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Hello all! This is my first post, so please bear with me if this is posted in the wrong place (moderators please move this topic if this is the case). Also I have not yet mastered the search function, so I apologize in advance if this has been covered in the past. I have a tendency to ramble, but I'll try and stay on topic...

 

A little about me: I started building 1911/2011's about 4 years ago (the first few were built from 80% receivers, yuck!) and at this point I have built two dozen or so. At this point, I would like to think I am reasonably competent when it comes to building them; slide to frame fits are good, barrels are tight with good lockup, I can assess and fix most problems with relative ease etc. I have extremely limited access to a lathe/mill, so everything has to be done by hand for better or worse.

 

I'm at a bit of a crossroads, metaphorically speaking, and I'm trying to make decisions about what to do with my life, and I am considering trying to make a go of it with this whole custom pistol thing. As much as I would like stick solely with 1911's, it doesn't strike me as the most viable business plan, at least not to start with. I have a fair bit of experience with other pistols, glocks and CZs mostly, but I've built an AR-15 or two as well, and I thought maybe there would be a niche for custom or semi-custom (or even just upgraded factory) pistols, both with the competition crowd but the tactical crowd as well. I see a lot of high-end glocks (salient, zev, taran tactical etc) and 1911/2011s (atlas, akai, cheely etc) but I don't see that much for sale in the middle ground between factory guns and 3-5k+ high end stuff, and I'm wondering if there would be interest in pistols/rifles that fall somewhere in the middle, i.e. flashier than factory, but still relatively affordable.

 

In a nutshell, what I am asking is... what are your thoughts on the viability of starting a small business building custom/semi-custom pistols and rifles (from the ground up, as well as upgrading/customizing factory weapons), aiming for somewhere between factory guns and big dollar customs, for both the competition and tactical crowds and then selling them either through local dealers or my own storefront.

 

To be clear, i'm not interested in opening a gun shop so much as I am in BUILDING things, be it 1911s, glocks, ar15s you name it. I have always been quite technically/mechanically minded, and not to be a braggart but i feel i am not half bad at this sort of thing.

 

I am hoping that any custom builders or shop owners might chime in and give me some advice on how they got started in the industry. How did you get things rolling, how did you build a name for yourself, how did you promote your brand... I would just like to get some feedback from the community here on whether such a venture would be worth pursuing. Any and all input would be welcome.

 

Postscript: I do know how to use a manual mill and lathe, and I know how to weld (TIG and MIG), and have done some some CNC programming as well, so I'm not a complete amateur when it comes to these things, but my experience is limited.

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Posted (edited)

I'd say you can make a decent living at it if you do nice work, know how to run a business, and treat your customers right.  If you're serious about it, I'd start by establishing a dedicated space and then acquiring the correct tools, including a decent vertical mill.  It doesn't have to be top of the line with DRO and all that.  Just a good, solid, accurate machine.

 

Regarding your "middle ground" business model, my experience is that there's more business and money to be made with less effort by going the high end route.  Part of the reason for that is, people don't mind paying good money if they know the work is going to be done right, and on time.  Plus, with 1911/2011 builds, quality parts cost 1500 and up, so most will consider 3k or more a pretty reasonable price for a custom built gun.  

 

Others might disagree, but I don't see people who work on Glocks and ARs as gunsmiths, really.  Those firearms are pretty much parts assembly operations unless you're actually manufacturing the parts.  There is demand for certain other makes and types of firearms that could be tapped.  For example, high end bolt guns are a pretty decent size market, and the reputable builders all have sizable backlogs.

 

The most important thing is to decide for yourself if this is the way you want to go.  There are easier ways to make a decent living, and easier ways to make a lot more money.  I learned the craft from John Nowlin 20+ years ago, but never did it as a business because for the time and effort, it could never come close to the money I was making doing other work.  On the flip side of that, there are plenty of guys like Bill Wilson, Les Baer, George Smith, etc. who started as small time gunsmiths, either on their own or working for someone else, and now they're running multi-million dollar businesses.

Edited by ltdmstr

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Ltdmstr,

 

Thank you for your input, and I agree the "middle ground" model doesn't really work for 1911/2011 builds, I had more glocks and ARs in mind with respect to that.

 

I also tend to agree with you that glocks/ARs don't constitute gunsmithing in the true sense of the term, but they are both tremendously popular and as such might not be a bad entry point into the market. I definitely don't want to do glocks/ARs long term, but since everything is "plug-and-play" i could get started with a relatively small investment, and make a little money to invest in the tooling needed for 1911/2011s  and/or boltguns. Might it not be a bad place to start?

 

I spent the last 10 years in academia, but I grew so disenfranchised with the industry and all the politics that I just couldn't handle it anymore. I literally packed up my office one day, surrendered what little grant money I had and left. So, it would be fair to say im' a little adrift at the moment. I don't need to get rich off of this stuff, I just need something I will enjoy and can take some pride in. That said, I would LOVE to do some sort of apprenticeship under an accomplished smith, but from what I can tell people don't really do apprenticeships like they used to, and even if they did, I wouldn't know where to start.

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Far more gun-builder businesses fail due to business skills than gunsmith skills.  My best advice is to make sure you actually want to run a business because you'll be doing that at least half of your time.

 

 

 

 

 

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the big pitfall I see with the mid level guns (ground up or upgraded factory) is, there is not a lot of profit in them, so you need to be selling a lot of them, the question is can you market them well enough to sell enough to make a living and cover all your overhead costs?

Can you sell 3 guns a week every week all year? with a $500 profit? that's why the custom 19/2011 market is full of 4-7k guns, they all take the same 1500-2500 in parts and coating but you don't have to sell 3 a week when there is $2000-4000 in labor in each one

 

 

 

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Hello, I am not a business man having spent my career in law enforcement.  Like you, I am a hobbyist builder for my own competition guns (mostly open division) for about twenty years or so.  I guess I started because of long waits and the cost and I've enjoyed tinkering, adding better parts at first and so on.  After buying most 1911 tools and eventually adding a small bench top mill and lathe I was able to do the open guns, slide cuts, etc.  I agree with both parties above, especially concerning the running a business comment, people try things and succeed and others fail, theres a lot to consider.  I once visited our local guy shop who has been successful for many years and we were talking about this stuff.  He surprised me with a sudden comment " theres no money in building " as we continued to talk.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 I drove home contemplating his comment, considering how long he's been in business and has built who knows how many guns and other gun related work.  Our other somewhat local guy (Atlas Gunworks ) started small and today has a successful thriving business, selling his wares for premium prices compatible to the industry, so it can be done.  There is a saying, do what you enjoy and you can make a living at it, but probably easier said than done.  Another saying " nothing ventured, nothing gained " so who knows.  If you truly have the desire, discipline, dedication and so on that successful people have then go for it.  In reality, you will never know unless you try, good luck and if you do, I wish you great success. 

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On the question of custom Glocks and ARs, I really can't give an honest opinion because, personally, I'd never pay anyone to work on either.  Maybe to do some slide cuts on a Glock or something like that, but everything else is pretty much plug and play.  I can build up an AR in about an hour from a pile of parts, and that's taking the time to do it right.  So I just don't see the potential to make money at that.  I had a guy right down the street from me, Glock Kreig, who did a lot of custom Glock stuff, and he just shut down the business.  So I'd say you're better off finding a niche and exploiting that.  Marc Krebs used to build competition guns and got tired of it, and started building AKs exclusively.  He's made a good business at it.  But AKs are more difficult to work on than ARs, and require special tools, knowledge and skills that most people don't have.  That's the type of opportunity I'd be looking for.

 

Aside from knowing how to run a business and doing good work, probably the next biggest factor in being successful is marketing.  You've got to get the word out, build a good reputation and be visible.  Most of the big name guys don't really do anything different or better than the others, but when they appear in gun magazines, blog sites, etc., people THINK they're better and spend their money accordingly.  I can build a gun that's easily as nice as anything that Wilson, Baer, or whoever can build, but nobody knows who I am.  So I'll never get $5k+ for a 1911.  But I'm not making a living at it.  If I were, I'd be doing things a lot different.

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The easy way to end up with a million dollars doing gunsmithing is to start with 5 million and dive in. You'll be there in no time.

 

The other way, which is what nearly all of the successful ones have done, is to build a reputation (and lots of skills and knowledge) building guns, then start making killer quality aftermarket parts. You make your rep with builds, you make your money with parts. The reason is a build takes time. Everything is hand fitted. Each build is essentially a one off custom, even if you're doing a lot of the same ones. Parts can be made on CNC machines, super fast and accurate. You can have a pile of them and simply ship as you get orders.

It all comes down to dollars per hour. You can make a lot more dollars per hour selling parts, assuming you have ones that are in demand.

 

You might also see if there are gun shops in your area who are looking for gunsmith services. A lot of shops just want to sell stuff and aren't interested in getting into that field.

If we knew where you are, someone might be able to make some suggestions.

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I'm a licensed, trained (Colorado School of Trades) gunsmith who's been in business for the last 29 years.  Mostly retired now.  Lots of things involved if you're going to do it proper and legal; if not, you're headed for trouble.  First you need an FFL. Period.  Second, if you're going to be buying components and fitting them into firearms for sale, according to the last time I talked to my local ATF agent, you need a "manufacturers" license"... assembling parts is now considered manufacturing a firearm, and there's an excise tax per firearm associated with that.  Unless that's been changed, so you would need to check with your local ATF agent for their interpretation of the law.  Also don't forget you're going to need a buttload of liability insurance.  One mishap, your fault or not, and you're open for a possible big-time lawsuit.  Lawyers don't care if you're guilty or innocent, your fault or not; you will be paying for one, and you might not want the cheapest one around, so good insurance is a must.  I carried one milliion dollars; for that kind of money the insurance company will help with the lawyer...

 

There is a market for the work, and you might be able to do mostly 1911/2011 work, but until you get your guns out there doing well, not many folks are going to give you big bucks to make a firearm for them.  AR's are hard to make much money on as the parts are cheap and readily available to nearly anyone, and everyone and their brother seem to be able to put one together in a few hours that will shoot MOA.  

 

So what you're left with is making a small profit on parts (which you want to get at dealer price) and labor.  Frankly, there's not much margin in either one unless you have one of the big names/reputations as mentioned in an earlier post.  Where you make any real money is in the margins on equipment, for the most part... magazines, ammo, holsters, bags.. in other words, the stuff you have in the store to support your gunsmith hobby.

 

So you want to get in?  Can you go to one of the colleges or schools that offer gunsmithing?  Can you be an apprentice to someone with a good reputation in your area?  Take a correspondence course?  Get a job in a local gun store?  None of these are absolutely necessary, but you'll do better to look at those kinds of opportunities probably than to hang out your shingle and hope to make it to the big time.  I wish you well, I have all the business I want, but it's taken me a long time to get here.  Good luck, look into it carefully, and be aware of all legal and financial obligations.  Business savvy is very important here.  Ask around... talk to gun business owners... and here's wishing you all the best as you begin this journey!

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If you're serious, find a good lawyer, CPA, and insurance agent at the very least. It's going to be big money to get that started correctly.

 

I think there may be a hobby rule to the FFL if you make less than like 10 guns a year. Might want to start with gunsmith work to get your name out there and maybe wear a 'jersey' to any matches you attend and show off your guns there.

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As Ben stated, compliance with legal and regulatory requirements is critical, whether you intend to do it as a business (meaning, actively pursuing customers, earning income, etc.) or a hobby.  Obtaining an FFL is pretty simple, although small stuff like compliance with local zoning restrictions and that type of thing can be a problem, depending on where you live.  Beyond that, the record-keeping and filing requirements also take up a good amount of time.  If you do intend to do it as a business, it's a good idea to set up a corporation or LLC, which presents a whole separate set of filing and compliance requirements, plus fees, and stuff like registered agent services, etc.  Add to that the insurance and operations costs, and together it's a pretty significant burden in terms of time and money.  Really, if you can hook up with someone with an established business, that would be the best route.  That way you can get a feel for how it works and what it's like day-to-day, then decide if it's something you want to do.

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Thank you everyone for your input, you have given me a lot to think about....

 

I knew a FFL would be necessary, but I thought a type 01 would be sufficient, but i poked around and Ben you are correct, I would need a type 07. Not that getting a type 07 would be a problem....beyond that, I live in Colorado, so state and local laws, zoning etc. aren't too difficult to navigate. Both of my parents were lawyers (now retired) so I could speak with them, but I think i would probably want to hire someone to make sure all the "I's are crossed and T's are dotted" so to speak. The one thing I didn't consider (which now seems obvious) was liability insurance. I will need to look into how much that will cost.

 

As far as building up a name for myself, i know there is no fast and easy way to do it, but I was thinking about building some guns and then selling them at cost to people locally, as well as on forums like this one, in exchange for an honest review of the gun. What did they like? what did they hate? overall impressions etc. I understand I wouldn't make any money selling guns at cost, but it could be one way to get some guns out there and to get people talking about them. Thoughts?

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Back in the day to be an IPSC gunsmith it was kind of simplistic become a GM with reliable guns and shooters would seek you out. Their guns always run reliable and was able to become a GM with it, so I can do it with their guns to. That's kind of how I did it but I only built guns for myself then Medical problems ended my construction career so I switched to pistolsmiting and added parts maker everything was going good until medical problems arose again stopping everything.

 

Here is some advice I was given when I first started out or some facts. First if you love the sport as in like to shoot a lot of matches forget it, your time to practice will dwindle away and you will be constantly repairing guns at matches so performance will drop.

2) There is no such thing as an 8 hour day when your self employed more like 12 to 14 hour days. At times business skills, record keeping, and correspondence will eat up most of your day, less time at the bench.

3) Four successful pistolsmiths  told me there is no money in pistols build rifles(not AR's), less time involved per gun and more money. All four had switched to rifles with a few pistols now and then, larger client base than IPSC.

4) It takes money to make money so don't give it away, think about that hard.

5) Most of what your working on is a luxury item for people, for sport/fun not their work tools so when times get tough people stop spending.

6) In general gun people can be kind of stingy with their money, always looking for the best deal, set your price and hold firm. 

 

There is only one industry insurance company Joseph Chiarrello,  your liability is based off of your dollar volume the more you gross the higher the premiums. 

Don't forget to take care of yourself medical insurance is a must and take a salary if you don't then why are you doing it.

There are a few more hoops to jump through to get an 07 FFL, don't get discouraged stick it out. When the agent asks you are you doing this for a profit the answer is always YES, say no and you will not get an FFL.

Develop a signature mod it lets people know whos work it is without asking, there is a sea of gunsmiths out there and they all tend to look the same you need something to stand out.

Rich

Hind sight being 20/20 I should have left for Alaska the day after I graduated high school and been an outdoorsman probably would be happier and healthier today. Don't get me wrong construction and pistolsmithing was a hell of a good time.

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Welcome to the forum Nate

 

Like you I have a passion for shooting/gunsmithing and I also have a high-end commercial construction company which gives me a unique vantage point.

 

I know I'm the fun-buster here, but I suggest you get a job either from a custom gun shop or a machine shop and let someone pay you to learn the business.

 

Reach out to Rick Hebert in Colorado and see if he'll let you clean his shop in exchange for some mentorship.

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