As far back as the late 1580s, engravers were embellishing firearms. Wheellock pistols and muskets were among the very first, each unique to the craftsman who engraved them. But by the mid to late 1600s, engravers were beginning to record their work in pattern books. As noted by historian R.L. Wilson in Steel Canvas, “In 1684 French engraver Claude Simonin published a book of his engraving patterns comprised of designs that could be adapted to deluxe flintlock firearms, thus allowing engravers the advantage of sources to copy.” The pattern books of 19th century engravers, particularly the works of Gustave Young and Louis Daniel Nimschke, have long been the source of designs for 20th and 21st century engravers, as have the guns themselves.
Within the world of firearms engraving, there are some constants in the established patterns used by the vast majority of engravers: foliate designs, scrollwork of various sizes, the popular banknote scroll, the classic French fleur de lis motif, barrel bands (also referred to by engravers as “wedding bands”) and, of course, the use of animal heads and animals, often hunting dogs, which can be traced back to the 1600s. Though many of these design motifs were well established in the 1700s, it was Gustave Young, Samuel Colt’s first master factory engraver, who brought so much of it together in his early presentation Colt revolvers. Young remained at Colt from 1852 to 1871, when he left to establish his own shop in Springfield, Massachusetts. His replacement was Cuno A. Helfricht, the son of Colt stock-maker and engraver Charles J. Helfricht. His work advanced the designs forged by Young, and along with his own variations and patterns, he remained in charge of Colt’s engraving department for a remarkable 50 years!
There are more Helfricht-engraved Colts today than any other. Of course, neither Young nor Helfricht worked alone; they had family members. Young had his sons, Eugene and Oscar, along with a staff of journeyman engravers and assistants. Colt, along with other arms-makers like Smith & Wesson, Remington and Winchester (which had its own in-house engraving department run by the Ulrich family), also used the services of independent engravers like New York’s renowned Louis Daniel Nimschke. The Nimschke shop established what is known as the New York style of engraving, which was famously sold through Schulyer, Hartley & Graham, Tiffany & Company and other prominent 19th century retailers. The Nimschke pattern books are regarded as among the most influential today.
All of the guns pictured in this article are recent—“recent” meaning within the last quarter century. They are reproductions of classic Colt, Remington and Smith & Wesson revolvers that have been period engraved in the styles of Young, Nimschke and Helfricht. Original guns bearing their work have increased so much in value over the last 150 years that today most can only be found in the collections of major firearms museums like the Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles, California, the Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, in Cody, Wyoming, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and in private collections. Every year, a handful come up at auctions and disappear again into private collections. For the rest of the world, owning a fine quality reproduction of these legendary engraved arms, some costing from $5,000 to $10,000 or more, can be no finer compliment to the works of the 19th century masters.
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Over the past 18 years, many of the finest reproductions of famous Colt, Remington and S&W revolvers have been engraved by a small circle of craftsmen specializing in the classic styles, including John J. Adams, Sr., and John J. Adams, Jr., of Adams & Adams; Andrew Bourbon and his mentor, the late Alvin A. White of A.A. White Engraving; the legendary Ken Hurst; and respected craftsmen like Conrad Anderson (famous for the Happy Tails Children’s Foundation’s Silver Screen Legend series of guns) and noted Massachusetts engraver John K. Pease, among others. Adams & Adams, Hurst and Bourbon have also all worked at various times for the Colt Custom Shop, producing some of the finest work to come from that historic institution. Adams & Adams and John Pease have also worked for Smith & Wesson, Pease being an in-house engraver in 2005 as well as doing work for S&W since 1995.
Several of the western guns pictured in this article have also been featured in books. The second-generation Colt Third Model Dragoon engraved by A.A. White was shown in R.L. Wilson’s The Colt Engraving Book Vol. 2 (2003). The John J. Adams, Sr., 7½-inch-barreled Colt SAA was on the cover of my book, Colt: 175 Years (2012), and the Tiffany & Co. 1860 Army pair by Andrew Bourbon has been in R.L. Wilson’s Fine Colts (1999) as well as my own Colt Single Action: From Patersons to Peacemakers (2007). Why these guns and so many others have become noteworthy is not for the guns themselves, though they are significant in their own right, but rather for the men who engraved them and turned cold steel into an artistic masterpiece.
Over the decades since Colt began remanufacturing models from the 19th century and continuing its production of the 1873 Peacemaker, thousands of extraordinary hand-engraved guns have been produced. Many of the finest were done by contemporary artisans such as Alvin A. White, Andrew Bourbon, Winston Churchill, Howard Dove, John J. Adams, Sr. (who first started to work full time for Colt as a freelance engraver in 1976), Ken Hurst, George Spring, Denise Thirion, Leonard Francolini and K.C. Hunt, among others. Today, their early works can command almost as much as some 19th and early 20th century originals!
There is one other constant to be mentioned in the history of firearms en-graving: the timeless desire of collectors and arms enthusiasts to own something unique. Call it functional fine art, and no other implement of mankind better fits that description than an engraved gun.
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In the 21st century, 19th century Colts, Remingtons and other historic American arms are still being engraved in the same styles and in the same way as they were more than 150 years ago. When it comes to hand engraving, very little has changed since Gustave Young and L.D. Nimschke picked up their tools and began carving into metal. Thanks to the artisans who continue this time-honored practice, the guns of the Old West, the famous men who created them and the historic figures who put them to use remain a truly American heritage.
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Adams & Adams
Colt Custom Shop
John K. Pease Engraving
This article originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.