Question of the Day: How Do You Choose a Gunsmith?

I found the gunsmith I’m using for my dream rifle, Kiote Rifles, at a charity event for the Team 5 Medical Foundation. Kiote had donated a rifle that was of truly exceptional quality and after getting my hands on it, I knew head gunsmith John Stewart would be the right man to make my dream a reality.

But if I hadn’t met him there, I would have never heard of him. I’m not the only one. He’s doing the same thing I’ve seen other quality gunsmiths resort to, a massive Instagram giveaway costing him thousands of dollars, in order to get the word out about his business.

I’m skeptical, but would that work? Would that get your attention? I trust word of mouth over any other kind of advertising, but what about you? How do you find a good gunsmith, and how do you choose the right person for that one-of-a-kind job?

comments

  1. avatar Mr. Woodcock says:

    Although this only represents a small portion of the gunsmiths out there, it is a good place to start (see link below). Some smaller shops that are top notch will obviously be overlooked. In that case one would need to see and try out the finished product before making a big purchasing decision.

    http://precisionrifleblog.com/2017/04/04/precision-rifle-gunsmiths-the-pros-use/

  2. avatar Ted Unlis says:

    The small town I grew up in had 3 real gunsmiths and there were another half dozen or more in the surrounding counties. Today there probably are not a half dozen gunsmiths in all of East Texas.

    Here are 4 simple requirements to expect of anyone holding themselves out to be a gunsmith:

    1. They should have a FFL (required by Gun Control Act of 1968).

    2. They should have at least have a drill press and lathe in their shop. (No machinery means they’re an armorer).

    3. They should have a large gun safe or vault to store customers guns.

    4. They should have references and a reputation confirming they’re capable of performing the work required.

    1. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

      I’d add: “Look at their bookshelf.”

      Gunsmiths who really know particular families or marques of guns often have thousands invested in books – some of them rare, out-of-print, or limited reproductions. Right now, I reckon I’ve got about $2K invested in books alone. Guys 30 years older than I whom I’ve visited have had what I reckoned to be $10 to $15K in books, some of which they paid to have translated. They didn’t know their bookshelves were that valuable – until they lent out a book, didn’t get it back, and then looked into replacing it.

      The most expensive books in my collection are $125 to $190.

  3. avatar Tom in Oregon says:

    Word of mouth is a good start. I take to heart when I hear bad reviews.
    I had a great smithy until he died last year. His bluing jobs reminded me of the beautiful pythons. Just fantastic. Mr. Eicks was a marine sniper in WWII in the South Pacific, until a bullet sent him home. Could sit, watch him work and BS several hours away.
    I know enough to do most of my own work, but I still am in need of one to do things like head space a new barrel. Pac Nor is supposed to be good. Going to give them a whirl.

    1. avatar Mr. Woodcock says:

      Not sure about what gunsmith work they offer but Pac Nor barrels are very accurate. Pac Nor provides the barrels for Noveske. I have two and love them.

      1. avatar Tom in Oregon says:

        They will fit their barrels to your action. Price doesn’t seem too bad. A good friend of mine is on his second pac nor on his .25-06. (He shoots a lot). He sends his action to them and they fit it.

        1. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

          .25-06 is fairly overbore, and tends to burn up barrels.

    2. avatar Geoff PR says:

      “Word of mouth is a good start.”

      This.

      I’d be leery about a gunsmith that advertises, if he (or she) is that good, word-of-mouth will keep them buried in work.

      (And I agree with ’81 below, I’d love to have DG’s contact info, but I suspect he’s plenty busy as-is…)

      1. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

        I am, and I already have to turn away work, especially stuff that isn’t in my field of expertise. Example: I don’t re-barrel M1A’s/M14’s/Garands. For the few that have inquired, it isn’t work tooling up to take on the jobs, especially when there are gunsmiths out there who specialize in this job, have all the tooling and fixtures to just knock these jobs out. I also don’t build precision rifles for other people, because there are other guys who have this job nailed down, and they’re tooled up for it. I do these two types of jobs for myself, but that’s it.

        Another example: I don’t work on ComBlock arms (Mosin’s, AK’s, SKS’s and the like). Just never been all that interested in working on them. Got nothing against them.

        I don’t think too many gunsmiths can realistically afford to tool up for every type of gun job there is out there.

  4. avatar Steve B says:

    No decent gunsmiths near me. All of my work on my rifles has taken place out of state.

  5. avatar Ken says:

    Most of what I shoot generally wouldn’t require a “gunsmith”. As an armorer for a number of brands, I can usually handle most anything of mine that needs “working on”, as they say. Otherwise, it would depend on what gun needs fixin’. My grandaddy’s LC Smith? Nope, I ain’t touching that. When/if the time comes, that’ll go to some 70-something with wood floors, an old wood workbench, and 70 year old drill presses and lathes in his ‘smith shop. And guns of that ilk will be all he works on. If I was into long-range shooting and I wanted a custom build (I’m really too old for that kind of thing), I’d go with one of the young whipper-snappers like Travis over at TS Custom.

  6. avatar Timothy says:

    I have a CZ compact at Cajun Gun Works for work right now. A combination of research and calling them directly helped me decide. I like that they’re brand specific and that they have a long turnaround time. It indicates to me that they know this gun intimately and that even though they have a lot of people sending in guns, they don’t skimp on quality in the name of quantity.

  7. avatar No one of consequence says:

    It’s a problem for sure.

    A couple of gun shops down in the nearest big city have resident ‘smith shops, but I’ve never used them. The one good guy we had locally went through a really rough spot in life, and some of his customers were without their guns for about a year.

    Instagram giveaways wouldn’t work for me, since a) I don’t instaface or whatever, and b) the last time I entered a promotion my daily email inbox take tripled from unasked-for spam, so I’m not likely to do that again.

    Wish I had an answer.

  8. avatar Nanashi says:

    The last time I needed work beyond what my own tools could do I asked my local FFL when I was in.

  9. avatar Accur81 says:

    I wish I had the contact info for Dyspeptic Gunsmith. Evan’s Gunsmithing in Orange County, CA is decent. I used American Firearms Gunsmith in LA Habra, CA until they were sufficiently rude to me that I haven’t darkened their door since.

    Other than that, I find a lot of ham fisted idiots out there working on guns, so I’m starting to prefer my own ham fisted idiocy.

    I’d love to be a gun Smith after I retire and move to WI.

    1. avatar Geoff PR says:

      “I’d love to be a gun Smith after I retire and move to WI.”

      Make it Wyoming and apprentice under DG…

      1. avatar jwm says:

        DG? Take on a retired LEO as apprentice?

        Homey don’t think so.

      2. avatar Paelorian says:

        I would literally drop everything in my life right now (I’m young and single) to move to Wyoming and be Dyspeptic Gunsmith’s apprentice. I’ve fantasized about it. Repeatedly. Two years ago I was accepted into Yavapai College’s gunsmithing program and spent a week agonizing on whether to make the risky commitment of moving to Prescott, Arizona and making a go at trying to become DG. If I’d had an address of his to write to I’d surely have asked his professional advice. I admit that I let myself get talked out of it, which may have been the wrong decision. My anti-gun New Yorker family was, completely ignorantly, vehement in their opposition to me becoming a firearms professional. I could ignore that since I’m confident they’d come around and learn to understand and likely even appreciate my work, but they compounded my doubts about what seemed like, from what I’d read, a likely road to permanent poverty. I was reading Gunsmithing Kinks, hundreds of articles on gunsmithing, searching forums, and seeking out any other book or material I felt might give me an idea of the trade and the lifestyle, but I wasn’t sure about loving guns to the exclusionary point of spending most of my life doing nothing else. But I’d relinquish all doubts in earnest if a master like DG offered me an apprenticeship. I’d literally want to kowtow to him. I’d have no regrets being made in his mold. Everything he writes is fascinating to me, and I read any comment of his I encounter eagerly and earnestly. His erudition is outstanding. Anonymous internet commenter he may be, I’m not ashamed to admit that he’s my favorite gun writer. The ratio of what I’ve learned from the quantity of his writing I read is extremely high. His opinions are informed and weighty. I don’t have any experience with his work as a gunsmith, but there’s no one I’d trust more than him to do the work properly. If I want to be a gunsmith, I want to be like him. Not knowing him but from his comments, I may very well be guilty of inflating my conception of him into a gunsmithing sage. I know that I am ignorant, and may not perceive his limitations within his specialties. It often requires becoming an expert to ascertain whose expertise is truly great. But it’s typical for DG to leave a comment that reveals knowledge of a subject far deeper than you’d expect from even a professional. Having read his extensive contextual knowledge and often illuminating commentary on so many subjects has awed me. There are other first-rate gunsmiths I’m aware of with great knowledge of their subject, but they’re specialists. DG seems to posses the rare combination of knowledge of much breadth and also much depth. I’ll probably be accused of fawning for this post, but I don’t expect DG to see it, and the people that have impressed me in this way I can count on one hand. Very few have inspired in me such confidence, but DG is one of them. I’m convinced he must be a true gunsmithing master, and wise on many other subjects as well. I’ve always wished I had a mentor like that. What could be more valuable than to be instructed by a master of something you have passionate enthusiasm for? Heck, I’d jump at the opportunity to be apprenticed to a true master of a profession I was only moderately interested in. To receive direct instruction from the best is a tremendous boon.

        1. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

          That’s very kind of you. Sadly, I’m in that “no-man’s land” between having enough business to make things hectic on me, and not enough business to hire assistance.

          Lots of gunsmiths are in this situation. The American Custom Gunmaker’s Guild did a survey of their members about six or seven years ago, asking how many members surveyed could afford to hire an assistant or apprentice. Two-thirds said they couldn’t or wouldn’t – which was about the same number that said they wouldn’t be passing the business down to their child(ren).

          It’s not a high-margin business. Think of it as a service business with much higher overhead in equipment, tooling, and supplies than most other service-oriented businesses.

          I think a far better business to be in is a machine shop that makes tools/figures/etc for gunsmiths as a sideline to the other job-shop machining.

        2. avatar jwtaylor says:

          DG, that small machine shop is exactly what I turned our AR manufacturing company into. First I took us away from making full guns to only making parts for other AR companies. That was a huge jump in profitability, literally a 600% increase. But then I found we can make more profit making parts for the aerospace and oil and gas industry, so we hardly do anything for guns anymore. It seems that you can make money, or make guns, but to do both is pretty darn rare.

    2. avatar Ted Unlis says:

      Not exactly sure why, but for some reason rude seems to be a common behavorial trait among gunsmiths along with being a know it all, hard headed, and arrogant. Only gunsmiths who do excellent work at a fair price can get away with being obnoxious @$$holes, and I’ve met and used several throughout the years.

    3. avatar T. Role says:

      If you want to be a gunsmith, you have to start by learning how to spell gunsmith.
      I know this comment means that I’m a net troll, but I really am helping you out here.

    4. avatar T. Role says:

      Accur81, if you want to be a gunsmith, you have to start by learning how to spell gunsmith. It’s not spelled “gun smith”/
      I know this comment means that I’m a net troll, but I really am helping you out here. Customers will by golly notice.

    5. avatar T. Role says:

      TTAG’s website is clearly having problems right now. My comments were linked off of the REPLY box under Accur81’s comment, but the site keeps placing them elsewhere. I’ll paste in one more time:

      Accur81, if you want to be a gunsmith, you have to start by learning how to spell gunsmith. It’s not spelled “gun smith”/
      I know this comment means that I’m a net troll, but I really am helping you out here. Customers will by golly notice.

    6. avatar Hank says:

      Well you can start right now by turning up the sass mouth. That seems to be a requirement.

    7. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

      If you are able to depend on your pension after you retire, you’re better situated to be a gunsmith than 90% of everyone else who gets into the field.

      To see if you’d really like to do this, you could take summer courses in the NRA summer gunsmith courses offered at places like TSJC, Murray State, Lassen, etc. They’re usually a week long. My recommendation is to start with the courses that enable you do work on metal and make what you want to have happen actually occur: TIG welding, machining, benchwork and the like.

      1. avatar jwtaylor says:

        If all goes well, I’ll retire in another 10 years or so, and then I’d like to get to making guns full time. Unfortunately, the only guns I’m actually interested in making are traditional flintlocks. Trying to make a business out of making custom flintlocks by hand is a sure fire way to go broke. I have finally finished a 12 1/2″ barrel and breach plug on a smoothbore 54, all by hand, after probably 40 hours of work, and that was starting from bar stock. The full pistol will probably take me 200 hours or more. No way I would ever be able to charge enough to get that back. What I need is a traditional gunsmith to show me how to be more efficient. Eventually I’ll find someone who does that work and has the time.
        That reminds me of a conversation I had with Daniel Winkler, an amazing blacksmith. He does very well in his knife making business, and I recently spent a few days working the forge with him in his Blowing Rock home. I learned an incredible amount about efficiency from those few days. It really cut down my time in making knives and tools.
        I was not surprised to find a couple of fine flintlocks in his home, one of which he made from scratch. It was a great piece, and would certainly garner a couple grand on the market. Of course, that would not come near to paying for his time in it. He said he could make a living making knives, but he’d go hungry making guns.

        1. avatar Accur81 says:

          JWT,

          That sounds like a cool project.

          DG, I archived your response (not the first time that’s happened). My current extra-curricular focus is on purchasing land in WI and another promotion. After that, I should theoretically have more time next summer.

  10. avatar jwm says:

    There are very few jobs you need a gunsmith for in the age of Youtube. Granted, if you own a custom English double barrel you might want to consult an expert for repairs. But the majority of us have mass produced lego type firearms.

    I’m not mechanically inclined. But after a few minutes on youtube I can handle most of the repairs my mass produced firearms need

    1. avatar Ted Unlis says:

      Yep, before I became an armorer on multiple guns and became comfortable with disassembly that exceeded field stripping there was a lot of do it your self gun work I wouldn’t dare tackle. Then YouTube came along and exposed that many bread and butter jobs gunsmiths made a living off of are fairly easy once a few tricks of the trade are revealed. My first YouTube aided stab was an action job on a S&W 642 which was a breeze with a Wolff spring kit and handy dandy special tool from Brownells along with a quality Arkansas stone set. My last was removing the mag trigger disconnect on a Browning High Power. BUT, there are limits, I’d never try to tackle a YouTube aided Python action job.

      1. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

        Colt double-action revolvers require a special sense of Revolver Zen to get them tuned correctly. It doesn’t come easily, and there are some Colts that can give me fits. I don’t charge the customer for my learning curve, and the job is done correctly, but there are times I have four hours into a one-hour job on a Colt – because I spent the other three hours thinking very hard about “what is going on, how does making this change affect the overall lock timing, etc.”

        An armorer with your skills can probably do just about any revolver work on a S&W or Ruger. They’re not rocket science, and there’s only a couple of jobs that require hand-fitting stuff. Colt’s DA revolvers, however, are just not that easy – because just about everything except the bolt lift (including the trigger rebound) is run off the main spring.

    2. avatar Tom in Oregon says:

      I’ve got an issue that is a bit above what I want to tackle. Lately, my O/U silver pigeon sometimes doubles, and often it won’t fire the second barrel.
      Mind you, I’ve tinkered with guns for a few decades, I was a certified armorer for Sig, Glock, S&W, Colt and Remington.
      This has me a bit baffled. And I’d rather not take a basket case into a shop.
      There is a smith very near me that I’ll never go to again, and word of mouth is that others have had bad experiences as well.
      Portland maybe…I hate driving into Portland.

      1. avatar jwm says:

        That’s a safety issue on a pricier gun. Time for a gunsmith.

        My mossberg 500 acts the fool. I’ll be in it’s guts to my elbows.

      2. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

        Why not send it in to the Beretta Service Center in California? I don’t know what their rates are, but most of the higher-end O/U gun makers have their own service centers throughout the US – because most gunsmiths don’t know how to deal with O/U or SxS lockwork any more, never mind things like loose ribs on barrels… Krieghoff, Perazzi, C-G, et al – all have their own service centers.

        http://www.berettasupport.com/service/pg_servicecenters.htm

  11. avatar Joatmon says:

    My LGS could not get the sights off a Beretta Brigadier for me after I purchased some Wilson Combat ones. I ended up driving to Allegheny Gun Works outside of Pittsburgh to have Josh do it for me.
    Had heard of him and saw pictures of his work and couldn’t be happier. He got the stock sights off, new ones on and was a very nice guy. Additionally, I found a Glock 17L there and he’s doing some work on that too.

  12. avatar Hasdrubal says:

    So far I haven’t had to find a gunsmith. If I need one, I spend way too much time researching the job, then buy the tools and try to do it myself. My Caspian double stack came together pretty well, and I’m about to order the Manson receiver kit and figure out how to work on Remington actions.

    I’m not good enough to try and do work for anyone else, but I’m learning way more than I could ever do without getting my hands dirty. What I’m not doing is saving money, though. Good tools aren’t cheap.

    1. avatar Ted Unlis says:

      Armorers buy tools only, a real gunsmith has machinery, a drill press and lathe at a minimum. An armorer installs parts, a gunsmith can make parts.

      1. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

        All true. I’d Add that a classically trained gunsmith can make parts with hand files and a vise, not just machine tools.

        Don’t get me wrong, machine tools are sweeeeet to have. They save time – most of the time. They’re not wholly necessary – if you have the time to do without them. There are times I make parts with nothing but a hand file and a vise – because I can get the job done faster that way. This is especially true for small parts. Lots of the issues in using machine tools on gun parts is “how do I hold this *&(*^ thing?!” 100 years ago when they manufactured these parts with nothing but manual machines, they’d have jigs and fixtures to hold these pieces in positions where it was easy to know a) you were in the right position/attitude to get at it with a machine, b) these jigs/fixtures resulted in parts hitting sizes pretty consistently, if you started with a cutter of the correct size. If you’d like some insight into how much time this took to set up, read the history of the Winchester Model 12 shotgun – after they finalized the design, they needed 14 months to build the machines, fixtures, jigs, special profile cutting tools, etc – to put the Model 12 into production.

        Still, machines aren’t wholly necessary – if you have time. I’ve taken classes from an English gunsmith/gunmaker who had worked for many of the gun firms of Birmingham. There were two major areas of fine gunmaking in England in decades past – London (H&H and a couple others, no defunct) and Birmingham (a much grittier manufacturing city). He told his students how they’d make shotguns, and really nice, (like $50K+ nice) shotguns. There were few machining tools involved – it was mostly files, cape chisels, hammers, hacksaws, etc. Even the boring of the shotgun barrels was done by hand – and they didn’t use a modern reamer. They used a technique called “spill boring” – they’d take an old hand file, find it to the profile & width they needed in the barrel, glue a couple strips of wood to the wide flats, and then braze on a piece of brass tubing to drive it. They’d stuff this down the barrel and proceed to bore the shotgun barrel by turning the file-become-reamer by hand. The outside of the barrels would be shaped with hand files

        The secret to getting work done quickly with hand files is to use highly aggressive hand files to remove material fast at the start, and then “downshift” to finer and finer files as you get close to your size. The level of “aggressive cut” I’m talking about requires you really lean into the workpiece to get it to cut. The English gunmaker had a “000” double-cut file – it could rip off over 0.010″ on small parts per pass of the file – if you leaned into pushing the file across the work. You can’t find a 000 file any more – this was Sheffield tool steel from 60 years ago, the steel is no longer made, never mind the file.

        Today, making guns with hand files would never pencil in a shop – time is money. Manual machines barely pencil any more – which is why there are almost no manual machines being made any more in the US. I think you can still buy genuine Bridgeport and Wells-Index manual mills. I don’t know of a US-made manual lathe any more. A gunsmith really needs a lathe much more than a mill. With a special vise that replaces the toolpost on a lathe, you can put milling cutters into a collet chuck on a lathe and put your part in the milling vise and do good work without a mill. Many pistol smiths don’t have mills – nor do they really need them.

        BTW – if you want to see the American equivalent of this level of manual tooling building guns, stop by the old train station in Ogden UT, where they have three or four museums in one place. One of these museums is the Browning Bros. Museum, which contains at least one model of every gun John Moses invented or perfected. They have replicated JMB’s workshop in there. You’ll see a drill press, a very small lathe… and three workbenches. That’s about it. I don’t know how many of JMB’s hand files they’ve kept – it looked pretty sparse to me. I have a bit over 200 hand files in my collection, and they get used quite a bit.

      2. avatar Hasdrubal says:

        Well, I’m not a gunsmith. I actually was a company armorer (Army) for two years, so I agree with you on the difference. I made some replacement springs and clips at National Guard AT after I left active duty, but it’s not at the same level by any means. Yes, they should have been replaced by the company armorer (not me at that time) with actual parts, but it didn’t happen, and we needed to get the guns back up.

        To hand fit a 1911 slide to frame, or to fit the barrel into the slide, I’m not sure where you would place that. I mean, you don’t need heavy machinery to do it, just hand tools, but it’s not exactly slapping a trigger group into an AR either.

        I got a lathe a few years ago and so far have two succesful form 1 silencer builds from scratch, with two more in progress. Still learning, long way to go. I opened up a breacher brake and soldered it to a SWAT guy’s shotgun because I knew I wasn’t good enough at threading yet to do it that way.

        I got a mill last year but haven’t had a chance to do any real gun projects with it yet. Modified some parts for the bomb robot, but after I get the receiver work done with the Manson tool kit, the first real project is going to be making an aluminum chassis type stock. Under no illusions that it will be as good as some of the stuff you can buy lately, but I intend to learn quite a bit in the process.

        I still won’t claim to be a gunsmith, though.

  13. avatar MyName says:

    I’m inclined to give any significant future project to our very own Dyspeptic. Don’t know who he actually is but if I did he’d be at the top of my list for a ‘smith.

  14. avatar jwm says:

    I’ve learned hard lessons on using cheap tools over the years. Not just for guns. Cars, house fixes, etc. Cheap tools is what you loan people.

    This comment was meant for Hasdrubal. Our system isn’t debugged, yet.

  15. avatar Larry says:

    Idk, in 40 years of owning guns I’ve not needed one .

  16. avatar Accur81 says:

    It seems to me that gunsmiths aren’t the only ones with an overly developed opinion of themselves.

    1. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

      Gunsmiths become churlish because we get to hear lots of stuff that makes us frustrated, saddened, exasperated or infuriated.

      Sometimes, all four happen at the same time. Seeing fine firearms in a gun “buy back” is almost guaranteed to do this. Seeing someone butcher a nice gun that can’t be replaced is another way to really get a gunsmith in a testy mood.

      1. avatar Accur81 says:

        Totally understandable. I felt the same way when someone gave me a Winchester 9422 to restore. The gun was rusted badly, which had me wondering why someone would do such a terrible thing to such a beautiful gun. My comment was meant to be a reply to T. Cole’s nagging about misspelling the word “gunsmith.”

        TTAGs commenting system still needs work. A lot of work.

  17. avatar kap says:

    Most gun smithing is simple mechanics, except when its not! some smiths are not as mechanically sound as they could be! better off doing it yourself if you can, other wise it is a limited choice, most time’s word of mouth is the best source!

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