My friend Mark Mitchell from Scotland was kind enough to share his experiences after reading mine. Mark is a veteran of the English gun trade. Over the years he has worked for just about all of the great English gunmakers, as an employee or contractor. He is one of the last masters and is a highly accomplished actioner and gun builder. In his own words:
Your experience was quite similar to mine. My apprenticeship was 5 years long, and with the company Holland & Holland. We did a year in a training school to give us basic hand skills and machining skills. During this year we made tools that we could use when we went on to the workshop where we would do the rest of our time. I still have and use a lot of those tools and to be honest they came out pretty well. I went into the Machine shop for my next 4 years machining actions, barrels, ribs. We made all of our own chambering tools and also the bolt action Rifles. It was an interesting time but as you have said, it was a bit focused on one discipline. Once I’d finished my 5 years, they moved me into the barrel shop where I very quickly learnt how to make shotgun barrels up. I didn’t stay there very long. Only 6 months before I left and ended up working for a gun shop. This is where the rest of my learning happened. I spent 4 years working with an ex-Boss actioner and he taught me a lot. I still only do metalwork but can pretty much make anything gun related now.
Youngsters here are not encouraged to go into anything where they’re going to get their hands dirty. There are government apprenticeship schemes, but they tend to be 3 years long and I don’t think the training is anything like it used to be. The gunmaking apprenticeships are still 5 years long, but I think it’s got to the point where the people doing the training don’t really understand the jobs properly themselves. I would say over here that the future of handmade guns is looking a bit bleak. If you got all of the fully qualified Gunmakers that were any good together, we wouldn’t fill a small room.
The finances are an issue, indeed. It’s only profitable if the apprentices stay on after their time. The company got a subsidy towards our wages for the first year but then it was up to the company. I started in 1979. Now you can get a small subsidy from the Worshipful Company of Gunmakers towards an apprentice but it’s not a great deal. I don’t think the apprenticeship program made H&H any profit.
The wages started off very low. I started on £24 a week gross. Each year they increased slightly. Once I’d spent a bit of time in the machine shop, we started on production work. We made all of the bolt action rifles which must have contributed to the company but in those days, we made everything including the sight blocks and sights. You couldn’t get them off the shelf then. We started off as 7 in the training school for the first year and once they were satisfied that our skills were good enough, they chose where to put us in the factory. We all got through the first year ok and continued on. Out of the 7 of us if I remember rightly only 2 left before they finished their apprenticeships.
Perhaps somebody from Germany or Austria could weigh in and share his/her experiences. Most people I’ve known that apprenticed as gunsmith changed their career shortly after. There are just not many employment opportunities out there. Mark too has expressed interest in doing some teaching. On and off we’ve had some discussions about it, and perhaps one day something may come of it.