In 1970, a young Vermonter named Winston Gordon Churchill applied for a job as an engraver at Griffin & Howe, then located in New York City. Even with no formal training at the time, Churchill’s talent was so obvious that he was hired on the spot, and worked there until 1973 under the tutelage of Joe Fugger, G&H’s resident master engraver. In that year Churchill went on his own, and in the time since, through a series of 30 or so major works and a host of lesser ones, he has established himself as the greatest American engraver of the 20th century.
But the toll on his eyesight, and the onset of Parkinson’s disease, have cut short Churchill’s career. His last major commission was to have been a cased Colt Peacemaker, with Churchill doing the engraving and the case made by an Australian artist named Damien Connolly. Churchill, however, was unable to complete his end of the project, and turned over the engraving to Connolly, who is probably the most astonishing collection of talents working in firearms today.
Connolly was born and worked in Australia, but in early 2011 he moved to Vermont, where he met Churchill, and has lived there ever since.
Quite aside from being an engraver whose name you can mention in the same breath as Churchill’s, Connolly can make anything. I don’t mean any kind of gun; I mean anything. He got his start at eight years old carving wooden animals and making model guns. When he reached his teens he was making surfboards after school, and at 17 he was making them professionally. Trained as a carpenter, he started making muzzle-loaders at 21, and he began engraving in 1979.
Engravers, as a rule, engrave, and that’s all they do. Churchill was a brilliant stockmaker, but his heart was never in wood, and he turned out only a very few stocks. Connolly, as I said, is a cat of a different shade. He is an expert in precision machining, and designed his own high-speed drill/milling machine. He has extensive experience in clay sculpting, model and mold making, and metal and resin casting. He is a specialist in Tig, Mig, and oxy-acetylene welding. He is an accomplished wood carver, and builds his own micro rasps and carving chisels, whose cutting edges are dwarfed by the head of a match.
He can do high-relief sculpting, bulino and banknote styles, precious-metal inlay, and low-relief foliate scroll. Connolly has developed techniques for restoring damaged and corroded surfaces and, as he says in somewhat more polite terms, to throw out an entire job if he’s not happy with it and start all over.
Am I done? No. If you become bored with firearms and like race cars, Mr. Connolly is an expert on their suspensions, both the design and manufacture thereof. He can also build an engine, plus the ancillary and drive train components. Or, if you need something to hold down your car’s rear end at 150 mph, he can make you an aesthetically pleasing carbon composite honeycomb wing.
During his career, Damien Connolly has built complete bolt-action rifles (both plain and fancy, cased with the accessories) and muzzle-loaders. But perhaps the prize of this body of work is a miniature Kentucky rifle that took 5 years, 2000 hours of work, and weighs only one ounce. Made largely with the help of a microscope, this little jewel is a perfect 1:5 scale reproduction.
Knives? Sure, why not? Connolly has made approximately 20 exhibition-grade knives (homogeneous and pattern-welded blades) and engraved and gold-inlaid them.
In an age of specialization, where we tend to occupy niches, Damien Connolly is a rarity. He is self-taught, and would rather learn an entire new skill than surrender control to someone else. He is “If you want it done right, do it yourself.” extrapolated to the nth power. Mechanical and artistic ability at this level rarely show up in the same human being.
Years ago, I heard the manager at Griffin & Howe say of one of his gunsmiths, “He’s got gold in his hands.” That’s Damien Connolly in a nutshell—except in his case, it’s true both literally and figuratively. You can reach him at email@example.com.–David E. Petzal