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)

A few months ago, I was at a presentation by a gun importer, new to the trade from the auto industry, who was showing some German shotguns to a group of shooters. He proudly pointed out that these guns were almost completely machine-made, including the “perfect” checkering patterns and engraving, cut by computer-controlled lasers. Every scroll, he said, was exactly like every other one. There were no mistakes, no overruns, no differences whatever from one gun to the next.

Precise uniformity is certainly desirable in automobile widgets, but if engraving is to have any pretensions to artistry, uniformity is not a virtue. Computer-guided lasers cutting steel is no more engraving than a mass-produced print of a painting is the painting itself. It is nothing but machined embellishment. The designs may be identical to every other design that comes off the machine, but why is that desirable?

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Edwin von Atzigen was able to match not only the engraving style of the original piece, but deliberately execute it to the same level of skill as the apprentice.

The nature of art is an ongoing debate, almost central to art itself. Paul Cézanne believed that “A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art,” and that is a good condition to apply in any judgment. Emotion plays no part in machine-embellishment on steel. Furthermore, it has neither the appearance nor the feel of genuine engraving, just as a print is not a painting even if it reproduces what appear to be the artist’s original brushstrokes. The result is merely a mass-produced decoration of no lasting interest.

In the 1980s, during the early renaissance of double guns, bulino engraving gained some popularity, primarily in Italy. This method employs tiny dots, pressed into the steel, to produce a photolike impression. Examined closely, you can see that some dots are shallow, some are deep, and the
resulting play of light and shadow produces the
image. This is the old newspaper method of halftones, produced by a Scan-a-Graver for printing photographs, adapted to steel.

Personally, I’ve never seen a bulino pattern I particularly cared for, but that’s a matter of taste. What isn’t debatable, however, is that traditional, hand-cut scroll engraving actually improves with age (or at least doesn’t deteriorate) while a bulino pattern will never look better than the day it comes out of the box. Each scratch thereafter, large or small, leaves it looking increasingly like a photograph from a damaged negative. As well, a scroll pattern that sustains damage can often be recut by a talented engraver, just as a damaged oil painting can be repaired. This isn’t true of bulino.

There is a fable about a painter who finds himself in hell. A demon escorts him to an easel, brings him paints and brushes, and leaves him to his work. Every painting he attempts turns out perfectly—perfectly!—and the same is happening with the painters and sculptors all around him. All are turning out perfect works, and all are sobbing with frustration.

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The quality of the scroll on the frame is finer than the smaller pieces, indicating it was done by the master engraver, while the smaller ones were probably done by an apprentice. Idiosyncrasies such as these give hand-engraved guns their individuality and enduring interest.

While every artist strives for perfection, perfection can never be achieved. It is, however, the striving that counts, and the great artists come closer than the lesser ones. Take away the possibility of failure for any, however, and you take away the challenge, and hence the attraction, of the work.

Engraving and checkering are two areas where a modern, CNC-produced shotgun can cease to be an item of soulless mass production and become an individual. Computer-generated engraving patterns, executed by lasers, may achieve a kind of impersonal perfection, but they do so at the cost of lasting interest.

White-tailed deer are a source of endless fascination, but would they be so if every buck looked exactly like every other buck? Would pheasants be interesting if every cock had identical coloring and a tail exactly 18 inches long? Should every gobbler have a single beard exactly the size of a #6 paintbrush?

Why, then, would anyone want every single gun to look exactly like every other gun, not differing in the slightest detail, even down to the tiniest scroll? 


Wieland never found The Stepford Wives particularly appealing, either. Part of the fascination of old guns is wondering who the engraver was, what emotion motivated him, and what happened to him in the end. It may be anonymous immortality, but that’s better than no immortality at all.