Behind the Design: The Gun Engraver
The Gun Engraver, Jim Downing, walks us through how he takes a gun from traditional to custom.
Even though Jim Downing has engraved thousands of guns in his career, he treats each one with as much carefulness as his first. His clients come to him wanting his specific style—1880s American floral scroll, to be specific—of scrolls and leaves that weave together to form a beautiful design. Each gun has a different layer of detail, not to mention different price tag. Although his average gun design costs about $1,200, the intricacy of each design can expand the price from $55 to $2,000. The lower end of that pricing spectrum is typically what hooks his clients—that’s the backstrap of the gun, which he will do oftentimes while traveling at shows. From there, his clients reach out to have Downing put his personal touch on their firearm. The wait for an engraved gun is more than a year, so once Downing gets it, he goes right to work.
In his engraving classes, he teaches the basics in the classroom before even touching chisel to metal. Similarly, the basics he starts with prior to any project are his tools. “There are really three main tools that go into engraving,” he says. “The chisel, engraving ball and sharpener. Having a sharp chisel is the key to clean cuts.” The chisel Downing uses is called an impact hammer, which is a small hand-held hammer, the size of a small pencil, that is pressure activated. “When I learned in 1979, I was using a hammer and chisel,” he says. “That same year, the impact hammer came out.” The impact hammer is his singular tool that creates every design—regardless of size.
“On occasion, I will start with a piece of metal to figure out what I’m going to do,” he says pointing at a small metal plate, attached to the engraving ball, with a similar shape to one that’s on an 1897 rifle he’s working on. “I can’t draw, but I can engrave. So this lets me lay out what I’m going to do.”
Pre-engraving is his own form of sketching, but Downing tends to freehand all of his designs more often than not. Starting only with small circles made with a stencil onto the gun or engraving surface, he then uses his impact hammer to adorn the gun with his signature style.
“That and that,” he says pointing at two circles, one small and one large, “are going to be a scroll. This helps me gauge what I have for spacing, and then I can go from there.” Three to four days later of circles and scrolls, the gun is complete. Depending on the customer’s request, it’s then returned or sent to be repainted. No matter if Downing’s designs are a cowboy shooter or a prop for Hollywood movies, he gives them the same attention detail.