It’s not often the owner of a firearm featuring the work of one of the 19th Century master engravers is willing to let it go. It normally happens through some human calamity—death, divorce or financial crisis. No matter the reason when one of these pieces of history does hit the open market, the demand is high and the bidding is frenzied. If you plan on adding a piece of work from a revered engraver such as Gustave Young, Conrad F. Ulrich or Louis Nimschke, you might want to start by making sure you have up to $100K in spare change lying around. If that is a bit rich for your blood, you can always search for a detailed engraving from one of the other wonderful craftsman at an auction. These will likely set you back a mere $15K to $20K.
It is almost hard to comprehend the pittance these artists were paid for their works—typically a fraction of the cost of the gun. Talent alone was not enough. Two to three decades of engraving was common just to be considered a master of your craft. From there, you had to rise above the level of your peers.
Whether the guns distinguished the artist or the artists’ works created the era, the 19th Century is undoubtedly regarded as the golden age of gun engraving. A handful of engravers from this period are distinguished above all others. Any work attributed to one of them will certainly increase the value of the firearm exponentially.
Lightening seldom strikes twice in such close proximity, but it did three times with the Ulrich brothers. Herman Ulrich was a very influential engraver for Winchester. He started in July 1870—after apprenticing under Gustave Young and Herman Bodenstein. His younger brother, John, was hired by Winchester in November 1868 initially as an assembler not an engraver. Herman’s older brother, Conrad, was also hired by Winchester in 1870. Of the three brothers, Herman was arguably the better engraver, but Conrad was also very talented. John—who for unknown reasons is the most well known—would be argued by many as the least talented of the three, but head and shoulders above other engravers.
Gustave Young was Colt’s primary engraver in the 1850s to 1870s, and later engraved for Smith & Wesson during the 1870s to 1890s. To say Gustave was the Picasso of gun engraving would almost be an understatement. Young did not always sign his work, but generally if he did it could be found where the base of the gun meets the handle.
Another cool tip from Kevin Hogan of Rock Island Auction Company was to look at the hammer on a Gustav Young engraved pistol. Gustav would mark the hammer with a dot for each day he worked on a gun. It is important to note that this wasn’t a 9 to 5 job. A full day’s work for an engraver was 10 hours. When visiting RIAC during one of its premier auctions, I was treated with a personal showing of Colonel Colt’s Honeymoon 1851 Navy Revolver, Gustave Young engraved gun. In addition to the documentation where Gustav cites working for seven days, four hours on the gun, there were the seven dots on the hammer, which is the highest number noted on any of Gustave’s works.
Louis D. Nimschke
Louis D. Nimschke, based in New York, was a prolific engraver from 1850 to 1900. He worked independently and engraved for Colt, Winchester, Remington, Spencer and more than 100 other different gun makers. It’s estimated he engraved 5,000 guns in his lifetime. He signed his engraving on long arms about 85 percent of the time, but he rarely signed revolvers.
Notes On Engraving
Many modern engravers have attempted to imitate the master engravers of the golden era, but experts can tell the difference. It takes more than a gun from the proper era and a talented engraver using tools of the period. Those can be obtained, but the final product will still lack the inspiration, detail and creativity that elevated the masters from the other engravers in the shop.
Beyond the beauty, firearm engraving served other more useful purposes. The very nature of the engraving retained more oil, which guarded against rust. The engraving also breaks up the flat, high-reflective surface. The contoured surface is then able to reflect small amounts of light in several directions, reducing the overall perceived reflection of the gun.
When buying an engraved gun it is important to remember that as beautiful as the engravings are, the guns were engraved with the intention of being handled. Although in practice very few were seldom carried on a regular basis except by the most flamboyant of characters. As a result, wear is to be expected and some believe that it adds significant character as well.