Getting Into Firearms Engineering Posted on 16 Feb 10:16 , 1 comment
Below is a summary of the path I took to become a Firearms Engineer, the reasons why I chose to make the moves that I made, and some suggestions I can provide to anyone looking to pursue a similar profession.
My family owns a shooting range, ProTEQ Firearms Academy, in Brazil, IN, and I grew up to the sound of gunfire most days, and spent my whole childhood around guns, training, competing, teaching, and upgrading them. I wasn’t sure I wanted to turn it into a profession until I saw 9/11 on the TV at high school. That ignited a passion in me to help prevent that from ever happening again. I decided to pursue becoming a top tier sniper and to help eliminate as much evil as I could. However, The Man Upstairs had a different plan, as I was diagnosed with severe scoliosis (curvature of the spine) the very next year and could not pass the in-office physical exam requirements to join ANY of the military branches. So, I shifted gears and said, “If I can’t be the one pulling the trigger, I’ll make the trigger better for those who are out there pulling it while fighting for our freedom and protection.” That’s when I began pursuing my Mechanical Engineering Degree from Rose Hulman Institute of Technology. I figured with a lifetime of experience related to firearms, training, and use, paired with the best bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering that money could buy, I’d be able to pursue that goal. It just so happens that it worked!
During college I had two summer internships: one with Crane Naval Base, and one with Knight’s Armament Company. In the few short months at each venue I quickly learned that the government moved too slow for my taste, while in contrast the commercial gun market moved at a much faster pace—the commercial market varies of course depending on what manufacturer you work for.
Both Knight’s Armament and Crane Naval Base gave me job offers during my senior year. Crane offered a much higher salary and better benefits, but I knew the pace of the workflow was going to be similar to that of my internship. Knight's offered a much lower salary, but the knowledge I would gain would help me grow more as a young engineer. In 5 years, I did more R&D work than some of my future colleagues at FN had done in their entire careers. The on-the-job experiences I gained from Knight’s were quite beneficial towards my exposure to designing lots of products in short amounts of time. The work environment with Reed Knight Jr. and his cohorts was stressful at times, however working with a seemingly open check to spend as needed made for a fast-paced dynamic work environment with lots of exposure to and development of new ideas. I learned a lot of what not to do, as well as how to get things done quickly. But the work environment also produced a high rate of attrition, which meant in that short 5 years I became the 3rd most senior engineer in my R&D group. The attrition, the low salary, and sub-par benefits eventually caught up with me, as my family was growing, and I needed to provide more.
While exiting KAC, I began looking at other manufacturers and settled on FN for the benefits, salary, and more stable work environment. FN was much slower in product development than KAC, however they had much more structured standards of operation. I was part of the SCAR (Special Operations Forces Combat Assault Rifle) Team, and helped launch the FN-15 Program, was a leader in the CSASS Submittal (The CSR-20), and supported both the belt-fed machine gun and pistol development teams. My crown jewel from FN was leading a team to design an all new rifle platform, called The HETR. The HETR was a combination of the best tech from a list of popular weapons and was a huge advancement upon the currently fielded M4/M16 Platforms. We filed a provisional patent which included a total of 19 claims. However, the fact that it outperformed The SCAR was something that FN Herstal—The FN Mother Plant that called all the major shots—couldn’t stomach. Thus, the HETR Program was shelved and the non-provisional patent was chosen not to be filed. This arrogant decision was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me regarding working my rear end off for companies that made such foolish decisions.
So I began looking elsewhere, again, and was in the final negotiating stages of securing a position as an R&D Team Manager at H&K’s new facility in Georgia when my family took a major blow, which turned out to be for the better in the end as it caused me to be propelled into my future vision. I had said a prayer beforehand to go full time into my own practice within 5 years. A family issue, paired with me leaving FN, opened a door in my life to both move back home to my family’s shooting range and start my own practice.
As of this writing in 2021, I have now been self employed for 3 years and am LOVING IT. I started a small holster business while at KAC to make a little extra money, which has grown bigtime since then. I am also a privately contracted engineer in the gun industry, working on some fun projects for both individuals and smaller companies who cannot afford to hire more full-time engineers quite yet. I am also the lead firearms instructor, general manager, and competition team manager for ProTEQ. I work through the week, and I’m pretty much a full-time dad every weekend with my kiddos. To say I’m blessed would be an understatement.
Now, onto suggested paths to get into the industry as a Firearms Engineer. I recommend doing anything firearms related that you are interested in. Manufacturers look for an engineering background, preferably a BSME, along with other activities that demonstrate that you already have a lot of knowledge in the field of firearms and their usage. Gunsmithing certificates are a nice touch, as they demonstrate that you would be a good hands-on team member at fine-tuning guns and prototype parts. Competitive shooting demonstrates that you have a good grasp on the use of firearms and know what ergonomics and user interface is needed to improve performance and overall user experience with the firearm. Firearms instruction shows that not only do you know how to effectively use the firearm, but you can also effectively communicate how to use them to others. Creativity by producing some of your own components such as rail-mounted accessories and performing other enhancements to your firearms shows that you have a creative mind and are always looking to make your equipment work better. Diagnosing and fixing issues with firearms such as failures to feed, eject, fire, extract, etc., shows that you have the ability to identify the root cause of the failure and properly address it instead of just poking around in the dark. By choosing to serve in any type of industry such as military, law enforcement, etc., shows that you have demonstrated the characteristics required to make it into said industry, and have the structure to both effectively communicate and follow orders as they are given. These are all options to help improve your resume and put it at the top of the stack of resumes competing to get their foot in the door at various manufacturers across the country.
Regarding which manufacturers to work for, it just depends on what you are looking for. You need to define your requirements ahead of time so you have an idea of what to look for when you receive offers. What I can say is it’s wise to stay 3-5 years before making your move to a new job. Moving any sooner gives future employers a bad impression of your level of commitment and can by itself cause you to lose the job opportunity. The hardest part about this industry is getting your foot in the door, because everybody is looking for prior experience. You must create as much experience as you can to convince them to give you a chance. Once you create engineering experience within the industry, you can pretty much write your own ticket.
Good luck, and Godspeed.
Stay Safe,Stephen @ ProTEQ
Vaughn Haney on
Thank you for this exposition of your path and experiences. This was very helpful! I am now working on my BSME that I started this year, and currently work in IT. Before I moved into IT I worked as a machinist and went to my local tech school to learn the trade. Due to the benefits of the job I have now I made the move. I was wondering if you had any tips on how to get involved with shooting sports and things like that. Being 22, married, and both of us in college we do not have a ton of extra money right now so I was wondering if you knew of any ways to get started in that direction that would not break the bank?