Banknote engraved pheasant in flight by Steve Lindsay

Banknote engraved pheasant in flight by Steve Lindsay

… custom engraved guns in hundreds of different styles, executed by truly skilled artists and artisans, combining creativity and genius to produce stunning artwork that blends with the gun’s form and function, sophisticated and elegant metalwork by the indisputable masters of the trade


For the most part, fancy engraving on a shotgun has never much appealed to me. Yes, this is a personal, biased, subjective opinion. You may be pleased, even enthralled, by the metal engraving on guns. The best of it is excellent beyond comprehension, but I find most of it to be appallingly bad.

Since my appreciation for artwork is a product of my simplistic roots and upbringing, I am put off rather than enticed by guns over-decorated with intricate swirls and floral patterns cut into every square inch of gunmetal on the action sides and floor plates, fences, chambers, trigger guard, tang, top lever, and even the forearm release bar. Some factory engraving strikes me as attractive and tasteful, the minimal metalwork on my Browning BSS sporter model shotgun, for example. But much of the engraving I see is absolutely awful, dreadful.

The rolled-on or machine-pressed “engraving” on the receiver covers of semi-automatic and pump shotguns is no doubt the worst. All of it is of poor quality, and some of it rivals the craftsmanship of serial numbers cut into Sherman tank turrets by hurried war plant workers using welding torches.

Firearms companies refer to this adornment as “impressed” or “embossed” engraving, and they apparently believe that it is better than a blank receiver side plate of unmarked and featureless blued steel. It is not better, it is worse, making the gun appear not classy and expensive but showy and cheap.

Even the better executed “embossed” engraving, cut with modern CNC equipment, is universally lacking in style and grace. Designs feature bird dogs that resemble tiny but muscular donkeys with ramrod tails haphazardly attached, waterfowl that appear to have been drawn by self-taught artists trying to replicate the physique of Donald Duck, pheasants that look like barnyard chickens in drag, and images of quail that one could mistake for the winged-foot-of-Mercury logo once used by the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company.

Somehow, the simplest swirls and curls of the engraving on mass-produced guns seem singularly lacking in grace and creativity, designed as if wandering, asymmetrical curves were aesthetically pleasing and disjointed repetitions of a single uninspired pattern were the apex of artistry. For the shooting sports models, stamping the words SKEET or TRAP or SPORTING CLAYS onto the action or receiver adds even more appeal to the gun, apparently, and helps the shooter remember its purpose.

At the other end of the spectrum are the elaborate photo-illustrations etched onto high-end guns that are clearly not intended to be used in the field but mounted in specially constructed and lighted display cases in gun rooms that cost more than my house. I have no idea how this metalwork is done, but it appears to be a high-tech variant of the Italian bulino (fine dot) style of engraving that produces something akin to old tintype photographs.

I have seen the most extreme examples of this on Beretta shotguns that cost tens of thousands of dollars. The images are incredibly varied and bizarre, ranging from dolphins frolicking in frothy surf to bare-breasted Roman goddesses soaring in convivial formations through cloudy skies. In vivid colors.

The illustrators who created these images are artisans of no mean talent, and the guns have a certain beauty, but I cannot relate the artwork to the object. Shotguns and naked goddesses? Well, we live in an increasingly surrealistic world.

Although these guns were probably never intended to be used, shooting one would be awkward, the Roman goddesses design, anyway. I imagine myself preparing to mount the gun to shooting position and noticing that my trigger finger is inadvertently caressing the exposed torso of a buxom woman – this would inevitably destroy my focus and concentration.

So I have little use for the low end and the high end of the gun engraving styles, methods, and techniques. But somewhere in the middle are custom engraved guns in hundreds of different styles, executed by truly skilled artists and artisans, combining creativity and genius to produce stunning artwork that blends with the gun’s form and function, sophisticated and elegant metalwork by the indisputable masters of the trade.

Although I am of the brevity-and-simplicity school of design, the best engraving work is breathtaking regardless of the style in which it is executed: rose and scroll, Arabesque, German blackleaf, Renaissance ornament, banknote, oak leaf, Belgian scroll, English scroll, German scroll, bouquet and scroll, Nimschke scroll and star, Celtic ornament, jagdszenen, Corombelle, ornate, vignette… I am sure there are at least a dozen others.

Much of the German stuff, stags leaping through tangles of oak leaves and grape vine, all deeply engraved, is not to my taste, but I admire its excellence. Some of the scroll in the English and Belgian styles is overdone, again to my eye, in the sense that there can be too much of a good thing. Many of the lavish floral patterns also fail to excite me.

But the best of the banknote style engraving, relief games scenes, modest large scroll engraving, and the lesser known McGraw scroll style  – if these are well done and matched to the shape and contours of the gun, these are works of art that define the phrase “pride of ownership.”

Which brings me to the real point of these rambling thoughts on shotgun engraving. Having come into a bit extra expendable income, and having a nice shotgun (not best-quality, but good-quality) that is a blank canvas, I am toying with the idea of going hat-in-hand to a highly skilled but not-yet famous engraver, Mitchell Lurth, sharing my ideas, and asking him to turn loose his talents on this gun.

A stylish monogram on the floor plate should be part of the project. A hundred years from now I hope someone will take this gun out of a felt-lined leather case, show it to an admiring hunting or shooting companion, touch that monogram with a fingertip, and muse, “I wonder who this guy JLJ was? I’ll say this much: he knew a good gun when he saw it, and he had excellent taste in engraving.”

They will probably think I was a hell of a wing shot, too. That’s the beauty of timeless art: it inspires imagination.


More essays about upland bird hunting, bird guns and gun digs are published in my collection of essays, Crazy Old Coot, and my novel, Hunting Birds. Both are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com.

About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
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2 Responses to Engraving

  1. uplandish says:

    I couldn’t agree more.

    It has always been a dream of mine to have tribute gun made to honor one of my deceased dogs. Something really special with portrait engraving of that dog and special wood. And then I get to thinking about the dog I wanted to pay homage to, and realize that if he had any say in the matter at all he would want me to get an old model 12, wingmaster, or anything with a “just in case” third shot, and he would probably ask that it not be so nice that I felt the need to baby it and waste precious time protecting its finery from the brush on my way in to a point.To go one step further Im sure he would rather I spent all that money on shooting lessons instead of filagree and engraving.

  2. Jerry says:

    Agreed. If and when I have the gun engraved, it will be with the understanding that “pretty is as pretty does.” It’s going to be “shooter,” not a “looker.” They were made to be used.
    I can’t shoot a pump gun worth a darn, but if I could it would be a Model 12 or an Ithaca 37 in 20 gauge.

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