Insight into: gunmaking apprenticeships
- Credit: Archant
Emily Damment sits down with the boys from T.R. White gunmakers to talk gunmaking apprenticeships, gunmaking as a career, and how modern technology has affected old traditions...
I came across T.R. White & Co gunmakers in Staffordshire kind of by accident. I was sitting outside a cafe in a lovely old courtyard on the way into Oakedge Shooting Ground, having a post-shoot coffee with a good friend. As we sipped our drinks, Matt White emerged from T.R. White’s opposite and, being an acquaintance of my friend, came over for a chat. It turned out it was his dad’s birthday that day, and low and behold, there sat Tony (the ‘T’ in T.R. White), drinking a beer and looking perfectly at ease with the world.
Some people I meet, I immediately warm to; and on that slow, sunny afternoon, I could have cheerfully sat and talked the rest of the day away with this lovely pair. It turned out that their current apprentice used to work in the coffee shop we sat outside. Back then, he was an unsatisfied, uninspired, frustrated young lad who wanted to work with his hands but wasn’t sure how. We agreed that I would return a few weeks later for a proper visit to the workshop, and to put together an article on gunmaking apprenticeships.
Apprentice Sam's transformation story
Three weeks later, I met that young lad, Sam, and I can tell you that he no longer matches that description in any way, shape or form. The Sam I met was confident and smiling, proud of his work and brimming with enthusiasm for the trade he is learning.
The 20-year-old has been at T.R. White for around six months now, and is picking things up fast. He is already doing barrel work and making pins, and has started working on stocks. He showed us his tool station which he made himself, along with several of the tools.
“I’ve always wanted to do something practical, something with my hands,” Sam told me. “Gunmaking is so broad and there’s so much job satisfaction. When the stocks come in and they’re all dented and scratched, and to then go through the process of restoring them and seeing the finished product, smooth and perfect... that’s satisfying.
“Tony and Matt are amazing to work for. It just doesn’t feel like I’m coming to work in the morning. I wake up and I love coming here and being here, I really enjoy what I do. When I worked at the coffee shop, I just wasn’t very happy and I spent a lot of time clock watching. I find the days go a lot quicker in here!”
I think back to my own feelings towards my job at that age, when I worked on a horse yard for not a lot of money. I dreaded getting up in the morning and spent most of the day wishing it was over. I certainly didn’t see it as a career; it was just preferable to standing in a shop or behind a bar. What a stark contrast Sam’s attitude to his new career is; he simply radiated contentment.
Matt's apprenticeship journey
As Matt and Tony showed me around the beautiful old workshop, demonstrating some of the techniques they use to make their guns, we discussed the fact that we had three generations of gunmakers working side by side in this one room, all with their own experience of the apprenticeship system. I wanted to find out how things had changed and how their own apprenticeship experiences have shaped their work with Sam, so I sat down with Matt to delve a little deeper.
Matt started his apprenticeship at Holland & Holland, leaving home at 18 to pursue his own gunmaking education. “It was quite an easy in for me as my dad was doing some work for them and introduced me,” he explained. “It was a great, great start. Holland & Holland have a huge apprenticeship training regime, it’s a very good place to do it. I was there for eight years, living in London.
“I always knew I would leave Holland and come back to work with my dad, I just had to stay there as long as I could to feel like I could become my own man. After eight years, I couldn’t do it anymore. I loved the job, the people were great, but I just couldn’t do London anymore. I’m just not a city boy.”
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Matt always knew he wanted to be a gunmaker, despite Tony’s protestations to go and ‘get a real job’, and spent his childhood making a nuisance of himself in the workshop, crafting things from wood and metal.
“I feel like he almost did reverse psychology on me,” he laughed. “He pushed me away so that I’d come back in. I could have done my apprenticeship under my dad, but I wouldn’t be in the position I am today or know what I do. I wouldn’t listen to him; I’d always have been questioning him.
“There’s no-one else I know who’s as skilled as he is in so many different areas of gunmaking, but I needed to go away, listen, be respectful and do what I was told. Then I could come back and collaborate with him, understand what he’s saying to me and respect it, and he respects me as a gunmaker too.”
What's a gunmaking apprenticeship like?
Matt had a tough foreman, and has vowed not to be quite so hard on Sam, but in every other way the young protégé’s training will mirror his own.
“It was hard, you know, standing there filing a cube of metal for a week, and you’re questioning your life like, why am I doing this?! Why are they making me do this?! But after that week, I learnt how to file flat and it’s stuck with me,” he said.
“It was tough at times but it’s made me who I am. I’m going to make sure Sam’s taught the right way, the proper way. My foreman used to say to me, ‘you learn how to do it my way, the proper way, and afterwards, you fully understand it, and if you then find a different way to do it, then great’. I’m applying the same approach to Sam.”
The hope is that, at the end of Sam’s training, he will stick around and work at T.R. White alongside Matt and Tony. They clearly believe in him, going above and beyond to educate him as broadly as possible. He is being sent on an engineering course to learn more about the machinery and safety, and a course to master the new welder they’ve invested in. They’re teaching him to shoot – something that the larger firms wouldn’t do – because they believe it is important to be able to feel if the gun is right. The end product is better because they know what they are trying to achieve.
Working together day in, day out, in such a small space, makes finding the right personality highly important for T.R. White apprentices. Matt explained: “We’ve had to get rid of a few lads because they just weren’t right for us, they weren’t in tune with us. The right dynamic is important, and Sam’s just got it.
“I thought he was a bit moody when he worked in the coffee shop, but my dad said he was a good lad and I started talking to him, asking what he wanted to. He was talking about carpentry and plumbing, so I suggested gunmaking and brought him up here to see what it’s about.
“I think he was moody because he was just so bored and unsatisfied! He just didn’t want to be doing that job. As soon as I took him out of that environment and brought him up here, he blossomed. He’s a different lad. We’re lucky to have him and he wants to learn it all in the right way. He loves what he does and he’s really happy. And we’re really happy!”
Is gunmaking a thriving industry?
You’d have to be half asleep to be unaware of the changes and developments that have swept through the gunmaking industry in recent years; from the rise of the over-and-under to the advent of CNC machining and laser-cut chequering. I wondered how this has affected gunmakers like T.R. White, where every single element of the gun save for the barrels is made by hand, in-house – right down to the tiny pins inside the action.
“I’d say modern making has affected the old-school gunmaking industry a bit,” said Matt. “Side-by-sides were still very current only a few years ago and that’s what we’re geared up to build, but the over-and-unders have given us a new challenge and they tend to be the preference now.
“CNC machining means people aren’t so keen to pay you to stand at the bench anymore, but it’s really about getting the right customer. The customer who appreciates the chiselling and the filing, the ones that are seriously into their guns and appreciate the craftsmanship. People still appreciate what we do and they will wait, but it has to be the right person.”
Contrary to my own preconceptions, the apprenticeship system seems to have actually grown since Matt was a fresh-faced gunmaker in training, slaving over his metal cube at Holland’s work benches.
“Over that 10-year span when I was there, people were applying all the time, but they didn’t take anyone on; so, the demand for places was greater than the supply. Now Holland have converted a whole floor at the factory just for apprenticeships. That wasn’t there when I was.
“They don’t promote it as a career choice in colleges because, I guess, where would they go? There are still limited spaces and a lot of kids would probably end up disappointed. It is a hard thing to get into – I only got into Holland & Holland because my dad knew them. I was lucky.”
Practically speaking, you don’t need a gun licence to be a gunsmith, although it does help, especially at T.R. White where learning to shoot well is also of the utmost importance.
“You’re under an RFD umbrella in the workshop so you can handle the guns, and of course apprentices will be vetted by the police before they can start. If Sam had a conviction for armed robbery or something then he wouldn’t be coming in here,” Matt told me with a chuckle.
Like so many industries (journalism included, I might add!), it’s not easy to break into. Nevertheless, there are opportunities for the right person, and if you’re lucky enough to get a foot in the door and you have the right attitude, you’re entering a rather wonderful way of life.
The guns made here are pieces of art. Matt, Tony and Sam are part of the process from start to beautiful finish. When the guns are complete, they are patterned, the fit is perfected, and the lads take them out onto the stunning Sporting course at Oakedge to give them a try. They’ve even run a game day in the past where they invited customers who have purchased their guns from them to come along and shoot.
Just picture the scene... a frosty morning, the mist rising from the dew-covered grass, and a line of smiling customers, each cradling what is now their most prized possession – the T.R. White gun that you made with your own calloused hands.