And an Essay on Firearms Engraving
By Steven Dodd Hughes
I’ve long been aware of, and admired the Hagn single-shot action. I’ve seen several rifles built on the action and consider myself a friend of the inventor, Martin Viktor Hagn. A client brought the rifle into my shop knowing it was something special, but not much more. He purchased the pre-owned rifle from a purveyor of fine firearms on the eastern seaboard.
On this example, the markings “Hartmann & Weiss, Hamburg” were found on the side of the breechblock when the action was opened. The German firm builds extremely high quality rifles and shotguns, and through an arraignment with Martin Hagn, has manufactured a small quantity of Hagn single-shot actions. Martin has built rifles on H&W actions as well as those of his own manufacture. Our subject rifle was chambered in 6 mm Remington.
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As we embark on the new century there is an enormous worldwide resurgence in artistic firearms engraving. While fine quality guns have always been engraved, relatively few have been treated as art pieces. I view this particular Hagn rifle as an example of a bridge between the traditional heritage of gun engraving and the current crop of “art” firearms being made today.
Fortunately, through the pages of several new books published in Italy, England and America, anyone can study and appreciate some of the finest engraving in the world. These three geographic regions, along with the Continental gunmaking centers in Germany, Austria and Belgium, have each spawned its own style, flavor and application of embellishment. With the help of the printed page, and the fact that America presents the most enthusiastic market for fine firearms, each of these “schools” has emulated, borrowed and developed techniques and styles used in the other arenas.
The current international trends I’m seeing are in four styles/applications: 1) Ultra-fine almost photographic bulino game scenes; 2) Extensive wire, or heavy relief gold inlay; 3) large flamboyant foliate scroll; 4) Deeply sculpted relief images. I find each attractive, but as much as I enjoy the resurgence in “art” engraving, and acknowledge my healthy respect for contemporary artisans, I remain a traditionalist at heart. Having studied several schools of firearms engraving back into the 17th century, I’ll take well-designed and cleanly executed scrollwork any day. The decorative art applied to this Hagn, in my opinion, is good old fashion “gun engraving”.
Martin Hagn supplied the following biographical information about the engraver, Heinz Funk. Grandson of an engraver, he was born in Germany in 1933, grew up in the gunmaking city of Suhl and began engraving at age 14. He served a three-year apprenticeship with Master Engraver Friedrich Heinbeck. In 1952 Funk went to work for the gunmaking firm of J.P. Sauer & Sohn where he was the leading house engraver for 21 years. In later years he has been self-employed in the trade with the renowned firm of Hartmann & Weiss (maker of this action) supplying most of his work.
The engraving on this Hagn rifle is some of the best I have ever seen on any rifle. Lavish scrollwork nearly covers the action, and yet enough is left uncovered to present a traditional negative space theme reflecting and complementing the contoured surfaces of the metalwork.
A simple circle centered on each action side can be viewed as a ball of swirling scroll. Or, if one stands back a few paces, three geometric masses of engraving accenting the shape of the action with thin bands of “negative space” separating them.
Every surface of the action is similarly embellished with crisply cut small English-style scrollwork. Some folks think the European engravers only capable of deeply chiseled oak leaves with running boars and hounds baying stags. The scrollwork applied to this Hagn is fine in size and design but has permanence in its depth of cut.
The engraving is clearly yet discreetly signed "FUNK” just in front of the trigger. And further demonstrating the pragmatism fine engraving can afford, beautifully crosshatched matting covers the scope and sight bases to shield the iron sight view. M.V. HAGN CRANBROOK, CANADA, the serial number, and CAL. 6 mm Rem. Identify all necessary information on the top rib. All is surrounded by a simple but deeply and uniformly cut border going all the way out the top rib to the front sight. This style border is also used in places on the action with three other distinctly different borders: thick & thin line, tiny scrolls and a wavy S style in other locations.
Have you ever looked at a sophisticated piece of firearms engraving, wondered how the artisan laid-out the design, and asked yourself “where did he start?”
The side of this action as shown in the large color cover photo will give you some clues. Obviously, the top and bottom borders mimic the shape of the metalwork.
The central circle provides a fairly common organic motif and softens the odd geometric shape of the action side. The fore and aft scroll clusters simply follow the top and bottom borders and the edges of the circle, but by breaking this up into a three-pane negative space design rather than using full coverage, the engraving can be enjoyed from a distance as well as up close. Full coverage engraving does not allow any enjoyment from afar, mostly looking like textured metal beyond ten feet. I like engraving that won’t fog-up with your breath when you’ve found the right focal distance.
If you can stop your eye from wandering for a moment, look for the “first-scroll” in each panel, the heart of each if you will. For the central cluster, focus at mid-height towards the rear of the circle and you will find the first-scroll. Now your eye can see how that first scroll grows to become a pinwheel of scroll surrounding itself. More scrolls emanate from the pinwheel, like the snakes of Medusa’s head, to flow and fill the circle.
The major scrolls are very similar in size and shape. Looking closely at the individual scrolls, note the absence of jerks, flat spots or interruptions to the nautilus shapes. All scrollwork is based upon the shape of the nautilus and there are no flat spots in that purely organic form.
Smaller scrolls fill in the holes around the edges of the circle and tiny tendrils radiate from the edges like sunbeams or rays of light. Those lively tendrils do brighten the overall impression.
Now look at the fore and aft scroll clusters on the action side. Do you see the first-scroll in each? All of the other scroll groups on each of the surfaces of the rifle have a first-scroll. The smaller the group, the easier it is to identify. The smallest have only a single scroll.
Now, can you imagine the engraver starting by drawing in the borderlines, the central circle sized to fit, and then laying out the other two clusters to match? Various scroll clusters and decorative themes engage the other various surfaces as dictated by the shape of the metalwork.
Obviously a Master Engraver in the finest continental sense of the title, Herr Funk’s traditional values engage pragmatic functions as well as the glorified. Note the checkered trigger face, and the cross-hatching on the rear of the lever spur? And remember the identifying markings? Those elements are engraving at work. Each surface area, even the scope bases and sling swivel screw, is treated to similar embellishment. This is classic “almost full coverage” in what might be considered English form.
When I speak of engraving in the “English form” I am referring to more than the English-style scroll. Other identifying factors would include: negative space layout, all of the screw heads engraved with like rosettes, all of the engraving is of the same scroll style, type and size throughout and all possible metal surfaces received at least some embellishment. These points may seem academic to the student of traditional firearms engraving, but I bring them up as a contrast to some contemporary engraving I’ve seeing of late. Negative space, as a theme or motif, is not as prevalent or pleasing in as it once was. It takes time and much thought to design a good negative space theme, and it’s as if modern engravers won’t stand far enough back from their work to see the forest, besides the trees. I miss the creativity.
Screw heads are not always given the same respect they once were. They are not cut deeply enough, sometimes have differing designs on the same gun, or are not engraved at all when the rest of the rifle is. I’ve always felt them to offer the minimum required surface area for embellishment.
My greatest criticism of some contemporary engraving is that all the gun’s surfaces are not treated to equal coverage. And sometimes, different scroll styles are used on the same job. I’ll bet you’ve seen a bolt rifle with an elaborate game scene on the floorplate, and no other engraving on the rifle. Or, a grip cap completely covered with scroll, border and gold monogram and nothing else touched by a chisel. I’ve got to return to the past to explain why I don’t like these approaches.
By the middle 18th century European firearms engraving had reached a plateau of tradition and design, and regardless of the “school” certain principals were adhered too. (I purposely mention European because at the same time American Pennsylvania longrifle was developing its own unique school of engraving). The most influencing fact was that engravers were tradesmen and most of the design work was done by artist/designers and published in design books. These books were available to engravers, wood carvers, stonemasons and other tradesmen working in decorative arts. Therefore, many of the layout and design elements did not greatly vary except how they were adapted to particular surfaces and mediums. Also, the amount of engraving, or decorative surface coverage, was relatively consistent throughout the project be it a building front, cuckoo clock or flintlock fowler. Those little screw heads helped with this notion because they were common fasteners used in various locations on the gun.
Many of today’s engravers are more interested in expressing a personal art form than working as a tradesman using someone else's design. This creative expression is the motivating energy for the phenomenal art-form firearms engraving has become. Finance, the other “motivating factor”, is where some problems arise.
Coverage, the amount of surface area ornamented with engraving, is often dictated by the amount of money the client is willing to invest. Years ago I told a story about an engraver starting a custom rifle job with the large steel buttplate. His embellishment at this end of the rifle was so effusive, that by the time he got to the action sides he had used up most of the money allotted for the whole job. The action wound-up with noticeably less coverage for the amount of surface area.
Over the years I’ve seen a few guns engraved by top-notch artisans featuring elaborate and life-like game scenes on the sides of the action, and inordinately sparse coverage elsewhere. It almost looks like the engraver sapped all his creative juices and ran out of artistic steam upon finishing the game scenes. More likely, he ran out of money.
So here is the message to engravers. If you are working on anything less than an “open ticket” when it comes to finances, please respect the tradition of the decorative art form and please design your coverage with respect to all parts of the gun. And to the clients who commission and finance these creations: please make sure there is enough money to do the entire job, even if you have to dampen the engraver’s enthusiasm by lessening the life-like game scenes.
Back to the fine rifle at hand, I’d like to point out one more feature of the embellishment gold. The entire usage of gold inlay on this elaborately engraved rifle consists of thick and thin bands of wire at the breech end of the barrel, the inlaid letters S and F on the rotary safety mechanism, and the 100 with a vertical line on the rear sight blade. Martin Hagn, the gunmaker, added his own gold touchmark to the top of the receiver. That is all the gold on the rifle. Good engraving relies on gold only where it is appropriate.
A couple of thousand words describing the embellishment of this elaborate rifle might leave one with the notion that it was not considered a “shooter”. One would be wrong. The owner of the Funk engraved Hagn rifle has found a fine performing factory 6 mm load, and has taken a Montana pronghorn in each of the past two seasons with the masterpiece. I’ll bet there’s more game in the rifles future, and I’m sure the owner greatly appreciates it even when he’s not shooting.