Leonard Vassev, quite possibly, could have become a painter, were he born in another time or place, but for an Izhevsk boy in the heat of WWII, an apprenticeship at the gun works was a surer ticket to survival. Leonard’s skill in etching on metal soon attracted the attention of his co-workers, especially those who had been transferred to Izhevsk from the Tula Armory, and he was asked to engrave one of the shotguns that were being made to commemorate the upcoming victory in the war. The battle scenes with which he covered an IzhB36 model sidelock impressed his superiors so much that in 1945 Vassev was sent to Suhl for an apprenticeship at Gebruder Merkel.
Not many pictures are available which do justice to the guns he created. The ones I have at hand were taken from the Izhevsk Gunmaking School booklet (top) and E. Shumilov’s 1987 book “The Art of Izhevsk Gunmakers” (the rest). The above and below is what is known as Writers’ Gun. It was made in order of two classics of Russian literature, who were also devoted hunters, Nikolai Nekrasov (left side) and Ivan Turgenev (right side).
On each side, there’s a portrait of the author, with a scene illustrating one of his most famous books. Nekrasov’s side features a scene from his poem “Grandpa Mazai”, where the hero, a peasant market hunter, saves a number of hares about to be drowned in the spring flood. Turgenev’s scene is from his anti-serfdom volume of short stories “A Sportsman’s Sketches”, a gentleman hunter spending the night in company of serf boys herding horses.
The underside is a reproduction of the iconic Russian painting “Hunters at Rest” by Perov, a contemporary of the writers.
Some of the images may look like a painting on enamel, but they are actually inlaid in precious metals. Vassev reinvented and developed the technique of dove-tail inletting, which has become a trademark of decorated Izhevsk guns. Yet, Leonard took a step ahead and began ‘painting on metal’, intetting tiny pieces of alloys with varying silver and gold proportions, each having a different color. This technique enabled him to achieve the effect of the campfire light-and-shadow play on Lenin’s body and face for “The Montreal Gun”, made for 1967 Montreal Expo. Vassev’s other trademark technique was the “frost” style, which, as the name suggests, gave the illusion that the weapon was covered by frost, all the way to these astounding lines you can see when the ice forms on a cold window glass. You can’t see the “Izhevsk frost” here, as I couldn’t find a pic of a gun finished in this style by Vassev. Images of Vassev’s guns are hard to come by, as the guns are safely locked up in various museums, almost unaccessable for an average gun enthusiast.
The guns pictured are both Izh-54 in “Sport” configuration (with side plates and side clips). A plane Jane version of this model was exported as Baikal Ij 54. Yes, Vassev worked on the same IzhMech plant which is known worldwide for “those ugly Russian tank” Baikal shotguns.
Vassev died young, succumbing to the usual Russian combined bane of vodka and oppressive system which made decisions on the basis on politics, not merit, but he remains a legend and is honored as the founder of Izhevsk school of engraving. The Izhevsk School of Gunmaking bears his name.