NRA Summer Gunsmithing Schools.
Mention the word “school” to some people and they take on a hunted look and start edging toward the nearest exit. But what if someone told you of a school where you could immerse yourself in the mysteries of your favorite hobby and actually learn something important to you? Well, as it happens, there is such a school.
For as long as I can remember, the National Rifle Association has organized summer gunsmithing courses for hobbyists and practicing gunsmiths alike. The classes are conducted in association with several community colleges that offer degree gunsmithing programs during the regular school year. At this writing, there are five campuses participating in the program.
Each of these schools will typically host a dozen or two guest instructors who will lecture (and demonstrate) on everything from basic metalworking to advanced engraving techniques. While a few classes will run for a couple of weeks, most are weeklong— but what a week it will be. Speaking as both student and instructor in these classes, I can promise you there is no other way to cram so much valuable information into such a short period of time. It is impossible to attend a class and fail to take away knowledge that can save you countless hours of struggle and headaches, even if you are a professional gunsmith who simply wants to broaden your horizons a little or sharpen existing skills. All it takes is one little tidbit to justify your time and trouble.
But what makes these seminars so special is the people who teach them. Virtually every instructor is a widely recognized expert in his field of endeavor and brings to the table years of invaluable experience to share. I have been privileged to sit at the feet of the likes of Jerry Fisher, Lynton McKenzie, Ron Power and many others. It does not get any better than that. Not only do the visiting artists share freely of the skills and knowledge that may have taken them decades to acquire, but most are bottomless pits of little anecdotes on running a business, dealing with clients, tricks of the trade and sources for tools, services, materials and guidance that may not be cited anywhere in the literature.
Ben Fagen, machine shop instructor, watches over a student lathe pilot.
Photo: Michele Haywood, Montgomery Community College
Bob Marvel (right), M1911 class instructor, discussing the finer
points of M1911 function. Photo: Michele Haywood, Montgomery Community College
I have taught at three of the schools—Montgomery, Trinidad and Murray—and have always found the physical plants to be tidy, well lit, well equipped and well managed. While the schools do not always have on-campus accommodations, all are helpful in providing information about the local chow and lodging scenes. There is a school within a hard day’s drive of most of us in the country. Classes are typically small, usually 10 to 15 students, so there is ample time for individual attention.
Instructors typically send out lists of tools, materials and parts for the classes. Just think of it as summer camp for adults with guns.
Nobody need be intimidated by the teachers or other students. These are your classes, paid for, in part, by your NRA dues (you are a member, aren’t you?) and are for your benefit. Your classmates will be from all walks of life: gunsmithing students, gunsmiths, engineers, cabinet makers, school teachers, accountants, machinists, farmers and, in one case, a naval architect, and all have one thing in common—they want to learn more about guns. Like you, your fellow students are serious enough to have sacrificed their vacation or valuable spare time to attend. There are no dumb questions, only unasked questions.
Filing up an S&W ratchet doesn’t scare Hamilton anymore, thanks
to his friend and NRA class instructor George Wessinger.
Even though I am a practicing gunmaker like a lot of us in the trade, I started as a hobbyist and then it got out of hand. But, with few exceptions, very few of us in the trade accomplished what we have in a vacuum. Most of us had a little help and encouragement along the way. Yes, having a good imagination, a little native mechanical ability and good spatial judgment helps, but there is nothing like accumulated lore passed on down for free. Over 30 years ago, I attended a class at Trinidad State Junior College on S&W revolver tuning and repair taught by my good friend George Wessinger who sadly passed away a few years ago. I distinctly remember the nonchalant way he located a specific ratchet tooth on a cylinder and filed it in to set the carry-up timing. He just opened the cylinder, grabbed it by the chamber, swung the gun around by the cylinder until it was flipped upside down and trapped it on the bench pad just so, arranged perfectly so he could file in that chamber’s ratchet tooth. Before the class was over, I wasn’t any longer scared of those ratchets. In time, I even perfected the “flip.” In the past 30 years, I have fitted hundreds of cylinders and filed in the ratchets exactly as George did. And when I do, I never fail to breathe a small thanks to the kindly gent from the great state of South Carolina who showed this hayseed how it was done.
By Hamilton S. Bowen
NRA Summer Gunsmithing Schools
Montgomery Community College
1011 Page St.
Troy, NC 27371
Trinidad State Junior College
600 Prospect St.
Trinidad, CO 81082
Flathead Community College
777 Grandview Dr.
Kalispell, MT 59901
Murray State College
One Murray Campus Dr.
Tishomingo, OK 73460
Lassen Community College
478-200 California 139
Susanville, CA 96130