Dressing Up Like a Cowboy--and Getting Paid For It: Gun Engraver Jim Downing

Mar 27, 2018

“You know, I get to travel and do this and show off and dress up like a cowboy—and get paid for it! It’s a wonderful life.”

That’s Jim Downing.  Based in Springfield, the handlebar-mustached Downing is known all over the world as a master engraver who specializes in engraving firearms for collectors, and especially for practitioners of a competitive sport known as “Cowboy Action Shooting.”  We’ll get back to “cowboy shooting” in a moment.  I visited Jim Downing a few weeks ago at his work desk at Cherokee Firearms in Springfield, and asked him how he got into such a specialized business in the first place.

“I started engraving in 1979, engraving scrimshaw—the art of engraving on ivory—just to meet girls. And I met my wife that way just the next year.”

I stopped him right there. “Now, why is that a way to meet girls?”

“Well, when you’re 20, everything you do is a way to meet girls!” (Couldn’t argue with that point....) He went on, “And scrimshaw is jewelry.  Next step was engraving silver to mount the ivory, so I learned silversmithing.  Soon after that, to decorate that silver, I learned hand-engraving, “push engraving,” which has been done for 3000 years and more, probably.”

This eventually led Jim Downing to firearm engraving, which he considers to be “the pinnacle” of the engraving craft (he considers himself a “craftsman”, not an “artist”). When he moved to the Midwest from the East Coast, he met Tilden Swensen in Tulsa at a gun show.  Swensen taught engraving, and Downing joined one of his classes.  He says from there “it’s been a 38-year learning experience for me.  And cowboy shooting is when things really took off.”

“Cowboy Action Shooting” as a competitive sport seems to have originated in southern California in the early 1980s. But Jim Downing feels that it saw an explosion in interest and popularity following the release of the movie “Tombstone” in 1993. “Everything hit the fan,” he said. “I mean, it was wonderful.  Cowboy shooters came out of the woodwork, and all of those people of OUR age, for instance (indicating himself and me), who grew up with cowboy movies. Cowboy shooting went from, like, 20,000 to 30,000 people to 200,000 in no time at all.  Lot of women, lot of kids, it’s a big family sport, multiple generations.”

There are numerous Cowboy Action Shooting clubs in southwest Missouri, including Southern Missouri Rangers and Butterfield Trail Cowboys.  Downing estimates there are several hundred participants in the area.

As Downing described it, “Cowboy Action Shooting is when a bunch of us gather, dress up in the 1880s style—it’s all pre-1900.  But we’re shooting live rounds at steel targets. So unlike re-enactors, where you might see an historic re-enaction on the Square—which I’ve done—we’re in the flavor of all that, but we’re shooting actually guns, many of them from pre-1900.  Most of them are actually reproductions of those same guns. And those are the guns that I, as an engraver, engrave—1911s and earlier is pretty much all I touch. I don’t do many guns that are newer than that. Modern guns are made to go ‘bang,’ and they do that efficiently.  The old guns had style, they had grace, and if you engrave ‘em, they’re beautiful.”

Downing showed me his current project at the store. “What I’m working on here is a (gun) cylinder [the part of a six-shooter that holds the bullets].” He then started drawing a scroll with a small pneumatic device that sounded a bit like a miniature jack-hammer... and that’s a relatively accurate description of what it does, actually. “So my tool is a little impact hammer,” said Downing as he worked. “A push tool like this has been used literally for thousands of years—that’s what I have here.  But within it is a hammer that is bouncing,” and he got a small hammer and a graver tool and tapped rapidly on it to illustrate.  Downing was strictly working freehand, not engraving a drawn-on pattern.

“So everything I do is freehand. The only thing I drew on this was a circle where I wanted the scroll, just for spacing, and then make it up as I go.”

As Downing said, the Cowboy Action Shooters tend to use reproductions of late 19th-century firearms, as the real thing would usually be too delicate—and often, too monetarily valuable—to risk damage. He said engraving original 19th-century firearms is pretty much frowned upon in the serious collector community. “If a Colt from 1890 is in 95 percent perfect shape, that’s a collectible. And people come to me all the time and would like to engrave that.  And I say, ‘Look, you realize this is a collectible.  And if you engrave on it—even if the engraving is beautiful—to the collectors you diminish the value.  To other people on the other hand, who are just like, ‘I don’t care, that’s a beautiful gun, I want it engraved,’ okay—it’s your gun.  But I kind of give a disclaimer.”

The firearms hobby is often passed down in families from generation to generation... and so are valuable antique guns, something they deal with frequently at Cherokee Firearms.  But the entire store was a-buzz the day I was there because of what had just walked in: an original Smith and Wesson Scofield Model 3 revolver (see the photos accompanying this article). Now owned by Steve Pierce, it came down to him from his great-great-great grandfather.

“It was made in 1870,” said Pierce. “It was the first large-bore handgun Smith and Wesson ever produced.”  I asked if he’d ever had it appraised. “I never have had an official appraisal, but I’ve done lots of research. I’ve seen them (sell) anywhere from $8,000 to $20,000.” You can imagine why the store employees were so excited—Jim Downing later told me he’d never seen such a rare and valuable gun, especially in that condition. It’s one of only 1000 that were ever made.  Pierce has no children to pass on the gun to, so he said, “I’ll have to face a decision someday, what to do with it.”

But whatever you do, said Jim Downing, DON’T engrave it!