by Terry Wieland
Would that I had a dollar for every time someone has picked up a gun of mine and cooed, “Oh, look at the etching!” It’s meant as a compliment, but what it really means is they know nothing about guns, and I am once again wasting my time even showing them one.
I am not the first to make this complaint, and if you want to see some real fireworks, try saying it in front of the craftsmen who made the gun. It’s like looking at the palace of Versailles and commenting on the nice paint job.
But back to etching, which is not even the same thing as engraving in the first place. Engraving is done by cutting into metal with a sharp tool; etching is a chemical process whereby designs are eaten into metal with acid. The latter is usually employed to create a plate which holds ink, from which prints can be made. Etching and print-making are arts in themselves — no one would deny that — but engraving they ain’t.
Engraving of metal — gold, silver, brass, steel — in the form of jewelry, tea pots, or fine firearms, is considered an art by some people, especially in modern times. Historically, however, engraving of anything from banknote plates to high-grade Parkers has always been an industrial craft. It serves a purpose that’s a long way from the “art for art’s sake” of a Monet.
Engraving, performed by a craftsman with a graver in one hand and a tiny hammer in the other, can be minimal or extensive, fine or crude, beautiful or homely. But if it’s not art, why do it in the first place? Several reasons have been offered. One is breaking up a shiny surface, so as not to reflect light; another is to hold oil in order to prevent rust; a third — and by far the most likely in the case of cheaper guns — is to hide sloppy workmanship and give an impression of quality higher than it really is.
Over the past half-century, bulino engraving has grabbed a lot of attention. Bulino uses tiny, indented dots of different sizes, much like the old newspaper Scan-a-Graver, to create an effect like a photograph. Some bulino is very elaborate, with lissome maidens, satyrs, unicorns, and animals of every kind. Extraordinary as it might be, however, it has two drawbacks.
First, the more elaborate it is, the more reluctant the proud owner is to actually take the gun hunting, for fear of marring it. And second, unlike traditional engraving that gets better with age, shrugging off minor dents and scratches, and in which even some pitting can be corrected, scratched-up bulino looks like a photograph produced from an old negative.
Bulino will never again be as pretty as the day it leaves the shop, and well-worn bulino is about as attractive as a well-worn courtesan with cheap makeup. (You may have guessed I’m not a fan.)
Some medium-to-expensive new guns sport “laser-cut engraving,” a term I’m reluctant to use because it isn’t engraving, any more than a color print is a painting. Laser scroll patterns are absolutely uniform, having usually been drawn on a computer, without a curlicue out of place, and are about as sexy as a headless mannequin.
Hand engraving, good or bad, has character. Patterns cut by a laser do not. Simple as that.
Shown here is a gun made in the 1860s — or 1870s at the latest — with one rifled barrel chambered in .577 Snider, the other a 20-bore shotgun. It bears the name of Joseph Braddell, which was a shooting and fishing shop in Belfast, and still exists as an angling shop. The gun was probably made in Birmingham, and the names of the craftsmen are long forgotten. But the tight, full-coverage, scroll engraving is such that you just want to hold it and marvel.
And yes, everyone who sees it says, “Ooooo, look at the etching…” It never fails.
Gray’s shooting editor Terry Wieland was never enamored of bulino, and is not much for gold inlays either, but engraving — like wine, women and song — is a matter of taste. And wouldn’t life be boring if everyone liked the same things?