Have you been considering adding custom gunsmithing to your retail operations? A lot of gun shops are looking to make a little extra margin with custom builds. But it might be time to start doing them yourselves.
The first question you really need to ask yourself is whether you’re just getting into the firearms trade, or have you been in the business for a while? This could have substantial influence on how you approach offering custom gunsmithing services to your customers, unless you have a deep pool of funds to draw from.
If you are just trying to break into the retail firearms and sporting good business, you’re already looking at a big investment. A business location, inventory, display cases and racks, permits and licenses — not to mention employees, insurance, attorney’s fees and on and on. It is easy to drop $250,000 just to get even a moderately sized retail operation open for business.
If that’s small change to you, then by all means consider adding a gunsmithing operation as well. But keep in mind the saying: If you want to make a little money in the gun business, you better start with a lot of money. For people of more modest means, delaying the gunsmithing operation until your main retail operation becomes successful would be most wise.
Once your retail store is operational and profitable, you can more comfortably decide to branch out into the custom gunsmithing side of the business. Some people opt to go for a small business loan and expand their operation all at once, while others baby-step the process by expanding to one custom offering at a time. Some businessmen play it even safer and set aside a portion of their retail profits until they have complete funding for the new branch of their business. The decision is an important one, and it is all yours.
One suggestion you should really take to heart is that you should not expand into custom gunsmithing at all if you don’t have an experienced and qualified staff to handle a gunsmithing division as part of your main business. If you fail to have truly competent staff on hand in the smithing division, problems can reach out and destroy your entire business. Poorly experienced or careless workers in a gunsmithing operation can lead to dangerous products being put back into the hands of your customers. This can lead to product liability issues and your winding up being held responsible. If you are not going to do a gunsmithing division right, don’t do it at all.
Okay, so let’s say you’ve answered all the above questions and you’re ready to open that new segment of your business — where do you find qualified and experienced people to staff your custom shop division? First of all you will need to define the areas that you want to specialize in. If you want to craft fine double rifles, don’t hire a guy with an eight-hour Glock armorer certificate. Choose your specialty gunsmiths wisely. Benchrest rifle building, action shooting and custom hunting rifles will all require special gunsmithing skills.
Take your time and advertise widely for the proper person to manage your custom shop. Once you have an experienced manager on board, he can help you decide whom to bring in for bench gunsmiths. He might even personally know some smiths looking for work. Failing to get the right manager and staff could quickly spell disaster.
Check out the roster of the American Pistolsmith Guild and The Custom Gunmakers Guild. Make some calls and get some leads on experienced craftsmen who might want to work under the business umbrella of someone else, rather than their own. You might find some semi-retired people who still have enough gas left to get your custom shop up and running and train a younger generation of custom gunsmiths.
What kind of salary range can you expect to pay? That generally depends on experience and qualifications of the employee. Pay well for work ethic, honesty and craftsmanship skills and your shop will develop the reputation as the place to go for top-notch work. If you pay low and expect to make a big profit margin from the labors of others, you will probably be disappointed. Consider a profit sharing plan with your staff — it will help them stay motivated for the overall success of your business.
Extending profit sharing all the way down to new employees on a percentage basis will give them an incentive to stay with you for the long term. It is long-term, knowledgeable employees that will help you keep your books properly organized and your business growing.
What kind of gunsmithing equipment will you need? Again, that will be defined by your specialization. However, most shops will always have need of in-house machine shop equipment, such as a mill, lathe, surface grinders and drill press. Keep in mind though, if you do not have staffers skilled and experienced with such equipment, disaster is only one flip of the switch away.
What brand of equipment should you get and how much will it cost? It will vary on brand and quality. Bridgeport is a long-known good starting point for quality machines. Check them out and you can see what the ballpark figures are for manually operated machinery. Then figure on at least doubling that cost for tooling setup. Then factor in wiring your shop properly, paying shipping and having forklifts on hand to get your new machines moved into place.
If you expect to take a gunsmithing division of your business seriously enough to become a production operation as well, then look into the CNC-type machinery. If you have no experience in this area, your custom shop staff will have to be experienced. This means not only experienced operators, but skilled programmers to get everything operational. Your skilled staff will need to be in-house and full-time. The last thing you want is for some of your machinery to go down and you not have anyone on staff knowledgeable enough to get it going again.
Smaller-scale gunsmithing tools, parts, accessories and such can generally be found at Brownells in Montezuma, Iowa, and Midway USA in Missouri. Using gunsmithing hand tools skillfully can take as much time and experience to learn as becoming a skilled machine operator. Problems in either area can lead to your customer’s property being damaged and you having to pay for the damages. Damaged goods lead to a damaged reputation, so custom gunsmithing must be done right, all the time.
Okay, the metal work is done, and looks nice. Now what about the finish work? This is another entire area requiring equipment, experience and supplies — at more expense, and more expense on top of that in order to do it right. When it comes to finishing, what kind of finish will be in demand by your clients, and what will go well with your most common gun types? Even more importantly, what will be allowed in your zoning area? Will there be hazardous material or waste to deal with? You need to check it out thoroughly before pulling this trigger.
So, in the end, will there be profit from the custom gunsmithing division? Let’s consider the custom 1911 arena. About 25 years ago custom gunsmithing the 1911 pistol was in high demand, and quality smiths were in short supply. Today’s market is saturated with people in the 1911 business, including production line businesses turning out 1911 pistols at a fraction of the cost of the one-at-a-time custom pistolsmith.
Some guns are good, and some are not so good, but many are coming with features that would have been considered custom 25 years ago. How many customers do you have that know the difference between a $1,000 production custom 1911 pistol and a $5,000 hand-crafted pistol? If the answer is not many, then they will probably be buying the $1,000 factory pistol. Same goes for the current AR-15 world.
If you want to make safe and reasonable business decisions, consider all the factors. Do you have a niche product that can be custom produced and sell well for your business, or will you be entering into an already saturated market and playing catch up? Evaluate the situation thoroughly, and make a quality decision for the successful future of your business.