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Schools How would I become a firearms designer?

  1. Oct 9, 2016 #1

    I'm not a prodigy of any kind. I'm not gifted, I'm not a genius, none of that. So I decided, though it was a difficult choice (and I can always change my mind again), that I will no longer focus on physics and instead delve into weapon engineering. I realize it's immoral, I realize that I'd be indirectly killing people, but someone will take the job either way. Since it's something I'm good at, it might as well be me.

    I study at a mechanical engineering high school, simply because I couldn't study anywhere else (due to my very average intellect). However, I find the subjects rather interesting and very enjoyable. I'm very fond of physics, mechanics and technical documentation. I've always enjoyed designing weapons (but I'm pretty sure my old designs would blow the operator's fingers off, at the very least), and so I believe it might be the correct path in life.

    I want to design small arms more than anything else, but I'd settle with missiles, land mines, hand-held explosives or even nuclear warheads if need be. I definitely do not want to design bombs, as I really don't enjoy chemistry at all. I don't want to design the ammunition, just the mechanism itself. It would be my goal to improve its (the weapon's) reliability, safety and functionality to perfection.

    What would you recommend in terms of courses? I realize that mechanical engineering is a must, but when my four years are done, what should I get my higher degrees in? I'd love to get a Ph.D. in something, by the way.

    Additionally, I'd like to ask about a weapon designer's average wages, if there are those among you who have experience with such a profession.

    Thanks in advance for your support!
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 9, 2016 #2

    Vanadium 50

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    Given how specialized the field is, I would expect that most designers start off as gunsmiths. I also suspect that most engineers hired don't design guns so much as machines that make guns.
  4. Oct 9, 2016 #3
    I see... Well, that is... Disappointing, to say the least.

    I am not skilled when it comes to manual work, so I would make a very poor gunsmith. Perhaps I should instead focus on explosives. Suppose that requires a lot of knowledge in physics and mechanics, with the flight paths of shrapnel and all that. Or nuclear weaponry, but with nuclear armaments being more or less banned, I do not think I would find success there.

    Thanks for the response!
  5. Oct 9, 2016 #4


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    I believe, perhaps incorrectly, that small arms designers build working prototypes first, and if the prototype meets whatever criteria are in effect, then they would work on machines to build the guns. Designing pistols and other small arms would be a very hands-on job, I believe.
  6. Oct 9, 2016 #5


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    Maybe you find the story of Mikhail Kalashnikov inspiring? (He held a doctorate, too.)

    I do not find your choice immoral, by the way.
  7. Oct 9, 2016 #6

    Well, the problem would disappear entirely if I wasn't the one putting the parts together. I have no problem designing the prototype (drawing the design, working out the physics, picking the materials, etc.) and handing it over for the craftsmen to assemble. I could never, however, build the thing on my own. I am simply incompetent with manual work. I understand that most engineers probably build the machines which assemble the weapons themselves, but someone must come up with the design, no? There has to be someone who, as you say, makes the prototype.

    @Krylov As shameful as it is, I've never heard the story of Mikhail Kalashnikov. I obviously know of his amazing (legendary, no less) creations that live in popular culture to this day, but I never thought he'd be much of an interesting person. Maybe I'll be proven wrong!
  8. Oct 9, 2016 #7

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    The problem is that you have decided you want an extremely specialized job. As far as I can tell, the number of openings at the present is exactly one. Leaving aside the question of how wise it is to have a career plan that revolves around a single opening now, if there is one job for 15,000 graduates, you better find some way to prove to your employer that you are better than the other 14,999. If you don't know anything about actually manufacturing guns, that's going to be a problem.

    Also, engineering is a practical discipline. Nobody expects you to be a master machinist, but people do expect you to have a deep understanding of what that machinist is doing. "Read about it in a book" has only a rather limited value to your prospective employer.
  9. Oct 10, 2016 #8
    There are two different purposes at work in most new small arms design today:

    1. Increase the profit margin by making a product that will sell just as well but is cheaper to produce. These designs are dominated by mechanical engineers changing existing designs to be more easily mass produced at lower cost. They try not to reduce quality too much, but most of the time the quality and company reputation take a hit. This is the modern day firearms design as practiced by the big gun companies in the US.

    2. The niche companies strive to make something elegant or better in some way with less emphasis on cost, and more emphasis on a key feature: accuracy, reliability, ergonomics, weight, or some combination they think has a marketable niche with good profit margin without being super cheap to produce. There is a curious combination of gun smiths, hobbyists, and mechanical engineers in this game, as one successful design can be the basis for making millions.

    Most of the folks working more powerful weaponry are degreed scientists and engineers (Mech E and Aero mostly) with more than their fair share of physicists. A very small number of designers rise through the ranks as technicians, EOD personnel, and others with out at least BS degrees.

    I'd recommend a few things:

    A. Get a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the best school you can get into.

    B. Broaden your horizons. The bullet and ammunition companies have more openings for engineers and other design people than the firearms companies. There is also a lot of work for companies that produce armor in times of conflict.

    C. Join the relevant professional organization, most likely the IBS (www.ballistics.org).

    D. The DoD labs and other agencies hire more weapons and munitions engineers than anyone else. The FBI and Border Patrol hire a few. But being able to test products and determine their suitability for a military or law enforcement task tends to be in much greater demand than designing new weapons systems, especially in small arms.

    There is a significant oversupply of applicants for most job openings. Have a plan B or start your own company.
  10. Oct 10, 2016 #9
    I am not entirely incompetent. I am capable of putting together parts, cutting metal, all that. All I'm saying is that I'm not good at it. I can't weld, I can't cut precisely, you know. I do believe I understand the core mechanical concept of a modern firearm, and already I find that I may see room for improvements. For example, a high number of moving parts is never a good thing, so I'd strive to design a weapon that functions just as well as any other modern firearm, yet utilizes a much simpler system.

    @Dr. Courtney

    From that description, it sounds like I'd fit into the "easing mass production" profession rather well. I'm not one who enjoys overly complex designs. I want it to work and I want it to be reliable. If I can improve it in the process, good. My main problem is that I simply cannot do the manual labor myself. Right now I have a few half-decent (they would shoot semi-straight, at the very least), cheap single-shot pistol designs sitting around, but I can't get the materials/people to finalize them!

    Thanks for the suggestions. Seems reasonable to me. I'll keep doing mech E + physics 'till I graduate high school, do physics for a year at our national faculty, see if I'm any good at it. If I'm not, I'll switch over and complete my Mech E. studies (education is free in my country, so I can experiment flexibly). Overall, I'd say a physics Ph.D. is more versatile than a Mech E. one, but if it proves too difficult, I'll settle with engineering and hope there's a job for me in the small arms market. Or I could always become a nuclear engineer... Heard it pays really well.

    If everything goes to hell, I can become an over-qualified high school mechanics/physics teacher.
  11. Oct 10, 2016 #10

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    It is hard to find a simpler system than a single-action revolver. The design has remained stable for almost 150 years, and one could argue that advances in materials have had a bigger impact than advances in mechanical design. Yet people buy more complex firearms - so why simplicity is a virtue, it is not the only virtue.
  12. Oct 10, 2016 #11
    Oh I agree. Simplicity is not the only factor when choosing a good firearm. A revolver can only do so much with its relatively small cylinder (still larger than a bolt-action rifle though). However, it's as you say. A revolver will (almost) never fail. The mechanism is so simple and easy to maintain that there's not much to go wrong.

    Complex guns have lots of moving parts. Lots of moving parts means a high potential of jamming, breaking, and overall unreliability. I say that instead of improving this odd "blowback" system, we should focus on creating a new system entirely! Call it personal bias, but the blowback mechanisms of our age make me uneasy. Seems like there's too much potential for failure.

    The advantage of having a simple system is both reliability and low cost. Imagine if I could create a semi-automatic pistol that relied not only on very few parts, but also fired much more accurately and attained much higher velocities! There's a reason why the AK-47 was one of the most popular weapons of the last century. It was easy to maintain, cheap, simple, yet accurate (arguable) and powerful.

    Imagine a pistol that was compiled of only 5 or 6 internal parts. A firing pin combined with a bolt and feeding mechanism, and a completely new type of magazine. Maintenance? Just slide the rail off and fix whatever's jammed! Trigger mechanism? No elaborate levers, weights and tiny screws, just a crude spring-lock and nothing more! Safety? Why not add multiple safety mechanisms in case of failure? And to top it all off, multiple methods of loading, from magazine-fed to muzzle-loading. What's not to love? That's a weapon of my dreams right there, and I'll be damned if I don't finish it one of these days.

    Maybe I should make my own company and produce cheap/simple weapons for not-so-enthusiastic gun owners. Think about it - cheap guns, great reliability, safety, ease of access. Sure, it might fire a bit slower, it might be a bit rough around the edges, but it gets the job done without failure!

    It's a shame I'm not much of a businessman...
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