Jim learned by the age of 20 that he was cut out to be a craftsman and has worked for himself ever since. Learning woodworking from his grandfather, a master carpenter, Jim started doing shows in the New Orleans area and soon discovered the art of scrimshaw. By 1980 scrimshaw was a full time occupation and love. Displaying at shows throughout the country his reputation and expertise grew to include silversmithing. A natural progression started from engraving ivory to engraving silver and other metals by hand. Becoming familiar with the gravermeister tool, knife engraving was the next step, as was moving into gun and knife shows. As his confidence with metal engraving increased, engraving firearms became the next focus.
Here it is, 35 years later and Jim has traveled all over the world engraving at Cowboy Action Shooting Events in Europe, Australia and all over the USA, Engraved at the Shot Show in Las Vegas in front of 70,000 people from virtually every country on earth, Engraved at The NRA Convention, again in front of 70,000 people and has his work on every continent on earth. He has visited 5 continents as he and his wife love to travel, will do Africa soon and, if you have done 6 Continents… you must do the 7th, Antarctica. That will be the big trip on the National Geographic ship “Explorer” . He and his wife, Nancy, also travel often to Myanmar/Burma to continue a family mission started by Nancy’s grandfather in 1913. See the website http://thehackettmissionlegacy.org/
“The art of gun engraving will take a lifetime to master but I have time, patience and perseverance, and look forward to being an old-timer in this very elite group of artisans.”
Jim lives with his wife, Nancy, and a yellow lab named Tater, in a restored Victorian home, in the Mid Town National Historic District in Springfield, Missouri. He also owns a building in the Commercial Street National Historic District, an 1870s railroad boom town and is deeply involved in historic preservation and neighborhood revitalization.
Cowboy Action Shooting
Cowboy Action Shooting has been a God send to me as it allows me to do what I most love to do- travel, dress in ol’ time garb, shoot ol’ time guns-and make a living at it. Since 1995, western action shooting has exploded with organizations like SASS and NCOWSleading the way. After years of doing gun and sporting shows, I was able to move on to cowboy shoots which now happen in every state , every weekend of the year. I focus on the annual shoots that clubs put on once a year and invite all to come visit and shoot. Setting up my display and shop at each shoot, I engrave morning till night, doing backstraps and other smaller projects at the shoot , bringing home the larger jobs. I attend all of the biggest and best shoots east of the rockies (see my shows page), but only get to shoot with my local club, The Southern Missouri Rangers, in Springfield, Mo.
My engraving heroes have been those great engravers of the late 19th century who worked for, or with, Colt and Winchester; the Ulrich family, Helfricht and most notable, L. D. Nimschke. The pre 1900 guns that Cowboys shoot had a style and grace in their own right but even more so when engraved. In Cowboy Shooting, the social aspect and the historical recreation seem to be just as important as ones shooting skills. Good thing, as most of us, well…need practice. But it is said that if you can’t shoot good you should at least look good and engraving is a large part of that. For myself, with all my engraved guns, custom leather and dry goods that I trade for at shows, I look pretty good until I walk to the line and shoot,–then it can get pretty ugly!
“Engravers don’t retire. You just get better. You might get crippled; blind, but you never retire. . . ”
An interview with Jim Downing by Mimi Altree for the book “The Cowboy Way”
The first thing I noticed about Jim Downing was his mustache. It’s magnificent. It’s enormous. Wrought iron-black with jaunty curled ends. Looks like you could hang a pair of cast iron skillets from each side. But the impact of his “stache” didn’t last long once I got a gander at the gun he was working on. He was scratching up the backstrap, working out a delicate “Bank Note” design. In fact, every metal surface was covered with that intricate scrolling. With the skill of a medieval scribe, he flew across the surface, using a chisel instead of pen to create his own world of swirling lines. As he worked, he stopped to chat, patiently answering the inevitable questions that come to a man who does such amazing work. And as he talked to passers by, and showed them the pieces displayed on his table, he shared more than just the beauty of the gun. He shared with them a lost art, giving them a window into the past where a gun was a direct reflection of the man who carried it.
Q: YOU DRAW A PRETTY BIG CROWD.
Most folks have never seen engraving done. There are only a few dozen, or maybe a hundred guys who still engrave. Almost nobody does it in public. There are a few of us who are outgoing. We don’t mind engraving in public. For me, it’s a way to get people involved. When they see it done, their reaction is “Wow! I always wondered how you did that.” When I sit out here and actually cut, it gets them involved, so I don’t even have to do a sales pitch. They understand the time invested in this kind of work. I love to talk and have a good time as much as I love to cut, so I do a combination of the two.
Q: SO WHAT EXACTLY IS ENGRAVING?
It’s the art of cutting metal with a chisel, rather than a rotary tool or by using acid etching, or the laser process . . Even though they might call those engraving, they’re actually etching. A lot of cheaper guns these days have what they call an “engraving” on them, but they’re actually photo etched. That makes the engraving flat and dull, it has no shape or style, let alone any uniqueness, because they’re one of a million copies. Engraving is done with a sharp chisel so that you get a two-sided cut. Both sides reflect light and that’s what gives the engraving its flair.
Q: HOW OLD IS THE PROCESS?
Engraving has been done for centuries, since people started using metal. In the 1880s, which is the period that we’re all into, engraving was expensive. In reality, these Colt 45s that we’re all wearing on our hips were luxuries. Most people back then wouldn’t dream of having these guns. They would have had a cheap little pocket pistol that they got in a keg of flour. That was really the gun that won the west. 45’s were twelve to eighteen dollars, which was a whole lot of money back then. When you throw in the extra six to eight bucks to have it engraved, that’s a month’s income for somebody! But, anybody who was proud of their gun – lawmen, gunfighters, store-keepers, merchants or the upper class of the period, quite often, would have had engraved guns.
Q: WHERE DID MOST OF THE ENGRAVING HAPPEN?
Colt and Winchester did most of the engraving at the factories. Very few engravers back then were “after market” as I am. The factory was very departmental. Everything was controlled within their department. Factory engravers did things the “Colt” way or the “Winchester” way, and got paid next to nothing for standard designs, “A, B, or C.” But then each factory might have one or two really good guys, master engravers, who would do the presentation pieces. They’d do a gun that was given to the Secretary of State, or Secretary of War, or a foreign Potentate. That master engraver would be capable of doing very unique work. Animals, fantasy, naked ladies or whatever that foreign potentate was “in” to. He might do the customized part, the scene, and then hand it off to a secondary engraver to do the scroll. In the factory system you could do that.
Q: WHO WAS THE BEST ENGRAVER?
The guy who broke that factory tradition was L. D. Nimschke. He’s my personal hero. He was from Germany, which was where most of the engravers were from. He was in it for himself, his own boss. He worked for factories on a job by job basis. Nimschke was an engraver in Brooklyn, New York, and did incredible work. He was capable of doing very ornate stuff, yet he was also a businessman, a practical man, so he also did designs that normal people could afford. He engraved not only guns, but also knives, doorplates for merchants, anything metal that you’d want to decorate. The major gun manufacturers would bring him the really special orders, a presentation piece for the President, that sort of thing. Nimschke didn’t work according to the factory mold. He had his own style and it was special. The guy was a natural talent.
The Urichs were a family of engravers who worked for Winchester for many years, actually for several generations. Some of them were good; some were bad and just living off grandpa’s name. Factory engraving has fallen apart since the 50s and 60s, for business reasons. Now when the factories do engraving, they typically “job it out”. Unfortunately, that was profitable for the first 15-20 years, but who’s training the new engravers now?
Q: WHO IS TRAINING THEM?
Hardly anybody. I teach novice engravers because, when I was trying to learn 20 years ago, there were so few people out there who taught. Tilden Swenson from Little Rock finally ended up spending two weeks with me after I had been engraving for a couple of years. He took two years of my “scratching” and turned it into “engraving.” You can learn a lot on your own over 50 years or you can have a great teacher that can teach you their experiences and you can learn from their mistakes. He passed away ten or twelve years ago. Since then I’ve been teaching. It was sort of an impromptu thing at first. Actually, this public engraving allows me to teach a few of the basics and, of course, every time you teach the basics, you reinforce it for yourself.
Q: WHAT ABOUT MODERN ENGRAVING?
Modern engraving? Modern guns are pretty ugly. They’re machines that go “BANG.” In the old days, guns were different. They were styled with form and grace. They had pleasing shapes about them. Engraving really lends its self to cowboy guns. We all have a Ruger Vaquero, a Colt, or whatever. The gun is one of a million. Engrave it, and it’s one of a kind. That’s why Cowboy shooting has been so good to engravers. As for myself, I can’t shoot for squat. But if I can’t shoot, at least I can look good. This is something that people can afford. And it sets your gun apart from everyone else’s. Engraving adds to the beauty and value of the gun. If people can give me an idea for a design, I can do it, but I really like to do the designs that come from the 1880s. Over the years I’ve developed my own style that has the same (old west) look about it.
Q: TELL ME ABOUT THE GERMAN INFLUENCE IN TRADITIONAL AMERICAN ENGRAVING DESIGNS
Germanic scroll is more realistic, I guess. Victorian stuff from the early 1800’s is more elaborate. Take an old movie theater that has the plaster scrollwork around the stage, the Germans would take that scroll and actually do it in metal. They were really good at making two-dimensional scroll look three-dimensional. In Europe the only people who could afford a really nice engraved gun were the Lords of the Manor. They’d have an engraver working exclusively for them who would do one gun a year. It would be a really elaborate piece. They worked on that one gun for the whole year, and the Lord of the land would “keep” them and their families in exchange. But when they worked out in the real world, they had to simplify it a little. Nimschke and other engravers came to America and had to make a living. They simplified the scroll so they could do a gun in a matter of days or weeks. You still had the impression of the rich design, but less detail and shape. Still beautiful, all the way around, but it took less time. They took the Germanic scroll and adapted it to make it what we see today as American scroll. The English do something called “Bank Note.” It’s a much tighter scroll. It looks more like a nautilus shell cut down the middle. They’re still doing that. All that to say that there are several distinct styles of scroll. But to do it affordably, you have to simplify, and get one scroll under your belt so that you do it well and quickly.
Q: WHAT KIND OF TOOL DO YOU USE?
I’m a “chaser.” That’s a guy that uses a hammer and chisel. That’s the way it’s been done for a thousand years. But, when they came out with tools like this Gravermeister, we got a “power assist.” It’s a hand tool; used as a chisel, only it’s a little more powerful yet delicate, so you get a sharper, cleaner cut. It’s been around quite a while. Probably over forty years. Several generations of engravers have used it. It’s a good tool, and I like the convenience of it. It’s like this…if you have a carpenter that’s making a cabinet and he is hand sawing all his boards, instead of using a power saw, he’s going to go much more slowly. He’s a skilled carpenter either way, but his work is made more economical by his use of modem tools. Sewing is the same thing. When that treadle machine came out in 1890, it was the most popular item sold in the Sears catalogue. Suddenly it was faster and cheaper to make clothes. Innovations come along. With the Gravermeister I am free-hand engraving with the extra power to cut modern steel.
Q: THERE’S A LOT OF FOLKS DROPPING OFF GUNS TODAY.
That’s a good thing. I make a living at this. I’m one of the few that do. Most engravers, now and in the past, either work for a living, or have a retirement income and engrave on the side. Most engravers don’t do sixty guns, hundreds of backstraps and dozens of knives a year as I do. Most just do a few guns a year, no pressure, no hassle. I do it for a living, so I must do it all the time. At the shoots, I’ll work twelve or more hours a day. A backstrap takes me about an hour. At home I average about a gun week. I engrave almost every day. It’s physically tough on your body, which is why there are so few engravers. Also, to learn to engrave, you have to do it all the time. It’s not just a hobby that you can pick up when the mood strikes you. You have to jump in with two feet and work on it for quite a few years just to become proficient at it, let alone good. It takes about twenty years for you to be good. And a lifetime to be pretty darned good, and then you die. Engravers don’t retire. You just get better. You might get crippled or blind, but you don’t ever retire. I see myself doing this when I’m seventy.
Q: WHAT KIND OF PEOPLE LIKE ENGRAVING?
All kinds folks can appreciate engraving. They have to love the art or the history of the engraved gun. Even though this crowd of cowboys looks kind of rough, they’re, in general, wonderful people. You go to the Northeast, or the Southwest, and you meet the same kind of people. Most of these guys are professionals. Well spoken, well traveled and they have some disposable income. This is not a cheap sport. The engraving really goes well with Cowboy guns and shooting. I’ve been engraving since 1979, been doing western action shooting for ten years. In the past five years, the sport has really come on the scene, and there’s a shoot almost every other weekend where I can set up shop. Meeting the people means a whole lot to me, guns are a personal thing. These guys won’t just mail their gun to somebody who takes out an ad in the back of Shotgun Digest. I can advertise all I want, but unless they trust you, they aren’t giving up their gun. They meet you. They see your work. They build a relationship with you and learn to trust you.
Q: THEN THEY LET YOU HAVE THEIR GUNS…
Usually it starts with the backstrap. That’s really affordable, only about fifty-five bucks. Then they come back and they’re kind of thinking about another part, maybe the whole gun. They might want to do their lever action and shotgun to match. The average gun engraving that I cut only costs six to eight hundred dollars, much more affordable than most folks think. Many cowboys meet me at shoots all over the country and then get a hold of me through my web site -www.thegunengraver.com to have more work done. I love it, they enjoy it and appreciate it and keep coming back for more, so I must be doing something right.