Cowan’s Corner: Engravings on 19th-Century Firearms

Remington No. 1 long-range exhibition-grade rifle, sold for $85,250. Image courtesy of Cowan's Auctions.

Remington No. 1 long-range exhibition-grade rifle, sold for $85,250. Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions.

On the rare occasion that a firearm featuring engravings from one of several 19th-century masters comes to auction, the interest is high and the bidding fierce. Firearms with engravings by top-tier engravers like Gustave Young, Louis Nimschke, or John or Conrad Ulrich can easily realize a six-figure price at auction today.

Collectors value firearms with engravings in styles such as Bulino, which reproduces birds and other animals using tiny cuts that are enhanced by light and shadow to create a scene. The craftsmanship of these vintage firearms is incredible, especially considering that one hundred years ago, the cost of engraving was a fraction of the total cost of the gun. This is hard to comprehend, since an engraver needed 20-30 years of experience to be considered a master at his craft.  

The late-19th century, considered the “Golden Age” of gun engraving, produced four master engravers who were all of German heritage. These engravers have a loyal following by today’s affluent firearms collectors.

Gustave Young was Colt’s primary engraver in the 1850s-1870s. He later engraved for Smith & Wesson, from the 1870s to 1890s.

Louis D. Nimschke, based in New York, flourished from 1850-1900. He worked independently and engraved for Colt, Winchester, Remington, Spencer and over 100 other different gun makers. It is estimated that he engraved 5,000 guns in his lifetime, and he developed an international following. He signed his engraving on long arms about 85 percent of the time, but he rarely signed revolvers.

John Ulrich and Conrad Friedrich Ulrich were brothers who engraved primarily for Winchester in the last quarter of the 19th century. They also occasionally worked for Marlin Co.


{rokbox album=|guns| title=|FN Model B-25 :: FN Model B-25 Broadway trap over and under shotgun with ‘Bulino’-style engraving, estimated to sell for $12,000-$15,000. Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions.|}images/stories/2009_03/2009_0303_cowan_MM1080.jpg{/rokbox} {rokbox album=|guns| title=|Savage Model 1899 :: Savage Model 1899 rifle made for John F. Dodge, estimated to sell for $200,000-$250,000. Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions.|}images/stories/2009_03/2009_0303_cowan_p0HH1487.jpg{/rokbox} {rokbox album=|guns| title=|Winchester Model 1886 :: Winchester Model 1886 rifle made especially for John F. Dodge, with John and Conrad Ulrich engravings, estimated to sell for $400,000-$500,000. Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions.|}images/stories/2009_03/2009_0303_cowan_wHH1596.jpg{/rokbox} {rokbox album=|guns| title=|Remington No. 1 :: Remington No. 1 long-range exhibition-grade rifle, sold for $85,250. Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions|}images/stories/2009_03/2009_0303_cowan_ff3796.jpg{/rokbox}

Though extremely beautiful, engravings on 19th-century firearms were not purely for decoration; they helped to retain oil on the metal in order to prevent rust and also helped to reduce the glare off of the metal’s shiny surface. The color hardening process performed on the metal, often admired for its resulting aesthetics, also protected the gun from rust and wear. The engraving, wood, and other metal surfaces of these guns were crafted to be handled, and in today’s auction market, the expected wear adds to the character of a gun.  

Today, many engravers try to imitate the masters of the “Golden Age,” but experts can tell the difference. Even though some of the same tools and patterns are used, the individuality of the engraver’s work is missing, allowing an expert to detect a contemporary copy.

Paying six figures for a firearm may not be an option for everyone, but works with lovely detailed engravings can be bought at auction for under $20,000 by a discerning collector. No matter what your price range, the beauty and splendor of these guns can surely be appreciated as a piece of history and as works of art.

altWes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An expert on historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series History Detectives and is a featured appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. Wes holds a B.A. and M.A. in anthropology from the University of Kentucky, and a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Michigan. He is a frequently requested speaker at antiques events around the country.