Lifelong Firearm Fan Finds Builds on His Passion at SDI

  • Joey Upper

A Gun Guy Through and Through

Caleb Downing is a gun guy. He always has been.

The extent to which firearms would change his life, however, he never would have been able to foresee.

“I’ve always been interested in firearms,” Downing said in our interview, “but I never became interested in shooting guns until my late teens.”

“Once I started hunting, probably around 16 or 17, the first time I was actually able to touch a gun and shoot it – I was hooked!”

Building a Passion

As it does for many Sonoran Desert Institute students (and SDI staff and faculty), the love of shooting transformed into a love of perfecting the shooting experience.

“I just continually would get guns, and just mess with them. I would do stippling on them, I bedded the action in my Remington 700 … and I would go out and shoot it beforehand, and afterhand, and see the differences – that kind of tinkering with guns and trying to make it better, trying to make it different – it was always a part of me.”

“We had plenty of expired, Vietnam-era (TOW missiles). We would go out and do our drills and things, that was actually fun because I have shot several of those! … It was always exciting to shoot those.”

This love affected his choice of career nearly right out of the gate.

The Sword and the Shield

Caleb is a veteran both of law enforcement – he patrolled as a sheriff’s deputy for a while, and at the same time served in the Marine Corps Reserve. Caleb served as an 0352 – an anti-tank missileman.

Downing recalled how much fun he had training with TOW launchers during his days of service.

“We had plenty of expired, Vietnam-era (TOW missiles). We would go out and do our drills and things, that was actually fun because I have shot several of those! … It was always exciting to shoot those.”

Downing loved his community as a sheriff’s deputy, often mentioning how he loved the people, even when the situations he was thrust into were difficult.

Caleb’s life was changed, however, when an accidental discharge led to the amputation of one of his fingers. While Caleb was otherwise able to make a full recovery, he was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps. His wife, an active duty servicemember, was required to move later on in the aftermath of the injury, making him unable to remain with the sheriff’s department he loved.

Two Birds with One Stone

“I was out of the sheriff’s office at the time. … I was spending a lot more time at home (after an injury and move). I was starting to take care of the kids. … I kind of had a little bit of YouTube stuff going on with my guns, but I was always looking for a better way to educate myself on firearms.”

That’s when he found us.

“Once I saw that SDI had an accredited associate degree, I was like, “This is two or three birds with one stone!” he said, recalling how excited he was that he could tell his family he was going back to school.

“I can get (my degree) in something I’m really, really excited about!” he reflected.

A Real Education

He did, too- Downing was a highly successful student. He did have one class stand out for him as his favorite among all the others.

“Probably Sights, Optics, and Accuracy,” he said while recalling his favorite aspects of SDI. “Talking about lapping the barrels, I took that to heart and I use that nowadays when I build guns for folks. … Even if there’s a miniscule advantage, things like that I think are the attention for detail when you’re building for somebody (that matters).”

Downing built an AR-15 for his capstone, which he still enjoys to this day.

And this is the part of our interview in which Caleb left me, very briefly, stunned.

When I asked him what he’d tell students or prospective students asking about his experience, he gave a very frank reply:

“You’re not going to go into SDI and then come out being (a master gunsmith).”

You go into it and it teaches you how to figure out the answer to whatever the problem is that you’re trying to do.

He’s absolutely correct, of course, but when interviewing graduates the philosophy of education is not something that regularly makes its way into the conversation.

Downing’s analysis of what SDI is was too profound not to share:

“What I will say is that, similar to my daughter, she’s 5 years old, I’m teaching her phonics, and math, and all this other stuff. It’s super encouraging to me, when I’m teaching her this stuff and then suddenly something clicks. … The day she was able to say ‘Hey! The “E” on the end is silent and it makes this other vowel long,’ and you can see the buttons clicking in her head of her understanding – ‘now I know how to do this!’ That’s the way I see SDI working. You go into it and it teaches you how to figure out the answer to whatever the problem is that you’re trying to do. … It’s not going to give you the answer to all the different stuff. But it’s going to teach you and show you how to look for those, how to get after those problems, which is the key to it.

“Without knowing how to do that, you’re just as good jumping up and down the street just plunking away at stuff until you figure out what works.”

Worth the Time and Investment

If a reader has had the chance to see some of our other interviews, you’ll find a common thread: Successful students at SDI love to learn. They love being given the tools to help them succeed against the many and varied problems that await them in the trade of gunsmithing.

SDI is built to help graduates think about problems as a gunsmith would. Caleb got there in one.

And of course, he’s still extremely proud of his time with SDI.

“SDI is really worth the time and worth the (investment) to look into. If you’re into this (field), I don’t know where you’d get this caliber of education and knowledge in the package you can get it in at SDI.”

Caleb Downing is a 2018 SDI graduate.

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