By Rich Grozik
Firearms engraving has a long and fascinating history. For centuries gunmakers, whether in Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Belgium, Spain or the US, have embellished the steel on their shotguns, rifles and handguns. Hand-engraved rose & scroll, bank-note game scenes, cutaway scroll, deep-relief oak leaves, arabesque, acanthus and other motifs have turned cold steel into compelling works of art.
Photographs Courtesy of William Gamradt
In the US during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, Colt, Smith & Wesson, Parker, L.C. Smith, Fox, Winchester and other gunmakers kept their custom shops busy turning out ornately engraved firearms. At the same time in the UK, Purdey, Holland & Holland, Boss, Westley Richards and other London and Birmingham makers were crafting lavishly engraved and gold-inlaid arms fit for a king.
But what is past is also prologue. Today, whether a sportsman seeks to refresh or upgrade the engraving on a favorite game gun or pursue a project gun engraved to personal tastes, there are master engravers across the US who can do the work.
After years of procrastination, I decided that my 112-year-old Joseph Lang & Son game gun—the engraving on the bottom of its receiver having gotten corrupted at some point—was in need of a prudent facelift. With a little searching, I was fortunate to find master engraver William (Bill) Gamradt in Missoula, Montana, just a couple hours drive from my home. When I perused Bill’s website and viewed samples of his engraving restoration work along with photos of his stunning one-off master works, I knew my treasured Lang would be in very good hands. Bill and I talked on the phone and arranged a time to meet.
When I arrived at his home a few weeks later, Bill invited me up to his studio/workshop. Surrounded by easels filled with Bill’s beautiful wildlife paintings, I laid my Lang on the workbench for evaluation. After carefully studying the scroll engraving on the sidelocks, Bill focused on the pitted and worn engraving on the bottom right side of the receiver. There was a long pause before he spoke. “The metal will tell me how far I can go with this,” he said. “If it is soft enough, I think I will be able to closely match the original engraving.” As the before-and-after photos of the Lang show, Bill and the metal got along just fine. After more than a century, he joined hands with a long-departed Edwardian engraver to restore my London gun to its former glory. Old and worn were made new and fresh again.
When I returned a few months later to pick up the gun, Bill and I had a long conversation about the art and science of engraving and about his lifelong journey to become a master engraver. As a self-taught engraver, Bill’s natural drawing ability was invaluable. To advance his engraving knowledge, he read James Meek’s book on engraving and studied VHS tapes by master engraver Lynton McKenzie. Northwest Montana engraver Tony Lagosse also assisted Bill during his formative years. Renowned master engraver Winston Churchill was an inspiration as well. Early in his career, Bill also became a member of the Firearms Engravers Guild of America (FEGA) and sought the advice and counsel of other talented engravers.
According to Bill, the challenge of a beginning engraver is to simply cut the steel cleanly and do so without breaking graver points too often. Once this is accomplished, the goal becomes cutting a straight line, then mastering a perfect (though simple) scroll, then completing gold-inlay work, then engraving a game animal, and finally summoning the courage and ability to do a complete engraving layout on a firearm. Unlike painting on canvas, where mistakes simply can be painted over, steel is very unforgiving of engraving faux pas.
Regarding the touch-up on my Lang, it is usually much harder to duplicate the work of another engraver than one might imagine. The shape of the gravers the original craftsmen used can be tricky to figure out. Also, the depth of another engraver’s cuts can be hard to match. The engravers of a hundred years ago worked quickly and without the aid of a stereo microscope—which is pretty much a standard tool in the studios of today’s engravers. When studied under a microscope, older engraving can appear to be done in a rather crude style, and trying to match it stroke for stroke is more difficult than simply making a smoothly cut line, which can be done easily with modern tools. Also, past masters typically had their own styles that were easily done and that they could replicate easily.
My Lang was engraved more than a century ago by an English engraver probably using a leg vise, engraver’s pitch and an assortment of hand tools. The older double-gun receivers from England and the Continent were forged with a mild case-hardening steel. Depending on use, most of the case colors eventually fade or are worn off, often leaving the metal with a gray or silvery patina. To determine if the metal is soft enough to engrave and not in need of annealing, Bill finds an obscure place on the receiver to make a small cut. If the metal complies, he begins. Before any engraving is attempted, though, preparation of the metal surface is essential. For Bill and most engravers, the metal is polished to about a 400- to 600-grit finish. Engraving stands out more on a metal surface that has a duller finish than on one that is highly polished.
By viewing the engraving under a microscope, Bill studies and analyzes every hammer blow on the graver. It is interesting to look through the scope and see how much of the engraving from the late 1800s and early 1900s was actually pretty crudely done—even though at arm’s length it looks nice and smooth. While their work may look coarse under the glass, the engravers of the past were experts in their methods and knew how to get jobs done quickly with a minimum of hammer strikes. Bill admits that matching each boldly and confidently done hammer tap is sometimes easier to achieve with a hammer and chisel than a pneumatic tool.
When replicating an area of worn engraving, Bill makes a smoke print where the engraving is still strong to use as a guide. He then transfers the pattern onto a practice plate, to become comfortable replicating it. Once he is confident that his cuts can match the original, he begins drawing on the metal to be re-engraved. To facilitate this, he wipes a small amount of metal polish (Flitz by choice) over the area, and then wipes it off, leaving only a slight film. He then takes a mechanical pencil and draws the pattern on the metal. If he likes what he has drawn, he starts engraving. If not, he simply wipes it off and repeats the process. If necessary, he traces over his pencil marks with a scribe before engraving.
Though still requiring skillful control, the air-powered Gravermeister and its modern progeny in many ways simplified the arduous hand-engraving process. Bill uses palm- and foot-controlled pneumatic tools designed by Steve Lindsay. He also uses an air-powered EnSet tool. He reaches for a hammer and chisel when he feels they will give the desired result. To inlay gold, he uses a hammer, chisel and assorted punches. Because they cut cleanly and retain their sharpness better than tool steel, Bill prefers carbide gravers. They stay sharp but also will break. On really hard steel he employs steel gravers, which dull easier but, unlike carbide, do not fracture. Bill also uses a simple palm-pushed hand graver for almost all of his wildlife portraits and scenes.
Bill Gamradt is a master engraver, indeed. His work is his signature, and his graven images will remain an enduring legacy for those who appreciate fine firearms and their embellishment.
For more information on Bill Gamradt’s engraving, visit gamradtgallery.com.