“Arms engraving and embellishment owes a great debt to that world-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, historian and author
In America, the gun engraver’s craft reached its height in 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, Winchester or Smith & Wesson, as well as engraving handguns, rifles and shotguns for other American arms-makers. Young and Helfricht were originally Colt 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.
The majority of period Single Action reproductions today are accurate representations of the William 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 second- and third-generation Colt Single Actions produced by the Colt 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.
Some time ago, both American and European (Italian) arms-makers 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—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 more. 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 manufacturers 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.
Several years ago, Italian arms-maker Pietta, which has succeeded in building superior out-of-the-box reproductions of Colt Single Action Army models in both the early blackpowder frame style and later (circa 1892) transverse cylinder latch (or smokeless powder frame) versions, started working on a new laser engraving technique. It is technically referred to as “deep laser engraving” which is a highly precise technique developed in Italy by SEI Lasers in Curno, located 25 miles from Milan. The company has developed specialized lasers for, among other specific tasks, deep engraving. Working in conjunction with Pietta, SEI built a bespoke laser system to its particular requirements, capable of engraving barrels, frames and even intricate details such as screw heads. SEI is a seasoned company that lives by its motto, “any traditional application has a laser alternative.” That alternative for Pietta has culminated in the most highly detailed laser-engraved Single Action revolvers ever produced. The difference between traditional laser engraving, which Pietta also uses, is that the deep-laser-engraved guns have the cut depth and fine detail traditionally achieved only with hand engraving techniques.
Depth & Detail
Hand engraving has many variations, some of which depends entirely on the engraver’s style. In creating traditional vine scrollwork, banknote scrolls, punch-dot backgrounds, crosshatch patterns, sunbursts and other details (including animal heads, a tradition established at Colt by Gustave Young and Cuno A. Helfricht), the engraver can use a lighter touch and create very fine lines (such as the work by famous American engraver Winston Churchill), or a more robust “Germanic” style creating the depth representative of work by Young and Nimschke, the most copied 19th century engravers. These are some of the styles used by the Colt Custom Shop today. The deep laser engraving system at Pietta falls somewhere in between, producing patterns that have depth to the cuts, thus creating a high-relief appearance that implies handwork, rather than the flat, two-dimensional effects commonly associated with laser or etched engraving. Is it more costly? Absolutely, but in comparison to hand engraving it is a fraction of the price.
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Among the various new models that will be released by Pietta using the new deep laser engraving technique are the 3½-inch-barreled Sheriff’s Model with a bold vine scroll pattern on the frame barrel and cylinder, accented by diamond and crosshatch details, sunbursts and floral motifs on the frame, hammer and backstrap. The same basic designs are extended and repeated on the 7½-inch-barreled version. In addition, there is a special commemorative 140th Anniversary SAA that will be available in 2015 with engraving patterns based on the Colt 1876 Centennial Exposition display guns, and an engraved version of the 5½-inch-barreled Colt carried by frontier lawman Bat Masterson. The later two are Pietta’s deep-laser-engraved copies of its very exclusive (and expensive) hand-engraved guns done in Italy by Dassa.
Currently, EMF is taking orders for the Pietta-produced Great Western II deep-laser-engraved Sheriffs Model with a retail price of $800. Other deep-laser-engraved models, like the Bat Masterson and 7½-inch-barreled versions, will be available in 2015 as special order items, and orders should be placed in advance directly through Pietta by contacting the company through its website. Suggested retail prices will range from $800 to around $1,250 depending upon the model. In most cases, guns can be shipped within 45 days of an order to one of Pietta’s U.S. retailers, such as EMF or Cimarron. From there they can also be shipped to a local retailer.
All of Pietta’s deep-laser-engraved Single Actions have the same quality fit and finish and tuned actions of the standard models, making them some of the best out-of-the-box sixguns on the market. The average hammer draw on the Pietta engraved models I tested was a modest 3.75 pounds, with those four perceptible clicks that define a quality Colt-style action. The average trigger pull was 3.88 pounds, and this is pretty much a constant average with current Pietta Single Actions, guns worthy of the name originally created by Colt. For more information, visit pietta.us. ✪
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This article originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.