Modern Masterpieces: History of engraving belongs to the Italians as much as any other country - 1/4
By S.P. Fjestad and Dennis Adler
One might think that Italy would be the last place to go for authentic 19th century Colt engraving, but that’s because most Americans have not heard about the Dassa Brothers!!
Sergio and Mauro Dassa grew up watching westerns, just two typical brothers who enjoyed the movies, the horses, gunplay and grandeur of the American West, only they were watching them in Italian! When the Dassa boys grew up in northern Italy, they were (and remain) huge fans of the American West and the timeless, legendary folklore that surrounds it.
Many of Mauro’s best memories while he was growing up were of him and younger brother Sergio playing Cowboys and Indians.
“Sergio and I often watched American Cowboy Western movies in the evening and we played Indians and Cowboys with our friends during the day, after school. We pretended we were Cowboys on horses. We wore hats and boots and we made a noise similar to the noise of spurs. We spread talcum powder around to create the effect of dust. We held poker cards and cups full of orange juice as if it was whisky. It was fantastic! When the carnival parade came (last Tuesday before the beginning of Lent), we would dress up like cowboys or sheriffs, cut sheriff stars out of cardboard or foil."
Engraving firearms has been an art form in Italy for over 500 years. In the 19th century master engravers worked on Colt, Remingtons, and other firearms just as the Dassa brothers do today. (Colt style grips by Lewis Ezsak/Cowboy Emporium)
“The movies we watched the most and ‘re-enacted’ were’ ‘C'era una volta il West’ (Once Upon a Time in the West) , ‘Per Qualche dollaro in più’ (For a Few Dollars More), ‘Il Buono, Il Brutto il Cattivo’ (The Good, The Bad, The Ugly), ‘Per un pugno di Dollari’ (A Fistful of Dollars), ‘Giu La Testa’ (A Fistful of Dynamite), and many more by Sergio Leone with extraordinary actors like John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Clint Eastwood, Terence Hill, Paul Newman, Jimmy Stewart, etc.”
The American West was in their blood.
Sergio and Mauro were the sons of an engraver, and in Italy, most often, engraving is a generational endeavor, with sons and daughters following in their parents footsteps.
With the Dassa brothers this was inevitable as their fascination with the Old West would inspire them not only to become engravers in the Italian tradition, but to expand beyond their training in the traditional arts and study and incorporate the designs of famous American engravers like Gustave Young, Louis Daniel Nimschke, and Cuno A.
Helfricht, who created some of the finest engraved Colt, Winchester, and S&W firearms of the 19th century.
A significant factor in the success of Incisioni Dassa s.n.c., which Mauro started in 1986, in Collebeato, just north of Brescia, is that the brothers engrave handguns, mostly revolvers, on a regular basis.
Most of the other engravers in the Valley have not and will not engrave handguns.
Why? The customers who enjoy and can afford the highest level of quality and coverage the engraving profession can offer typically purchase top-of-the-line trademark sporting long arms – mostly side-by-side and over and under shotguns and rifles. These firearms offer a larger “steel canvas” for the engravers to showcase their talents, and also command a higher price tag – think $25,000 - $75,000 at the upper end.
The Civil War was a watershed period for arms engraving with deluxe examples of Colt, Remington and other makes being presented to officers either by the various makers or individuals. Shown are a Starr single action, Colt 1851 Navy, Colt 1860 Army and Remington New Model Army engraved by Dassa
Mauro began engraving at age 16 while attending the Caravaggio Art Institute in Brescia, and under the careful supervision of his father.
Mauro continued to improve his drawing skills in school, while also developing critical experience on a range of engraving techniques – everything from fine chiseled English scrollwork to delicate ultra-detailed bulino game scenes using a small burin to produce the lines and dots.
Today, Dassa brothers are recognized in Italy for profusely engraved shotguns and rifles, but unlike other engraves they also understand the importance of the six-shooter and why it retains its iconic status for both American and international customers.
Sergio and Mauro found kindred spirits in Alessandro and Alberto Pietta, also second generation Italian armsmakers, and with their shared passion for the American West, began a collaboration that has resulted in some of the most impressive hand engraved western handguns of recent time. Some of the company’s newest creations, pictured in this article, are the most historic and elaborate to date.
“The American Western movies have made a difference for sure,” says Mauro, “especially after we met the Piettas and had an opportunity to work on their replica guns. While we engrave Pietta Western pieces, we think about our childhood and we listen to music from famous Western movies, musical masterpieces by Ennio Morricone and others….”
It is their inspiration, along with historic works from 19th and 20th century American and European engravers, their father, Alessando Dassa, among them.
One of the generation of post-WWII Italian engravers, Alessandro Dassa performed contract engraving for Franchi, Bernardelli, Perazzi, Beretta, and others after establishing his own atelier in 1945.
He was also instrumental in creating a painting technique using colorful enamel paints to adorn select long guns. His sons have followed in their father’s footsteps.
There are two current hand-engraved Remington models from Pietta by Dassa, both based on original Civil War era presentation guns. The Nickel and Gold example is based on a presentation revolver given to Maj. Gen. George Meade sometime after his victory at Gettysburg. The original shown was fitted with caved ivory grips and a silver dedication cartouche. (photo courtesy Rock Island Auction Co.)
This article continues in the next issue of the editorial Pietta ...