Starting your own business can be terrifying and exciting. It is a significant undertaking, but with the possibility of great reward and fulfillment at the end. Rick Casner from the Sonoran Desert Institute (SDI) joins us today to walk through the process, specifically to discuss starting a gunsmithing shop!
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Introducing Rick Casner
Rick now works for SDI, but started out as a gunsmith. He started gunsmithing school in 2009 and worked for a variety of locations after graduation. Some were mom-and-pop gun stores. At one store, he had to work his way into the shop from a gun counter sales role. He even worked for a machine gun manufacturer, working on M2s and M60s. Eventually Rick headed back to school, earning his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. This path led him into his current role in higher education, building curriculum for SDI’s gunsmithing courses.
Ultimate Reloader has recently partnered with the Sonoran Desert Institute. Watch our intro video to learn more about SDI and their courses.
I am opening a gunsmithing shop here in Washington. I now have my FFL07 and SOT, which allows me to manufacture firearms, but the process is so much more than just paper. SDI offers information to aid you in this process, but I wanted to lay it all out.
When it comes to a career in gunsmithing, you essentially have two main options. You can work for yourself or you can work for someone else.
Both have pros and cons. Rick’s experience spans both areas — he has worked for others and though he has owned his own business, he never had his own FFL. Working as a gunsmith under someone else means you don’t have to worry about insurance, overhead, or liability — it all falls to the company you work for. You also are generally earning a regular check.
Personally, I like being a business owner. It certainly has risks, but has a wide array of possible rewards. The firearms industry specifically is lush with opportunity and ways to generate income, from building rifles to opening your own cerakote shop. However, it’s important to recognize that depending upon what you want to do, there can be a significant and risky investment. If you want to have your own machine shop with tools, an initial investment can easily be $100,000.
Working for someone else also has its positives. Learning on the job allows you to really understand ATF and state regulations, among other things.
Keep in mind that you can always work for yourself or someone else at various points in your career. You aren’t stuck with your first choice. You may discover owning a business is too much work and you want less worry. You might work for someone else for a time and decide you want the freedom of working from home.
Rick highly suggests learning working for someone else then graduating to your own shop. I wish this had been an option for me. The paperwork is especially intimidating. Luckily I have the support of a few friends who are FFLs and have reached out to the FFL Connects group on Facebook for more information.
Home shops also face unique challenges. People generally don’t trust a home-based business as much as they would a store front. Home FFLs are also facing increasing scrutiny from the ATF.
I have a brick and mortar sole-proprietorship and am renting space away from the Ultimate Reloader Ranch. I plan to start out serving the local Pacific Northwest community, particularly the thriving competitive scene. This also keeps the ATF out of my home and since I’ve finished Cerakote training, as an added bonus, I can display their certified cerakote applicator sign! You can only display this sign in a brick and mortar location.
Another benefit to having a physical location outside your home is it’s easy to keep shop and personal guns separate. At a minimum in all cases, you should have separate safes. Your acquisition disposition book and customer files should align with the contents of your company safe.
While I have a brick and mortar sole proprietorship, some may choose to have one or more employees. Generally, you scale up over time if that is your goal. For instance, BAT Machine had a home shop for years. Now they have a very large shop with lots of CNC equipment and nearly a dozen employees.
There are many ways and opportunities to learn your craft. If you split it into categories, you have several routes: accredited institution, specialty training, self-taught education and one on one mentorship.
Rick attended a brick and mortar gunsmithing school in Colorado. He’s a big proponent of new business owners getting their initial training through a formal degree program like SDI. That’s where you learn the theory of all platforms.
One thing especially common at gun stores is customers who know or claim to know everything there is to know about one particular gun. Sometimes, these ardent enthusiasts can get combative. Attending gunsmithing school equips you with a breadth of knowledge across all firearm platforms.
SDI has both degree and certificate programs. The certificate program will be more focused, while the degree program will also have general education classes, though tailored to the needs and interests of students.
I’ve been taking some of the training and look forward to becoming more well rounded. I have taken specialty training at Gordy Gritters’ Extreme Accuracy Institute.
Gordy specially teaches the skills to build precision rifles capable of world record accuracy. His classes aren’t one on one, but are small, six students or so. This actually allows students to learn from one another. This was an incredible experience and I want to do it again. I’ve already taken the course, but as I’ve begun executing what I’ve learned, I have more questions.
Whatever it is, a course, a book, a video — don’t be afraid to go over it again.
On that note, I studied mechanical engineering in college and worked with my grandfather on his lathe. I learned the most from reading How to Run a Lathe by South Bend.
I had a Model 10 x 24 and learned on that. The book covered everything from cutting screw threads to speeds to what cutting fluid to use. Granted, the information was from the 1930s through 1950s, but it was still valid and I could always add modern techniques and tools I learned elsewhere.
Don’t immediately discount information just because of its age. Rick noted he is continually blown away by what machinists and gunsmiths were able to do years ago with limited equipment.
Also, don’t be afraid to start. Getting your hands dirty is critical to learning and improving. It’s easy to get caught up in theory and never implement what you learn. Practical application is key.
Mentorship is also a key component to success in learning anything. Rick noted that he greatly relied on his mentor when he first started in the firearms industry. Growing up, guns were a thing he picked up, dusted off, took hunting, cleaned and put away. As a kid he didn’t have any concept of how complex firearms could get.
A mentor must see you as worthy of working with. Personally, if I saw a candidate trying to break into the gunsmithing industry, I’d look for certain things. A well-rounded portfolio and resume clearly outlining experiences and training is the first thing I’d look for. Videos, documentation, customer reviews and even auction prices of guns sold would help immensely.
A list of high profile customers would also not only impress me but give me an idea of the kind of work the candidate could do. LinkedIn and social media are great tools for growing your business and staying in touch with fellow gunsmiths and customers. All of these things already put you in the top 10 percent of applicants.
Level of Expertise
Do you want to be a specialist or a generalist? Professionally, it is easy to stay in the generalist world. Ultimately, every gunsmith eventually finds one thing he/she enjoys and is really good at. This one thing may be engraving, checkering, smoothing or any number of things, but it may not be lucrative, which makes it hard to pursue.
Generalists see everything. You’ll get scope mounting and gun cleaning requests as well as have to figure out what to do with grandpa’s old gun that has been drug through the swamps for 60 years.
Being well-rounded can be very helpful, especially in a sole proprietorship. You never know what people are going to bring in, want, or need done. You can do refinishes, cleanings, small repairs and troubleshooting without a machine shop. You may also choose to buy guns, repair them, and resell them.
This is where the importance of a network resurfaces. You may not have the means to do machine work, but you may know a machinist you can direct work to or sub it out.
I’m on the precision rifle end of the spectrum, so I really like specialist work. I also like traditional hunting rifles and ARs, but it’s the precision that matters to me.
Taking the Cerakote training, I learned there are very specific business opportunities to be had. Waitlists can be painstakingly long. One local gunsmith I know has a two year waiting list. The demand is there, you just have to find it and make it work for you.
It is very possible to make a full living as a gunsmith, but a lot of it depends on the area. Costs of living are higher in various areas, but with the internet, your clientele doesn’t just have to be local.
As I’ve started my gunsmithing business, I’ve encountered some requirements. Be sure to check your area’s specific laws before you open your shop.
You need to have a Federal firearms license (FFL). SOT, Special Occupational Taxpayers, work with suppressors and machine guns. You need a special SOT designation to be able to do this.
ITAR goes hand in hand with the SOT. For the most part, you need to be registered with ITAR if you are a manufacturer. This means extra overhead and extra expense.
Here in Washington, I had to get a business license, state firearms license and reseller’s permit. In applying for my FFL, I also had to get permission from my county to do business at my chosen address and ensure proper zoning. There were several requirements, including not being too close to a school. All of this involves a lot of waiting and you can’t start work right away. For example, you need to rent the business location before you can even apply for your FFL. These costs can add up.
There are several types of FFL licenses, but Type 01 and Type 07 are the two to look at. Type 01 is the common dealer’s license. If you are doing gunsmithing at customer request, you should be covered under Type 01. If you plan to buy firearms, modify and resell them or if you are doing anything with serial numbers, you need a Type 07 manufacturer’s license.
I recommend defaulting to the manufacturer’s license. There is a bit more overhead and additional cost, but you can do more. If you make under $500,000 annually from the business, you are on one fee schedule. Making over $500,000 in revenue in a year essentially doubles the fees and costs.
For more information, visit atf.gov.
When you apply for your FFL, you are assigned an agent in charge. I asked many questions of my agent, who was also a firearms enthusiast herself.
Many people consider the ATF an enemy. They really aren’t. Sure, you can have some agents who make things harder, but that’s in every job. Rick said that he’s had great experiences with members of the ATF. I look at it like this: I’m running a business and I have to comply with existing rules. It isn’t political advocacy. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, there is a lot to understand, especially at the intersection between federal and state law.
What to Charge
I’ve heard about a lot of gunsmiths who undercharge and are maybe going under. Strategy is really important when determining what to charge. First, determine what your income needs are and what goals you want to meet. Keep in mind that when you build a business, you are building something of tremendous value. It isn’t just the paycheck. Over time, you may have a million dollar business you could sell to someone. An existing customer base and head start is worth something!
Rick noted he fell into undercharging when he had his own business. He thought he was undercutting the competition, but he was really undervaluing himself. In reality, people expect a certain level of quality if you put out a certain amount. If you put out a low price, many assume shoddy work.
Gunsmiths are actually becoming a rare breed, so demand is increasing. Some claim it’s unfulfillable.
As you set your prices, also know your true operating costs and your value proposition. Why are people calling you? Is it because you are local or because you have certain skills? Is it because you have good customer service?
Across the country, there are really not that many great businesses. Putting effort into your company and doing good work puts you ahead.
Also look at what rates are competitive both locally and nationally. Brownells has a good resource for this. Brownells conducts a survey of gunsmiths and publishes a range of fees for various services. You can find it here.
I’ve already decided I’m only going to do top quality work. We indicate the barrels down to about one ten thousandth of an inch of run out on the grooves and we get two points of reference — basically the Gordy Gritters model. So when we do a chambering job, it’s gonna be more like $500 or $600 dollars depending on your options (thread protector, etc). Others do a chambering job for much less, but you won’t get the quality I am putting out. It depends what matters to you.
Do not be afraid to charge what your work is worth! This may initially seem like a lot. You may lose some customers, but you will gain those willing to pay for quality. This means working on one gun vs. three guns, for example, for the same amount of money.
Though society pushes comparison, take the time to focus on yourself. Don’t worry about those doing sub-standard work — it’s not a viable model.
Refine your product offerings based on what people want. In the case of precision rifle, consider which calibers people are using when it comes to determining standard chamberings.
Like any skill, gunsmithing is perishable. Take the time to reinvest in your education. You may also choose to invest in certain equipment to put you over the top. For example, we are considering a machine to cut custom foam inserts for rifle cases because that’s how we want to deliver them. We may also just find someone locally who can do the work for us.
I just went through this exercise. When looking at rent, I considered the cost per square foot. In our town, it’s about $1 per square foot. I’m paying just under that.
My building is also next to a bridge that just opened, with major traffic. Are you in a location where people will see you and can get to easily? Can you put up a big sign? Is there parking?
What is the property zoned for? What permits do you need?
To rent or to buy is another question. I wish I could have purchased the building that I am in, because it was a good deal. Ultimately, I decided it’s better for me to not think about all the extras and to just sign the two-year lease. Eventually, I’ll need more space, so this way I am not stuck.
Shipping and receiving is another pain point many don’t consider. Only certain carriers will ship firearms and sometimes only from certain locations. Think about how far you are from various shipping services. Surprisingly, USPS is actually one of the best options for shipping firearms.
Insurance and Payment Processing
The problem is no one wants to insure you or process payments for firearms.*
*There are actually some companies out there who want this business, but they can be difficult to find.
Firearms insurance is specialized and expensive. Be sure to work with companies that specialize in firearms businesses. Right now, I’m looking into Lockton Affinity. As your business evolves, plan on frequent policy additions. Also have a security and fire plan. Your insurance company will want to know this to calculate your rate. Having resources to fall back on in case of damage or natural disaster is especially important.
Payments are also sticky. Banks, e-commerce platforms and credit card processors don’t want to get involved in firearms. Since publishing the video for this story I’ve signed up for Payroc payment processing AND CoreWARE/coreSTORE!
The 3% fee tacked on to credit card transactions is legitimate. There is a lot of risk involved with chargebacks. You might consider just not doing processing, but having a way to digitally accept funds is an expectation of legitimate business.
People also know that if there is a problem with payment processing they can go to their credit card company for help, which provides a greater sense of comfort.
Payment processing is a necessity — just be sure to build the 3% fee into the cost of services.
Continuing with electronics, there is an option to keep all acquisition and disposition (A&D) forms online. I opted to keep three paper books: one for general firearms transactions, one for manufacturing, and one for NFA items. Each suppressor that comes in with a dealer to dealer Form 3 is logged. Review guns will go into the general book and stay in the FFL. They aren’t assigned to a specific person. Eventually we’ll transition to electronic forms, but I wanted to start with paper.
Gunsmiths also need the ability to track work orders. It’s important to know what jobs are in the queue, what state each of them are in and where the corresponding A&D records are. When you receive a gun for work, it’s an acquisition. When it goes back to the customer, it’s a disposition.
Electronic A&D records make it easy to search, but if the ATF comes for an inspection and there’s a computer glitch, you could be in hot water. A happy medium is to print the electronic records so you have both a digital and paper copy.
Rick has already looked at the electronic version and it’s very nice. It’s clean with well-defined fields.
You may wonder why I’m forcing myself to start with paper. This is a new endeavor and paper requires us to fully understand every aspect of the process. It’s like learning in iron sights before a scope or a manual lathe before learning CNC.
Equipment and Assets
The list of what you may need is impossibly long. Start with necessities and you’ll find things you need or would like to have over time. General repair requires a work bench and some hand tools.
If you are going to be doing engraving and machining, you have options ranging from mild to wild. I started with a $1000 lathe and graduated to a 16 x 60 Precision Matthews worth over $20,000. This solid machine is rigid and ideal for manual machining. If you don’t want to or can’t spend that much, consider used machinery or smaller options. Be sure to think about your future goals and where you want to be. In some cases, a big investment up front makes sense. In other cases, you may never be able to make back the money.
Ultimately, you can get started with as little as a work area, toolbox and cleaning/repair tools for general gunsmithing. You can do a lot with a drill press and small lathe. Even if you graduate to a larger lathe, milling machine and CNC, you’ll want the original drill press and small lathe as secondary equipment.
You can build your inventory over time. One thing you really need is a good precision measurement tool. This is an asset that can pay dividends.
A Starrett or Mitutoyo would be very good. Electronic is nice because you can zero things out and get incremental tolerances and measurements.
Now I have a 50 watt fiber laser with the rotary unit, but I started out with a stamp and hammer. The marks were crooked and I accidentally stamped a 3 upside down once, but it wasn’t a huge deal. The laser and rotary unit cost $6,500 but I determined it was worth it to me to have all rifles look professional. Every barrel that comes through the shop will be laser engraved with the twist rate, length, and manufacturer. Now that I have a Type 07 FFL, I use the laser for marking lower receivers and serializing.
While we’re caught up in all the super expensive machinery, other tech you may need is as benign as a computer, printer, barcode scanner or even a fax machine. As funny as that sounds, our local police require a faxing solution for us to send handgun transfer information.
We’ve discussed records, but where will you keep them? You need a safe place to store files, inventory and firearms. We’re building a secure room. We have two safes, but we already know that’s not gonna be enough. Security of the entire shop is another concern. It’s not practical to put all your tools and equipment in a safe all the time. Rick suggested a cinder block vault with a safe door.
Security and surveillance generally comes with an equipment cost and a monthly cost. There are other considerations and costs associated with other types of work as well. In example, there are costs in building a Cerakote booth. You have to ensure proper storage of flammable chemicals and ventilation, among other things. I’d done enough paint jobs outdoors. I didn’t want to do that any longer and didn’t want to build a gunsmith cerakote oven.
There are W-2 employees and there are contract employees. W-2 employees are subject to tax withholding. Vacation time and benefits also fit in, making W-2 employees expensive. Keep in mind that your employees should work under the FFL and should undergo a background check.
Many people do not effectively market their business, or market at all. Some people can get away without marketing if they have enough referrals or already have a customer base when they start the business. Have a concrete plan, get on Google Maps and invest some time building a website and focusing on SEO. Market over multiple channels and plan on 7-8% of gross earnings going to marketing. Not all of this will happen at once, and it will take nurturing over time.
You can be the best gunsmith in the world, but if you don’t know how to run an effective business, you will fail. SDI has courses specifically on business management and finances.
Finances are crucial. You need to know how much you are bringing in and spending to make the most effective use of your funds. You also need to keep to a schedule and keep on top of what guns came in when from where. If you have employees, you need to learn how to be a good leader and how to retain top talent. Also plan in time. An FFL will generally take 6 months to get. You have to plan to be without income for that long if you don’t have another plan or way to make money. Running a business can be work. Keep in mind that you need to be conscious of burnout and ensure you don’t end up hating your passion.
In conclusion, all of this starts with education. Think about what you want to do and what will help you get there. Programs like SDI offers are already firearms-oriented and designed to help you build a gunsmithing career. This is a different atmosphere than most universities. Align your career with demand.
Do outstanding work and charge enough for it. Don’t worry about the competition, but focus on your own development.
Be sure to cover all of your bases – ensure you have proper permits and licenses.
Also, market your business!
If you are interested in training and want to do it remotely, the Sonoran Desert Institute is a great option. If you want to talk to someone, call 480-999-4767.
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