View Full Version : Is Gunsmithing a lucratve Business?
September 27, 2006, 05:24 AM
I retired from the Army in February 2005 and presently work for the army as an instructor. I am very good with my hands and can use inner, outer calipers very well. Presses, machining tools burrs and ect. the question I have is If I invest the time and energy to become a gunsmith by attending the right schools could I establish a viable, put the bean on the table type of business as a gunsmith? I know reputation is vital as a "Smith" and I am sure that given time I can accomplish that. Is the market too tight for a entry level gunsmith? I am quite sure If I ask "the gunsmithing school" their answer would be Lucrative field. My wife has a decent paying job and I have a retirement coming in so we aren't doing too bad if I decide to make the plunge. I just don't want to walk into a market that's either too competive to compete in or there's just no business.:)
September 27, 2006, 07:07 AM
My opinion is with all of todays CCW states and interest in the old standby 1911 as strong as ever you could do fairly well as a Smith if you apprenticed under a knowledgeable teacher .
Many of the guys who pioneered this field are at or past retirement age and wont be around much longer .
September 27, 2006, 07:16 AM
I have no clue, but these people might...
Mike in Michigan
September 27, 2006, 08:47 AM
First, thanks for serving our country.
Go for it! Find a niche market, and fill it. It may take a few years but, if you're good, word will get around. Getting a shop to take you on without a diploma from one of the colleges will not be easy. Like too many businesses today, they place too much on schoolin' and not enough on doin'. Play on your GI experience for all it's worth and don't get discouraged. I checked into getting my foot in the door with some of the local shops and was told not to bother because gunsmithing was a dying trade. Then I talked to hundreds of people at the local ranges, sporting goods stores and nearly everyone I met over several months. Using that info as my 'market research' I figured screw the shops and got my FFL (easy), approval from the local government and LEO's (a bit more involved depending on where you live), and set up a part time business. In seven years, with only word of mouth advertising, I have more work than I can do evenings and weekends after working at what my wife refers to as my real job. I buy tooling only after I see they can pay back the investment in a reasonable time.
Feel free to contact me at the shop if you want to talk more about this.
Mike in Michigan
September 27, 2006, 09:39 AM
This question was asked on the High Road. A gunsmith answered.
Here's the hard, cold facts about gunsmithing.
If you're planning on being in the business as a pro, you're not going to get there with a correspondence or some kind of online course.
Businesses that hire gunsmiths want people who they KNOW have learned the job and can do the work.
That means a diploma from a GOOD attendance school like Colorado School of Trades, Trinidad College, Lassen College, or one of the others.
Show up looking for a job as a gunsmith with a correspondence course diploma, and they'll file your application in the waste can.
This is just the way it IS.
They need PROVEN skills and knowledge, and you don't get that by mail or online.
You can get a correspondence course and start your own business, but I'll take any amount of money that you'll bust out in less than a year.
A machine shop course to teach you how to run a lathe and milling machine is very good to have, but DO NOT think that being a good machinist makes you a good gunsmith.
Most good gunsmiths are good machinist, but most good machinist's are NOT qualified to be gunsmiths, and often are terrible at it.
Military armorers are NOT gunsmith's.
For the most part, they're parts switchers. They remove defective parts and drop in new parts.
If a gun needs more involved repairs, they're sent to a higher level to the REAL gunsmiths.
True military gunsmith's have a much higher level of training, and are almost always career military personnel. Getting into this level isn't easy.
At the very top are the true gunsmiths working for military marksmanship or special operations units.
There are very few of these people and they're the absolute cream of the crop with many years of training and experience.
Some people recommend learning as an apprentice.
This can be a good way to start, BUT... It all depends on WHO the teacher is.
The person you apprentice with may himself be a hack, and may be teaching you to be a hack too.
You'll have no real way to judge.
Plus, unless the teacher is a nationally know gunsmith AND is known for turning out qualified students, his training is also worthless when it comes to getting hired.
Again, employers hire people with good credentials, and the word of an unknown gunsmith isn't good enough.
Starting up a gunsmith business takes BIG bucks for machinery and tools. You'd be starting off COLD with no customer base, and you'll starve out quickly for simple lack of paying customers.
Remember, something like 40% of all business's bust out, no matter WHAT they are or who's running them.
That's simply new business attrition.
Also, remember as a self-employed gunsmith, you're NOT a gunsmith.....You're really a business man who gets to spend a few hours a day doing gunsmithing.
MOST of your day is spent doing business man things like filling out forms for the government, talking to potential customers, ordering materials and parts, and dealing with unreasonable customers.
If you're lucky, you'll get to do a little gun work somewhere in there.
The only way to make it starting out on your own is to have a "day job" and gunsmith on the side.
Still, very few make it this way either.
It's tough to put in 8 hours on the main job, then come home and do a little gunsmithing, and STILL have to do all the business man stuff.
If you're really serious about this, bite the bullet and go to the best attendance school you can.
At least 6 months to a year before you graduate, start looking for a job.
By graduation day, you should have a FIRM job offer.
Go to work for a company like one of the gun makers, a custom gun maker, the government, a police department as an armorer, or for one of the industries who employ gunsmiths for research projects.
Spend some time working for the OTHER guys. THEY'LL be doing all the business man stuff while you put in a solid 8 hours gunsmithing and really learning the trade.
After you've built up your skills, established your reputation as a known quantity in the industry, built up a customer contact base, and bought the equipment a little at a time, THEN you can go out on your own.
However, you're STILL subject to that 40% bust-out rate for new businesses.
That same person also responded to the same question, different thread, here:
He was answering specific questions.
I wrote the above article and I stand behind it.
Per your questions:
1.) Question: I'm 19 and in college. Do I need a business degree or are there any type of college majors that would lend themselves to being a good gunsmith? Mechanical Engineering maybe? Do I need to be a physics, mechanics, or mathematics genius to be a gunsmith?
Answer: As above, go to a gunsmithing school. Everything else is strictly bush league. Would you hire someone to repair your aircraft engine who learned how by a correspondence course?
2.) Question: Is it a realistic goal? Is being a gunsmith like wanting to be a pro football player? Do I need to be the best of the best to make living doing this?
Answer: You don't have to be the equivalent of a starting quarterback for the Packers, but you need to really know what you're doing, and be able to consistently turn out EXCELLENT level work.
The world is full of so-so people, but the better people are rare and well known. Setting out to be just an "OK" gunsmith won't cut it.
3.) Question: What type of start-up funds are needed? Am I going to need to assemble a small machine shop just to get my feet off the ground?
Answer: Go out and price the cost of GOOD lathes, milling machines, vises, and hundreds of small tools from hammers to files. Then price your Federal Firearms license, State and local licenses, a shop or store, and all that entails. After your heart slows down from sticker shock you'll have a better idea.
Start off small with small jobs, and you'll likely STAY small with small jobs due to lack of equipment to do the higher end work.
Without the bigger more equipment-intensive work, you'll likely bust out quickly.
4.) Question: Without getting too personal.. what are the average yearly earnings for an average gunsmith? I don't think I can be the next Ed Brown or Bill Wilson but is it realistic to hope for about $50k-$70k a year once I get established? Or will I need to work two jobs just to stay out of the red?
Answer: $50k-$70k?? DREAM ON.
Only the VERY high end big shop owners like Wilson with multiple gunsmiths turn over that kind of money.
Unless you work for one of those big shops you won't be in gunsmithing for the money
September 27, 2006, 11:45 AM
As I have said a few times, been there done that. My partner and I ran a gun shop, and if we had gone out and gotten jobs at McDonalds we could have done much better financially. Don't get me wrong, I loved it and it was great, but when Old Man Winter comes around, you're tired and broke and you have a bunch of capital tied up in machinery and tools.
If you really love it, do it, but it is not a lucrative field. You have to love doing it, because no one will pay you $50-70K/yr. You'll be lucky to see 1/3 of that if you are good. If you do OUTSTANDING work and get a good reputation, you may make $40K after about 10 years.
September 27, 2006, 12:23 PM
“could I establish a viable, put the bean on the table type
of business as a gunsmith”
Yes, you could also take over one that is going to retire in
a few years.
“I know reputation is vital as a "Smith"”
Not that hard to do. The people you get a reputation from
don’t know anything about what you are doing. Only know
if they are happy or not.
“Is the market too tight for a entry level gunsmith?”
“I am quite sure If I ask "the gunsmithing school" their
answer would be Lucrative field.”
They might tell you that 80 to 90 % of their graduates don’t
ever try to get in to the business. Of the ones that take the
plunge most don’t make it. I think that is the approximate
of most any business.
You already have a income, if you actually want to be a
Gunsmith and think that you have the basic skills and
temperament to do that type of work, what is stoping you?
Good luck to you.
September 27, 2006, 03:30 PM
I am one of the guys that took a correspondance course and am still in business after 8 years. I took the AGI course as well as worked for a smith and don't agree with all that has been said here. The AGI course is taught by Bob Dunlap who taught the Lassen college class for more than 20 years and he teaches the AGI course just like he was standing in front of the class at Lassen. Is it as good as going to a college, it all depends on you. If you are mechanically inclined and have access to most of the guns that are taught in the course, yes. If you are a wanna be and don't have the skills and can't take notes, then just like the college classes, you are in the wrong field and won't be successful.
Bob teaches using cutaway guns that he used for the College course and in fact, this course is college accredited for the State of California. It is as good as any course out there if you are able to learn and it is much cheaper than any of the colleges you will find.
Gunsmithing is very easy to get into, much harder to earn a living at. Take some business classes as well and if you have a good head on your shoulders and don't bite off more than you can chew on and you can succeed. Success in life means different things to different people. If you go into it only for the money aspect, you will have your heart broken very quickly. Like what was alluded to in the other posts, it costs money to tool up and if you buy all new machines and tools without earning some money first, you will most likely go belly up just like a lot of other smiths very quickly. Go slow and unless you have the money to spend, get by with your skills and farm out what you don't have the tools to handle. Most folks buy a barrel vises and receivers wrenches, a lathe, a mill, all the test guages and jigs that you will need to operate them, a belt grinder, bench grinders, a TIG Welding machine, a Foredom tool, a good vise, air compressor, sand blasting cabinet, a band saw and a good Miter saw and various assorted hand tools including screwdrivers and hammers and think they are ready to be a gunsmith. The only problem is all of this stuff costs more than most folks earn in their first two years of being in business and go belly up because of it.
I suggest if you want to be a smith, decide for yourself if investing $30,000 for a 2 yr school is going to be worth the cost. You will spend around the same amount for a shop and the tools and machines that I mentioned above if you buy them all at once. You can of course save money and buy when you can afford as well as buy good used equipment as well.
I started out with a foredom tool and a good air compressor and a good set of screwdrivers. I didn't buy a drill press for two years because the work I was taking in didn't require it. I built my shop up as my work load increased and I bought only the machines I needed for the work I was being asked to do. I didn't buy a lathe for 4 years and the first one I bought was a fine used Craftsmen lathe that I could turn out firing pins with as well as rebarrel revolvers with. As I went along, I built myself all of the barrel vises and reciever wrenches as well as most of the various jigs and other tools that I could. I built my own blasting cabinet as well as my drying box and amy humidity box. I saved enough money doing this that later on I bought a nice lathe and a mill without going to the bank to do so making it even harder to make enough to live on. It can be done and isn't as hard as it has been made out to be by some folks. The key is to take the work you have and do it to the best of your ability and that will make you a success if you have the skills to do the work.
I worked for a smith while taking the AGI course and I learned as much from the course as I did from the smith. If you are a fairly sharp guy as you seem to be, there is no reason why you can't do the same thing. The one thing that no one has spoken up about is the simple fact that your education as a gunsmith doesn't really begin until someone brings in their pride and joy to you to fix for them. I can honestly tell you that I learn something new every week. I and most every other smith in the business buy books and videos and talk to other smiths and continue to learn new things long after we open our doors. If you want to stay up to date, you will have to do the same thing. Things change every day and something new comes along that is way better than what we have been doing and you will have to be able to keep up with the times as they say. Doing a job taking an hour that takes every one else 30 minutes means you won't stay in business too long and part of this is learning new ways to do the same job old. The point is, no matter what the diploma says, it isn't worth spit if you can't do the work quickly and as good as the next guy can. It's always going to be the quality of the job and the cost of doing it that keeps business coming into the shop. If you have a diploma hanging on the wall and still can't turn over the jobs, you will fail just as quickly as the guy that didn't go to a trade school. A lot of the old smiths never went to a trade school until much later in life and most the schools they took then was a machining course to help them turn out the work faster and better. I'll let you decide which way to go on that, not everyone that earns money went to a trade school and not everyone that goes to a trade school earns money either. It always breaks down to whether or not you can do the job and keep your business running.
Can you do it, that's completely up to you. If you have the skill, knowledge and the patience and can do business without investing too much to begin with, yes, you can be successful. It's all up to you as far as that goes. With the internet and shipping being what it is today, even if you don't have a large business base where you are, you can still draw enough business in to make money. Just don't expect too much in the beginning. You have to grow a business just like you have to grow your skills.
I realize there are a lot of folks that won't agree with me on this, but it breaks down to one simple fact, a smart guy learns, it doesn't matter where the knowledge comes from as long as the knowledge is good. Check out the AGI course at this link: http://www.americangunsmith.com/
If you can take the Master course as well as a couple of business classes with it I say you can be doing the job just as well as any one that graduates from any of the trade schools if you are a sharp guy. I have been in business for 8 years now and have not been hindered by my education one bit. In fact, with the library that I have from the course, there has never been one gun come into my shop that I couldn't take down and repair very quickly. The course is that in depth and you get to keep the DVD's as well.
September 27, 2006, 06:58 PM
A lot of good advice there. I believe a course in running a small business is an absolute must. A lot of folks think all they need is an FFL and a screwdriver. They forget all the stuff like business licenses, zoning laws, OSHA, taxes, insurance, etc., etc.
While some smiths may be able to start up cheap, I estimate around $70-$100,000 to get set up right. That includes getting a building (working out of your home is a BAD idea, even if legal), decent equipment, a good selection of stuff like reamers, start up insurance premiums, licenses, and so forth. If you start out taking on only small jobs, and send customers to the other guy, they will go to the other guy the next time.
To answer your question, "Is gunsmithing a lucrative business?", I will say it can be in niche areas, like building super dooper 1911's or tuning up match rifles or shotguns. But general gunsmithing, no. You can make a living at it, but you won't catch up with Bill Gates in anyone's list of billionaires.
September 27, 2006, 07:06 PM
Anybody got any figures on how many gunsmiths in the U.S. make over $100,000 annually, net profit? I'd guess there wouldn't be over a few dozen, if that many.
September 27, 2006, 07:41 PM
Jim is correct in the fact that the more you have to farm out, the less money you will make on a job. That's a simple fact and if you have to farm out most of a job, it won't take too long for your customers to figure out they can get the job done elsewhere cheaper and better.
When I say farm out some work, I don't mean all of the job, only things such as welding or some machine work if that is necessary. A lot of smiths that first start out cannot afford to invest in every piece of equipment that they need. There is nothing wrong with farming out some aspect of a job if your ultiamte goal is to one day buy what you need. There aren't too many smiths these days that handle blueing or refinishing of guns. More and more of them farm this aspect out. Just like there aren't too many that handle checkering of stocks any more. Be up front with the person and tell them what you can do and you will be fine, being honest with your customer means a lot.
Don't let all of this scare you off from opening up the doors even on a part time bases either. There are probably about as many folks that work as a smith part time as there are folks that do it as their main job as well. Remember this, there is nothing wrong with starting small and growing and then investing your money back into the business. This is what most folks have to do to begin with and no there is reason to overload yourself financially just so you can handle every aspect of a job. Most jobs that will come through the door in the beginning won't be anything more than cleaning and replacing a broken part and replacing stocks. Not too many folks want to take a rebarrel job to a guy that no one knows anything about and you will have to build up your reputation as well as your business. Best of luck with it.
September 27, 2006, 08:06 PM
It is for us..but we manufacture OEM parts, do internet auctions, have a full storefront etc etc etc
September 28, 2006, 06:05 AM
You guys are tabling a lot of experience on this thread, just to let you know that these points are well taken. Please keep them coming and thanks for your time in posting them. :)
September 28, 2006, 03:28 PM
It can be lucretive if you are sharp enough to find the right niche for you and can turn enough jobs. My best advise to you is to find something like checkering or engraving that you are good at or even stockmaking since these can be very lucretive. A guy doing checkering can make upwards of $400 on a checkering job and can stay as busy as he wants too. The guys in this business that turn out the bucks are the ones that are smart enough to find their own niche and invest their time and energy into making money.
Most smiths work long hours and don't spend time away from work like most everyone else. The ones I know that are in it love the work and do it because they love the work. If you're any good at being a smith and it shows, you will be overloaded before you know what happens to you. I gave up hunting and fishing a long time ago. I get to carry my son a few times and let him hunt, but hunting season you will find will be the time when joe blow down the road had an accident and his bolt won't close or his "baby" has all of a sudden stopped hitting where he aims it and it can't be his own fault as to why he misses all the deer any more. Harry and the others have warned you that smiths work long hours and their families miss them a lot. I got lucky, my wife works the nights shift so when I am out in the shop to all hours of the morning, I am not disturbing anyone. Best of luck with it.
September 28, 2006, 05:33 PM
One more point. Just remember, as a professional gunsmith, you will be competing with all the folks on these sites who brag about fixing their buddies' guns for free and how they are great super gunsmiths because they don't screw up more than half of them.
September 28, 2006, 05:59 PM
September 28, 2006, 05:59 PM
Roger dodger Jim. I think that I heard a term somewhere on the firing line or the THR Fishmeckled?:D
September 28, 2006, 07:15 PM
. Dear Sir;
And, Thank you for your service to our country!
Sir: Yes, it is "POSSIBLE" for it to be a lucrative business - WILDALASKA has a good answer - it's taken him, I'l bet, a long time to achieve his stature - and he is in Alaska, a good place to have such a set-up as he has.
In the right time in the right place it could be done - about 70% depends on your personality and knowledge and building a good reputation.
I will tell you though - keep it small and do not rely on it as your prime income. Old age is coming. Things change. Almost all of the old gunsmiths died, or are poor - even the best.
Cecil Brooks recently passed - Cecil had other income sources, I'm sure - and he didn't earn the money in gunsmithing (muzzle-loaders) and he was a skilled smith and engraver!
So, if this is in your heart, do it - but be cautious not to spend "family funds" on it.
I'm sorry if I've dampened this but I want to tell you the truth.
And, again: Thank You!
September 29, 2006, 07:16 PM
Harry Bonar I don't expect to get rich. I am asking qualified gunsmiths who have been in the business if there is room for someone to break into the field.
September 29, 2006, 11:54 PM
You'll be number 60,001. But, if you're good at what you do, you'll be very busy. I have enough work to keep busy seven days a week, but I keep Sunday clear. You'll make it if you're good. Carry on, soldier. And thanks for your service.
October 1, 2006, 11:48 AM
Well, its sounds like you are in a good position to try to enter the field. (Meaning you can live without any additional income, for a while).
Now, there are alot of "lousy" gunsmiths out there so be prepared to do absolutely the best possible work you can. Word of mouth is the best advertising you can get (Speaking from experience, although not in the gunsmithing business). When buying tools and equipment, balance the cost against the potential earnings. Don't buy equipment that'll only be used occasional. Overhead is a killer (again speaking from experience.) This may mean that you cannot do certain jobs, on occasion, but that's OK.
Of all the successful gunshops in my area, the ONLY ones that have been around for more than a few years, are the ones that have top-notch gunsmiths. There's little money in selling guns (too competitive), a bit more in selling accesories (but that requires a substantial inventory). But a really good gunsmith around here, is worth his weight in gold.
Now, with most of these guys, they'll do a simple job (<10 minutes) for free. Because they know when I need something more major, I be back. A goof policy IMO.
October 2, 2006, 06:05 AM
Dfaugh and SRG I am good in my present field now, highly respected among peers. I always have earned the respect for my workmanship in the trades. I was once called a loser in my knockabout years 18-21, and man did it hurt because I was a loser. Ever since then I always went the extra mile in "learning the trades" and that carried over into helping my fellow man. I help the fellow man always. Having talent and being good in the trades doesn't mean that you will be sucessful in business, this is well known. I have a gift in teaching and inspiring midcareer soldiers to do what I did in the Army and certainly changed many lives around in doing so. My passion is my hands nonetheless. I can tear apart allison transmissions and put them back together. Cummins Engines, same way. General motors 4L80-Electronic transmissions are a breeze. I got into the electrical field while in the Army even though I wasn't required and got a thorough understanding in that field. I love welding fcaw and gas, iron working as well I am sure I can apply some of these skill into gunsmithing. I work a little in metalurgy as well. Al Nasiryia Iraq (Jessica Lynch) was a disaster for a convoy because that convoy broke down and got attacked by Iraq troops. Soldiers got killed and the leadership failed them in every way " I will not elaborate why". This is why it is my passion to teach mid career soldiers how to trouble shoot and fix equipment.
The Ordnance Center and School is moving and I am considering Gunsmithing.
October 2, 2006, 02:52 PM
A transmission shop earns a heck of a lot more money than gunsmithing does. A small shop in the back yard could earn you enough money to be very happy with if that is what you are after.
There is no reason why you cannot be successful at gunsmithing. Successful has different meanings to lots of different people. A lot of smiths are successful at doing a good job on the work they do and are still broke most of the time, but they are happy doing the work they do so they are successful in life. Some actually turn a dime or two over each month and some actually make enough to survive for years and are happy with that. I wouldn't go into it blindly nor would I want anyone to tell you that the field is wide open without knowing it can be a tough business to break into.
The one thing you have going for yourself is the pension you will be drawing will be your main income. I was in the same boat myself and it most likely allowed me a lot more leeway when I first got started. Yes, you can pay the bills with the income from gunsmithing, but you may need help along the way. As my Grandmother used to say, the only thing for you to do is rear your ears back and dive in headfirst to find out if you can make it. Best of luck with it!
I still say a man with your skills would be better off sticking to what he knows best, but this is you we are talking about so I think you can do it with the skills that you have.
October 3, 2006, 12:36 AM
"...an entry level gunsmith?..." They have a very difficult time finding a job and the pay is low. Just like any other FNG in any trade. Nobody wants an inexperienced worker. And pay very close attention to what Jim says.
Mind you, you will also find that most companies will fall all over themselves to hire an experienced military guy.
Talk to the guys you know who are already retired. They're your best source for the 'infamous' non-advertised job market. As sad as it is, who you know is more important than what you know on civvy street.
October 4, 2006, 05:56 AM
"...an entry level gunsmith?..." They have a very difficult time finding a job and the pay is low. Just like any other FNG in any trade. Nobody wants an inexperienced worker.
I can "entry level" circles around any FNG and that includes more than a few trades
Talk to the guys you know who are already retired. They're your best source for the 'infamous' non-advertised job market. As sad as it is, who you know is more important than what you know on civvy street
Networking is good, I'd rather base it on reputation rather than hobnobbing with like minded people sometimes. I can personally tell you that there is a healthy percentage of untrained Retired military out there now. You can lob a mean grenade but it doesn't translate too well on the civilian market. Infamous is a term often used superfllously . It's usually applied to a single person for gaining notariety using negative public attention. (Cato Kaitlin) did I spell his name right. If I wanted to lob grenades for 20 years I would have done it.
October 4, 2006, 06:33 AM
Networking is good, I'd rather base it on reputation rather than hobnobbing with like minded people sometimes. I can personally tell you that there is a healthy percentage of untrained Retired military out there now.
Yeah. Speaking as a business owner, they're all going to do better than you are. Reputation is a maintenance and an exit strategy, not an entry strategy.
You can lob a mean grenade but it doesn't translate too well on the civilian market.
Yes. You're making that quite clear.
October 4, 2006, 09:41 PM
U.S. FSC RET:
As a fifteen-year self-employed entrapraneaur, I have created and sold a successfull business that will be ten years old next year, defying the odds.
There is nothing sweeter than having the marketplace vindicate your efforts by the sale of your business.
Your pension income will make you a fierce competitor. Unlike your competition, you will not have to make money, a wonderful luxury.
GO FOR IT! Do not listen to nay-sayers, wife and/or family especially. These work-a-day schmucks will always come up with all kinds of reasons why you shouldn't take a reasonable risk. Ignore them like the plague.
Let's say you go for it and flop. You lose a little money. So what, you'll make more. You had fun. You learned a lot. But best of all, when you're 85 years old you'll have the satisfaction of knowing you gave it your best shot. Priceless.
October 5, 2006, 05:30 AM
Jammer Six I couldn't agree with you more. No offence to lobbing a mean grenade, we need those kind of guys. You should of heard the squalling and crying during the first gulf war build up, the staff needed guys to do the killing to get there.
October 5, 2006, 07:25 AM
You'll do, Sarge. Note the cap.
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