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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Gustave Young: Iconic Engraver

While we were attending The Colorado Gun Collector's 48th Annual Gun Show in Denver this past May, we took in quite a few consignments.  One of the items was not a gun, but was such a direct link to history and collector firearms that it immediately stole our attention.  At first glance, it appeared to be little more than a humble book with a simple, engraved silver shield adorning its front cover.  The gilted text on the spine read "ALBUM" and we were intrigued.
Historic Leather Bound and Silver Furnished Photo Album from the Household of Historic Master Engraver Gustave Young, as Documented by Noted Arms Historian R.L. Wilson, From His Personal Collection

This album would turn out to be none other than a family photo album of legendary engraver Gustave Young, the German-born artisan whose signature crisp scrollwork and beautiful designs would set a high standard for all future gun engravers.  The "MY" engraved on the silver shield stands for Marie Young, his wife, and the "dot and line" border on the shield is in the style of the master himself.  Inside are 63 photos of men, women, children and included with the photo album is a letter from renowned author and historian R.L. Wilson, telling the story how he found this historic album and came to possess it.

Gustave Young can be seen as a young, bearded man in the lower right photo.

Young immigrated to the United States in 1846, and would engrave for Colt from 1852 into the mid 1860's, mentor the then-apprentice Conrad Ulrich, leave Colt, and return to run his own shop full-time.  He would be commissioned by Smith & Wesson in 1865 and officially enter their employ from 1869 into the 1890's.  His stature then was almost equal to what it has become today.  He was once known to have thrown D.B. Wesson out of this work area yelling, "Get out of my shop!  You talk so much I can't work!"  One characteristic of a Gustave Young piece that has changed over the years: the price.  He once wrote a letter to Wesson stating that his work would take 5-6 days to complete and that his charge would be $50.00.  His works now command hundreds of thousands of dollars or more!  Oddly, these masterpiece creations were the engravers secondary job while employed at their respective factories.  Their primary task was to create the dies required to produce firearms.  Firearms historian Roy Jinks says, "The engraver was busy cutting letter and number stamping dies, hammer and trigger checkering cutters, and wheels for rolling the company name on top of the barrel.  Engraving and gold inlaying were secondary assignments, designed to increase revenue and help reduce the overhead of this expensive service."  Gustave would pass away on January 3, 1895, but had had two sons, Oscar and Eugene, that would continue his engraving legacy at Smith & Wesson until 1913.

Examine the following items.  Most of them were engraved and/or inlaid by Gustave himself, two were likely created by an engraver in his shop, but all are exceptional examples of American firearms craftsmanship.

Factory Engraved Colt Model 1851 Navy Revolver

One of two Colt 1851 Navy revolvers available in this auction, this is the earlier of the two having been manufactured in 1859.  This is a classic example of Gustave's style, showing off his European training in his trademark Germanic scrollwork on a punch-dot background.  He also included his signature Wolf's head design on the hammer as well as another animal head on the left side of the barrel lug - another well-known European design that has existed for centuries.  The contrast of the two toned metals is striking and the pistol finishes nicely with a handsome, one-piece, walnut grip.

Magnificent Sharps Panel Scene Gustave Young Engraved Model 1853 Percussion Sporting Rifle

This rifle was manufactured sometime between 1854 and 1856 and has the honor to be featured on page 103 of R.L. Wilson's book, "Steel Canvas."  He states in his book that the engraving, while performed in Young's shop, was probably executed by a worker other than Young himself.  It features engraving on the patchbox, hammer, breech end of the barrel, receiver, and the edge of the muzzle.  A trademark of Young's style, it also has nine dots stamped on it to indicate the level of embellishment.  Our consignor notes that only four model 1853 Model 1853 Sporting Rifles were made with "Extra Engraving."  Combine that with the fact that this gun is not a Colt nor Smith & Wesson and this gun becomes an especially rare example of an engraving connected to Young.  Also auctioned off with the rifle are the accessories and the original shipping box, still stamped on its lid with the owner's name and address!

Extraordinary Documented Gustave Young's 1893 Chicago World's Fair Exposition Engraved and Gold Inlaid Smith & Wesson 44 Double Action Frontier Model Revolver with Nevada Gold Mining Lawman History

Remember this Gustave Young engraved beauty?  We did a comprehensive write-up of its rich and amazing history earlier this month!  If you missed it the first time, consider this a great second chance to learn all about it.  You'll be glad you did.  Click here to open the article in a new window.

Factory Engraved Colt Model 1849 Pocket Revolver

Here the dots which Gustave and his shop used to indicate varying levels of ornamentation
can be seen on the hammer.
This Colt Pocket Revolver is a smaller firearm than the other featured pieces seen here, but it also manages to be saturated with textbook Gustave Young style.  The scrollwork, the wolf's head hammer, and punch dots on the hammer are all in-line with his work.  This revolver, while maintaining those characteristics as well as the stately, polished walnut handle, also has some features that the other guns in this article would be proud to possess.  The scroll scene is the Stagecoach Holdup scene and all visible screws are engraved on their heads, a feature absent on even the previous gun that was featured in the Columbian Exposition.  This revolver's brass trigger guard and backstrap, in addition to being engraved, are also silver plated.  It's another classic example of Young's style that any collector would be privileged to have in their collection.

Fine Cased Gustave Young Factory Engraved Colt Model 1851 Navy Revolver with Factory Letter

The later of the two Colt 1851 Navy revolvers in our September 2013 Premiere Auction, this particular specimen still enjoys the comforts of its case and the company of its accessories.  A subtle difference between the two is the factory marking indicating that the firearm was to be engraved.  On the earlier model, a simple square shaped punch is placed in several locations, but on this model the punch has since been replaced by the letter "E" for "engraved" or other special finishes.  The amount of finish on the gun is impressive as are the touches of casehardening that grace the receiver, trigger, and screws.  The walnut grip shines with polish and its wood grains were well-chosen to finish out this becoming firearm.

One of the many animal heads that Young would incorporate in his scrollwork, a technique
European engravers have used for centuries.

Rare Early Production Colt Model 1 1855 Sidehammer Pocket Revolver with Hand Engraved Cylinder, Hammer and Barrel Address

This small looking Colt will bring a high level of rarity to the lucky collector who adds it to their collection.  For starters, it's a Model 1 Revolver.  Model 1s are one of the rarest Colt percussion revolvers, fewer produced than any Paterson, and their appearances at auction are far between.  This particular model is one of only 175 Model 1 Colt sidehammers made in 1855!  The address is also unique, being found only on early 1855 sidehammer revolvers with octagon barrels and of course, this gun wouldn't be featured in this article if it wasn't graced by the hand of Gustave Young.  The 5-shot  cylinder is wrapped with the hand engraved 'Cabin and Indian' scene, a depiction of a young homesteader man interrupted from chopping down a tree, stands firm to defend his cabin from Indians while his wife escapes with a swaddled child in her arms.  The remaining Indians, with three of their own dispatched and lying on the ground, seem to have lost their courage and are in various stages of surrender or retreat.

Young's telltale punch dots are present on the hammer below the spur and the revolver sports an attractive, polished, one piece rosewood grip.  It is a rare day indeed when a Model 1 comes up for auction, let alone one with the Colt commercial blue finish on the barrel and frame, the casehardened pieces (loading lever, cylinder pin, and hammer), the low serial number of 76, as well as being embellished by one of America's greatest firearms engravers.  All this for an estimated price that is a fraction of that of a Paterson?  Colt collectors should be lining up for this one!

This auction's representation of Gustave Young works is truly impressive.  What's more, there are firearms in this auction decorated by other master engravers in Young's beloved style.  Names such as Dennis Kies, Conrad Ulrich, and Andrew Bourbon have all engraved firearms in the Young style that appear in our September 2013 Premiere Auction.  This auction is truly a potent and diverse offering of some of the most significant and spectacular firearms.  Featuring the collections of noted collectors such as William H.D. Goddard, Mac McCroskie, Michael Ginn, C.D. Terry, Chuck & Sharron Lindley, Jerry Bowe, James Rankin, and John Olin, we are truly excited as our September auction date grows closer and closer.  We hope you are too.  Keep reading each week for more articles about the marvelous firearms here at Rock Island Auction Company!

A prime example of Young's signature "Wolf's Head."

-Written by Joel R. Kolander


Bleile, C. Roger. American Engravers. North Hollywood, CA: Beinfeld Pub., 1980. Print.

Jinks, Roy G., and Joseph Carvalho. Artistry in Arms: The Guns of Smith & Wesson. Springfield, MA: Smith & Wesson, 1992. Print.

Wilson, R. L. Colt: An American Legend (Sesquicentennial Edition). New York: Artabras, 1992. Print.


  1. Beautiful work. Wish I could afford just one example.
    JW Schachleiter LTC (Retired)

  2. I am honored to own a pistol with his work on it. As far as I am concerned he was one of the greatest engravers to have ever lived and we are just custodians of his works of art.Mine will probably stay in my family and handed done to my son.
    Carl Famularo Jr.

    1. It is truly a fortunate collection that contains his work. I hope you do pass it down and that it's treasured for generations to come.