DOUGLAS – The air is filled with the whine of turning metal being cut on a lathe or milling machine, mixed with the scent of oil.
For some of the men in the room, it’s the first step to a career. For others, it’s an opportunity for change.
And, for at least one of them, the new gunsmithing class at the Eastern Wyoming College campus here, it’s a chance to expand his skill set and fulfill a creative need.
“I always wanted to do this,” said Douglas Macdonald.
He’s 64 and works during the summer as the caretaker at the Ayres Natural Bridge State Park north of Douglas. The new class fits perfectly into his schedule, giving him an opportunity to do something else he loves.
“My uncle was a gunsmith and I inherited all of his tools,” Macdonald said. “Now, I need to learn how to run ‘em. That’s why I took the course.”
His interest in metalworking started when he was in high school. When he inherited his uncle’s tools, though, his work scheduled at the state park didn’t give him the time to get back to what he’d enjoyed all those years ago.
“I was a coal miner before I had this job” at the park, he said. “This setup here gives me an opportunity.
“I’m kind of a tinkerer of all things, master of none,” Macdonald said. “This gives me a chance to hone my skills, maybe knock it up a notch or two, to perform for the class. You can’t just throw something together and call it good – you get graded here.”
From the ground, up
The Eastern Wyoming College Board of Trustees approved the establishment of the gunsmithing program on the Douglas campus about a year ago. One of the first things the college needed to do was find the right teacher.
Enter Glen Morovits. He was teaching gunsmithing at Trinidad State Community College in Trinidad, Colo., when EWC approached him to launch the Douglas program.
“I didn’t even know the program was being set up,” Morovits said. “I was very happy teaching at Trinidad.
“I’ve always enjoyed a challenge,” he said. “Obviously, setting up a new program can be very challenging.”
Morovits had been teaching at Trinidad for about six years. He graduated from the school’s gunsmithing program himself in 1981 and immediately went to work with Don and Norma Allen, founders of Dakota Arms, based in Sturgis, S.D.
It was the chance to share what he’d learned over 30 years in the industry, training the next generation in what some would consider a dying art, that first attracted him to teaching, he said.
“When I graduated from Trinidad and started making custom guns, I kind of stayed away from the actual repairing – gunsmithing – and went into more of the gun making and manufacturing,” Morovits said. “But I still really have that desire to pass on that real high level of quality workmanship to the students.”
EWC administration gave him pretty much a blank slate to set up the program how he thought it needed to be run. The first change he made was a move toward more hands-on learning – actually getting out into the shop and working on tooling and building – instead of a more book-oriented approach, he said. Initial plans for the program had about a 50-50 mix of books to hands-on, Morovits said. He upped that to probably 80 percent of the time spent in the workshop.
The college “really did not give me a mandate, as such,” he said. “I probably told them the direction I felt, what they’d need to do, more so than the other way around.
“Gunsmithing is one of them things – as far as the learning aspect, there’s a lot of different avenues you can take,” Morovits said. “A lot of it, again, is technique, which takes a lot of practice.”
The skill set needed to be a gunsmith includes a variety of tools. Along with machining, Morovits will teach the students woodworking skills, tungsten inert gas, or TIG, welding techniques and metallurgy. Over the course of the two-year Associate of Applied Science degree, they’ll delve into chemistry as they learn different processes to tint the metal parts of guns, and more.
“There’s just an awful lot to learn,” he said. “A lot of the students coming in have never used a metal lathe or milling machine.
“You really have to start at the ground level.”
The students are as diverse as the skills they’ll be learning.
Working on a milling machine, Matthew Hoffman is 45 and originally hails from Detroit, Mich., now living in Douglas. He trains dogs to assist water fowl hunters. Hoffman wants to take what he learns in the gunsmithing course to invent something new in his realm.
Hoffman’s hope is to build a new type of launcher for the dummies used to train hunting dogs. He said he wants something shaped more like a shotgun that will help the dogs learn to track the muzzle, making them more effective at retrieving.
At one of the lathes is Scott Edwards, a 36-year-old bar owner and manager from Gillette. A long-time gun aficionado, Edwards said he opted to take the course so he could change careers.
Bar ownership “doesn’t suit the mechanical side of my brain,” he said.
Then, there’s Garret Person, a 19-year-old recent graduate of Riverton High School. Guns have always been a big part of his family, he said. As early as his junior year of high school, Person knew he wanted to be a gunsmith.
“For the longest time, I was looking at going to Trinidad” State Community College, he said. “When my family and I were looking at that, we were running into issues of it’s down in southern Colorado – that’s a long way to go for school.
“I ended up finding out about this program – only about 2-1/2 hours from home. At that point, it was a no brainer for me.”
Person hopes to parlay his eventual degree into a job with one of the big gun manufacturers, where he’ll be able to expand his skills after graduation. Then, in a few years, he wants to open his own gun shop, he said.
Shooting sports “has always been a good hobby,” Person said. “As well as the mechanical aspects – intricate mechanics have always just intrigued me.”
Person’s dreams pretty much mirror what Morovits hopes for most of his students. It’s not necessarily a viable option to jump into owning their own gun shop immediately after graduation.
“Very few would graduate with the skill level and the ability to understand business right out of the gates,” he said. “It’s basic, entry level, and they’re learning all along. You never stop learning – that’s one thing in life if you keep pursuing something, you’re going to continue to learn.
“But, does it happen? Yes,” Morovits said. “I’ve had students over the past six years (teaching at Trinidad State) who went right out, set up their own business and are doing well.”
Students won’t be limited to jobs in the weapons industry when they graduate, Morovits said. The skills they’re learning could easily translate into machine shops in other industries, while the welding and soldering skills they’ll pick up would stand them well in jewelry making and repair, or other skilled trades, he said.
One limiting factor is that Morovits is the only instructor. That means he’s not only limited on the number of students the program can effectively accept, there’s only so much information, so many skills, that can be included in the course.
A solution he’s considering is hosting a series of seminars later in the year – short classes ranging from a weekend to a couple of weeks – covering more specialized topics. Morovits already has a few in the planning stages, where guest lecturers will come in and teach anything from decorative scroll work to stock making to building a specific firearm from a pre-made kit.
“The students here could take some of them, too, if they want to add to their program,” he said. “We’re trying to incorporate some of that community education aspect into it, rather than just a two-year degree program.”
Overall, there are some growing pains in the EWC Gunsmithing program, just like there are in any new venture, he said. With the program in just its first semester, Morovits said there are already a few “adjustments” he plans to make before his second batch of freshmen enter next year.
“I’ll probably adjust some of the sequence of what I’m teaching – do different projects at different times – because I think it might flow a little better,” Morovits said. “But the students have been picking it up pretty well – I keep telling them they’re my guinea pigs.”