by Dennis Adler
“Arms engraving and embellishment owes a great debt to thatworld-famed and near-legendary pioneer in repeating firearms and mass production, Samuel Colt.
No individual had a more profound impact on arms engraving in 19th century America.”
—R.L. Wilson, Arms Historian and author
In America, the gun engraver’s craft reached its height throughout the 19th century with the engraving artistry of masters such as Gustave Young, Louis Daniel Nimschke, and Cuno A. Helfricht. At one time or another they either worked for Colt’s, Winchester or Smith & Wesson, as well as engraving handguns, rifles and shotguns for other American armsmakers.
Young and Helfricht were originally Colt’s factory engravers, and along with New York City engraver L.D. Nimschke, established the majority of engraving patterns used on Colt pistols throughout the mid 19th century. It came as no surprise then, that when reproductions of legendary 19th century firearms came into popularity in the mid 20th century, so too did the art of reproducing their engraving styles.
Engraving the Colt Peacemaker
The majority of period Single Action reproductions today are accurate representations of the Wm. Mason designed Colt Peacemaker, introduced in 1873. To get the same quality and style of engraving that graced the original 19th century guns, or even 2nd and 3rd Generation Colt Single Actions produced by the Colt’s Custom Shop, one needs to find a qualified engraver, such as Conrad Anderson (famous for the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Happy Trails Children’s Foundation Silver Screen Legend Colts), Andrew Bourbon (who apprenticed under the legendary A.A. White), or Adams & Adams, which have done many guns for the Colt Custom Shop and private individuals over the years. That, however, is always a costly proposition.
Advent of laser engraving
Some time ago both American and European (Italian) armsmakers began embracing a new technology, laser engraving. The visual effect was somewhat similar to acid etching in appearance, but done in a style more akin to hand engraved vine scrolls, and border work around frames, recoil shields and muzzles. It was an effective alternative, but laser engraving, unless embellished with gold (as is done by companies like Baron Technology for America Remembers) lacks depth, although laser engraving can produce some very striking results when multiple shades of gold and silver are used.
Etching is also still used today for firearms, so both techniques remain very affordable alternatives. Traditional laser engraving, however, is missing the all important edges that hand engraving with a chisel creates, it is the first and most important feature that separates an affordably-priced laser engraved gun (averaging $100 more than the cost of a plain gun) from hand engraved guns where the cost can run anywhere from $500 to several thousand.
When hand engraving is done on an authentic Colt firearm the investment is often rewarded with commensurately increased value or a value that is even greater depending upon the engraver. Some manufactures also use laser engraving as a starting point and have an engraver add a punch dot background to create more depth, while others have an engraver chase the laser pattern to create added detail. Colt Blackpowder Arms’ 3rd. Generation guns were occasionally done this way, like the Custer 1861 Navy commemorative.
That gun had a retail of $1,295.
Continue to follow us in the next article with the evolution of laser engraving on weapon!