat damage.

As with any firearm or firearm device, the choice comes down to personal preference and how it will be used. Take into account where you will shoot your firearm, and always be conscious of other shooters as well as how your equipment will affect them.

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SDI’s 2017 Scholarship Receipients Are An Impressive Class

SDI’s 2017 Scholarship Recipients
Sonoran Desert Institute offers three annual scholarships to its programs. And each year, three recipients are chosen to receive them. Here are the highlights of this year’s three recipients.

SDI/EANGUS Scholarship Recipient, Adam Purtell
Adam Purtell has just enrolled at SDI and will be starting his Advanced Gunsmithing Certificate program in November 2017. He would eventually like to enroll in the associate’s degree program. Adam first heard about Sonoran Desert Institute from his friends/co-workers and decided to do some research on his own. He liked what he saw. Adam served 22 years in the Air Force and later enlisted in the National Guard, where he has been for the last 11 years, and works as a weapons inspector. He is also a police officer in New Jersey, is the force’s weapons maintenance instructor, and is a licensed NRA instructor.

By taking courses at SDI, Adam is seeking to increase both his credibility in his already impressive resume as well as in his knowledge as a weapons instructor, and is also seeking to specialize in the AR-15 platform. With his current status as a maintenance instructor and inspector, he felt that adding gunsmithing to his knowledge base could only enhance the work that he currently does. Adam conveyed that it is one thing to inspect a rifle and another thing altogether to know the mechanisms inside and how to troubleshoot those mechanisms. As with any true professional, Adam’s primary goal is to help his fellow National Guardsmen as well as his fellow law enforcement professionals. SDI is sure that he will accomplish this goal and is excited to have him as a student.

Paul Jackson First Responder Scholarship Recipient, Warren Scotter
Warren Scotter first investigated Sonoran Desert Institute’s programs online after it was recommended to him by friends. He was impressed by the amount of detail presented on the SDI site and made up his mind to enroll. His enrollment process was made a bit easier by Admissions Advisor Vanessa Boyer, who recommended that he apply for the Paul Jackson First Responder Scholarship. Warren was very thankful for her help in that process and stated that he thought it was very easy to navigate.
Warren called his enrollment at SDI “an answer to prayer.” He is currently an EMT/firefighter in Washington and will be starting on his associate degree in September. Warren is an active outdoorsman and hunter. He has been reloading for five years and hopes to enrich his education in firearms science so that he can do more work and build up business. He already has a terrific foundation, as his background includes many years of professional woodworking.

Warren is a proud family man and a great example of the quality of students that attend SDI. It will be exciting to see how he progresses through SDI’s associate degree program.

SGT Michael Beckerman Memorial Scholarship Recipient, Andrew Howdyshell
Andrew Howdyshell heard good things about Sonoran Desert Institute from friends, and upon further investigation, liked what he saw. Andrew is diligent and did a lot of research on SDI, comparing it with other schools before enrolling. He has served in the Army for 10 years and is currently transferring out of service. He is set to begin his associate degree program in August and will be adding to an impressive resume with an associate of science in Collision Repair as well as a bachelor’s degree in Homeland Security.
Andrew was grateful to have received this scholarship so that he can use his GI bill to fund his son’s education instead of his own. As a testament to his inspirational qualities, Andrew’s son will be following in his dad’s footsteps by attending a school for fire science.

Andrew was primarily impressed with the level of knowledge and experience possessed by SDI’s faculty and staff. Equally impressive are the levels of experience and knowledge Andrew will be adding to as he works on his associate’s degree. Andrew will be updating the school on his progress as he goes through the program.

The selection process for this year’s crop of students was stacked with quality individuals, and so choosing the recipients was extremely difficult. Sonoran Desert Institute is proud to have such a terrific group receive these scholarships and represent the school as they further their education. If you are curious about SDI’s scholarship programs, please view the enrollment pages at

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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


  • Belt sander with disc attachment


  • 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


  • 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: .

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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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