(This is the latest in our promised occasional substitution of a book review for When Guns are Outlawed. Let us know if you want us to stick with this feature in the comments — Ed.).
The seller warned us that this set of booklets wasn’t in the greatest condition. But we bought it anyway, and in a week or so the 1970s-vintage Gun Pro Course from the North American School of Firearms arrived at Hog Manor. We found that the actual course volumes, each of which is a photo-reproduced, triple-punched 8½ x 11 inch booklet of anywhere from five to fifty pages, were in excellent shape; only the slipcase was really in the trashed state that the conscientious seller was so careful to describe.
Whether the course was worth the money… depends. We think the used course, once the property of one Ralph D. Davis, by his ink marks in a couple of volumes, was worth the $20 or so we paid (we don’t remember the exact amount), but in its heyday it cost a lot more. It probably wasn’t worth that.
It was one of a variety of correspondence courses sold out of the back pages of magazines. Both small display ads and even smaller text-only classified ads promoted these courses. An example of the display ad is seen to the right; it came from Page 90 of the July, 1977 issue of Field and Stream. Similar display ads promoted the North American School of Conservation (Page 18) which offered you “the Badge of the Future,” although we doubt anyone ever got hired as a conservation or game officer after taking this mail course, and the North American school of Animal Sciences, which asked you to “Be a Veterinary Assistant!” with a picture of a big-eyed spaniel. These ads all invited responses to the same address, which would get you an “Info Pack” or “Career Kit” — a come-on to buy the course. This would have been larded with the usual direct-mail bullshit: grandiose boasts, empty promises, probably bogus testimonials with no real names: “Bill W., Akron, Ohio.” If you bought the course, it came to you in dribbles. We’re sure people who took this course got jobs, but we doubt anyone, ever, got hired because he or she took one of these courses.
The core promise: “Make Big Money on Guns — Be a Gun Pro!” of the ad? How can we say this politely? Manure. Yeah, we like that word. That promise was manure.
The North American Correspondence Schools had addresses in Newport Beach, California and Scranton, Pennsylvania and at some time before the Event Horizon of the Internet, they completely vanished. It is possible that they were absorbed into an existing correspondence course marketing mill, Penn-Foster. That outfit also calls Scranton home, we believe.
The general consensus online is that the course was not very good. Here’s a sample of comments:
- On The High Road, 6 March 2010: “I took both the North American School of Firearms and NRI correspondence courses 20+ years ago. TOTAL CRAP.”
- On HandgunForum.net, 16 May 2010: “I have taken 3 gunsmithing courses. The first one was in 1975. The school was the North American School of Firearms, Newport Beach, CA (correspondence course). This course was mentioned in the NRA Gunsmithing Guide – Updated. I found it to be geared more towards the shooter than the gunsmith. The school is no longer in existence. Last year I took a “quickie” course from Phoenix State Univ. I got what I paid for.”
- On FirearmsTalk.com, 11 June 2010: “I’ve taken 3 correspondence/online gunsmithing courses. 1. North American School of Firearms, Newport Beach, CA (mentioned in NRA Gunsmithing Guide), Phoenix State University Gunsmith Certificate program and Ashworth College School of Gunsmithing, Norcross, GA. Best by far (in my opinion) is Ashworth College and North American School of Firearms is no longer in existence (took that course in 1975) but by far the best way to learn is thru an established shop or by going to one of the accredited schools.” (We’ll come back to that last thought in a bit. This does seem to be the same guy who left the comment above -Ed.)
- On The Firing Line, 13 July 2011: “I took the Penn course and the North American School of Firearms course (no longer in business). They are garbage.”
We didn’t think they were that bad. The materials are certainly biased towards the complete novice… towards Bubba the Gunsmite, if he could only read. There is an overview of the history of firearms, good enough up to 1970 or so. And some of the instruction for hands-on work is useful, at least in terms of reducing the odds you will acquire the nickname “Bubba” working on your own firearms.
For example, the booklets on repairing single- and double-action revolvers, hands-on repair of which pretty much terra incognita to us, gave a useful explanation of what the parts of a revolver mechanism do, and some explicit instructions, with illustrations, for how to replace internals to restore a revolver to a proper lock-up. It’s given us enough confidence to bid on some gunsmith specials — if they come to us broken already, we have nowhere to go but up.
Of course, the booklets are full of 1970s values: there are descriptions of how to sporterize a military rifle or customize an original Colt SAA that will make a collector from now, 40 years later, cringe. And there’s absolutely nothing about the modern sporting rifle — in 1975, your choices were Colt SP1, Ruger Mini-14, or if you hunted long and hard, maybe a Valmet M62S or an FN-FAL. Those weren’t just representative modern rifles available then — that was almost all the modern rifles available then. They were also considered a bit out there by the Fudd culture of most gun magazines — they’d get reviewed in the then-new publication Soldier of Fortune, not in Guns and Ammo or Shooting Times so much. (The American Rifleman, NRA’s only membership magazine then, and Guns magazine seemed to take more interest in military-style firearms than the other mainstream gun magazines). So this class comes from an era when a gunsmith worked predominantly on revolvers and on bolt and lever action rifles, and slide and double-barrel shotguns.
But the bottom line is this: gunsmithing is a craft, and as such you can’t learn it from books. Period, full stop. Your shelves can groan with gunsmithing volumes, but if you can’t drive a set of files like you’re the Lord of All Metals, they might as well be written in Sanskrit. You can’t learn it from DVDs, either — sorry about that, AGI. It astonishes us that people who dutifully took Driver’s Ed when they were 16 before getting their driver’s license think nothing of taking machine tools to their firearms based on some time logged on YouTube. You can do that — it’s a free country — but don’t expect professional results first time out.
Any craft can only be learned by doing, or by hands-on instruction from a master craftsman. Hands-on instruction takes a lot of the painful trial and error out of learning, but rare is the master craftsman who has the patience to instruct a novice.
At $20 or $30 on the used markets, this is a good buy. More than that and you might want to let it go. And if you really want to be a gunsmith, start talking to the local guys… maybe someone will trade instruction for some help. Good old-fashioned apprenticeship is never out of style, when your objective is master craftsmanship.