You’re a what? gunsmith – the occupation of gunsmithing
Gunsmith Danni Neel aims a semiautomatic pistol at the target and fires round after round, emptying the magazine. “Every gun we fix, we test fire,” she says, removing her protective headphones.
Neel repairs firearms under warranty at the Beretta USA gun assembly plant in Accokeek, Maryland. She receives guns from customers who report problems, such as jamming or failure to feed ammunition. “We check it out,” she says. “We make sure nothing’s broken or missing, test the magazines, and lubricate it.” Often, she says, a little oil or a new part will restore a gun to working order.
If the solution is not so simple, Neel takes more drastic action. “We start dissecting the pistol piece by piece,” she says. “It’s pretty much like a puzzle. We just work our way down to find out which piece isn’t connecting right.”
Pistols and shotguns lay all over the workbenches in the room where Neel and her five gunsmithing coworkers practice their trade. At times, the work involves some grit and grime. “People sometimes don’t like to clean their guns,” she says. “Others don’t like to oil them, so they’re all encrusted in gunpowder. Plus, with shotguns, you can have grass and weeds and duck feathers, or whatever, in there.”
Today, Neel has a machine gun which belongs to a police SWAT team. “Machine guns are my favorite,” she says, and explains that repairing fully automatic weapons offers a bigger challenge.
No matter how complex the gun, Neel uses simple handtools for most repairs. Peering through her safety glasses, she points out hammers, punches, screwdrivers, wrenches, and special gauges at her workbench. She also uses electric buffing machines to polish guns and welding equipment to make or modify parts. Recently, she and her fellow gunsmiths adopted some new technology. They now search for parts and track all of their work via computer.
After 11 years of working on guns, Neel is not a typical gunsmith and never expects to be. For one thing, very few gunsmiths have jobs in large manufacturing or assembly plants. One industry expert estimates that as many as half of American gunsmiths work indepedently. Of those remaining, the majority are employed by firms having no more than 10 workers. A few are civilian employees of the Armed Forces. Working at an assembly plant, Neel has less contact with customers than do her colleagues in gunsmithing shops or sporting goods stores.
Neel’s work setting also limits her to doing repairs. Unlike many gunsmiths, she does not customize guns to alter their appearance or function at a client’s request, though she does enjoy modifying guns on her own time as a hobby.
Most unusual of all, Neel is a woman in an occupation employing mostly men. In fact, she has yet to meet another woman working as a gunsmith. She says her gender makes finding employment tough, because many people oppose the idea of women working on firearms. And she says she has met many times with hostility on the job. “But I love working on guns,” she adds, “and I won’t let anyone keep me from doing what I love.”
For Neel, opposition ignited interest in guns. In her early teens, she wanted to learn to shoot a gun like her older brother. But her father objected, saying guns were for boys. “That did it for me,” she says, tracing her career back to that moment.
After finishing high school, she enlisted in the Army and took 13 weeks of training in small arms repair. She fixed sidearms, various machine guns, grenade launchers, and mortars for the next 4 years.
Her tour with the Army ended in 1990, and she soon decided to attend the Pennsylvania Gunsmith School near Pittsburgh. She knew that succeeding as a gunsmith in civilian life normally requires a certificate from a school offering specialized instruction. The Pennsylvania Gunsmith School is one of only two private schools accredited in gunsmithing; the other is the Colorado School of Trades in Lakewood. Nine public colleges and technical schools also offer programs around the country.
During her 16 months at the Pennsylvania school, Neel gained a much broader knowledge of civilian gunsmithing. Most of her instruction involved guided, hands-on practice. For example, Neel built three rifles from scratch as part of her training. To do so, she had to learn to operate a lathe and other machine tools.
Neel completed the program and found work at Camp Darby in Livorno, Italy, repairing weapons used in Operation Desert Storm. She returned to the United States 6 months later and could not find a gunsmithing job. She held other jobs for a while but continued to work on guns for people she knew. In February 1995, she resumed working full time as a gunsmith when she began at Beretta USA.
At her current job, Neel earns a fixed wage. But in some settings, gunsmiths earn a wage plus a commission for the work they do. Most gunsmiths working full time earn between $18,000 and $40,000 per year, according to industry experts. The number of practicing gunsmiths is estimated at 11,000. Many work part time on the side, and some double as gun dealers. Unlike gunsmiths who run their own businesses, Neel has never needed a Federal Firearms License (FFL) from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Gunsmiths working for a licensed employer often don’t need an FFL themselves. Applicants for the license must be 21 years old and pay a $200 fee.
Although Neel loves fixing guns, she enjoys testing them even more. “The best part of the job,” she says, “is to be able to shoot until you’re tired of shooting. Just take that gun there and blow that target up.”
Matthew Mariani is a contributing editor to the OOQ, (202) 606-5728.
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