retire. You just get better. You might get crippled; blind, but you
never retire. . . "
with Jim Downing by Mimi Altree for the book "The Cowboy Way"
The first thing I noticed about Jim
Downing was his mustache.
It's magnificent. It's enormous. Wrought iron-black with jaunty curled
ends. Looks like you could hang a pair of cast iron skillets from each
side. But the impact of his "stache" didn't last long once I got a
at the gun he was working on. He was scratching up the backstrap,
out a delicate "Bank Note" design. In fact, every metal surface was
with that intricate scrolling. With the skill of a medieval scribe, he
flew across the surface, using a chisel instead of pen to create his
world of swirling lines. As he worked, he stopped to chat, patiently
the inevitable questions that come to a man who does such amazing work.
And as he talked to passers by, and showed them the pieces displayed on
his table, he shared more than just the beauty of the gun. He shared
them a lost art, giving them a window into the past where a gun was a
reflection of the man who carried it.
Q: YOU DRAW A PRETTY BIG CROWD.
Most folks have never seen engraving done. There
only a few dozen, or maybe a hundred guys who still engrave.
nobody does it in public. There are a few of us who are outgoing. We
mind engraving in public. For me, it's a way to get people involved.
they see it done, their reaction is "Wow! I always wondered how you
did that." When I sit out here and actually cut, it gets
involved, so I don't even have to do a sales pitch. They understand the
time invested in this kind of work. I love to talk and have a good time
as much as I love to cut, so I do a combination of the two.
Q: SO WHAT EXACTLY IS ENGRAVING?
It's the art of cutting metal with a chisel,
a rotary tool or by using acid etching, or the laser process . . Even
they might call those engraving, they're actually etching. A lot of
guns these days have what they call an "engraving" on them, but they're
actually photo etched. That makes the engraving flat and dull, it has
shape or style, let alone any uniqueness, because they're one of a
copies. Engraving is done with a sharp chisel so that you get a
cut. Both sides reflect light and that's what gives the engraving its
Q: HOW OLD IS THE PROCESS?
Engraving has been done for centuries, since
using metal. In the 1880s, which is the period that we're all into,
was expensive. In reality, these Colt 45s that we're all wearing on our
hips were luxuries. Most people back then wouldn't dream of having
guns. They would have had a cheap little pocket pistol that they got in
a keg of flour. That was really the gun that won the west. 45's were
to eighteen dollars, which was a whole lot of money back then. When you
throw in the extra six to eight bucks to have it engraved, that's a
income for somebody! But, anybody who was proud of their gun - lawmen,
gunfighters, store-keepers, merchants or the upper class of the period,
quite often, would have had engraved guns.
Q: WHERE DID MOST OF THE ENGRAVING
Colt and Winchester did most of the engraving at
factories. Very few engravers back then were "after market" as I am.
factory was very departmental. Everything was controlled within their
Factory engravers did things the "Colt" way or the "Winchester" way,
got paid next to nothing for standard designs, "A, B, or C." But then
factory might have one or two really good guys, master engravers, who
do the presentation pieces. They'd do a gun that was given to the
of State, or Secretary of War, or a foreign Potentate. That master
would be capable of doing very unique work. Animals, fantasy, naked
or whatever that foreign potentate was "in" to. He might do the
part, the scene, and then hand it off to a secondary engraver to do the
scroll. In the factory system you could do that.
Q: WHO WAS THE BEST ENGRAVER?
The guy who broke that factory tradition was L.
He's my personal hero. He was from Germany, which was where most of the
engravers were from. He was in it for himself, his own boss. He worked
for factories on a job by job basis. Nimschke was an engraver in
New York, and did incredible work. He was capable of doing very ornate
stuff, yet he was also a businessman, a practical man, so he also did
that normal people could afford. He engraved not only guns, but also
doorplates for merchants, anything metal that you'd want to
The major gun manufacturers would bring him the really special orders,
a presentation piece for the President, that sort of thing. Nimschke
work according to the factory mold. He had his own style and it was
The guy was a natural talent.
The Urichs were a family of engravers
who worked for
Winchester for many years, actually for several generations. Some of
were good; some were bad and just living off grandpa’s name. Factory
has fallen apart since the 50s and 60s, for business reasons. Now when
the factories do engraving, they typically "job it out". Unfortunately,
that was profitable for the first 15-20 years, but who's training the
Q: WHO IS TRAINING THEM?
Hardly anybody. I teach novice engravers because,
I was trying to learn 20 years ago, there were so few people out there
who taught. Tilden Swenson from Little Rock finally ended up spending
weeks with me after I had been engraving for a couple of years. He took
two years of my "scratching" and turned it into "engraving." You can
a lot on your own over 50 years or you can have a great teacher that
teach you their experiences and you can learn from their mistakes. He
away ten or twelve years ago. Since then I've been teaching. It was
of an impromptu thing at first. Actually, this public engraving allows
me to teach a few of the basics and, of course, every time you teach
basics, you reinforce it for yourself.
Q: WHAT ABOUT MODERN ENGRAVING?
Modern engraving? Modern guns are pretty ugly.
machines that go "BANG." In the old days, guns were different. They
styled with form and grace. They had pleasing shapes about them.
really lends its self to cowboy guns. We all have a Ruger Vaquero, a
or whatever. The gun is one of a million. Engrave it, and it's one of a
kind. That's why Cowboy shooting has been so good to engravers. As for
myself, I can't shoot for squat. But if I can't shoot, at least I can
good. This is something that people can afford. And it sets your gun
from everyone else's. Engraving adds to the beauty and value of the
If people can give me an idea for a design, I can do it, but I really
to do the designs that come from the 1880s. Over the years I've
my own style that has the same (old west) look about it.
Q: TELL ME ABOUT THE GERMAN INFLUENCE
IN TRADITIONAL AMERICAN
Germanic scroll is more realistic, I guess.
stuff from the early 1800's is more elaborate. Take an old movie
theater that has the plaster scrollwork around the stage, the Germans
take that scroll and actually do it in metal. They were really good at
making two-dimensional scroll look three-dimensional. In Europe the
people who could afford a really nice engraved gun were the Lords of
Manor. They'd have an engraver working exclusively for them who would
one gun a year. It would be a really elaborate piece. They worked
on that one gun for the whole year, and the Lord of the land would
them and their families in exchange. But when they worked out in the
world, they had to simplify it a little. Nimschke and other engravers
to America and had to make a living. They simplified the scroll so they
could do a gun in a matter of days or weeks. You still had the
of the rich design, but less detail and shape. Still beautiful, all the
way around, but it took less time. They took the Germanic scroll and
it to make it what we see today as American scroll. The English do
called "Bank Note." It's a much tighter scroll. It looks more like a
shell cut down the middle. They're still doing that. All that to say
there are several distinct styles of scroll. But to do it affordably,
have to simplify, and get one scroll under your belt so that you do it
well and quickly.
Q: WHAT KIND OF TOOL DO YOU USE?
I’m a “chaser." That's a guy that uses a hammer
That's the way it’s been done for a thousand years. But, when they came
out with tools like this Gravermeister, we got a "power assist." It's a
hand tool; used as a chisel, only it's a little more powerful yet
so you get a sharper, cleaner cut. It’s been around quite a while.
over forty years. Several generations of engravers have used it. It's a
good tool, and I like the convenience of it. It's like this…if you have
a carpenter that's making a cabinet and he is hand sawing all his
instead of using a power saw, he's going to go much more slowly. He's a
skilled carpenter either way, but his work is made more economical by
use of modem tools. Sewing is the same thing. When that treadle machine
came out in 1890, it was the most popular item sold in the Sears
Suddenly it was faster and cheaper to make clothes. Innovations come
With the Gravermeister I am free-hand engraving with the extra power to
cut modern steel.
Q: THERE'S A LOT OF FOLKS DROPPING OFF
That's a good thing. I make a living at this. I'm
of the few that do. Most engravers, now and in the past, either work
a living, or have a retirement income and engrave on the side. Most
don't do sixty guns, hundreds of backstraps and dozens of knives a year
as I do. Most just do a few guns a year, no pressure, no hassle. I do
for a living, so I must do it all the time. At the shoots, I'll work
or more hours a day. A backstrap takes me about an hour. At home I
about a gun week. I engrave almost every day. It's physically tough on
your body, which is why there are so few engravers. Also, to learn to
you have to do it all the time. It's not just a hobby that you can pick
up when the mood strikes you. You have to jump in with two feet and
on it for quite a few years just to become proficient at it, let alone
good. It takes about twenty years for you to be good. And a lifetime to
be pretty darned good, and then you die. Engravers don't retire. You
get better. You might get crippled or blind, but you don't ever retire.
I see myself doing this when I'm seventy.
Q: WHAT KIND OF PEOPLE LIKE ENGRAVING?
All kinds folks can appreciate engraving. They
love the art or the history of the engraved gun. Even though this crowd
of cowboys looks kind of rough, they're, in general, wonderful people.
You go to the Northeast, or the Southwest, and you meet the same kind
people. Most of these guys are professionals. Well spoken, well
and they have some disposable income. This is not a cheap sport.
The engraving really goes well with Cowboy guns and shooting. I've been
engraving since 1979, been doing western action shooting for ten years.
In the past five years, the sport has really come on the scene, and
a shoot almost every other weekend where I can set up shop. Meeting the
people means a whole lot to me, guns are a personal thing. These guys
just mail their gun to somebody who takes out an ad in the back of
Digest. I can advertise all I want, but unless they trust you, they
giving up their gun. They meet you. They see your work. They build a
with you and learn to trust you.
Q: THEN THEY LET YOU HAVE THEIR GUNS...
Usually it starts with the backstrap. That's
only about fifty-five bucks. Then they come back and they're kind of
about another part, maybe the whole gun. They might want to do their
action and shotgun to match. The average gun engraving that I cut only
costs six to eight hundred dollars, much more affordable than most
think. Many cowboys meet me at shoots all over the country and then get
a hold of me through my web site -www.thegunengraver.com to have more
done. I love it, they enjoy it and appreciate it and keep coming back
more, so I must be doing something right.