An interview with Gene Kelly, President of the American Gunsmithing institute, and Robert Dunlap, Master Gunsmith and Senior Instructor.
For those of you who have never seen or heard this interview before, it is a fascinating look into the life of Master Gunsmith Bob Dunlap. I’m sure you will learn something you didnt know before about him, and gunsmithing, whether you are a professional gunsmith or just a “tinkerer”.
This is Part 1 of that interview–Part 2 will be here in next week.
Gene: Let me introduce myself. My name is Gene Kelly and I am president of the American Gunsmithing Institute. I’m a certified gunsmith, a class II manufacturer, and I design and manufacture firearms and accessories. I’ve been in the trade for over 30 years.
I started in 1977 out of high school. I enrolled in the Lassen College Gunsmithing Program where I met Bob Dunlap. At that time, Lassen was noted as the best gunsmithing school in the country because Bob Dunlap was teaching design, function, and repair there. He made sure you understood how things work. You can’t fix something unless you know how it works.
After graduating, I worked in some other shops and started my own manufacturing company. Around 1993 Bob was getting ready to retire, so I asked him “Who is taking over this whole program at Lassen, teaching design, function and repair?” And I was pretty much horrified at the answer. He said “Nobody, it’s all in my head, none of it is written down. There really isn’t anybody ready to take over.”
After a lot of arm-twisting, I convinced him we needed to put the whole thing on video. He agreed to do it but neither of us realized it would take over two years of shooting video to get it put together. We managed to do it and the core course is now over 108 hours of step by step concentrated instruction on DVD that details design, function, and repair.
Once you’ve gone through our course you should be able to pick up any firearm and analyze the system even if you’ve never seen it before, and determine what the problem is and how to make the appropriate repair. AGI now is an approved post-secondary learning institute certified in the state of California. We are an official school. We teach our students through distance education with video.
Let me tell you a little more about Bob Dunlap. For over 35 years, he was the senior instructor at Lassen College Gunsmithing School and also maintained a fulltime gun repair business with up to nine gunsmiths working for him. He was a warranty station for Smith and Wesson, Colt, Charter Arms, Winchester, Browning, Para Ordnance, I believe Uberti and about a dozen other manufacturers. In his career he has been responsible for over 250,000 repairs. Bob is also an expert witness in firearms court cases and he’s traveled internationally to many of the factories around the world.
Bob, how did you get started in gunsmithing?
Robert: On my 11th birthday my brother gave me a BB gun. My mother didn’t like guns so I couldn’t have any. She married a guy who hunted and he allowed my brother to give me a BB gun. I went nuts.
Gene: You didn’t put somebody’s eye out with it?
Robert: No, but I wore that gun out. Then I begged and pleaded for another gun. I was able to buy a shotgun. Then I got a .22, and I had to refinish the stock on the .22 before I could shoot it.
Gene: That was the deal you made?
Robert: Yeah, that was the deal I made because my father felt they were more dangerous than a shotgun because they shoot farther. Once I got a gun, then I started making guns and cannons and buying more and more guns. There was no stopping me.
Gene: When did you first start gunsmithing for hire?
Robert: Almost immediately. I had an FFL when I was 11. In those days they didn’t ask your age and I didn’t offer. I got the FFL because Herb would give me wholesale prices if I had an FFL. So I hung up the shingle and I started racking guns right away. I decided I would like to be a gunsmith and my mother said “No, no, you’re not going to be a gunsmith.” So I went into engineering. I liked cars too so I was kind of torn. I was underneath my MG TD doing something and a drop of oil landed in my eye. I was on a cement slab so I moved back and hit my head. I came up hit the tire iron—bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. I said “Well, I’m going into gunsmithing because it won’t jump up and get me or fall down into my eye.” Pretty soon I enrolled in gunsmithing classes.
Gene: What is your teaching philosophy you’ve developed over all these years?
Robert: From the get-go, and it might be because of my engineering background and my background in research with General Motors, I knew you had to know how the thing worked before you could fix it. If a part is broken and you put in a new one but it’s too long or too short or not the right angle, you can’t tell. But if you know how it’s supposed to work, then you know what to do to make it right. I started this while at GM research. When I got into teaching I caught onto this really, really fast: it doesn’t do you any good to teach you how to fix this gun and this part because when you get another make and model, it might look different. If you learn how it works then you can figure it out. Within a year of starting school I had the process down pretty good. It got better with time.
Gene: That ties into what you taught me years ago; you should be able to pick up any gun, figure out the system and then make the appropriate repairs—if you understand how the systems work.
Robert: To me, that was the hardest part to fixing a gun I’d never seen: taking it apart and putting it back together the first time because they all have idiosyncrasies. You take out the wrong part first and it makes it harder. But once I get it apart I don’t have any problem fixing it because I know what it needs. I can figure it out real quick. That’s why I am as good as I am. I’m good at diagnosis and that’s what any good gunsmith has to be, good at diagnosis.
Gene: A lot of people ask: how much space do you really need to do gunsmithing?
Robert: My first gun shop, when I was a kid in high school, was an old chicken coop. It was about 8’x11’ with a dirt floor. I don’t recommend that because when you drop a part on a dirt floor full of chicken droppings, boy, it’s gone. I would say that probably 8’ x 10’ for a one man shop is enough except you need some place to put the gun racks for the guns to be worked on, guns that are finished, and guns waiting for parts. So maybe 10’ x 10’ or 8’ x 12’ or 14’.
Gene: Ken, your right-hand man, works with you. You guys put through a lot of guns in a month.
Robert: We do between 10,000 and 14,000 a year.
Gene: You’re working out of a fairly small shop, a very efficient shop but what size is it?
Robert: 8 x 24.
Gene: You don’t need a lot of space.
At this point during the interview, AGI students were given the opportunity to ask questions.
Gene: We’ve got a couple of questions from students: Joel Howard, a master gunsmithing student. Did you have any experience before you got involved with us?
Joel: I had machining experience. 38 years ago I went to school to be a machinist, then went to work for the government and I never used what I learned. But I’ve had a lathe and a milling machine for many years. I retired last January and I looked around to see what was available because I had to have something to do. I’m only 58 years old. My wife suggested I look into correspondence and video courses. I came across an ad in a Brownells catalog for some of your videos. I also am an AGA member and I’d seen your ad in there so I thought “well, I’ll give it a shot.” I watched the introductory tape and it interested me, started buying more tapes and then I decided to buy the Master Gunsmithing course.
Robert: There’s a lot more meat in the master course isn’t there?
Joel: Yeah, it’s excellent. The thing that Bob teaches, I think, is concepts. Not necessarily specific things but concepts and like Bob says, if you know how it works you can fix it. And that’s the truth. I worked on some old stuff here lately, nobody makes parts for them. I just finished an Iver Johnson 32 and I had to actually fabricate some of the parts for it. The top latch was gone.
Gene: How did you figure out how to do that?
Joel: Well, trial and error. It took me several tries.
Gene: But knowing how the system worked, right?
Joel: Yeah, some of the old H&R’s had that same top latch system. I basically took the measurements and carved a piece out.
Robert: Isn’t it amazing how precise that fit on that particular part had to be? It’s close.
Joel: Yeah, it is. It’s very close.
Robert: That’s amazing.
Gene: Joel, you had a machine background. Did you take our machine shop course as well?
Joel: Yes, I did.
Gene: Did you learn anything from that?
Joel: Well, sure. I went to the Des Moines Area Community College down here, many, many years ago. I had forgotten just about everything I had learned. This was like a refresher course. Darrell Holland is very thorough and explained a lot of the nuances of what you have to do before you can even start making a part. I would watch a video and suddenly go “Oh, I remember that.” But I hadn’t thought about it in years. I can’t tell you how much this means. It’s amazing because once you open a gun shop—I live in a small town. I have a small shop and I’ve been open officially for about four months and I’m starting to pull in a couple of jobs a day. I haven’t even advertised. It’s basically by word of mouth.
I’d just like to say, I think the AGI course is extremely comprehensive. You have to pay attention. It’s not one where you can just sit there, listen to the tapes, answer questions and you’re going to get a diploma. It takes a lot of thought, you have to pay attention to what Bob is telling you.
Gene: Right, but it’s there to go back to and refer to whenever you need to, on DVDs.
Joel: Yes it is, and Bob and I have talked on the phone before.
Robert: That’s why your voice sounds familiar.
Joel: The Browning Superposed. That’s the thing about AGI, I’ve talked to Bob and I’ve talked to Ken. Besides the master gunsmithing course, I bought a lot of your other tapes and DVDS. No matter how much you think you know a gun, there is always something you can learn from any one of those. It may not be that particular weapon but there is a concept or an idea there that transfers directly to something else.
Gene: It’s a learning process and this helped you get to where you want to go, thank you for joining us. Michael, same question: any previous experience before you took the master gunsmithing course?
Michael: I learned to shoot in the Boy Scouts when I was a kid and I’ve always been interested. I’ve always liked to take things apart and fix things. The approach that Bob takes with teaching is exactly what works for me. I’m pretty much self-taught on everything. That approach is great. I can do it at my own pace. I can wander around and do things as interest peaks and dallies.
Gene: Do you refer back to the videos from time to time?
Michael: I do. I’ve been through them, but if something comes up it’s like having a factory manual to go back and take a look. It’s not a matter of details on a particular gun. It’s systems, and each manufacturer has a system they prefer. And if you learn the system they all work pretty much the same.
Gene: We cover about 136 different guns on there and each system is covered. Does the index help you get to things quickly?
Michael: It does. Like anything you learn, I found it to be an investment. I bought the machine shop course too. Everything I’ve learned of value has cost something. These courses do cost but I’ve found it to be an excellent investment. I’ve never had a single regret.
Gene: I appreciate that.
There are a couple of different things we need to cover here for everybody. One of the first we’ll cover here is how and where do you learn gunsmithing? You have three different options and your first option is to go to a gunsmithing school. That’s what I did, a campus based school that is great if you can do it and afford the time and money involved. Typically you’re looking at 15 grand to go to a gunsmithing school plus living expenses plus time loss of no wages and you need to spend two to three years to get to the level of what we’re doing. That’s one option and it’s a good one if you can do it. They don’t necessarily teach design, function, and repair concepts like we do. But there are some great schools out there.
Another option is be an apprentice. The problem with that is if you don’t know anything at all, it is tough for someone to do their job plus teach you everything they know. It can happen over a long period of time but it is certainly not a shortcut.
Robert: Another thing about apprenticeship–finding a qualified gunsmith to work under and that’s a real problem. I don’t recommend apprenticeship at all unless you really know the guy is good.
Gene: I agree, but have to put it out there because there are still a few good old gunsmiths out there who know design, function, and repair but it’s getting pretty slim. We’ve seen part swappers calling themselves gunsmiths and those are definitely not the people you want.
Robert: That’s not what you want.
Gene: Absolutely not. The third option is obviously AGI. Part of what we’re talking about is our distance education program. Going back to the classroom setting for a moment: one of the problems I had in most classes, gunsmithing or otherwise, by the time you get through roll call, a joke or two, and somebody in the class asking what I perceived at the time to be less than bright questions, you’re only getting maybe 20 to 30 minutes per hour of solid meat. Then you break, then the next class is several days later or the following week. You’re not getting that continuous flow of information.
They say you retain 12% of what you learn in the classroom. I’m probably not anywhere near that level. The beautiful thing with the videos, the way we teach, is you start at A and finish at Z. It’s continuous, the slots fit. If you don’t get it, you can go back and find the information you need. 136 different mechanisms are covered, many times gun specific, so you can look in the index and go to that section.
Your three options; go to school if you can afford the time and money to do that. The second, apprentice under the right guy, and the third is look into our state certified distance learning.
If we can show you the right and wrong way, you’re going to understand. You can’t get the feel here, or on a campus. That is something you need to bring to the table, but it is learnable. You need the knowledge to back it up, to know whether you’re doing the right thing.
Everybody seems to think they need a lot of equipment to be a gunsmith, a huge lathe, a large mill and a whole machine shop full of equipment. While that’s nice to have, it’s really not necessary.
Bob, I know you did this in the Moneymakers section of the course, but why don’t you just hit the main tools you feel somebody needs to do general repair.
Robert: In my shop, I have about 30 screwdrivers, not the replaceable bit type. I have four different weights of ball-peen hammers, two sets of punches and a few specialized punches and screwdrivers for doing just one particular task.
Gene: What about power tools?
Robert: I have a hand grinder. I’d get a good one with a good rheostat.
Gene: You mean with a foot pedal so you can adjust the speed.
Gene: And a collet type chuck?
Robert: No, no, Jacobs Chuck. I use the best rheostat they make. They hold up better.
Gene: Foredom makes a good one.
Robert: Yes, I recommend Foredom. The Chinese copy is not too bad for about half the price. They probably last about half as long too. I still have the Foredom motor I bought when I went to school back in 1960, 59. The rheostat is gone. The flex shaft is gone. The chuck has been replaced several times but the motor is still there so buying quality does pay off.
The next tool I recommend is a band sander, a 1 x 42 band sander with several different grips and belts, a lot of belts because that saves so much time; a bench grinder, grinding wheel and a wire wheel on one side and a grinding wheel on the other. And I recommend a drill press. If you have to have a lathe and you’re not going to do barrel fitting, get a small one, a cheap Chinese tiny little lathe will fit pistol barrels and do minor stuff like that. If you do a lot of barreling, then you have to buy a $4,000 big lathe. But think about how long it is going to take you to get that $4,000 back.
You need something porous for heat treating and you need a Tig welder which is the most expensive item you can have.
A small lathe,welder, belt sander, grinder, and the Foredom tool is what I use to do 99% of the work I do. I don’t use a mill often but can use the Foredom tool for almost any milling operation that I have. It just takes longer. I don’t have to have that big lathe. Ken does more barreling so he uses the big lathe a lot more. For repairs, we’re looking at about $2,000 to have a very well equipped repair facility.
Gene: Do I need an FFL? It is about $90 for three years for an FFL. The biggest thing I have to say is “I am not an attorney…disclaimer, disclaimer. I am not an attorney…disclaimer.” Okay, we’ve got that out of the way. What I need to say about the laws is they change from state to state but most of the ones you’ll deal with are federal laws and they are pretty straightforward. You can get the books right from ATF as part of your licensing. You can pretty much get a license as long as you’re not a felon.
Okay, now, do I need a license to get started? If you’re going to be doing it professionally for profit and advertising and so on, I definitely feel you need a license. But if you’re starting off with the learning process and you’re doing a few guns for family and friends and you’re not charging them for it, I don’t believe you need a license. In fact, most people don’t but again, I’m not an attorney.
Robert: I’m not either, Gene, but my understanding is that as long as you don’t do it for profit but to enhance your hobby, you don’t need it.
Gene: Right and so again, that’s the caveat. You know, it’s not as difficult as everybody seems to think to get an FFL. We do include a complete FFL package with our master gunsmithing course so it’s all right there. The other part of that question is “Can I gunsmith from home?” and the answer is a definite “yes” and as a matter of fact, getting an FFL in your home is normally difficult except for gunsmithing because they understand you’re not going to have people coming to your home, you’re often going to be working with another shop. Or if you are having people come to your home, they’re not coming there to buy guns. You can get a gunsmithing FFL.
A gunsmithing FFL allows you all the benefits of a regular FFL. You can buy guns at wholesale. The big issue with a home gunsmithing license is you must comply with local regulations, so if your city or county will allow you to have a business in your home then you can get a business license.
Liability insurance—we have a source. It ranges in cost from $50 to $100 a month. It depends a lot on your volume and level of training. If you have a certification, that is going to help you get better rates. And it also helps you get access to gunsmith only restricted parts, so certification is important.
Make sure not to miss Part 2 of this interview in coming weeks!