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Thursday, January 8, 2015

An Engraving Mystery

In our December 2014 Premiere Firearms Auction there was a gun which I found to be very curious.  Far from any area I feel bold enough to call an expertise, this particular gun was what our headlines described as a "Finely Engraved German Kowar Single Shot Schuetzen Rifle with Relief Carved Stock."  It struck me as being out of the ordinary in several regards.  For one, the stock of a Schuetzen rifle, shaped for ergonomics and stability during shooting, always sticks out to a set of eyes more accustomed to seeing a standard shotgun or rifle butt.  Second, the gun was made for a left-handed shooter, given the position of the cheek-piece.  The last thing I found unusual required a closer inspection, but once I saw it I was instantly puzzled and found myself searching for answers.  I present for your inspection, the gun's engraving.

For this first photo, let me say that very little appears unusual regarding the engraving.  Many firearms depict panel scenes of their intended quarry, and this Schuetzen chambered in 32 WCF (a.k.a. .32-20) would certainly have once been considered an appropriate caliber to take down such animals before it descended into obscurity thanks to the arrival of more efficient cartridges  In fact, the scroll work around the animals is also very appropriate, depicting the trees and foliage give the viewer a glimpse into the forest that these creatures inhabit.  However, what these animals are is initially unclear.  Upon first glance to an American they appear to be Pronghorns, an animal exclusively found in North America and more often associated with the plains than the forest.  This makes them an unusual choice for a very German rifle, plus the antlers are not 100% correct.  The mind also turns quickly to the roe deer, a small deer that can be found in the majority of Europe and Scandinavia. Could they be roe bucks?  It again seems unlikely, based again on the antlers.  However, a little research reveals them to be a pair of chamois, a goat/antelope species that lives in much of eastern Europe - not a species many North Americans would recognize.  Folks more accustomed to seeing pronghorns or with little to no hunting experience in Europe or the Alps, might ask themselves, "What on earth are pronghorn antelope doing in a forest, let alone in Germany?"  Initially it seems quite unusual.

The second odd bit of engraving can be seen on the bottom of the trigger guard. A vulture or buzzard is a not a very common animal depicted on firearms, yet here a rather surly looking specimen is given reign over the entire trigger guard.

When watching movies, I was always taught that "nothing is done by accident."  The director doesn't just randomly decide to have a storm take place, or a character die, or the characters to encounter a road or river.  Those things are symbols.  Even in films that are mediocre, they should mean something other than just a device to move the plot forward.  I believe the same thing can be said for firearms engraving.  No artisan sits down with their tools, prepared to spend hours plying their trade, without a clear idea of what they are going to create.  They don't simply start drawing lines willy-nilly and see what happens to take shape.  No, their choices are equally deliberate, especially when considering the limited canvas size with which they are working.

That said, most rifles are adorned with animals we have all come to respect through the hunt.  Be it ducks, pheasants, deer, elk, lions, moose, stags, Cape buffalo, bison, rhinos, elephants, geese, grouse, or even rabbits, all are either beautiful, powerful, have been hunted with great respect, or are recalled fondly from previous hunts.  Vultures are none of those things!  They are often reviled for their thankless task of removing the dead, they certainly do not fit any widely accepted definition of a beautiful animal, and to top it all off, many even vomit a black, noxious liquid up to 10 feet as a self-defense and defecate on their feet as a cooling measure.  Why an artist would make the deliberate choice to portray such a creature on such a gorgeous rifle is most puzzling.  While the location choice of this engraving gives it less prominence, the choice of animal remains curious.  Not shown in these photos is also an engraving of a dove featured behind the breech block.  Such a symbol of purity, love, and peace is a stark contrast to the death associate vulture.  Is "life and death" the theme the engraver was trying to portray?  The dove must surely be another symbol since the rifle would be extremely ill-suited to dove hunting.

The last side of engraving shows a forest scene depicting a distraught hunter kneeling before a deer with a cross between its antlers.  Such imagery will be familiar to German scholars, a few Catholics, and those familiar with the Jäegermeister logo.  Shown on the left side of the receiver is the conversion of Placidus to Saint Eustace.

The legend goes that Placidus was a Roman general in the 2nd century serving under Emperor Trajan.  One day, in the midst of a hunt, he saw a great stag, pursued it at great length, and before he could shoot it, witnessed a crucifix between its antlers.  Much like Saul or Tarsus was changed to Paul the Apostle, Placidus' experience inspired him to convert immediately to Christianity, have he and his family baptized, and change his name to Eustace.  The rest of his life tells many tribulations (though they are a common theme in many Middle English stories).  Given his hunting past and his conversion, it should come as no surprise that St. Eustace is the patron saint of hunters.

The legend of St. Eustace is not unique to him.  As mentioned earlier, it was a popular theme in  Middle English stories (known there as "The Man Tried By Fate") and was also used to describe the vision of Hubertus (a.k.a. Saint Hubertus).  Sources differ on who the story was attributed to first, but much confusion remains between the two men because of it.  While many works of art have been made of the conversion, like the impressive stained glass window at the Chartes Cathedral, the work "The Conversion of Holy Hubertus," (seen below) by Wilhelm Räuber is almost a dead ringer for the scene depicted on the rifle.

Having evaluated the different engraved parts of the gun, one can now start to put together the theme that the engraver may have had in mind.  The dove and vulture clearly represent life and death, but that message is somewhat muddied by the other two images.  Life and death of what?  The hunter's quarry?  The hunter?  Thankfully, we have the image of St. Eustace/Hubertus on the left side of the frame to clarify the artist's intent.  It is not just the life and death of game, the instrument of which the hunter holds in his hands.  As with the converted hunter, it is the matter of eternal life and death that the artist held so dear.  This conclusion also makes the positioning of the dove and vulture all the more important: the pure dove facing heavenward and the vulture with its image of death and decay also facing appropriately.

But what about the chamois on the left side of the receiver?  How do they tie in to all of this?  They seem to break from the eternal life/death theme to simply depict the game that this rifle would have been used to harvest.  However, I am fully ready to concede that the animal may have a native symbolism in Germany with which this American writer is not familiar.

Hopefully putting together that little puzzle was fun and interesting.  It began with a gun that appeared to have some rather random engravings of a vulture, two weird-looking pronghorn antelope, a dove, and a man kneeling before a Jägermeister deer, but a little investigating revealed some rather unique, beautiful, and profound symbolism.  Turns out that not just the devil is in the details, his counterpart is as well.

The following poem is entitled "Waidmannsheil" or "Hunter's Salute" by Oskar von Riesenthal and it appears unattributed on every bottle of Jägermeister.  I thought it would be appropriate to republish it here with this German hunting piece with its religious undertones.  It reads,

"Das ist des Jägers Ehrenschild,
daß er beschützt und hegt sein Wild,
weidmännisch jagt, wie sich’s gehört,
den Schöpfer im Geschöpfe ehrt."

Which translates literally translates as:
"This is the hunter's honor shield,
which he protects and looks after his game,
Huntsman hunts, as it should be,
the Creator in the creatures honor."

or a bit more artistically as,
"This is the hunter's badge of glory,
That he protect and tend his quarry,
Hunt with Honor, as is due,
And through the beast to God is true."

Item listing can be seen here
Estimate: $3,000 - $4,500
Sale Price: $3,450

-Written by Joel Kolander


  1. You'd go crazy in my gunroom....all engraved German combination guns! Wayne Köecher Alaska

  2. This was a very much appreciated explanation of the engraving on this rifle. Thanks for the effort!

  3. Just a guess going of the description and pictures. This could be a German Heraldic device used as part of the owners Coat of Arms or as a subtle dig at the owner. The Heraldic device of the vulture did stand for carrion: but the “greediness or gluttony” could be the snub. Just a guess unless there are any letters of provenance or family papers. You never know when a client gives you an idea of what they want but allow you to do what you want. Yours in service James Acerra