Selling to DIY Gunsmiths

Millions of garage-bench gunmakers and amateur gunsmiths can help you offset market swings in firearm sales.

Selling to DIY Gunsmiths

Cleaning supplies are consumables. They cost little to stock but offer something every shooter needs.

It seemed terminal. Cases emerged from the old battle rifle with a blackened gash forward of the rim. Some separated there, the head alone extracting, leaving me to burrow for the rest.

“Swollen chamber,” mumbled the old man. Whatever that meant. What did I expect for $15?

It had seemed a bargain, this relic peddled by Sears, Roebuck. I knew the No. 1 Mark III was an early SMLE but couldn’t say why a No. 4 Mark 1 cost more, or why No. 5 Mark I Jungle Carbines listed for a heart-stopping $29.95. Headspace was still a foreign term. I ponied up a premium for another No. 1 Mark III from the father of a fetching blond in my high-school class.

After a winter’s whittling on a $7.50 stick of walnut from Herter’s, I shelled out double that for Williams open sights. Ready to hunt, the .303 had sucked as much cash out of me as a pal had sunk into his spanking-new Winchester 94. But I’d learned a bit about rifles. When that cobbled SMLE tumbled a running whitetail, Ron’s factory-crisp .30-30 suddenly looked ordinary.

Another winter tending a Claro blank and commercial Mauser metal yielded a better-looking rifle — but I hadn’t fitted the recoil lug closely. My first shot split the stock’s wrist. I charged back to my basement bench, keen to redeem myself as an amateur gunsmith. I’ve yet to do that but yet to stop trying.

Enthusiasts like me vastly outnumber real gunsmiths with lathes, mills and drill presses and the skills to use them. Surprisingly few gun shops offer the bench-top tools and aftermarket parts these DIYers are looking for — despite a roller-coaster market in factory firearms. The shops of my youth, staffed to help customers fix or upgrade guns, have been replaced with counter clerks with little, if any, experience as mechanics.

Your customer base will surely grow if you carry more than new firearms. In fact, DIY hardware has prospered, leading firms in the shooting industry.

“We cater to shooters and gunsmiths and hobbyists who want to refurbish, repair, improve, even build guns,” says Roy Hill at Brownells, the Iowa supply house claiming “satisfaction guaranteed since 1939.” Eighty years in business has yielded a thick catalog with products from masking tape to bluing tanks. The dog-eared Brownells volume on my desk packs 150 of its 700 oversize pages with gun parts, AMT to Winchester. Brownells peddles its own products — Acra-Glas is the industry standard in bedding compounds — as well as branded items like Galco leather, NECG sights, Pachmayer recoil pads, Redding and RCBS dies.

Midway USA is as familiar as Brownells to shooters and gun shops. Larry and Brenda Potterfield have added to their prodigious list of brand-name products some of their own design and offer “just about everything” having to do with guns. “Components for AR-style rifles, Glock handguns and Ruger 10/22s account for a big share of our business,” Larry says, but the Midway catalog is comprehensive, with over 47,000 items that qualify for free shipping. The Columbia, Missouri, firm offers discounts to consumers as well as dealer programs. Battenfeld Technologies, once part of Midway, is one of its many suppliers.

Brownells and Midway USA ship inexpensive gunsmithing tools that serve hobbyists - and profit shops!
Brownells and Midway USA ship inexpensive gunsmithing tools that serve hobbyists - and profit shops!

Big Ticket or Bust?

Customers can order online from these sources without visiting local gun shops. But many who might tinker don’t know how, or they want to see the punches, taps, screws, grips, holsters, sights, brakes, chokes, bottom metal, or more in person. Enthusiasts buy at brick-and-mortar shops that not only carry parts, bench tools and DIY kits, but give helpful tips and feedback. “What to put on the shelf depends on the skills behind the counter,” says Larry Potterfield. “Selling items for DIY projects requires knowledge and passion.”

The same thinking applies to handloading tools and components. You won’t stock anywhere near a complete selection of either, but by offering popular brass, powder, bullets and dies, your shop will earn a reputation as a handloading hub. If you dispense useful advice, customers will come calling. When a customer asks, “Is H414 or W760 better behind 150-grain bullets in the 7mm-08?” will someone at your store know the answer? Powder is expensive, and no loading manual lists all propellants for every cartridge. Wildcats make local expertise more valuable still. I’m loading for the .25 Krag Short, and early on, I would have patronized a store whose staff could suggest light-bullet charges.

Not long ago, a friend handed me a couple of sandwich bags bulging with cartridge cases. “Unprimed .303 Savage,” he said. “New, I think.” Thoughtful of him. Brass for my old 1899 carbine is as scarce as humble politicians. I ferreted out his source, a rural gun-and-pawn shop not far away. The hand-packaged brass in old nail cubbies along a crowded aisle had escaped my eye. Now I check at each visit, as the inventory changes and always includes hard-to-find hulls. This out-of-the-way shop is always busy and sometimes thick with customers. Shelves hold ammunition, dies, components and scopes. Aged holsters and scabbards dangle from pegs above massive Stihl saws and other hardware befitting a pawn shop. Its second-hand racks are dominated by well-used “truck guns,” but since my pal donated that brass, a couple of unmolested mid-20th-century bolt rifles have followed me home. I spend time there because this shop has what I won’t find elsewhere, and some prices have a bit of give.

When adding gunsmithing and handloading supplies, you’re bound to order something that won’t sell before we plant a flag on Mars. Ask up front about return options. Brownells honors its no-questions-asked refund/exchange policy, no time limit. Midway USA also goes out of its way for gun shops (the Potterfields once ran one). Return any new-condition product inside 90 days for a full refund or exchange. Custom-rifle items, such as new bottom metal and the superb sights from New England Custom Gun, are worth showing, but you need just a few on display. Emphasize your service of ordering made-to-fit units.

You profit when visitors see a part or accessory, tool or consumable they can buy impulsively. Stocking these items distinguishes your shop as a source for what big-box stores and casual gun counters don’t carry. Instead of just selling firearms, you’re helping customers upgrade, refurbish and fix them. If you peddle second-hand guns, DIY products give shoppers more reason to buy them.

Tip for customers: Between coats of finish, hand-rub in a slurry of rottenstone and boiled linseed oil.
Tip for customers: Between coats of finish, hand-rub in a slurry of rottenstone and boiled linseed oil.

Gun Stocks: Perks and Perils

Among the most popular projects for hobbyists is stock refinishing. In another life, I earned a few shekels restoring original beauty to walnut for a gun shop. It’s with trepidation that anyone who’s labored to “get it right” would entrust this task to the great unwashed masses, because many collectible firearms have lost significant value to reckless dolts refinishing walnut they shouldn’t have touched. Other stocks have been ruined by vigorous sanding when the surface could have been stripped chemically and had the dings steamed out. Any sanding rounds edges, cuts tracks and can leave metal suddenly “proud” of the wood.

Depending on a stock’s detailing, stain, wear marks and the type and condition of original finish, refurbishing can be quite easy or devilishly hard. A good result always requires more work and time than you predict. Matching original color and glow is difficult; fresh finish applied in patches almost always shows its borders.

Finishing new wood is much easier now than when I applied a pocket knife and flint paper to the semi-inletted Herter’s blank for my SMLE. Boyds Gunstocks of Mitchell, South Dakota, lists many styles of walnut and laminated stocks machined for drop-in fit on myriad rifles and shotguns. A Boyds laminate for an LAW rifle I just stocked required no inletting and little outside sanding.

I’m puzzled by gun shops that carry small bottles of finish but nothing else for stock projects. To tackle an old stock, a customer will need varnish remover (stripper) and medium, then fine (0000) grades of steel wool to apply it and remove softened finish. Sanding to reshape or bring a recoil pad flush with the wood requires medium-grit garnet or equivalent. But I’m loath to sand more than needed. If the goal is simply to replace the finish, I stay with 320- and 400-grit wet-and-dry, finishing with 600-grit. An artgum eraser backs sandpaper to keep the surface ripple-free and edges crisp. Brownells and Midway sell excellent stock finishing kits, including sealer. Porous wood can require a prep coat of spar varnish. Rottenstone in a slurry of boiled linseed oil rubbed in (and wiped off!) between coats of “oil” finish coaxes a warm glow from the wood. If you lack these inexpensive supplies, a customer will spend less with you and more time at local hardware stores — or they’ll abandon the project and leave that bottle of finish on the shelf!

For more ambitious stock projects, you’d be smart to carry task-specific wood chisels and gunsmith rasps for contouring tight places. Of course you’ll have Acra-Glas or similar bedding compound on hand, and a fine-toothed checkering tool to freshen worn or scarred panels. At no charge, you’ll dispense advice that puts the customer firmly and forever in your debt:

1. Slather on finish remover. Let it curdle a few minutes; scrub with steel wool with the grain.

2. Raise stock dings by pressing them with a hot iron over a triple-folded wet washcloth.

3. Mask the checkering. (After finishing, brush it with boiled linseed oil on a toothbrush.)

4. Sand wood at metal junctures last and lightly, if at all, to ensure crisp edges and a snug fit.

5. Examine surfaces in bright sunlight to attack sanding scratches. Use a sanding block!

6. Let each coat of sealer, then finish, dry thoroughly. Adding too soon yields a gummy mess.

Ainsley Ridgeway, here at Trinidad State Junior College's gunsmithing shop, built a custom Mauser hunting rifle and a classy 1911 before she opened her own gun shop.
Ainsley Ridgeway, here at Trinidad State Junior College's gunsmithing shop, built a custom Mauser hunting rifle and a classy 1911 before she opened her own gun shop.

When They Need A Pro

The shift of gun sales from small shops with resident gunsmiths to sales counters equipped only with credit card readers leaves customers with no obvious recourse when a job requires special skills and tooling. Rebarreling, for instance, or hot-bluing — even installing a shotgun rib or new bolt handle. You’ll help customers (and boost your income) by pointing them to professionals. Brownells, which declares it does no gun work, has taken surveys of commercial gunsmiths and listed prices for common jobs such as sandblasting, Parkerizing, sight and safety installation, chamfering revolver cylinders, raising dents, back-boring shotgun barrels, glass bedding and fitting recoil pads.

Despite laments that gunsmithing is a dying profession, lost on youth enslaved by smartphones, it is still very much alive! I found a wealth of new talent at Trinidad State Junior College, perched above a bright, butte-hemmed valley threaded by Colorado’s Interstate 25. Its two-year program serves about 60 students at a time. “They dive deep into the workings of many firearms,” said Communications Director Greg Boyce, “flintlock rifles to AR-15s, Colt Frontiers to Sigs, boxlock to autoloading shotguns. Every student learns to bed, checker and finish stocks, Cerakote and case-color steel. Each must rebarrel and re-stock a Mauser 98 action to produce a custom sporter. And learn to fix broken guns.”

Many enroll because they like firearms. But to make a living as a gunsmith or a gunmaker, you must satisfy a demand. One recent graduate specialized in 1911s. His rationale, “If I can fix or upgrade a 1911, my children will never go hungry.” An AR-15 focus is also popular, said Boyce, and profitable.

For a student perspective, I phoned 29-year-old Jayson Tuntland, finishing his Associate’s Degree in gunsmithing. The Illinois native met his future wife at TSJC, so common interests were assured! Four years in the Army repairing small arms grounded him in gunsmithing. “I like to work with my hands,” he said. Keen to combine his armorer skills and TSJC training, he plans work “in design and manufacture as well as repair.” First: his own shop in Illinois. “Art in steel and walnut excites me as fine paintings appeal to others. I’m sure there’s still profit in well-crafted custom guns.”

Ainsley Ridgeway was closing in on graduation when I spoke with her. She was about to get two diplomas, the second for business administration study at the University of Wyoming. “I figured I’d need business savvy as well as gunsmithing skills,” she said. Ainsley grew up hunting in Nebraska. Her father became her business partner in a gun shop now getting its legs. Her passion: long-range rifles. “Action blueprinting and accurizing were my favorite classes at TSJC,” she said. A 1911 pistol she built on a Nighthawk frame appeared in a cover story about her in Women & Guns magazine.

Gruff, bent men in grimy aprons, peering over bifocals and grunting “swelled chamber,” can still benefit your shop. But so can fresh talent more familiar with CNC programs than paper-patched bullets. When you provide a clearing house for knowledge and industry contacts, as well as a retail store, you’ll get more traffic. Customers will visit more often, tarry longer — and buy more.  


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