Originally published in Insights, NRA’s magazine for young shooters.
What in the world could make a gun worth more than a new car? Or more than a new house for that matter? In most cases, when a gun is hammered “sold” for five or six figures at one of the high-end auction houses, part of the answer is “engraving.”
If that’s the case, how come that engraved commemorative you saw at the last gun show was offered for less than a standard model? To explain this situation, let’s take a look at the history of firearms engraving, and the market for old and new engraved guns today.
Origins of Engraving
The origin of decorated arms is lost in the mists of pre-history. The role of man’s earliest weapons in providing food and ensuring his survival made them some of the earliest and most important tools. The impulse to decorate and personalize them must have accounted for some of humankind’s first artistic endeavors.
As societies and technology evolved, the bond between art and arms logically continued. Whether for king or tribal chieftain, weaponry represented the means to acquire and hold political power, and the enhancement of these to suit the status of the owner was a given.
What are a scepter and crown, if not vestigial arm and armor?
Whatever the origins, by the time the first firearms were developed, the tradition of decorating arms had long been established. The earliest matchlocks were mostly more or less issue military tools, and hence not often decorated.
However as wheellocks and then flintlocks evolved, some of the best artistic efforts of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were applied to them. A strong firearms engraving tradition grew in Europe, with German, French and British styles evolving. The French engraved arms of the Louis XIII and XIV era are still justly famous as masterpieces.
Before the industrial revolution and efficient mass production using interchangeable parts, each gun was hand made individually. During this flintlock and early percussion era, the vast majority of firearms included some sort of decoration. Usually this took the form of engraving designs, patterns, or images directly on the metal of the lock, barrel and hardware, along with carving and possibly inlaying the wood of the stock.
Only military-issue weapons of the era tended to lack this type of embellishment, and even these can often be found with an individuals’ initials carved into the stock or scratched into the metal, probably during the long nights encamped.
In America of the 1800’s the production of firearms represented the cutting edge of evolving technology and art. As Eli Whitney introduced mass production techniques, Whitney firearms were among the first products so made.
When Samuel Colt introduced the first perfected repeating firearms, his percussion revolvers, he also continued the tradition of decorated arms by rolling various scenes onto the cylinders, including a dragoon battle, a naval engagement and a stagecoach holdup on various models.
In addition to these standard mass produced scenes, Colt also offered individually engraved pieces, either custom ordered or made by Colt for presentation to prominent individuals to promote the firm’s wares.
The second half of the 19th century, from just before the Civil War to the turn of the century, is considered the “Golden Age” of firearms engraving. During this period, nearly all the major gun manufacturers offered fancy engraved firearms for their well-heeled or more discerning customers, with Colt, Winchester, and Smith & Wesson particularly using the services of the great master engravers of the era.
This is when the distinctly American style of engraving came into it’s own. It evolved from the Germanic vine scroll style brought to this country by the great masters of the era— Louis D. Nimschke, Gustave Young (Jung), and Conrad Ulrich.
The style incorporated larger, more flowing scrollwork and came to be most associated with Nimschke. Today, it is often called “Nimschke style” or “New York style” engraving. The next generation of great engravers included the sons of Young, the sons and grandsons of Ulrich, and Cuno Helfricht, along with many other master engravers.
Some of the driving forces behind this artistic explosion were the practice of giving “presentation” arms, and the great national and international expositions of the era.
During and after the Civil War, it was customary to express appreciation to civic or military leaders, or to a valued business associate or loved family member, by giving a specially prepared firearm. While this often involved a simple inscription of the recipient’s and possibly giver’s names, it sometimes included extensive decoration.
The great expositions were “fairs” where various manufacturers would display their wares, and the arms makers vied with each other to produce the most strikingly eye-catching artworks.
Firearms engraving declined during the first half of the 20th century, although it was kept alive by such great engravers as R.J. Kornbrath. However, the years following WWII saw a resurgence of the interest in engraving—both contemporary work and collectible classic firearms art.
In the 1960’s and 70’s, there was a trend of mass-produced decorated firearms, probably most notably the many “commemoratives” marketed by Colt and Winchester.
Rather than individual hand-crafted pieces, thousands of identically decorated guns would be sold commemorating an individual, event, or even a general “concept”, such as “Antlered Game.” During this period, various organizations such as Ducks Unlimited or various law enforcement agencies would also commission special limited runs of mass produced decorated firearms.
The 80’s and 90’s saw a resurgence of truly exceptional engraving work. The custom departments at Smith & Wesson and Colt, along with several gifted engravers in America and Europe are currently producing pieces that rival and possibly surpass the “Golden Age” masterpieces.
Engraved Firearms Today
Given this rich history, and the undeniable timeless appeal of decorated arms, how does one establish a value for an engraved gun? Let’s take a look at some of the choices.
These tend to be valued for their scarcity as collectibles or for their general eye appeal. If individual hand-engraved guns are considered and evaluated as unique works of art, these mass produced pieces are perhaps more similar to limited edition prints of artwork or other items intentionally made to be collectibles, such as limited edition Christmas ornaments.
The various price guides such as Blue Book of Gun Values or Standard Catalog of Firearms provide a good indication of the retail price of these arms. Generally, the fewer produced, the older the commemorative, and the more attractive the decoration, the greater the value.
To command close to full “book” value, a commemorative type arm must be in “new in the box” condition—definitely unfired and preferably without the action having ever been worked. (Due to manufacturing tolerances, such actions as rotating the cylinder of a revolver or working the lever of a rifle can create minute scratches in the finish that will reduce the desirability of a collectible commemorative).
Once a commemorative has been fired, it’s value begins to rapidly decline towards that of a standard non-decorated example of the same model. A commemorative that shows extensive wear often actually brings less than a plain model with similar wear.
Although the interest in commemoratives declined in the 1970’s and 1980’s, probably due to over-production, the market shows some signs of renewed interest.
A gun which has no decoration other than an individual’s name or other inscription may bring more or less than a similar gun without any special marking. There are two factors that determine the value: historical significance and authenticity.
Of these, authenticity of the inscription makes or breaks the value of the piece. Unfortunately, out-and-out fraudulent inscribed guns are not that uncommon. Often, the documentation accompanying the piece and providing some “provenance” of the authenticity of the inscription is a deciding factor.
Once determined to be authentic, the premium an inscribed piece brings is determined by it’s historical significance. As can be imagined, a modern gun that just has “someone else’s name” on it is generally less desirable than a plain one, and may be worth less because of the inscription. On the other hand, authentic inscribed guns which can be proven to have been owned by a famous individual can bring astronomical prices for the history they embody.
Any authentic inscription over 100 years old generally adds some interest and value to a gun.
Modern Engraved Guns
Engraved firearms have to be evaluated as individual works of art. Some of the factors considered include skill of workmanship, extent of coverage, artistic appeal, and uniqueness. Factory engraving brings a premium over engraving of unknown origin. Sparse coverage brings less-than-full -value.
For example, S&W offers three standard levels of engraving:
- “C” is 1/3 coverage, with recent pricing ranging in the $800 to $1250 range, depending on the size of the gun (this is the engraving charge, which does not include the base price of the gun)
- “B” engraving is 2/3 coverage and runs in the $1300 to $1500 range
- Full coverage “A” engraving runs around $1,400 to $1,900.
Colt’s custom engraving runs the other way: “A” engraving is the least coverage, running up to “D” grade full coverage.
Colt also offers varying qualities of engraving:- Standard, Expert, and Master. According to Blue Book of Gun Values, recent pricing for top of the line “Master” grade engraving, signed by the master engraver, on a Colt Single-Action Army was:
- $1,163 for A
- 2,324 for B; $3,487 for C
- $4,647 for D
These values are for standard scrollwork patterns. Special jobs requiring artistic talent in the development of a unique design can run considerably more.
A major determining factor on non-factory engraved guns is the reputation and skill of the engraver. As with other artists, the acknowledged masters of the form bring substantial premiums over unknown engravers. When dealing with an unknown engraver, the quality of the work determines value. Finest engraving is always done with hand tools—chisel and hammer. Crudely done engraving can actually lessen the value of a firearm.
Older engraving is valued in a similar way to modern engraving—the artistic quality, extent of coverage, and the reputation of the engraver are most important. However, most 19th century engraving was not signed by the engraver, and attribution to a particular hand is much more art than science, and that art mastered by only a few.
Fortunately, factory records for firms such as Winchester, Colt, and S&W are intact and originality of engraving on a particular serial numbered gun can often be determined by a search of the records.
On the other hand, much 19th century engraving was ordered by the distributors, such as giant M.W. Robinson, rather than the manufacturers. Sometimes, a factory notation that a gun was shipped to a distributor “soft” or “in the white” indicates the gun was intended to be engraved.
Some of the finest engraved guns were commissioned by distributors or even individual owners. When considering paying a premium for old engraving, it’s a good idea to get an expert opinion on the authenticity and quality.
Ultimately, it comes down to individual taste. Most shooters and firearms enthusiasts find that, sooner or later, they get the hankering for a “fancy” gun. Even individuals who may not be interested in guns can appreciate the artistry of a beautifully engraved guns.
The recently published book Steel Canvas by R. L. Wilson features an outstanding and interesting discussion of arms engraving along with beautiful photographs of some of the finest firearms ever made.
Earlier works by the same author include Winchester Engraving, Colt Engraving, and Nimschke’s pattern book published as L.D. Nimschke, Firearms Engraver.
Firearms Engraving as Decorative Art by Frederic Harris provides an interesting discussion of the origins of engraving motif’s in oriental art, along with a theory of identifying individual engravers by a detailed study of their cutting style.