Larry Ahlman was 21 when his dad, “Cap” Ahlman, died in 1964, leaving his son a small southern Minnesota gunsmithing business saddled with $20,000 in unpaid bills.
Already a proficient gunsmith who at age 10 had fitted a new stock to his .22-caliber bolt-action Winchester 69, Larry could manage the gun repair and even the gun-building part of his late dad’s business. But doing it at a profit was challenging.
“When I took over the shop, I made guns, but after two or three years I began keeping track of my time,” Ahlman, 75, said the other day in his now-expansive gun shop in Morristown, Minn. “I was making $2 an hour! I couldn’t feed my family that way.”
As Ahlman spoke, some of the dozen or so gunsmiths he and his son, Mike, 48, employ busied themselves repairing all manner of firearms, from double-barrel shotguns to small-caliber plinkers and handguns.
Elsewhere in the work area, repaired guns were being boxed for shipment back to their owners, while on the sales floor a half-dozen customers perused a veritable storehouse of firepower.
Gunsmithing’s heyday, some say, was in the late 1940s and 1950s, when men returning from World War II wanted firearms customized for target shooting and hunting. But most reputable gunsmiths today have all the business they can handle, Ahlman said.
And for good reason: By one estimate, Americans own nearly 400 million guns. Yet whether due to the graying of aging gunsmiths or the relative disfavor among young workers for the trades, fewer gunsmiths than ever might be qualified to build, repair or modify Americans’ firearms.
Gunsmithing — the process of building or repairing firearms — began in the 1200s in China, where the world’s first firearms were built. As weaponry development spread to Europe, blacksmiths-turned-gun-builders toiled on behalf of feudal lords intent on defeating other feudal lords. Or at least not being killed by them.
In colonial America, where guns were needed among other reasons to shoot deer, elk and bears accurately at a distance, gunsmithing ingenuity blossomed. The nation’s first gun, the Kentucky long rifle, featured a smaller bore than the popular but rarely accurate British musket (.45 caliber vs. the musket’s .50 caliber), which reduced the cost of the lead balls it fired. Also, its extra length (by 4 inches) gave it unprecedented firepower.
Fast-forward a few centuries from the long rifle’s development in 1730, step into Joe’s Sporting Goods in St. Paul, and in a back corner of the store, gunsmith Tim Probst regularly can be found checking the slides of Remington pump shotguns or cleaning the actions of Browning 7-millimeter deer hunting rifles.
All day, five days a week, Probst, 51, repairs customer guns while also ensuring that guns Joe’s takes on trade or buys outright are in good working order. Whether breaking guns down, checking for worn or broken parts or bore-sighting rifle scopes in a basement range, Probst is critical to a shop like Joe’s, says co-owner Jim Rauscher.
“Our gun shop is very busy, and customers want a reliable gunsmith when they have a problem with a shotgun or rifle,” Rauscher said.
Unlike many gunsmiths, Probst had no exposure to firearms as a youth. His family didn’t hunt or, in fact, even approve of guns. He didn’t fire a rifle until he joined the military where, good with his hands, he was trained to be a helicopter mechanic — a skill not altogether different, he says, from gunsmithing.
“This job is an adventure every day,” Probst said. “That’s especially true, it seems, here at Joe’s. I work on modern guns, but I also see guns dating to the 1800s.”
Probst apprenticed for three years under Joe’s recently retired gunsmith, Bob Everson. “Then, after three years, Bob finally let me touch something!” Probst laughed.
Learning from a mentor is the traditional way to break into gunsmithing. Attending gunsmithing school is another, more contemporary route. Pine Technical and Community College in Pine City, Minn., offers a two-year gunsmithing and firearms technology degree at a cost of about $8,400 for Minnesota residents. The school’s website says Cabela’s, Dakota Arms, Brownells and Big Sky Rifle Co. have hired its graduates.
The nation’s oldest gunsmithing school, meanwhile, is the Colorado School of Trades, founded in 1947. New classes start the second Monday of every month in Denver and run continuously for 14 months.
Probst first worked on guns out of his house. “But gunsmithing is a volume-based business, and the hard part is getting people to trust you with their guns. For some people, they’re like members of their families,” he said.
Gunsmithing’s challenge, Ahlman said, is that it requires its practitioners to be “jacks of all trades.”
“Woodworking, including checkering, metal working, parts building, engraving,” he said. “So much is involved it’s difficult to be good at all of it. That’s why my goal after I took over the shop from my dad was to employ many gunsmiths, with each having a specialty.”
That business model is one reason individual gun owners as well as large shops like Cabela’s send guns to Ahlman’s. From basic gun repairs to construction of custom rifle barrels and stocks (French walnut is a favorite), Ahlman’s and its specialty gunsmiths perform work that some smaller shops can’t.
“Our most experienced gunsmith is Marlon Quiggle, who has been with us 53 years,” Ahlman said. “When he started he had zero experience. His specialty is repairing Brownings and Remingtons. He just flies through them.”
Having learned so well how to fix guns, Probst said a side benefit is that he now uses them as well.
“I shoot skeet in the summer at the South St. Paul range,” he said. “And in the fall I hunt in Wyoming.”