Last updated: December 31. 2013 12:58PM - 1718 Views
Taylor Pardue Staff Reporter

Ryan Flynn poses for a photo the same way he greets his customers: leaning on the counter, waiting to create his next work of art.
Ryan Flynn poses for a photo the same way he greets his customers: leaning on the counter, waiting to create his next work of art.
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Ryan Flynn has built a business from the ground up, growing his East Bend custom gunsmith to a nationally renowned shop.

His shop, Aquilla Custom Gun Works, is situated in the unincorporated area in East Bend called Aquilla. Flynn is a gunsmith and educator who worked for several gunsmiths before striking out on his own in pursuit of what all gunsmiths dream, he says – their own shop.

His customers come from all over the nation, including Colorado, California, Florida, Indiana, Washington State, Oregon, South Carolina and even Guam.

Flynn grew up in East Bend and graduated from Forbush High School. He was an avid shooter even in his early days, competing for three years in Forbush’s Hunter Education shooting team and competing both nationally and at the state level.

He attended gunsmithing school at Montgomery Community College in Troy, N.C. right out of high school, graduating in the early 2000’s. He then took a job at a custom gunsmith shop in High Rock Lake.

He worked there, basically apprenticing, for roughly a year.

“You really learn how much money you don’t make as a gunsmith,” Flynn said. “You know, this ain’t a job you’re going to get rich doing. You have to really love what you do.”

Flynn worked on a percentage basis for the shop, making 40 percent of all the jobs. He was paid when, and if, the customer came to pick up the firearm.

“I didn’t get paid until the customer came and picked their gun up,” Flynn said. “I had a lot of guns there that we fixed that they never came and got. And that’s some of the things you deal with.”

Flynn left there as his life began ramping up, he said. He was hired by Ingersoll Rand as a machinist and worked there for two and a half years, all the while saving and buying the machinery he would need to begin his own shop.

While working at Ingersoll one of the head sales officials for Ionbond contacted Flynn and asked him to start a custom shop for them doing custom finishes on guns. The company was doing an innovative coating called DLC, a specialty film applied to the outside of a gun’s metal.

He and the company wrote a contract and settled on pay in December, 2006 and he began working January, 2007. Some of the firearms Flynn worked on during that time cost as much as $20,000.

Another two and a half years went by and Flynn had his shop set up in East Bend. He was overflowing with work and eventually left Ionbond to focus on the shop full time.

“About any gunsmith you talk to, especially if you talk to gunsmith students … is they want to start their own business,” Flynn said. “Because gunsmiths, we’re a peculiar people, we really are. And if you know enough of us you’ll know that. We’re very independent people. We like working for ourselves.”

Gunsmiths can produce unique works of art when allowed. The “custom” part of the gunsmith title means if you want something standard and you want it fast you should look at a production firearm off the shelf.

If one-of-a-kind art is your fancy, call Flynn.

“I’ve built guns that cost $12,000 - that’s what I’ve charged for them, and it’s some of the best work I’ve ever done. But guns like that took me three or four years to build.”

Aquilla is situated on land Flynn’s family has owned for generations. The building once sat across the road from its current location but was moved when the family built their home there.

“This was an old pack-house. This building was built around 1892. It didn’t look anything like it does now,” Flynn said. “It was run-down, and I fixed it up. I had ideas about what I wanted to do, and it is what you see now.”

The building is no less a work of art than the custom creations Flynn builds inside it. The building still keeps its pack-house style outside, but inside it turns into a log cabin-esque room. There is an open ceiling room with an office overlooking the front door.

Wood paneling is decorated with deer mounts and metal signs with Frederic Remington paintings – Flynn’s favorite artist.

Two pictures of his family, both black and white, hang along the hall. Flynn proudly pointed to his great-grandfather during the interview with The Ripple, showing the deep family ties to the area.

A counter and a stool greet the customer as they walk in. A collection of Flynn’s previous works are kept in a photo album the prospective client is invited to look through.

Flynn says the photos, which are also on Aquilla’s Facebook page, show his abilities and his progression from beginner to his current level of gunsmithing.

The shop is based off Remington Arms’ custom gun shop. That location is decorated with all-original hardwood floors from over 100 years ago in their earlier plant.

Flynn was offered a job there but refused it due to New York’s strict gun laws. He built ACGW with the goal of either mimicking Remington’s shop or putting it to shame, he said.

It is meant to draw in prospective customers and hunters who like the cabin look. Hunters and hunting rifles make up the bulk of Flynn’s work, although he does many shotguns, handguns, AR-15s and stock building.

“My whole idea is, when people come into the shop they’ve got to be impressed with how it looks inside,” Flynn said. “If they like the way the shop looks they’ll have an idea of the type of work you do.”

The shop has been open for several years now. Ryan looks back on the time fondly, but admits it was a big step to take for anyone – much more so a man in his 20’s.

“I just took a chance,” Flynn said. “It’s a scary thing when you start a business and you’ve got everything you have invested into it and you’ve borrowed money and you don’t know if it’s going to work.”

Flynn is his own accountant, salesman, customer service representative and gunsmith.

“That takes time. You know you’re in there working on a gun, the phones ringing; you’ve got to answer the phone. You can’t just let it go, because people call and they expect someone to answer if you’re open.”

The pressures are high, but so are the rewards. Flynn is able to work on projects at his own pace and do the quality of work he prides himself in by running his own shop his own way.

He also fixed the problem of unclaimed guns laying around waiting for their owner to come back for them.

He made a sign and instituted a rule at Aquilla – he reserves the right to resale the gun if no one pays for it within 30 days.

That doesn’t come in to play much at Aquilla. Customers are excited to pick up their guns, as one man illustrated when Flynn was interviewing Flynn. The customer’s refined and refinished Colt 1911 was not going to be left sitting for 30 days.

Flynn said work has been very steady. With demand so high he has had to cut back on smaller jobs and focus on more substantial projects like complete custom builds.

The word of mouth advertising has paid off, with Flynn receiving orders from all over the map.

“I get work from all over the country now,” Flynn said. “The only type of advertising I do is my Facebook page and my website.”

Flynn has an eight month backlog on anything brought to him, which range from short jobs of cleaning to custom builds.

He prides himself on not rushing a job, as the attention to detail means the difference between art and awful.

“It’s important work and it’s not something you want to rush or do a ‘not very decent’ job on,” Flynn said.

He tries to remind customers of that, especially hunters who try to drop off a gun and expect it back the next day or sooner.

“I try to tell all my customers ‘Bring your gun in now,’” referring to the summer. “That way you don’t bring it in the day before hunting season and expect it to get finished.”

He puts a date on each new job and goes through them FIFO – first in, first out. The only work he does not do in house is engraving, which he outsources to a shop in Albemarle, N.C.

Still, his business was not a major success without sweat equity. It took huge amounts of effort over a year and a half to get things started successfully, Flynn said.

“You don’t know how much you have to sacrifice to get it off the ground and to make it work,” he said. “You sacrifice time with family, friends, free time for yourself - you work almost 18 hours a day sometimes just to get things going.”

Teaching took additional hours away from rest and relaxation.

Flynn was settling in to work at Aquilla when his former instructor at Montgomery contacted him about an open teaching position at his alma mater.

“Wayne [Bernaur], who was my instructor, he’s my boss now; he called me and told me about it. He was like ‘you need to put in for that job,’” Flynn said.

He was reluctant at first, but eventually applied and got called in for an interview.

Flynn was making the long drive back to East Bend after an hour and a half, 10-person panel interview when he got a phone call.

“Wayne calls me and he says, ‘well, you ready to come to work?’” The vote was unanimous, and Ryan had the job if he wanted it.

“I said ‘when do I start,’” Flynn joked. Ryan was flattered by his mentor being so confident in him and didn’t hesitate.

“It’s the most challenging job I’ve ever had in my life,” Flynn said. “At the end of the day you’re just mentally exhausted. Physically you’re fine, but mentally you’re exhausted because you’ve got people just sucking information out of you.

“You can’t explain how to do something to one person one way and explain it the same way to someone else,” he added. “They won’t understand it because everyone learns differently.”

Flynn says the school has seen a large increase in students following television shows like Sons of Guns. There is now a two-year waiting list to get into the gunsmithing school at Montgomery.

Students spend the two-year program learning how to build several types of firearms: rifles, pistols and revolvers. Some choose to sell off their finished products to repay school costs. Others keep the first fruits of their new careers.

Teaching also brought Flynn his favorite product.

Montgomery receives thousands of dollars in donations from Brownell’s, a supplier of firearm parts and gunsmithing tools. The company has been a long time supporter of the school along with the National Rifle Association.

Bernaur tasked Flynn with building Pete Brownell of Brownell’s a rifle in commemoration of their help. The rifle, a .260 caliber bolt-action rifle, was built by Flynn and his students and is valued at $8,000.

Pictures of the dedication and finished rifle can be found online at Aquilla’s Facebook page.

Now 30 years old, Flynn plans to teach and ultimately retire back to full-time gunsmithing work.

For more information about Aquilla Custom Gun Works contact Ryan Flynn through the shop’s Facebook page or its website, www.acgwllc.com

To contact Taylor Pardue call 336-835-1513 ext. 15, or email him at tpardue@civitasmedia.com.

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