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Grays Best

Art (not) for Art’s Sake

Think of engraving as expensive stove paint.
by Terry Wieland
From the May/June 2006 issue.

 

Firearm engraving is more a subject for a photo essay than a written column, and therein lies the problem: In any discussion of engraving, the viewer is all too likely to become absorbed by its beauty and pay no attention to its utility.

Utility? Yes, utility—because engraving has definite functions beyond decoration or self-indulgence. One is to reduce glare off a shiny surface, and the second is to help retain oil to prevent rust. Forget all the claptrap about “personal totems” and turning your game gun into an expression of your individuality. Essentially, engraving serves the same purpose as a good coat of stove paint.

Bluing does the same things, but in a different way. And I suppose you could say the same about casecoloring, at least in part. W. W. Greener said that engraving served a third purpose: to soften stark lines and ugly joints, and to give the gun a pleasing appearance after the “beauty of newness” was long gone.

Even when Greener wrote The Gun and its Development (beginning in 1881 and continuing, through nine editions, to 1910), engraving as an art form was growing beyond its original purpose and beginning to border on elaborate decadence— hindering, rather than assisting, its original purpose as well as the purpose of the gun itself. Ornate engraving can make a gun fragile or even physically difficult to handle; it can also make the owner afraid to use it for fear of damaging the engraving.

As the game gun was developed and perfected through the late 1800s, each gunmaker adopted certain features and refinements as being distinctly his own. Stephen Grant espoused the side lever, Purdey the triple-bite, Thomas Boss the round-action. Similarly, each had his preferred engraving style. Because every best-quality gun was made to order and most clients had their own ideas, patterns were found anywhere and everywhere. Still, some came to be identified with a particular maker.

Boss-style engraving is unique and recognizable at a glance. By today’s standards, it is understated to the point of obscurity. Although technically “full-coverage” engraving, it consists of islands of scroll surrounding rosettes, with considerable areas of blank steel. The scroll is tiny, tiny, tiny—so small and delicate it demands a magnifying glass. Viewed from a distance, the lines of scroll dissolve into broad brushstrokes that soften yet enhance the Boss’s sensuous round action.

“Sensuous” is not used lightly. A good shotgun, like a good dog, longs to be stroked. It not only looks good; it also feels good when you run your hands over it. Over the years, engraving smoothes out, and this is pleasant to the touch.

Greener points out that, on a new gun, case-hardening provides all the beauty that is needed. As the gun ages, however, the case-colors fade, leaving the steel “dirty white” (his term), at which point you need engraving to keep the gun attractive. Note the term “case-hardening;” many makers today refer to “case colors.” There is a difference. In the former, a process hardens the outer skin of the steel; the colors are incidental. In the latter, the colors are chemically imparted and no hardening takes place. In effect, it’s chemical engraving with no function other than being decorative.

To backtrack for a moment, most shotguns are made of relatively soft steel. A century ago, a gun was shaped by chisel and file, then hardened and tempered to give the desired qualities. Bluing, case-hardening and even engraving all played their parts in this. With the emergence of stainless steel (which is generally nickel steel), all of the above became more difficult. Nickel was originally called devil’s copper (or Old Nick’s copper, hence the name) because it was so difficult to work with. Alloying steel with nickel or chromium may make it “stainless,” but it also makes it much more difficult to shape with a file— and shaping with a file is still the only way to create a “best” gun that will endure for centuries.

After the locks and frame were finished and polished “in the white” by the actioner and lock-maker, they were turned over to the engraver who, working on the soft, buttery steel, could create a work of art with no more than a gentle tapping of the chaser, or even palm-pressure on the bulb of the graver. Only when the engraver finished were the parts sent to be case hardened— baked in a devil’s concoction of charcoal, bits of bone and leather and a tuft of a virgin’s flaxen hair. Every craftsman had his secret formula, with the result that casehardened coloring was as individual as engraving.

Functionally, case hardening introduces carbon into the steel, creating a glass-hard skin that resists scratches and rust. The colors, ranging from deep blue to light straw in rippling waves, eventually wear away; in this case beauty isn’t even skin deep, although the hard skin of carbon steel remains. This was Greener’s point about the “beauty of newness.” Where the steel is engraved, however, the colors are protected in its minute ravines. The unengraved steel around it turns a muted grey, while the engraving remains dark and mysterious. This is one reason why, short of structural damage or serious mutilation, refurbishing the frame of a shotgun is questionable. A gun with a patina acquired through love and use should be allowed to keep it.

Today, with harder steel alloys that require no hardening for corrosion resistance, case colors are imparted using chemical baths. The result is what one might expect.

The world has changed since Greener’s day, and engraving with it. Then, engraving was but a fraction of the expense of a fine gun, but today engraving can cost as much as the gun itself.

Often, prices are quoted “engraving extra,” because who knows what it will cost to send the gun to one of the handful of artistes whose backlogs extend into years. The engraving patterns available beggar belief. Fortunately, few of the guns that leave their studios will ever actually be used in the field, so their magnificent artwork is safe from the ravages of time.

The 1980s saw the beginning of an engraving fad called bulino. Bulino is the art of reproducing pictures of birds and animals using tiny dots, exactly the way photographs were once reproduced in newspapers. The first great practitioners of the art were the Italians, and some of their creations were breathtaking. As bulino gained fans, it filtered down to cheaper and cheaper guns. Two decades later, one comes across these from time to time—and time has not been kind.

The truth is, a bulino-engraved gun will never look as good as the day it comes out of its protective box. Every scratch and bump will deface the engraving until it looks like a flyspecked lithograph in a cheap saloon. At which point a coat of stove paint might not be a bad idea.

Greener again: “The greatest beauty of all is the elegant contour of a well-designed gun.” Nowhere is this truer than in the side-byside game gun, and the purpose of well-integrated engraving is to enhance those lines, not obscure them. With bulino, the gun itself is too often little more than an inconvenient canvas for the engraving, rather than the other way around.

Properly executed, engraving can add to a gun’s beauty no matter how much hard use it receives. Alas, the tiny scrolls that were inexpensive in Greener’s day now cost as much as bulino and gold inlay. Boss-pattern engraving, with its microscopic scrolls, is so difficult and time-consuming that engravers all charge a premium for it—if you can find one to do it at all.

Just this side of Boss-style, however, are the small-scroll patterns routinely found on guns made in England from 1890 to 1914. In the November 2005 issue of Gray’s, there is a photograph of Dick Stephens’ P. Webley boxlock, and it illustrates exactly what I mean.

At my gunmaker’s right now is an E. M. Reilly from the same era. It is being, to a degree, refurbished. Its indescribable French walnut stock is being completely reworked, after decades of use by a gamekeeper who valued the metal but disdained the wood. The gun’s frame, however, blanketed with tiny scrolls on metal that has long lost its case colors, won’t be touched. More than a century of use has given the frame a beauty and character that money couldn’t buy. With alarming regularity, my gunmaker, Edwin von Atzigen, takes out the frame and just gazes at the engraving or fingers the bits and pieces—so intricately made, so commonplace in 1890, so rare, costly or simply nonexistent today.

The scroll engraving—tiny, dark and mysterious, more beautiful now than the day it was executed—is a big part of that, but still only a part. That is what engraving should be.

 

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Spanish Best is one of several books by Terry Wieland. You can find it and other titles by him at Amazon.com.

 
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