Building firearms in Colonial America was one of the more cumbersome and difficult trades to learn due to the many facets involved. The creation of one gun could take upwards of 400 hours to complete. Gunsmiths in the old days had to be master blacksmiths, engineers, and wood craftsmen in order to produce weapons that were used for both hunting and in warfare.
Today, those classic Colt Navy revolvers, Enfield 1853s, and Burnside Carbines can be constructed and restored using the same techniques gunsmiths of yesteryear used. But modern technology can cut the time to make and restore antique rifles and handguns significantly, while maintaining all the original characteristics of the weapon itself.
You wouldn’t call an automotive mechanic who specializes in muscle cars from the 1960s and 1970s to repair your 2014 electric hybrid. Therefore you also should not expect just any gunsmith to know the ins-and-out of classic firearms.
David R. Chicoine, author of several books about building and restoring antique firearms, points out several common errors and blunders unwitting (but good intentioned) gunsmiths make when dealing with old firearms. As already alluded to, using the wrong tools can cause irreparable damage to parts you may no longer be able to find.
Buy real gunsmith screwdrivers, not some cheap set from your local department store. Hollow-ground screwdrivers, such as the ones made by Brownells, are specifically made to fit into gun screws. Using inadequate equipment can cause you to slip while trying to remove a screw and leave large gashes in your antique firearm. You could also potentially strip a screw and be forced to dig it out, causing even more damage.
Chicoine also says to never dry-fire classic firearms, never try and pry off side plates, and always take extra care when dealing with springs and small steel parts. Both can be easily broken and extremely difficult to replace.
From Hobby To Retirement Activity
Dan Hopping was a regular 9-to-5 guy for 40 years at IBM, and now spends his retirement doing what he loves. He told the Charlotte News & Observer in 2008 how he restores rifles from as early as the 1600s in his basement workshop. Hopping said several of his ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War, which is the source of his enthusiasm for classic firearms.
The biggest takeaway from Hopping’s story is the fact you better love restoring and building classic firearms, as money isn’t always there to be made. He said it takes him over 100 hours to build one stock from maple blanks, and up to 500 hours to build an entire gun. That amounted to about 40 cent per hour for a gun that would potentially sell for $3,500.
Hopping also demonstrated how modern technology sped up the process, while not compromising the integrity of the firearms themselves. He uses several rotary tools that did not exist for gunsmiths in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Sharpen Your Skills
Crafting and restoring classic firearms is not something you can learn overnight. It is something that requires experience, passion and patience. Get started by taking gunsmith courses at Penn Foster or some other reputable institution of higher education. You could also offer to work as an apprentice to a local gunsmith and learn on the job.
The National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association holds annual gunsmithing workshops, as does Brownells. These are excellent sources for both getting started learning the trade and networking with other current and future gunsmiths.