Roger Sampson, engraver: making PERM commemorative rifles special!
by Joe Fellegy
Roger Sampson in his engraving studio, using the GraverMax and stereomicroscope.
Engravings on guns date back hundreds of years to the early days of gunsmithing in Europe. The famous PERM rifles - Winchester Model 94 30-30s - are rare commemoratives auctioned at major PERM (Proper Economic Resource Management) fundraisers. To date they number in the low 20s. Each rifle's unique status and value are bolstered by beautiful engravings. Engravings on the receiver include a deer bust, the letters PERM, and the series number. The attractive sterling silver medallion on the stock features the autographs of Bud Grant and Howard Hanson, the name and date of the PERM fundraising event, PERM, and a walleye.
Professional engraving is an art practiced by a few practiced hands. The following interview by writer Joe Fellegy features PERM's engraver, Roger Sampson. The work of this Fergus Falls native who resides near Mora helps make PERM commemorative rifles very special! And he likes to emphasize that a purchaser of a PERM rifle is participating in "making history!"
Q. We don't find an engraver on every block in town. How did you become an engraver?
Roger: It was kind of by accident. Firearms were always fascinating for me. I hunted as a kid. And I looked through Shooter's Bible, Gun Digest, and other publications and took note of the engravings. I appreciated them. Then, in the 1970s, I got into building muzzleloaders, starting with CVA (Connecticut Valley Arms) kits. They still make black powder reproductions. Black powder almost met it's death about a hundred years ago, but then cheap muzzleloaders were imported from Belgium. Muzzleloader popularity grew in the 1940s, especially in the east. And it really picked up in the 1970s. Anyway, I got more elaborate and built some pieces from scratch. And I started to do some crude Pennsylvania and early-American engraving, a style that went back to when one-man frontier shops built lock, stock, and barrel, and did their own engraving - signed their name on the barrel and engraved on the side plates with a traditional hammer and chisel approach. Back then a gun wasn't done until it had some engraving on it.
Q. So you've been interested in guns and engraving for a long time.
Roger: Yes, and then about 20 years ago, living a reasonable distance from Pine City, I was able to take advantage of the talents of a teacher, Emma Achleithner. She and her husband started the gunsmithing program at Pine Technical College. He was the gunsmith and she was the engraver. They were Austria-trained. And I took evening classes from Emma. Then it got to be a hobby that grew and grew. I've been engraving commercially since 1985.
Q. A lot of folks know little about engraving and might suspect that it's a 5-minute mechanized job. What is the process?
Roger: The traditional method was hammer and chisel. I use a machine that was developed about 20 years ago. It's called a Gravermeister. You could call it a very small air hammer. It replaces the hand-held hammer. But the graver, the tool itself, remains the same. Instead of it being mounted in a wooden handle or a steel handle, it fits into a chuck on the air hammer. You might compare the graver to a wood carving tool. There are different kinds and sizes of gravers, and you select the right one for the particular task you're working on. Actually, I use a GraverMax, a more sophisticated version.
I do my fine and intricate game scenes with a bulino, a hand-held tool powered by hand. You get tremendous detail with it. It's almost photographic. It was originally developed for printing, for making pictures for old printing plates and for printing money. It was a skill or trade unto itself, involving some real handiwork.
Actually, the "machine" merely replaces the swinging hammer. What really happens still depends on the craftman's hands and judgment - like a carpenter using a mix of hand and power tools.
Q. What do you wear for optical equipment? Anything special?
Roger: I work under a stereomicroscope, much like assemblers of electronics. It sits on a stand with my work underneath it. Unlike a microscope and one eye, I'm using two eyes for less fatigue. We're talking time-intensive work.
Q. Are there classes of engravers, like master engravers, expert engravers, or something like that?
Roger: There's a Firearms Engravers Guild of America (F.E.G.A.), organized in 1980. They don't use the term "master engraver" in their classification of engravers. That's a European term indicating the individual has gone through a European apprenticeship and guild system. The standards are very high. F.E.G.A. does recognize a professional engraver status. A professional engraver is someone who has learned how to engrave, and after a certain period of time they can submit their work to the Guild's committee of judges who view their work. If the work is of appropriate quality the engraver is awarded "professional" designation in the guild. F.E.G.A professional status indicates that the guy knows what he's doing. Gold inlays are done properly. Borders are clean. Scroll work is of proper design. He's a quality workman. He may not be a Picasso or a Rembrandt. But he's good. The Guild is particular, but it's still a "buyer beware" market because some engravers are more capable than others. The Guild professional pays higher dues, gets a hallmark stamp, and can call himself a professional quality engraver. Essentially it means he's a journeyman capable of doing standard, acceptable quality work. I achieved F.E.G.A. professional status in 1989. I'm presently on the board of directors of that organization.
Q. Your work is often referred to as art.
Roger. I compare engraving to piano playing. You have piano players who entertain at local taverns on Saturday evenings. And some play for wealthy audiences at Carnegie Hall.
Q. Have you played at Carnegie Hall?
Roger. Using that analogy, almost. I've been to Nashville for sure!
Q. Talk about your engraving as art.
Roger: Well, I've done some very elaborate pieces. A year ago I finished a reproduction Parker done in fine English rose-and-scroll style with three pheasant game scenes inlaid in gold, with bulino style engraving. Many consider Parkers to have been the finest U. S.-made double shotguns. Now there's a company that reintroduced Parker a few years ago. My work was done for the owners. Now I'm finishing up a rare Smith & Wesson prototype that never went into production. That involves inlaid raised gold, 22 and 24 karot gold, and monsters from European mythology.
Q. Do you market engravings?
Roger: Not in the sense that I produce a lot of pieces and then try to sell them. My work is commissioned, or ordered, and then I do the work. I attend trade shows with examples of my work. That amounts to selling myself and what I can do rather than selling products. I do the NRA show, where the Firearms Engravers Guild has a booth and display to promote engraving in general and the recognition of the Guild as a group of engravers able to do quality work. And there's a joint guild show every winter in Reno, Nev. - the Firearms Engravers Guild and the Custom Gun Makers Guild expo -where people in the market for high-end work can meet custom gun makers and custom engravers. Not all my work deals with guns. I even do designer jewelry for high-class jewelers. Custom knives are another area of work, where the engraver might deal with anything from brass to pure gold.
Q. How pricy can engravings get?
Roger: I know of a Holland and Holland 600 nitro express, a huge gun that costs over 100,000 pounds sterling. Of that figure 60,000 pounds is for the engraving. I'm not in that price league! My spendier stuff goes for eight to ten thousand dollars. The bulk of it is $2,500 to $5,000. I do a lot of miniatures, scale models of real guns.
Q. When an outdoorsman brings a deer head or a fish to a taxidermist, there's sometimes a substantial waiting period. Does that hold true with engravers?
Roger: Right now, with major projects, I'm behind more than three years!
Q. What about the PERM commemorative rifles? Some say the engravings help make them very special.
Roger: The engraving is pretty nice! That silver medallion in the stock has to be cut from custom sheet stock, formed, and polished. It involves a lot of hand-cut lettering. So, yes, the craftsmanship is there. I feel the engraving helps drive home the really big value in a PERM gun. You see, aside from the quality rifle itself and the engravings, you've got the uniqueness of an individual piece that commemorates a particular event. It represents PERM's important political and legal efforts, a part of Minnesota history. The engravings help drive that special status and history home. Each rifle is different because the engraving cites a particular PERM fundraising event on a particular date. So they are very special!