A FINELY ENGRAVED SAVAGE 99 FROM
GRIFFIN & HOWE
by Steven Dodd Hughes
(originally published in The Accurate Rifle magazine September 2001)
I’ve never been a fan of the Savage Model 99 lever action rifle. Because I’ve build the occasional custom lever gun I’ve been twice asked to create unique custom Model 99’s. Fortunately, I’ve escaped that fate both times. The Griffin & Howe rifle shown here provided the second escape as it satisfied my client’s desire for a unique M-99. The first guy never called me back, nor did I call him.
Oh, you bet a custom M-99 would be a challenge, but as many times as I’ve explored the possibilities, I’ve always envisioned the results as a humped stock with the action set too far forward, and the stock panels to far back.
Gunmaker Ed Webber has a different vision. Growing-up on a Montana ranch, his first rifle was a Model 99 .250-3000 given to him when his Dad bought a newer M-99 in .243. Years later he realized that although his Father had shot deer, antelope and elk with the six millimeter, it was Ed that got the better rifle. Webber shoots, collects and has stocked a couple of Ninety Nines, and feel quite a fondness for them.
The rifle shown here was acquired from Griffin & Howe by a friend/client of mine. According to the serial numbers Savage built it in 1950. The G&H records indicate they remodeled it in 1954. Unfortunately that is all the company records tell us about “No. 2135 Griffin & Howe Inc. New York” as is engraved on the barrel. Apparently it was built for someone with the initials “HAS” as they are engraved on a silver monogram plate mounted in the toe line of the stock.
I hope some reader can tell me a bit more, maybe something about the pencil marks “2749” and “SPAULDING” I found in the penciled in the barrel channel inlet. I contacted Precision Shooting writer and Griffin & Howe researcher Michael Petrov in regards to the unexplained marking. Petrov replied, “ H. A. Spaulding & Co. was a jewelry making firm like Tiffany, and no I have not done any research on them, just happens to be a name I know. I have seen several guns with the Spaulding name on them, the last a double rifle in a case with the name on the lid and I'm sure this was the Spaulding sporting good people”.
Petrov and I are both very careful about making unwarranted attributions, so please don’t quote either of us on this speculation.
The M-99’s action has a typical serial number stamping of 5458xx in front of the lever pivot boss. The barrel is 24” long and has the oval SP of Savage proofs and the caliber marked “.250-3000 SAVAGE” so I’d believe it an unaltered factory barrel. Griffin & Howe’s addition of a band-ramp front sight with a removable hood and banded sling swivel stud improve the tube. A two-leaf folding rear sight is dovetailed 3-1/4” in front of the action. Each leaf has a gold centerline, was matted and engraved “100 Yds” and “200 Yds”. I’m quite sure the sight was installed by G&H.
A one-piece Redfield scope base sits atop the action. The front scope ring has four screws clamping the scope tube and the rear has two. The scope is a 4x Kollmorgen Bear Cub and is so marked along with the Brooklyn, New York address. Simple crosshairs provide the sights. The rather low mounted scope height seems well matched to the comb height for alignment with my eye. This was my first experience with a Kollmorgen scope mounted on a rifle and I found it to be very clear and good quality scope.
Custom stocking was obviously a big part of this project but I am surprised at the plainness of the stock wood. American walnut was used and it is although quarter-sawn and appears to be reasonably hard and dense, only a hint of fiddleback is present in the buttstock and there is little color or contrast. I had another 1950’s vintage factory M-99 in the shop at the same time and compared it to the custom G&H stock. I can report the buttstock configuration and comb dimensions to be nearly identical between the two except for a few items. The most pronounced difference is the addition of an oval cheekpiece. It is nicely shaped, relatively full and has good proportions. The cheekpiece is about 5-3/8” long and rises about 1/2” off the stock at the rear end.
The coarsely checkered steel buttplate is 5” tall, has a broad tip at the heel and appears to be from a Winchester Model 70. The steel grip cap is 11/32” wide, 27/32” long, is hollow underneath and I associate it with German imports I’ve seen from the 1950’s era.
As reported, the architecture and design of the buttstock is very much like a Savage factory Model R of the day. The forend however, is very different and reminiscent of some Griffin & Howe bolt action sporters. Starting from a slab sided action, the forend achieves a well-rounded cross section out near the end. The 1-1/2” tip is black buffalo horn and is shaped in a large but nicely contoured flaring schnable form.
Simply because the action has near full-coverage, it seems safe to assume the original owner conceived of this project as a canvas for special engraving. Three detailed and imaginative game scenes decorate the sides and bottom of the action. Contrary to my inclinations, the vignettes depict predator varmints rather than the big game animals. In 1954 the .250-3000 was indeed a hot cartridge, but I would have equated it more with deer and antelope rather than fox and bobcat.
The avian predator on the bottom is most likely and eagle. The scene depicts high mountains with the bird soaring near the elevation of two distant snow-capped peaks. Skillful shading, stippled backgrounding and distinctly cut conifer branches add believability to the foreshortened art. The bird itself, while not photo realistic, certainly portrays its fierceness with flared primary feathers, spread talons and a grimacing beak.
The left side view is another mountain scene, this time with a bobcat looking as if he just missed a chance at a ruffled grouse. The animals are just slightly cartoonish, but show a character that is sometimes lost when the engraving strives for perfect anatomy. Again, the engraver’s use of various shading techniques, imaginative scenery and artistic composition add up to a very attractive bit of firearms Americana.
Slightly smaller, because of the large ejection port, the right side vignette also uses the “predator killing game bird” myth as a theme to justify varmint hunting. This sequence has a red fox, identified by the white of polished steel on the tip of its tail, flushing a cock pheasant. The engraver’s use of various artistic and metalworking techniques render a very believable, if folklorish, scene. A large, central oak tree in the middle ground and what looks to be poison ivy in the fore ground, add dimension and depth to the landscape.
Each of the scenes in surrounded with a stylish ovate form comprised of circular and floral scrollwork. Some of the more attractive floral elements include the sunflowers and stylized vine scroll forming the border at the back of the action. I also enjoy the “potted plant” look in the middle of the V borders surrounding the game scenes.
The C scrolls would be considered Germanic in style with the larger ones having multiple interior floral rays. The size of the scrolls ranges from rather large at the rear corners of the action sides, to tiny, unshaded ones on the bottom of the action and grip cap.
In keeping with the norm of the era, all of the screw heads are embellished with like floral rosettes. In the case of the lever pivot and the grip cap, sunburst stars surround the screws to further accentuate the circular theme.
As modern engraving becomes more technically precise it sometimes looses the freedom and flamboyance I see in this work. Ribbons of scroll seem to shoot out like 4th of July fireworks.
Unfortunately, photographing the bottom of the action proved problematic and I was not able to achieve acceptable images. Never the less, the engraving is a compilation of all of the previously mentioned elements: Germanic scroll, ribbon scroll, game vignette and it exhibits a negative space design as well. Even if current engravers might comment on a lack of exactness or technical excellence, the action bottom engraving displays an exuberance and character I find delightful.
As mentioned earlier, the lever and grip cap have extensive engraving coverage. So does the breech end of the barrel, the sling swivel band and the front sight base and muzzle end of the barrel. Each is treated to fairly elaborate scroll clusters. The top tang, although difficult to view under the scope, has lively scrolling as well.
I examined the engraving thoroughly under magnification and could not find any hint of a signature. Because I’ve read extensively about firearms for three decades and have seen authors embarrassed with attribution proven false by later research, I am wont to subscribe a craftsman/artist to any unsigned work. In this particular case I feel a bit differently. Joseph Fugger (rhymes with Luger) could have been considered Griffin & Howe’s “house” engraver at the time this rifle was in the shop for modification.
To quote E.C. Prudhomme’s Gun Engraving Review, first published in 1961, “Fugger does much of the engraving from Griffin & Howe Inc. He began under the tutelage of his father, an engraver, and then received formal training in Ferlach, Austria. He came to the United States in 1924 and worked with (Rudolph) Kornbrath for several years. His work shows strong influence by this association, yet he has developed his own unique style, particularly game scene inlays modeled in relief.”
(Prudhomme’s Gun Engraving Review was reprinted by R & R Books in 1994 and is currently available. It has black & white and color photos of many engravers work from the 1950-60’s along with short biographies of some.)
While this Model 99 has no inlaid relief game scenes it does have other elements particular to Fugger’s style. The easiest for me to identify is the use of scrolls turning in on themselves forming a heart shaped design. On the upper left side of the action, just above the game scene, two heart shaped pairs of scrolls meet back to back with floral elements projecting from the points. Very similar heart shaped scroll masses are illustrated in the Engraving Review photographs of Fugger’s work. By contrast, in the 14 pages of Kornbrath’s engraving shown in Prudhomme’s Review I cannot find a single similar heart shaped element, nor can I find any in Arnold Grieble’s work, another German trained contemporary of the two that worked in America. All three engravers cut a similar style Germanic scroll but each developed particular quirks and favored elements for specific applications. These are sometimes identifiable but again, I shy away from attributing any unsigned work.
To back-up my theory of speculation I sent photographs of this rifle to Robert Swartley, one of America’s preeminent engravers. Swartley worked with Joseph Fugger at Griffin & Howe in the 1970’s and is considered something of a protégé’. Swartley felt quite certain this work was from the hand of Fugger.
It is interesting to note the progression of firearms engraving in America. This particular Savage Model 99 as engraved by Fugger, was influenced by another Austrian/American Rudolph Kornbrath, and identified by the contemporary in the lineage, American Robert Swartley. Swartley in turn, has influenced several current engravers and perhaps one day we will wonder about the heritage of their work.
We have a fine rifle to enjoy and I don’t have to struggle with designing an attractive Model 99.