Rural Missouri - March 2014 - (Page 10)
photo courtesy of Jim Downing
While Jim can engrave any theme, he specializes in the scroll style of the 1880s and 1890s. Here, his work graces a replica Winchester 1873, "The gun that won the West."
by Heather Berry
is canvas is usually small -
maybe the size of a business
card or the circumference of
a broom handle. Sometimes,
the space is even smaller, like a postage stamp. But Jim Downing doesn't
need much space to etch out his signature scrollwork design.
Jim is a gun engraver. If you see a
modern Colt or Winchester etched up
in an 1880s or 1890s style, it's likely
to be Jim's design.
"Gun makers like Colt and Winchester used to have custom engraving shops at their factories decades
ago," he says. "Very few engravers in
the 1800s were after-market scratchers
like I am."
Jim adds that lawmen, gunﬁghters and the upper class of that time
period often had their guns engraved
because they were proud of the pieces.
Back then, .45-caliber pistols sold for
$12 to $18. Engraving added $6 to $8,
often a month's salary for the working
"Another reason they got guns
engraved back then is the same as
today's owner - they want a one-ofa-kind piece," adds Jim. "Or maybe
they shoot so badly they just want it
to look good."
What Jim does is called push
engraving. The 57-year-old started
etching scrimshaw in New Orleans
35 years ago with an ulterior motive
- to meet women. Ladies would set
up craft or food booths at shows and,
ago. He also attributes German
gun to engrave," says
engraver Louis Nimschke as a
the craftsman. "While
I worked on it, I realized
that this was the ﬁrst gun
scrollwork was unique,
I was scratching and that I
and he often used a
needed to buy it, so I did.
dot-punch style in his
"It wasn't good at all,"
backgrounds," Jim says,
Jim says of his initial work.
referring to his mentor's
"But it's a good piece to look
at once in a while. It helps me stay
smooth, ﬂowing designs.
"It's a style which ﬁts perfectly into
the period of work I specialize in."
Jim says the only formal training
Gun enthusiast Chuck Calloway
he's had came from the two weeks he
from Fayetteville, Ark., is a big fan of
spent with an old man named Tilden
Jim's gun-engraving style. With more
Swenson in Little Rock, Ark., decades
than 50 of his gun and Case knife collection engraved by Jim, Chuck keeps
the engraver busy with new projects
every chance he gets.
"I've bought a $200 gun, had Jim
engrave it and had the insurance
appraisal come back at $6,000 because
of what he's done to it," says the avid
Chuck says he's bought guns that
have been engraved at the factory
where they were made, but he thinks
Jim's work is much better.
"What Jim's doing is a lost art,"
Jim says his waiting list is currently
six months long. When he's about
ready for another job, he calls the
next several people on the list and has
them ship the pieces to him. To most
collectors, it's not about the money
they're going to spend, it's about getting Jim's work onto their gun.
"Most people just say, 'Let's keep it
under $500 or whatever,' and I will.
Before engraving a gun, Jim often must take apart the gun to get to the pieces he's
And sometimes they tell me they
engraving. Here, he uses a vice to remove the barrel of an old riﬂe he's working on.
usually, a daughter or two would be
there helping their mothers.
"I know, I know," he quickly adds,
smiling, "But I did meet my wife,
Nancy, so my plan worked."
From scrimshaw designs on ivory
or bone, Jim moved on to engraving
silver jewelry, then on to engraving
designs onto pocket knives.
It was while attending a black powder gun match many years ago that
Jim engraved his ﬁrst gun.
"The guy next to me was selling
guns and said, 'Jim, you gotta do
this,' and handed me a cheap $90
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