Artistry, Emotion, and Things That Go Bang

The frame of this E.M. Reilly box lock, manufactured around 1892, has almost full-coverage, finely scrolled engraving. (photography by Terry Wieland)

Machined embellishment is not art.

[by Terry Wieland]

MICHAEL McINTOSH ONCE OBSERVED THAT, when it comes to a shotgun, “The art is in the function.” Although no one loved fine guns more than Michael, he was under no illusions as to their place in the world of art. Compared to a Cézanne or a Rodin, a shotgun, no matter how finely made, is another thing entirely.

This isn’t to say there’s no artistry in the making of guns, because of course there is, and it comes in many forms, ranging from the overall lines to the sculpting of the buttstock and the carving of the fences, and ends with the two most-mentioned features: checkering and engraving.

Checkering of gunstocks is a relatively recent development, evolving into its current form about 125 years ago. Engraving, on the other hand, has been applied to fine guns (along with gold inlay) for at least 500 years. As such, it may have a claim to recognition as an art form, but only as a functional art, of which guns constitute a very minor part. Over the centuries, engravers have plied their trade in the creation of plates for printing currency, as well as the embellishment of everything from pendants to snaffles to hip flasks.

With a gun, engraving serves several practical purposes. It breaks up a flat shiny surface, reducing glare; it provides nooks and crannies for holding oil to prevent rust; and it distinguishes one gun from another in a crowd. An older, rather mysterious, function is to make a firearm highly personal, a totem, just as cave men decorated their spears. All these are worthy roles, but none is vital.


After studying the gun, American engraver Sam Welch, a scroll scholar, believes the frame was done by the master engraver, and the smaller metal pieces by an apprentice. When the E.M. Reilly was restored by Edwin von Atzigen, he needed to make a new steel diamond for the forend.

A century ago, fine gunmakers had their own “house” engraving patterns that were instantly recognizable. A James Purdey gun stood out, partly because of its distinctive rose-and-scroll engraving pattern. So did a Boss, or a Holland & Holland. Holland’s “Royal” pattern was drawn from the art nouveau tastes of the Edwardian age, whereas Purdey’s originated a couple of decades earlier. These companies often let work out to the trade, which included many fine freelance engravers. Thomas Boss employed the Sumner family, with fathers, sons, and grandsons all bound up in the trade. While they all applied the Boss pattern, there were subtle differences and tiny signature trademarks. An expert comparing two guns from the same era can tell whether they were engraved by the same person.

Some years ago, Sam Welch, a modern American master of scroll engraving, agreed to engrave a tiny metal replacement part for an old English shotgun. Sam looked at photos of the engraving on the other parts, including the frame, and asked which of the two styles, by two different engravers, I wanted him to emulate. He could tell, by the shaping of the scrolls, that different engravers had worked on the gun. When he delivered the new forend-iron diamond, the engraving was to my eye a perfect copy of the metal forend tip, but under a magnifying glass, it is noticeably (if subtly) different from the frame. Sam believed the frame had been engraved by the master, and the smaller bits by an apprentice.

Purdey engraving has become a standard pattern for sidelock doubles everywhere, and execution ranges from superficial to superb. In 1987, I visited Armas Garbi, one of Spain’s best custom makers. Garbi’s lowest-priced gun, the Model 100, came with Purdey-style engraving; so did its Model 103B, which cost three times as much. The difference in the engraving quality was striking: The Model 100 was done with an electric engraving tool by a freelancer, while the 103B was engraved with the hand tools of Garbi’s staff engraver. The Model 100 looked pretty good until you put it beside its more expensive brethren, and then you could see the minimized detail, the shallower cuts, the places where time (and money) had been saved.

Although an engraving pattern may be standard, they aren’t all exactly alike, even from the same maker. Nor are they expected to be. Like the shaping of a stock or the carving of the fences, there is room for individual craftsmen to do as they think best. These minor differences aren’t flaws or mistakes; they are simply differences, just as Van Gogh’s brushstrokes differed from Monet’s. It is this individuality that makes the great guns so captivating, and having the freedom to rove within certain boundaries keeps artistic engravers interested.