After serving in combat for eight years in the U.S. Army with the 101st Airborne in Afghanistan, William Altsman decided to find a career doing something less physically and mentally challenging.
“I’m a lifelong hunter and that, combined with my time in the military, provided me with a fair amount of knowledge about guns,” said Altsman. As a result, he chose to become a gunsmith.
“In a nutshell, gunsmiths identify weapons determining what they are, who made them and the age of the gun,” Altsman explained. “We do all types of things with weapons including making sure all of the mechanics are working properly and conducting safety tests.”
To learn these technical skills and many others, Altsman attended the Pennsylvania Gunsmith School® where he obtained a Master Gunsmith Certificate. The program took 16 months to complete and provided him with the skills and know-how necessary to open a gunsmithing shop.
The school, founded in 1949, was started with the purpose of re-educating World War II veterans who wanted to start a career in gunsmithing by providing a less time-consuming route than traditional 7- to 11-year apprenticeships. Now, 74 years later, it still updates and revises its programs to remain relevant.
The intensive program of study begins with basic instruction in gun repair. From there, the instruction expands to different types of firearms and custom work to build the skills needed to become a successful gunsmith. Throughout the lessons, students learn skills such as proper layout, hacksawing, filing and gauging technics, spring making, custom stock-making, machine work, welding, soldering and brazing and custom alternations for rifles, shotguns and handguns.
Business development and customer relations are also included within the course of study. The classes are taught in a shop-like setting to familiarize students with the atmosphere they will experience on the job. Upon completion, graduates leave with a portfolio of their work—an ideal marketing tool.
When Altsman completed his 16-month course, he chose to open his own shop, Altsman Gunsmithing, located in New Brighton. “When I first started, I didn’t know what the demand for a gunsmith would be,” he said. “Turns out it’s a lot more prevalent than I imagined.”
Altsman and his team work on all types of weaponry. “The oldest piece I’ve worked on was from 1881,” he said. “We also work on firearms right out of the factory and everything in between.”
One of the more interesting services that Altsman Gunsmithing offers is custom paint jobs. “Every paint job is done by hand,” said Altsman. “We receive all types of customization requests including Batman and The Joker, and police, firemen and military insignias.”
He added that the most unusual customization request he has received was to custom-paint a rifle with unicorns and cupcakes as a gift for a young girl.
More important than customization, however, is ensuring a weapon’s safety. The team tests every gun they work on to be certain the safety features are working properly.
Business remains steady for Altsman, who attributes his success since opening 1 ½ years ago to positive reviews from satisfied customers.
“Most of our business comes from a combination of networking and word-of-mouth referrals,” he said. “Weapons are expensive, and gun owners want to know they can trust the gunsmith they choose to work on their guns.”