Craftsmanship is not something that comes simply from a box—it comes from the heart. That was something I learned the first time I built an engine. My mentor made it clear, “this is not assembly, there is an art to it, and you must put in the time to learn to do it properly.”
Given the nature of business, those unwilling to put in the work and perfectly willing to take your money have often tried to replicate the work of artisans and craftsman. The work is often substandard, and nothing more than pieces and parts thrown together. Those who assemble or mass produce often tell you there is no difference. Those who have owned both will tell you the difference is similar in breadth and depth to the Grand Canyon.
With the advent of computer-aided machinery, and the immense capacity to mass produce firearms these days, it is far too easy to forget it can be more than pieces and parts. It has been a craft for a century or more and remains so today. One such organization dedicated to maintaining that craft is the American Pistolsmiths Guild.
The American Pistolsmiths Guild (APG)
A group of 11 charter members got together in 1977 in Jackson, Mississippi to start the guild. The idea was to ensure that customers having a guild member build their pistol or revolver would be assured it was the finest work possible. By-laws and membership rules were established in order to be certain only the most qualified pistol builders could become members. By the early 1980’s, the guild had grown to the point it incorporated and became a legal entity. Today, what started with 11 charter members has a membership of over 60 and is growing. Along with full members, there are now associate, honorary, and student members. What started as a group of pistol builders has grown to include holster builders, display craftsman as well as writers and others that strive to further the craft.
Joining is no Easy Task
In order to become a member you can apply, or more often you are sponsored by a current member. In order to apply you must have an established business with the ability to create pistols with the quality the guild requires. You can also join if you are working for an established company that does pistol work, or are a military armorer tasked with building pistols.
At least two samples of your work are submitted and looked at by guild members. These members are chosen from your particular area of expertise—to include 1911 pistols, double-action revolvers, or single-action revolvers and other guns. The idea is to have your work scrutinized by those that specialize in the same field. They will either be approved, or can be sent back with a request for some refinement. They can be returned with the corrections and again inspected for acceptance. They are judged on overall fit and finish, expertise in the machining, build and quality of handwork, as well as accuracy. They must shoot to the match standard of 2.5 inches at 50 yards to be approved. Once approved you are placed on probation for a year. Given your work maintains the proper standard you become a full voting member following probation.
Associate members are those that help support the industry but not pistol builders by trade. They can include other craftsman, or even writers. Honorary members are those that have distinguished themselves by honoring the organization in a manner that promotes and distinguishes the guild.
One of the newest memberships is the student member. This is an individual actively training in the field at a gunsmithing school, college, or with a craftsman. The idea is to further the craft, something becoming more necessary with each passing year given the move towards mass assembly.
More than Just Craftsmen
The Guild is really moving and working to further the art in general. Along with the student program is a scholarship program for those who are honored as student members. In order to compete for this scholarship you need to be in the top 10% of your class, and as a practical matter winners are more likely in the top 2%. The scholarship is awarded with no strings attached and can be applied to tuition, or tools, are anything else needed to progress.
The Guild also works to provide space on the Internet for members to display their work and promote the overall presence of the members. Often their work encompasses many fields. Given that many of the pistols built by members go to museums, presidents, and prestigious clients, the package often includes not only the pistol, but holsters, leather, display cases, as well as gilding and other crafts. It is really a combined effort at times to produce what are simply works of art.
Lastly, the guild and its members work to support organizations like the NRA and others that work to further the rights of every gun owner. It is more than just a group of artisans, it is above all a group of people supporting the gun industry as a whole.
Pistolsmiths of the Year
One of the events the APG is known for is its Pistolsmith of the Year Award. Given to those that exemplify the goals and ideals of the guild it recognizes excellence in the field. The statement on the plaque says it all, “for outstanding contributions to the pistolsmithing profession”. This year’s winner was Dave Lauck of D&L sports. Given the attention he has paid to the rifle world these last few years it is easy to forget some of the works of art he has produced in the way of pistols. He joins excellent company in the likes of James E. Clark, Ed Brown, Bill Wilson, and Bill Laughridge. The list of names of past winners is simply the who’s who of the gunbuilding craft.
In this day and age of instant gratification, instant manufacturing, and time measured in minutes the craftsmanship of old is disappearing. It is going to take organizations like the American Pistolsmiths Guild and those that support them to keep this art going. Please take the time to look closely at their site, and if owning a handbuilt combat pistol or revolver, or simply a work of art is in your future contact one of them members. Doing so insures you will be taken care of by a master of the craft.
Craftsmanship is not something that comes simply from a box—it comes from the heart. That…
by Nick Jacobellis / May 1, 2013