Want to be a Gunsmith? Check out the Sonoran Desert Institute!

I’ve recently partnered with the Sonoran Desert Institute (SDI) and wanted to take an opportunity to provide an overview of the online programs offered by SDI. Rick Casner from SDI came to visit Ultimate Reloader to walk through the various online degrees, certifications, and training offered by SDI, and that’s what we’ll cover in this story!


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Special Guest: Rick Casner

Rick Casner was first an instructor at SDI and after several years moved into the curriculum department, designing programs. SDI’s mission is to give students an industry-driven understanding in the theory and practical application of firearms while studying at home. This makes it flexible for all types of students, whether they are looking for a full time career or side job, to learn without uprooting their lives.

About SDI

SDI Mission:

To provide students with current, industry-driven, quality education with a focus on specialized programs delivered through online distance education and practical application. SDI is committed to continuous improvement in our instructional processes and the overall student experience. We accomplish this through student and graduate achievement and satisfaction as well as our stakeholder relationships and reputation in the markets we serve.

SDI Vision:

Students of Sonoran Desert Institute will develop advanced job skills empowering them to be outstanding employees and responsible workplace leaders. These graduates will make decisions based on sound judgment, technical competency, and an awareness of the connections of their academic discipline, and their community. Each graduate will be committed to improving their knowledge and skills. Sonoran Desert Institute will accomplish these outcomes by continually improving its curricula, instructional delivery, and customer service, while successfully building partnerships with the students, the community, and the industries it serves.

SDI isn’t just about firearms. They also aspire to teach students to lead and have good judgement. 

From sdi.edu

Sonoran Desert Institute is a DEAC accredited, online school that helps students learn the skills and techniques they’ll need to be successful in the firearms and unmanned technology industries. SDI’s faculty is comprised of professionals with decades of industry experience, and our programs are designed to combine modern learning methods, hands-on training options, and the flexibility of online education.

Sonoran Desert Institute was founded in 2000, and was approved for training by the Arizona State Board for Private Postsecondary Education in 2001. The Institute was accredited in 2004 by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC). The DEAC is listed by the United States Department of Education as a recognized institutional accrediting agency for distance education. The DEAC is also recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

At its inception, the Institute offered Gunsmithing as a program, which ultimately became the foundation for SDI’s growth. Key to the success of the Institute is its comprehensive approach to easily understood curriculum, attention to providing quality service to its students, and the flexibility of its instructional model.

In 2012, Sonoran Desert Institute was acquired by the Trade Training Company, LLC. This transfer was approved by DEAC and the Arizona State Board for Private Postsecondary Education. In 2014, SDI introduced armorer courses as part of its programs.

Also in 2014, SDI applied to DEAC for Title IV Certification. In 2015, after receiving approval from DEAC, the institute submitted its application to the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to offer Pell Grants and Direct Loans to students in the Associate of Science in Firearms Technology. This change was primarily prompted by the Department of Defense’s regulatory change linking eligibility for Active Duty Tuition Assistance to schools approved for Title IV funding. Recognizing the high percentage of military students in our student population, SDI deemed this as an important initiative. SDI began offering Title IV funding to students in January 2016. In January 2018, after receiving approval from Department of Education, SDI also began offering Title IV funding to students in the certificate program.

In June 2018, SDI was granted a 5-year renewal of accreditation and in fall of 2018, SDI transitioned to become an employee owned company (ESOP). SDI takes pride in upholding the standards of multiple regulatory bodies while continuing a student-centric focus on academic quality and superior service to students!

In January 2022, SDI introduced the School of Unmanned Technology and began to offer the Certificate in Unmanned Technology – Aerial Systems program.

SDI Programs

Firearms technology is broken into an associate program and certificate program. The associate program will give you general ed and technical courses. A certificate program is shorter and a more direct path (no gen eds), but may be ideal for those who already have another career or degree. 

For example, if someone came in with a business degree and management experience but wanted to transition into the firearm industry, the certificate program might be a good fit.

SDI currently offers three specific programs: Associate of Science in Firearms Technology, Certificate in Firearms Technology – Gunsmithing, Certificate in Unmanned Technology – Aerial Systems. 

While all courses may change, the Certificate in Unmanned Technology – Aerial Systems, is most likely to expand. This course focuses on all kinds of drones. 

How It Works

The first step would be to visit the website and contact the admissions team. The team will assist with looking at loans and financial options in addition to giving more info on the courses. 

  • Contact admissions team: admissions@sdi.edu or call 480-999-4767
  • Select financing options
  • Enroll in the program
  • Start courses

Here’s an infographic showing possible timelines for the programs:

Students may complete the program in less time based on year-round enrollment opportunities.  Part-time enrollees may take longer to complete (see this SDI page for more information).

The expectation is that students demonstrate their participation online at least once per week by submitting assignments, posting course-related discussions and taking/submitting quizzes and exams. Students in credit-bearing courses/programs are subject to withdrawal if there is no demonstrated academic participation (attendance) for 14 consecutive days (more information at SDI here).

SDI’s programs are remote, but stress student-to-student interaction and connections through discussion boards. No one can know everything; a community provides a sounding board. I’ve personally discovered the value of this and networking. For example, for precision rifle gunsmithing, my go-to man is Gordy Gritters. If I have a question, I call and ask. I also share my success with him.

The discussion boards are oriented like a forum and allow for communication not only with students, but instructors. 

There are one to two weekly assignments each week submitted digitally as well as weekly quizzes. 

Tools and equipment you’ll need for the courses are included with tuition (not lathes, etc.). This includes kits for building 1911’s, AR-15’s, etc. which are shipped to an FFL. For information on required, provided, and suggested tools and resources, please visit the following page at SDI.edu.

The degree program lasts about two years (24 months), but is flexible, especially for military/veterans. Students can take time off and come back to the program. The 32-credit certificate program lasts just about 1 year, though you can learn at your own pace. 


There are core courses, electives and general education requirements. Latest offerings are available online.  For the most up to date information, please see the current course descriptions HERE.

Core Classes

Some courses are more theoretical, while others are more hands-on. One course I’m particularly interested in is the Hand Checkering Lab, a course Casner said isn’t largely offered among other gunsmithing schools. It’s harder than people think and more than just scratching lines on a stock. Finesse, over brute force, is key. 

Both the certificate and degree programs offer elective courses. Students will miss out on some of the core courses in taking the certificate program over the degree.

Elective Classes

SDI’s general education requirements are largely traditional. Though not every gun nut will be excited about them, they are designed to make students more well-rounded. These courses, however, are designed with the student in mind. For example, business mathematics is offered as a course.

General Education Classes

General education requirements are designed to be skill-specific and highlight real life applications. In any career that requires human interaction, people skills, writing, and psychology come into play. 


I am personally interested in most of these courses – expect to see more SDI content! 

Contact SDI online: http://sdi.edu

Or by phone: 480-999-4767

Tell them Ultimate Reloader sent you! 

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Gavin Gear

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