Behold a Baikal Izh-54, made in USSR, that in 2018 sold at the Rock Island Auction for $9,775, with the estimate of $4,000-7,000 (link). Read on to learn more not only about this particular shotgun, but also about various Izhevsk engravers, their artistic style, and a small linguistic investigation.
I already mentioned “The Montreal Gun”, created by Leonard Vassev for the 1967 World Expo, in the post about Izhevsk’s best engraver. Thousands of people from all over the world admired this unique specimen of gunmaking art; many were able to appreciate the amount of talent and toil that went into it, but none of them knew what drama lurked behind those graceful lines – or that the gun was in fact No2 of an unvoluntarily matched pair.
The day before the opener of 1968 my grandfather unexpectedly found himself in possession of a brand-new shotgun.
Like everywhere else in the USSR, the hunters in the construction company where he worked were united into a club, which meant, among other things, they could use one of the company trucks when they went hunting. The person who drove the truck decided he might as well start to hunt, too, and asked Grandpa to help him buy a second-hand shotgun. Grandpa called his friend, the manager of the only sporting goods store in their little town, who told him they had just received a lot of export-grade Izh-54. So, he sold his old gun to the truck driver, came over and picked a brand-new one for himself. Back then, buying a shotgun was as simple as handing over the right amount of cash.
About ten years later Grandpa was diagnosed with cancer, and he gave this gun to his son-in-law (my Dad) – that already required registration. Grandpa beat the desease, and in fact lived another 35 years afterwards, but the gun remained in Dad’s possession (he still has it). One day when I was 4 or 5, Dad set up an improvised target, shouldered the gun in a kneeling position, and had me tuck the stock under my arm and press the trigger. Before I got my own gun, I used to borrow Grandpa’s Izh54 from Dad for my first hunting exploits, and in fact killed my first duck with it.
A curious fact about Grandpa’s gun was that the sporting goods store manager convinced him it was an export grade, while it actually wasn’t. Some export grade guns did in fact show up on the domestic market, because the factories would always made a little more than the dealers expected to take. However, the export grade action parts had jeweled finish, like custom guns (and the guns were assembled with custom grade tolerances) while Grandpa’s gun has regular blued parts. Then, the serial No of Grandpa’s gun consists of only one letter and four digits, while export guns had a second letter stamped in front of the number on the rear lump on the barrels. Last but not the least, the export grade would be mentioned in the gun’s tag, and the gun would be priced 15% over the standard grade. Yet, the tag for Grandpa’s gun showed only the regular price of 90 rubles (around $150 in the 60s money).
The only thing that may suggest export grade of the gun are the “Made in USSR” inscriptions in Latin characters, roll-stamped on both sides of the action box. These inscriptions were adopted for the export grade guns since the early 1960s. As the action was case-hardened, engraving and all markings on it had to be done before it was hardened. With IzhMech’s practice of making huge stock of part in advance, actions bound for Export guns would often be sent for general production. Most Soviet people believed, not without reason, that only the best goods were exported – and salespersons didn’t miss the chance to make a sale on that. Even planned economy couldn’t win over the salesperson’s natural propensities.
Some Internet pictures of IzhMech (Baikal) Izh-54 – one of the lot made to commemorate the 50th years anniversary of the October Revolution in 1967.
Interestingly, this lot of 500 guns was meant for the export, and is in most likelihood the “American Lot” from the legend.Whether it didn’t make the trip to the West because of the insufficient quality of the wood or not, I don’t know.
The gun features gold-inlaid (in Vassev‘s improved dovetail technique) combination of Russian for “50 years 1917-1967” and some visual improvisation on the topic of Soviet symbols (such as hammer and sickle). But the rest of the action is not covered with scroll. That marks the transition between the first generation of Izhevsk gun decoration, where tight scroll filled all spaces in the action free from game scenes, to the current style, where the areas surrounding the inlaid or relief-engraved image are left undecorated “to highlight the main theme”.