Artfully engraved guns

To my everlasting shame I have only ever owned one firearm which was engraved. Many years ago, I came into possession of a fine Luigi Franchi over-under 12ga which was lavishly engraved. I was mightily impressed by the gun’s artistic embellishment, but alas the
configuration of the stock didn’t suit me. Every time I fired that beautiful gun, the comb belted me up the chops until my cheekbone became swollen and tender. The gun was an outstanding piece, but rather than go to the expense of having it restocked I sold it.

My battery of rifles are all working guns, and none of them are engraved. Obviously, the vast majority of guns made today are totally innocent of any engraving, especially those made in America. But that doesn’t mean engraving is becoming a lost art, or that fewer guns are being engraved. For extra cost, the buyer can have a European firearm engraved by an employee of the factory, and the work in most cases is exemplary. And a select group of freelance engravers are doing more engraving on more types of guns for more kinds of shooters than ever before.

Today, you can contract to have some very fine work done that will equal that of the old masters. In my opinion, however, engraving has to be well done, even if it is only a little embellishment, otherwise a gun is better without it.

Undoubtably some of the best engraving I’ve seen was done at well known arms factories in Germany and Austria and by artisans employed by “boutique” Waffenecks, like Jurgen Hensel GmbH at Rothenburg ab Tauber. When I visited Herr Hensel, many years ago he employed five full time engravers whose work was as good as you’d find anywhere.

Factories such as Sauer, Blaser, Mauser, Steyr-Mannlicher, Merkel and Kreighoff all offer beautifully custom engraved guns. Others offer engraving as a standard feature. Sometimes the amount of engraving is so small as to be hardly noticeable, and some times it’s so bad that we are glad to forget it’s there.

Not all decorative patterns on guns are engraved by hand which is a time consuming and hence expensive practice. Many relatively inexpensive makes and models are engraved by an embossing process that stamps or rolls the design into the steel.

This sort of decoration, in my opinion, has a tacky look that cheapens the gun’s overall appearance. A small amount of scrollwork may be acceptable, but game birds that look like a cross between a pelican and a vulture, or game animals that bear little resemblance to the real thing are pretty awful by any standards.

Engraving is also faked by a photo process that etches a pattern into steel. If you don’t look too closely, the designs seem to duplicate real hand engraving. They are pretty authentic looking because the process permits a fairly complex pattern. Some manufacturers even suggest that the work is done by hand.

For guys who want extensive engraving coverage, but are too impatient to wait months or even years for special-order custom work, some pretty good readymade engraving is available on the higher grades of factory guns. These are almost exclusively European guns, but the Japanese are also doing it. Factory engraving is usually offered in no fewer than five grades, not counting Exhibition Grade guns that are more or less one-of-a- kind ingeniious jobs carried out by top craftsmen.

A few American gunmakers like Remington have in-house engravers who will produce all desired patterns and degrees of coverage from standard to full customization, but others farm the work out. By and large, the engraving done in American factories is not as good as the best work done either in European factories or by freelance engravers here and abroad. This not to say that American factory engraving is not good. Almost without exception it is highly competent, tasteful and well executed but too stylized.

Factory engraving offers the advantage that it increases in value seemingly out of all proportion to its artistic merit. This is because of the strong inclination gun collectors have for “factory original” pieces. For example, it is not unusual for a collector of Winchester lever-actions to pay more for an old gun that was originally engaved at the factory over an identical gun with much better The Engraver’s Art Sample of work done by the old Mauser Werke at Oberndorf on a Mauser 66. engraving done by a master freelancer.

In principle, all desired motifs are possible, together with gold, silver or ivory inlays. Monograms are custom crafted by engravers using their own artistic impressions or following your samples or specifications.

Factory engraved guns don’t have to be antiques to command top dollar. Guns made in Europe since World War II often fetch high prices. But there are still some bargains to be found. Top- grade drillings, especially those made in the gunmaking centre of Ferlach, Austria and hand-made by custom makers prior to World War II can be bought for bargain prices on the used gun market.

Probably the best way to get some engraving done on a favourite firearm is to commission an independent engraver, known for his creative designs. Connoisseurs of fine firearms prefer this method because it assures a genuine one-of-a-kind pattern.

In the last, quite a few European engravers immigrated to America, but a few preferred to come to this country despite a lack of opportunities in their chosen craft. Most came from Germany and Austria, and many of the best were trained in gunmaking centres like Ferlach in Austria where they were taught gunsmithing and engraving in local schools. While the trade- school system has turned out competent craftsmen it also has the effect of inculcating a stylized type of engraving that lacks the individual touch. Today’s top engravers usually have studied and trained in several areas and cultivated more flexible styles.

Australia has not been bereft of good engravers. Some of the best are now deceased – Lynton McKenzie, Geoff Wilkins and Jeff Brown – and we have lost Damien Connolly to America. Other well known Aussie engravers who have retired are Phil Vinnicombe and Bruce Dean, but they may still accept the odd job. Doubtless there are other fine artisans I don’t know about and haven’t named. I hope they’ll accept my apologies.

Although there are relatively few independent engravers left in Australia, rather than being a dying art, engraving is still very much alive and well. One exciting new talent in the engraving field is Ron Croxon of Tamworth, NSW who specializes in turning out a truly one-of-a-kind product of the highest quality.

Really good engraving is not cheap, so don’t bother wasting time looking for a bargain. Top engravers are worth every cent of what they charge for their work. If you do manage to find a little-known engraver who’ll work for less, chances are his work will be second rate.

Gun engraving has an intrinsic value more closely related to its quality than whoever did it. To be sure, a firearm engraved by one of the great masters, past or present will increase its value many times over. And the work won’t lose value when the engraver passes on or is forgotten. Engraving on good guns is a sound investment, because they’ll just keep on appreciating in value year after year as the prices of firearms and the engraver’s art keep going up.




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Nick Harvey

The late Nick Harvey (1931-2024) was one of the world's most experienced and knowledgeable gun writers, a true legend of the business. He wrote about firearms and hunting for about 70 years, published many books and uncounted articles, and travelled the world to hunt and shoot. His reloading manuals are highly sought after, and his knowledge of the subject was unmatched. He was Sporting Shooter's Technical Editor for almost 50 years. His work lives on here as part of his legacy to us all.