These days, I’d bet that most people don’t know any professional gunsmiths.
In fact, the term “gunsmith,” to many people, may bring about images of the bygone wild west era.
The reality is that gunsmithing is not only a historic profession with a rich cultural past, but one that is alive and well today, practiced by professionals all around the world.
What exactly is a gunsmith?
Whereas an armorer typically only replaces older, worn-out parts on a firearm, gunsmiths more often complete modifications and customizations to a firearm, often on a per-order basis.
In other words, gunsmithing is high-end work that can’t be jumped into quickly by amateurs. It takes years of training to learn how to be a skilled and successful gunsmith.
And, despite action movies making firearms seem indestructible, the truth is that high quality guns are finely-tuned (and relatively delicate) feats of engineering. Accordingly, gunsmiths offer personalized services for clients who want their firearms to receive the best service possible
Given the sheer amount of skill necessary to be a professional gunsmith, as well as the patience and commitment inherent to this work, there’s an argument to be made that gunsmithing is itself an art form and that gunsmiths are artisans.
This is an idea we’ll be exploring through the lens of one gunsmith’s expertise, and through his work with one of the world’s most renowned names in firearm restoration and refurbishment.
Brett Jansen of Griffin & Howe
Brett Jansen is a fifth-generation Zimbabwean, and from a very young age, he was taught that firearms could be dangerous. But he was also that they’re simply tools, ones that could be used responsibly by their owners.
They could be used for hunting or protection, rather than as weapons of pure intimidation and fear.
Jansen became fascinated by the physical design of various firearms, especially classic firearms.
Jansen went on to study gunsmithing in Arizona, where he trained extensively before applying for a gunsmithing position at Griffin & Howe, a historic firearms manufacturer founded in 1923 and headquartered in Andover, New Jersey.
The company hired Jansen, and he was soon tasked with repairing Browning shotguns and building the custom Highlander Rifle.
Because of the impressive degree of skill he displayed during this period, Jansen was taken on as an apprentice under the company’s custom stock maker.
Jansen’s gunsmithing expertise has only grown, but his fascination with this work is as strong as ever.
Here’s what Jansen had to share about his craft.
“I consider gunsmithing to be a form of art. I am attracted to how gunsmithing uses some of the same concepts as art, how everything is broken into threes and how everything works together to make the finished piece as perfect as possible.”
From that viewpoint, Jansen is certainly an artist in his own right, creating and repairing firearms that each have their own personality and character– a direct result of all the personal attention and careful, custom work that gets fed into each project.
If you’re unfamiliar with Griffin & Howe, or with gunsmithing in general, then you may not know that not all gunsmiths handle repairs and alterations the same way. Griffin& Howe trains its employees in the European traditions of repair, alteration, and restoration, placing a great deal of emphasis on craftsmanship and attention to detail.
Griffin & Howe doesn’t prioritize mass production and alteration but rather personalized attention and gunsmithing care.
It’s no wonder then that Jansen was attracted to the company’s work and set out to train and work with their team.
In particular, Jansen finds a very satisfying challenge in the process of restoring vintage firearms.
In their time, these vintage firearms weren’t just for hunting or protection; they also became family heirlooms.
“The problem-solving involved in the restoration of fine firearms is challenging and fascinating, as you have to dive into the mindset of a man or woman from 100 -150 years ago. This solidified my dream of being a gunsmith and wanting to pursue as much knowledge in this field as possible.”
In a way, putting this much time and attention into a single firearm is like traveling into the past, to a time when it was much more common for craftsmanship to be at the forefront of production.
This is a tradition that lives on at Griffin & Howe.
Joining Griffin & Howe
Griffin & Howe are known internationally as some of the finest gunsmiths around, and they bring with them a longstanding legacy of excellence.
Jansen knew from an early age that there was an enormous amount he could learn from the company.
“Growing up In Zimbabwe, I always heard hunters and gun enthusiasts talking about Griffin & Howe firearms, their high price and amazing quality. I knew that if I wanted to be the best gunsmith I could be, I would need to work for them, and now I do!”
For Jansen, working with the company is a dream come true, and he’s happy to help the company maintain its impressive reputation with his own skills.
Griffin & Howe also puts a great deal of care into their restoration and refurbishment services, which has earned them deals with multiple European companies who sell high-end firearms which Griffin & Howe professionals refurbish.
Another testament to the care and attention offered by the company, each firearm is treated as its own project, with its own needs. It’s an approach that Jansen enjoys immensely.
Each to its own need
Especially when working on vintage firearms, it’s not advisable or (sometimes) even possible to treat them all exactly the same way.
This is because the craftsmanship of old that we’ve mentioned here also functioned outside of standardization. Each product had its own set of quirks, which the owner simply became used to over time.
Today, these small inconsistencies act as reassuring proof that these firearms were created by real people who cared deeply about their work.
Today, when working to restore these firearms to their former glory, Jansen appreciates these tiny differences, as they give each piece its own character and its own set of distinct needs.
“Each gun requires a different approach. We have to alter our screwdrivers and tools to carefully and gently take apart each firearm and give it the attention it deserves. Another way of thinking about this is that each firearm needs to be respected and repaired on its own terms.”
There are indeed benefits to standardization and automated production, but small differences and bespoke repair efforts help to maintain the unique identities of these firearms.
It takes a highly skilled gunsmith to not only recognize these quirks but also respect and maintain them when restoring each gun.
Jansen knows how to work within these limitations. It may take more time and a great deal more skill to get the job done, but when done right, customers get exactly what they want and the history of each firearm is respected.
Precision and cooperation
One of the final ideas that makes a case for gunsmithing representing its own art form is the intricacy of each firearm and the cooperation required to have each component work with every other piece of the puzzle.
Jansen elaborates on this idea:
“I was surprised by perfectly-made double barrel firearms. If you alter one part, you have to alter another because they fit and time perfectly. Every single part needs to work in concert with every other part, kind of like an orchestra.”
To continue that analogy, a symphony won’t work as intended if, for example, the string section decides to play at a slightly faster tempo for several measures while the rest of the orchestra continues to follow the conductor’s direction.
Similarly, if there are more brass players than are required for the piece, the music will sound drastically different.
There are times when experimentation can be helpful, revealing new ways of doing things, but in written music, as in gunsmithing, there is a particular way of doing things.
In gunsmithing especially, straying even a hair away from the way things should be could render a firearm unusable, and in the case of a vintage firearm, its original quality could be forever ruined.
Professional gunsmithing is a practice of precision and cooperation, one that requires a lot of patience and a trained eye. Without these, restoration and modification can go horribly wrong.
Thankfully, both Jansen and Griffin & Howe have proven their dedication to care and craftsmanship, and it’s no wonder that they attract clients from all over the country.
As for the near future, Jansen plans to complete his apprenticeship under the current stock maker and, soon after, begin to create high-end stocks for Griffin & Howe.
Is Jansen an artist? Are all highly skilled gunsmiths artists of some kind? We certainly think so.
As far as we’re concerned, they’ve proven that intricate craftsmanship always comes first, and isn’t that the real mark of an artist?