Gunsmithing covers a great breadth of expertise, from making factory level repairs to customizing's a gun's fit and mechanics to making a firearm a work of fine art through intricate engraving. And like every other trade, most gunsmiths only specialize in a handful of skills due to all the different types of guns out there and the time required to master a technique.
It's no easy feat to become a gunsmith, but it's also an incredibly rewarding experience. Bill Poole, Managing Director of the NRA Education and Training Division, is a bonafide gunsmith —has been for decades— and recently freed up some time to answer a few questions about his experience in the field.
What fueled your desire to become a gunsmith?
It was all business at the time. My Father and I ran a gun business that catered specifically to trap and skeet shooters in the early 70’s (Sporting Clays had not been created at that time). We were interested in being able to refurbish high end used guns and to be provide custom gun fitting to our customers. We decided we needed someone in-house who could provide those services. In-house boiled down to Dad and me. I lost. So, I sold most of my worldly possessions and moved to Denver to attend classes at the Colorado School of Trade.
How long and rigorous was the process?
My certificate is hanging on the wall in my office. It clearly states: 2,756 hours of training. We attended class from 8:00-5:00 daily, M-F year around. As I recall, we only closed on July 4th, Thanksgiving and Christmas. The learning process was very rigorous, yet rewarding as skills were developed that serve me today not only with firearms, but the general use of hand tools. My first stock project was making a butt stock and forearm for a side-by-side shotgun with lock plates. I literally started with a block of wood and using chisels and files fitted the block to the shotgun action and shaped it into a gunstock. It was an experience I’ll never forget. In-letting the side plates was the most tedious job I have ever tackled in gunsmithing.
Besides stock making we learned how to prepare the metal surfaces of firearms for bluing and then the various techniques for bluing (hot salts and rust blue) required for different types of firearms. We also learned how to weld with gas, no electric welding and spent months in the machine shop learning how to use laths and end mills for various gunsmithing tasks from re-barreling rifle actions to making replacement parts for obsolete firearms.
After 6 months or so, I was fortunate enough to have been offered a job at the school during the day and attend school from 6:00-12:00 pm. Being at school from 8:00 am-12:00 midnight gave me exposure to the entire CST training staff. The staff of CST was made up of some of the most talented craftsmen you could imagine: Ralph Bone, knife maker, engraver, stock maker; Dean Wentworth, stock-maker, Eldon Adams, welder. These men were always so eager to share their skills with the students.
It was rigorous, but I loved every minute.
What was the first gun you made?
Haha! I’ve never made a gun. Not from scratch anyway. While we had great exposure to rifle, pistol and shotgun training, I focused on shotgun, particularly the wood making and metal refinishing. I’ve made several shotgun stocks from scratch including fitting the wood to the action, shaping the stock into a pleasing profile, sanding the wood until it’s as smooth as glass, checkering the pistol grip and forearm and applying a flawless finish. It’s challenge. Back then 1 speck of dust in the finish meant: sand it down and try again. I use to use my bath room as my finish spray room. I’d run the shower for several minutes to get the dust out of the air, quickly spray the stock, then close the bathroom to use for at least an hour. If nature called, she had to wait until the finish was dry.
Did becoming a gunsmith change any opinions you had about firearms?
Something every gun owner or potential gun owner should know is every gun does not fit every shooter. For the best performance and maximum comfort, most firearms need to be fitted to the shooter. With rifle and shotguns the length of pull can be changed to fit the shooter. Length of pull is the distance from the trigger to the center of the butt stock. Taller people with longer arms require a longer LOP than smaller folks with shorter arms. Use to be the fix was to cut off or add on an appropriate amount of wood as needed. Today many long guns come with adjustable stocks which eliminate the need to cut off part of the stock. Pistols can be a little more difficult, because they are not anatomically adjustable. New pistol buyers need to spend a little more time trying different sized guns until they find one that fits their hands.
I also learned to judge a book by its cover. I place metal finishing very high on the list of details I look for when buying a firearm. That applies to both the outside and inside. It’s not always possible to look inside a gun to see how the parts have been finished, but generally speaking, manufacturers who take a little extra time to polish off the machine marks reflect the desire to build a quality. In the long run it probably doesn’t make the gun shoot any better, but it goes a long way to help you know a little more effort went into making that particular gun.
Being the Director of NRA’s Education & Training Division means you’re a busy guy. How do use your gunsmithing skills?
These days it’s pretty much limited to working on my own guns. I have no hesitation in taking a gun apart to do a complete cleaning when needed. Not that I get to shoot much right now, but when I do, I want to maintain my guns. I can do a trigger job on my guns if needed or mount optics. Beyond my own needs, I’ll lend a hand if a gun I have had exposure to malfunctions.
What’s one thing someone interested in becoming a gunsmith can do to better prepare themselves?
Decide what aspect of firearms you enjoy the most. Are you a rifle shooter, or pistol or shotgun? And then, is there a particular part that you enjoy? I had no idea how guns were blued until I went to CST. It’s a fascinating process. Beyond the actual chemical reaction that creates blue or brown, it’s the preparation of the metal that makes the job. Some folks like being a general gunsmith who can a lot of things to a lot of guns. Others specialize in particular skills like stock-making or improving the function of triggers for competition firearms. I have of thought a good living could be earned by someone who could “properly” install recoils pad on shotguns and rifles.
A great way to try it out would be to attend one of NRA’s short term gunsmithing courses of by the top gunsmithing schools in America. You can find more information at gunsmithing.nra.org.