The art of engraving dates back to the dawn of human history. Archeologists have unearthed engraved stones from the Serengeti Plains of Africa carved some 500,000 years ago. Since that time, as civilizations rose and fell, artisans have used “push engraving” (using a hand tool to carve out material) or “chase engraving” (using a hammer or other tool to strike the carving tool) to add value to objects, ranging from the sacred to the profane. Specifically, firearms . . .
Europeans initially viewed firearms as mystical not-say-demonic devices. Thanks to their undeniable beauty and slowly improving utility, firearms became more commonplace through the 16th and 17th centuries. Even so, they remained handmade one-offs, reserved for nobility. As such, firearms were subject to the demands of fashion. As Kristen Hoff writes in the The History of Engraving . . .
The “Golden Age” of gun engraving is usually considered to be the second half of the 1800s. During this period, nearly all gun manufacturers created elegantly engraved firearms for their wealthier customers. American firearms engraving came into its own during this era, as it evolved into a large, flowing scrollwork. Firearms engraving continued into the 20th century, when it began to decline.
With the invention of laser engraving, the market for labor-intensive hand engraving has continued to diminish. While there are still superb artisans plying their trade, economic necessity tends to restrict their work to the highest of high-end shotguns and rifles. As their predecessors have for hundreds of years, they painstakingly hand craft traditional hunting scenes and scrollwork for well-heeled collectors.
When a new medium replaces an old one — such as radio replacing newspapers — it frees the old medium to reinvent itself. This truism applies to firearms engraving. As the market for traditional firearms engraving has faded, a new breed of nontraditional firearms engravers has emerged, epitomized by the master works of Otto Carter.
In 1981, Otto Carter was an art student at Texas’ Abilene Christian University. One day, a friend showed Carter his recently purchased 1873 Colt single action revolver and knife set commemorating the Abilene Centennial [above]. Weldon Lister engraved the gun using 1800’s-style scrollwork. Carter was entranced.
After earning his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, Carter continued as a sign painter at Ellison Edwards Sign Co. But he never forgot the beauty and artistry of that Colt. In 2002, further inspired by James B. Meek’s The Art of Engraving, Carter attended a course led by Firearms Guild of America Master Engraver Mike Dubber. The seed planted by the Colt took root.
“Engraving has a steep learning curve,” Carter says, “It takes years of patient perseverance to master.” Carter applied his growing talents to a range of objects, including motorcycle parts, watches, jewelry and firearms. After thousands of hours of dedicated labor, Otto joined the Guild and earned the title Master Engraver.
His new career began with traditional scrollwork. “You can’t play jazz without first learning music theory,” Carter says. His journey into non-traditional firearms engraving began with a customer’s request for a Celtic design on a cherished revolver. The commission opened-up a world of possibilities. Carter began engraving a variety of non-traditional designs on firearms; such as snake-skins, cattle brands, tribal symbols and skulls and flames (inspired by his work for Big Daddy Roth).
Carter’s firearms engraving reached new heights with two recent pieces. In 2014, he engraved a Bond Arms Derringer in the Aztec style, complete with a matching ring. In 2015, Carter completed a H.R. Geiger-inspired Dan Wesson Valor 1911 (above). In 2016, Pennsylvania 1911 manufacturer Cabot Guns saw Carter’s Geiger gun and approached the engraver with an open-ended commission.
Carter agreed to engrave the Cabot 1911 using a little known design language born in Victorian era Britain. “I’ve been fascinated by the Aesthetic Movement for years,” Carter says. “It doesn’t have the rhythmic flowing patterns of traditional scrollwork. It features a chaotic composition, with large fields broken up by geometric brackets and banners separating different pattern motifs.”
“The lack of obvious continuity is a radical approach compared to anything in traditional engraving,” Carter asserts. “But I think it’s fascinating; informed by Asian, Moorish, Italian and other cultural influences, drawn from the furthest reaches of the British Empire.”
Christened “Pandemonium,” the Carter-engraved Cabot 1911 is available for sale by auction through Cabot Guns.