The Gun Art of Master Engraver Lee Griffiths

Lee Griffiths of Hyde Park, Utah, began engraving in 1997, embellishing knives for his neighbors after his farming chores were finished for the day. Since then Griffiths has risen to become one of the country's top firearms engravers. Although Griffiths had studied art, he had no formal training as an engraver when he started, nor even any tools. He made his own hammer and burin from scrap salvaged in the barnyard and used a cloth bag filled with rice as his first vise. From that simple beginning he rose to become certified by the Firearms Engravers Guild of America in 1999 and has since won numerous honors. In 2007 Griffiths was able to sell his farm and become a full-time engraver and part-time engraving instructor. Some of the pictures here can also be found in the sumptuous new book_ American Engravers: The 21st Century_ by Blue Book publications, which showcases Griffiths' work along with that of over 40 of America's best living engravers.
"Optimizing" or upgrading old doubles is a popular custom gun trend. Says Griffiths: "Usually the gun is a lower grade to start with because the high grades have collector value in themselves." He filled the unadorned receiver and sideplates of this field grade L.C. Smith with beautifully engraved upland hunting scenes with gold accents.
While some clients give the engraver carte blanche, others commission specific designs. One of Griffith's repeat customers has an off-beat sense of style. He asked to have one of his skeet guns decorated with lions and tigers and bears. Griffiths hid the words "Oh my!" on the barrels.
Griffiths decorated this sideplated Browning Superposed with a variation on the traditional Victorian scroll engraving style. The acanthus leaf motif has been used since classical times and is a symbol of long life. Griffiths added the geometric straight lines of the ribbon. "Adding a manmade element to organic design breaks up the design and leads your eye through it," he says.
Griffiths was given this 1903 Winchester and told to engrave it with a design of his choice. Because the rifle was an heirloom, he picked a scene of a father teaching his son to shoot on one side, and the son grown to adulthood teaching his son to shoot on the other. The man in the overalls is a self-portrait of Griffiths.
The owner of the "Lions and Tigers and Bears" gun liked it so much he commissioned "The Bug Gun," a Perazzi Mirage skeet gun decorated with insects.
Some of the colors are inlaid gold, silver and copper while others are paint rubbed into the engraving, then lacquered over.
The opening lever knob in the shape of a spider was made of bronze and added to the original lever.
After the Bug Gun came the Dragon Gun, engraved for the same customer.
Says Griffiths: "It's fun because who knows what a dragon looks like? I can make up my own." However, before he sent the gun to the customer, he showed the design to another engraver who said "In China it's bad luck to show a dragon with empty claws. It has to be holding something." Griffiths went back and inlaid a gold ball in the dragon's claw. "I told my client: now that's your good luck gun."
A collector sent Griffiths an antique Mauser pistol dating from just before WWI and gave him free rein to engrave it however he pleased.
Griffiths settled on scenes from WWI, in which broomhandle Mausers played a prominent role.
Griffiths' theme for the pistol was the transition from 19th to 20th century warfare that occurred in WWI.
One side depicts aerial combat, while on the other, cavalry faces machine guns.
This Parker started as a low VH grade gun. When he does upgrades, Griffiths tries to remain true to the flavor of the original guns while putting his own stamp on them. Notice the gold inlaid Parker letters which evoke the original Parker font.
The standing quail are a familiar design to fanciers of American doubles, although they are rarely as well executed as the ones here.
Custom gunmaker Andrew Macfarlane built a double rifle based on an unfinished Holland and Holland action. Griffiths engraved it with traditional Victorian scroll.
He put a kudu on the bottom of the receiver.
Griffiths decorated the receiver of a Gibbs Farquharson action made by Soroka rifles. He included this picture in the gallery, he says, "to show that a lot of the work I do is more traditional-style engraving rather than the elaborate exhibition pieces seen here."
This exhibition plate has a scroll background and a mounted teutonic hunter blowing a horn. The 3-inch steel plate began as a practice piece. Says Griffiths: "I got a commission to decorate a gun with a style called liberty scroll. I thought I should practice first so I started in this plate. I had so much fun I kept going." He says the plate is one of the few things he has engraved that he owns himself.
Griffiths started by engraving knives for his neighbors on the farm. While he is best known for his work on guns, he says knives form an increasingly large segment of his work. He says knife collectors in general are more adventurous in their taste. "Gun collectors are mostly conservative and prefer classic styles. Knife guys are more open, and they want a knife that doesn't look like anyone else's." Griffiths was asked to depict an eagle chasing a small mammal and came up with this scene of a bald eagle hunting rabbits.
Most of Griffith's commissions are to decorate higher-end guns, but there are exceptions. A husband and wife bought this Uberti reproduction of an 1860 Henry rifle.
The rifle was intended specifically for Griffiths to use as a canvas. The couple asked not to see the gun until it was completely finished. He chose Civil War scenes depicting the U.S. Capitol on one side, and a Confederate soldier in front of the Custus-Lee mansion on the other.
The sideplates on this Browning Superposed show an old-fashioned quail hunting scene with mule drawn wagons. Griffiths engraved it for a man in Texas, and later called and asked if he could borrow the gun back to display at an engraver's show. The man said no. Griffiths said: "I understand." The man said: "No you don't. I can't let you have it right now. It's quail season and I'm hunting with that gun every weekend." Griffiths estimates the time and cost of a similar job would be $15,000 and two months without interruptions.

Lee Griffiths of Hyde Park, Utah, began engraving in 1997, embellishing knives for his neighbors after his farming chores were finished for the day. Since then, Griffiths has risen to become one of the country's top firearms engravers. He spoke with Field & Stream's Phil Bourjaily about some of his favorite and most memorable pieces, pictured here.