The Art of the Gun

The Art of the Gun

Coming full circle with hand engraving

By Dennis Adler

We have stepped upon the coattails of greatness with the creation of the Peacemaker Airgun Builder, giving western air pistol enthusiasts the opportunity to experience what cowboys, lawmen, ordinary citizens, and quite a few famous outlaws with a full purse could do with the stroke of a pen, or a well phrased telegraph message. Case in point, on August 8, 1892 an order for 10 matching 5-1/2 inch barrel length Peacemakers, all with matching mother of pearl grips and nearly full engraving coverage were shipped from Colt’s to the attention of Mr. A.E. Williams in care of Simmons Hardware Company in St. Louis, Missouri. The 10 matching revolvers, chambered in .45 Colt, were not for sale to customers in St. Louis but for a group of individuals who would ride into infamy on October 5, 1892, The Dalton Gang, with their historically failed attempt at robbing two banks at the same time in Coffeyville, Kansas. The engraved Peacemakers were intended as a symbol of the Dalton Brothers and their gang’s solidarity. Bob and Grat Dalton died that October morning; their younger brother Emmett would be the only one of the five Dalton gang members to survive. It had taken just 15 minutes in Coffeyville, Kansas, at the hands of the armed citizens defending thier town and its banks to end the careers of one of the most notorious outlaw gangs of the early 1890’s American West.

The very latest Airgun Builder Colt Peacemakers with nickel and gold finish have been hand engraved by John J. Adams, Jr. of Adams & Adams. The engraving is based on the .45 Colt in the center. This gun was copied from an original Nimschke engraved 7-1/2 inch nickel and gold model from the late 1890s, and duplicated on a 2nd Generation Colt Peacemaker by John J. Adams, Sr. in 2008.
Prior to the ill-fated Coffeyville Raid, the Dalton Brothers had purchased new Colt Peacemakers, all matching .45 caliber models with blued finishes, scrollwork engraving and mother of pearl grips. The Daltons also had their older guns, including Winchesters, and at least one British Bulldog and an older .45 Colt carried by Bob Dalton in his boot. By the time of the Coffeyville Raid in October of 1892, the reward for the Dalton Brothers “Dead or Alive” was already $15,000. (Holsters by Chisholm’sTrail)

After recovering from multiple gunshot and shotgun wounds, Emmett was tried and convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to life in the state prison at Lansing, Kansas. He was just 21 years old. After serving 15 years of his sentence, Emmett was granted a parole by the Governor. Dalton moved back to Oklahoma for a short while, and then to California, tried his hand at real estate, spent some time with a Wild West show, and worked on a book about his family and the Coffeyville Raid. The book, When the Daltons Rode was published in 1931, and in 1940 it was made into a movie starring Randolph Scott. The surviving Dalton guns have found their way into private collections, like Bob Dalton’s Colt (below), which was sold by Rock Island Auction Co. in 2012 for $109,000.

Many outlaws started out as lawmen, (and more than a few outlaws later became lawmen), but Bob Dalton started early, becoming a U.S. Deputy Marshal working out of Ft. Smith, Arkansas, at the age of only 19. In less than two years he would lose his badge and become leader of one of the most notorious gangs of train robbers in the Indian Territory. This is the actual gun he carried on the day he was shot down in Coffeyville, Kansas. (Photo courtesy Rock Island Auction Co.)

Build a Custom Airgun

Of course, as many famous lawmen as outlaws had their Peacemakers engraved, as did many others from soldiers to cattlemen and ranchers. Many were gifts from the grateful people of a town to city officials or to a lawman for driving the outlaw element from the city, such as U.S. Marshal Bill Tilghman did in Perry, Oklahoma. An engraved gun could represent many things, have many meaning, or just be an attractive firearm for the sake of art, like the pinwheel of engraved Peacemakers displayed in the Colt’s cabinet at the 1876 Centennial Exposition. 

Graver and chaser hammer in the hand

Engraving was regarded as an art form long before handguns or rifles existed, finely embellished knives, swords, shields, and armor were presented to monarchs, high ranking officials and heads of state. The art of arms engraving is more than five hundred years old, but the 19th century almost stands alone as the epitome of firearms engraving. Colt’s use of engraved firearms as presentation pieces to European royalty, Presidents, politicians and military officers goes back to the beginning of his first firearms manufacturing company in Paterson, New Jersey, (1835 to 1842), and continued throughout the remainder of his career as founder of the Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Mfg. Company. Even after his passing in January 1862, the Colt tradition had been firmly established, and the company continued on with the manufacturing and presentation of finely hand engraved revolvers. That practice, established by Samuel Colt more than 180 years ago, continues to this very day, even with the Colt CO2 Peacemakers.

A good example of “C” engraving is seen in the Nimschke CO2 Peacemaker that was done by Adams & Adams as an early limited edition pellet pistol for Pyramyd Air. At that point in time there were no gold plated parts for the air pistols and the cylinder, hammer and trigger were sent out and gold plated for the special edition models. The Nimschke also had the engraving inked in, which gives it more definition against the metal.

The aluminum alloy construction used for the Umarex Colt Peacemakers provides a metal that is strong, yet yields to the graver and chasers hammer in the hands of a skilled artisan and the possibilities for creating the same level of fine engraving used on Colt revolvers since the mid 19th Century is almost endless, as exhibited by the first pair of Airgun Builder ordered nickel and gold 7-1/2 inch models (above) just completed by John J. Adams, Jr. of Adams & Adams engraving in Vershire, Vermont.

Adams uses the same patterns as legendary engravers like Gustave Young, Cuno A. Helfricht, and famed New York City engraver Louis Daniel Nimschke, allowing an endless variety of design options and percentages of coverage. The nickel and gold pair is representative of Colt’s “C Expert” style with over 75 percent coverage from the grip frame and triggerguard to the cylinder and barrel.

Style and purpose

The Umarex Colt Peacemakers have the same fine details and features of the centerfire models which makes it possible to engrave in exactly the same fashion. Engraving levels ranged from modest embellishment of the frame, “A” engraving, to slightly more coverage of the gun with “B” engraving, the most common “C” engraving (which can be taken a little further as “C Expert”), and 100 percent coverage or “D” engraving (this would also apply to later full coverage with cattlebrands).

In percentages of engraving coverage, “D” engraving with scrollwork, would be equivalent to the full coverage seen on this 4-3/4 inch cattlebrand SAA revolver. No surface is left untouched except the front sight. On some guns, even that is engraved.

In engraving the latest CO2 models, Adams highlights the correct Colt markings and patent dates with border scrolls while using full coverage to eliminate the faint white letter warnings on the nickel guns to give the revolvers a very clean and authentic look. He also made use (on these two examples) of the copper plating beneath the nickel to add further detail to specific patterns. A coat of copper over the alloy (and steel for many plating types) is like putting down a primer before painting. If you break through the layer of nickel you will get golden like tones coming through. If you cut deeper, you break through into the white metal and can get a deeper alloy tone that complements the nickel plating, so there are different ways to go. Adams has used all three techniques for this pair.

The hand engraved patterns that were used on the 5-1/2 nickel and gold Nimschke (pictured) and the 7-1/2 inch nickel sold as limited editions by Pyramyd Air are examples of “C” engraving, just a little less coverage than the “C Expert” used for this latest pair.

The “C Expert” engraving used on the first two hand-engraved Airgun Builder Peacemakers is the most extensive and detailed work done thus far on the alloy Colt models. This is evident in the extended engraving of the barrel and more elaborate pattern used on the ejector housing.

The Colt Custom Shop (and before that, the Colt factory engraving shop) have been producing hand engraved models since the establishment of the Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Co. Those same historic engraving patterns are still used at Colt’s (which often uses Adams & Adams). John J. Adams Sr. has worked with Colt’s for over 35 years and his son, John J. Adams, Jr., has worked for the Colt’s Custom Shop and Smith & Wesson’s Performance Center.

The Colt name and the historic engraving of Colt revolvers is woven into the very fabric of our western firearms history. Today as it was in the 1870s, nothing personifies handcrafted quality in a Colt Peacemaker like hand engraving.

Compared to the first “C” engraved Adams & Adams 7-1/2 inch nickel CO2 Peacemaker done a couple of years ago for Pyramyd Air, you can see that the “C Expert” adds more work to the backstrap, topstrap, and the area surrounding the shovel which is left black.

For more information and prices (based on the level of engraving desired) you can contact Adams & Adams at (802) 685-0019.

Leave a Comment