- Associated Press - Friday, July 28, 2017

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) - Jim Downing prefers to call himself a craftsman, not an artist.

But his intricately hand-carved renderings on Colts, Rugers, Winchesters and other fine guns have earned him clients from across the globe - from Europe all the way to Australia.

Especially in the world of cowboy action shooting, mention Springfield, Missouri, and many participants in the Western-themed sport will instantly know the name: Jim Downing, Gun Engraver.

It’s been an unusual path to his workbench at Cherokee Firearms in Springfield, where Downing typically engraves one to two guns a week, all by hand.

“I started with scrimshaw (the art of engraving on ivory) in 1979 engraving fossil ivory from Alaska,” Downing told the Springfield News-Leader during a break from teaching a metal engraving class at Cherokee Firearms. “I engraved silver and then advanced to knives. I did knives, a lot of knives, for a long time. I didn’t even touch a gun for 12 years.”

He began his engraving career tapping with a hammer and hardened chisel. But just like the camera industry switched from film to digital, Downing said a new tool emerged in 1979 that changed the world of gun engraving - the air-powered impact hammer.

It uses compressed air to easily drive a thin carbide-cobalt tipped chisel into even the hardest steels. Instead of weeks tapping out an intricate design with a hand-held chisel, Downing realized he could engrave a gun with the mechanical device in only a day or two.

He also found he could make a living at it.

People are willing to spend a lot of money to have their favorite firearms personalized by Jim Downing. Depending on the kind of gun and how much engraving a customer wants, the cost can range from $1,000 to $2,000 or more.

“I’m a craftsman,” Downing said. “Artists never make the money, but craftsmen always do.”

His engraving career got a big boost when cowboy action shooting became popular, not just in the United States, but in Australia and Europe, where competitors enjoy dressing up in vintage-cowboy clothing and firing Old West-style six shooters and lever-action guns and shotguns at all kinds of targets.

In the era of military-style “black guns,” Downing said there’s still a great desire among some shooters to appreciate the guns that tamed the West.

Many cowboy action shooters will have their “alias” - their shooting nickname - engraved onto their guns.

Downing, who also is a practiced cowboy action shooter, smiled when he revealed his alias: Scratch.

On a recent Monday, Downing was focused on a customer’s Ruger Vaquero .45 Colt handgun, with elk-antler grips. It looks just like what a cowboy on the Texas range might have carried, except this six shooter is made of stainless steel, which didn’t exist at the turn of the century. It wasn’t invented until 1913.

“I’ll be engraving the barrel, the cylinder and the backstrap,” he said. “The barrel, because it’s curved, takes a lot of practice. It’s all about finding the right angle for the bit, but that angle is changing every millisecond that you’re engraving.”

The impact hammer buzzed as Downing carved out perfectly angled arcs into the backstrap - the rear part of the gun’s handle. Thin strands of stainless steel curled up and fell away as he cut the design he wanted.

To reduce costs, some gun makers use lasers to burn an image into a gun’s barrel or side plate. But Downing said “laser-etched” firearms just don’t have the same look as a hand-engraved one.

“A laser cut is one dimensional,” Downing said. “When you hand-cut into steel, it makes a ‘V’ that reflects light differently depending on the angle that you’re looking at. You can definitely tell the difference.”

Downing not only engraves customers’ guns, he teaches others how to do it. His five-day classes are often sold out, with clients from across the country.

“I do cowboy mounted shooting (on horseback), so I want to learn how to engrave bits, stirrups and my own guns,” said Lucy Massey, of Clarksdale, Mississippi, the only woman in a class of six people. “I’m taking his class because I want to learn it as a hobby.”

Following Downing’s example, she practiced engraving straight lines, curves and eventually elegant letters into a flat slab of steel.

“It’s harder than it looks, but the way he teaches it, he tells you all the pitfalls before you do it. I won’t be that nervous when I try it on my own guns. I hope they will be prettier,” she said.

Bob Thornton of Orlando, Florida, also took the class so he can engrave his own guns. He said Downing is well-known in the engraving industry and that’s how he learned of Downing’s classes in Springfield.

He acknowledged mastering the technique was hard, but said he’d get better with practice. Will he be nervous touching that engraving tip to one of his own guns?

“Probably,” he quipped. “I’ll do it on a lot of parts first.”

Customer Dale Sundstrom said he is a fan of Downing’s work and is currently working with him to engrave a post-WWII Mauser HSc pistol, made in Germany.

Jim engraves in an American floral scroll style,” Sundstrom said. “He’s a true artist and professional, in the sense that he’s efficient, fast, and excellent. Thus, a good value for the money. My belief is it’s best to let the artist do their thing and just let them have at it.”

The end result is a customized gun that has sentimental and possibly more monetary value to the owner.

“So engraving, if done nicely, can really add to the value and the look of the gun,” Sundstrom said. “A lot of these guns have done nothing but appreciate in value over time. But more importantly, they tend to become a part of the person.”

Downing has a number of favorite firearms he owns and has engraved for himself. One he calls his “barbecue gun.”

“There’s an old Texas Rangers tradition where they have one pretty gun they take to their barbecue to show off,” said Downing, reaching into the workbench for his. “This is a Ruger Vaquero with mineralized mammoth ivory grips and gold inlay in the engraving. The mammoth tusk grips are 20,000 to 30,000 years old. It’s my barbecue gun - it’s a $300 gun with $4,000 worth of stuff in it!”

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Information from: Springfield News-Leader, https://www.news-leader.com

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