How A Master Firearms Engraver Made The ‘John Wick 4’ Dueling Pistols

This custom Thompson/Center Encore is the single finest firearm wielded by Keanu Reeves’ Beagle-avenging hitman in the “John Wick” franchise.

John Wick battles the High Table in the fourth installment of the series (Lionsgate)

An apparently insatiable appetite for the John Wick brand of stylized, high-body-count action has led the cinematic franchise to an especially notable financial achievement: It’s one of few with an R rating to break the billion-dollar threshold at the box office.

The general audience can’t get enough of watching Keanu Reeves’ Beagle-avenging hitman terminate bad guys en masse with “gun fu”—martial arts but with guns; however, the firearms-literate also appreciate the John Wick saga for its outstandingly varied on-screen arsenal. The fourth and likely final installment, 2023’s John Wick 4, prominently features well over 25 different firearms.

There are pistols, like the Sig-Sauer P365 and array of Glock models, that can be found in many a gun safe, while others, such as the retro-modded Thompson M1A1 submachine gun or the Webley .455 Mk VI revolver, are anachronistic eye candy for history buffs.

Taran Tactical Innovations (TTI), the California-based gunsmith and private shooting range where Reeves trained (as seen in viral videos), custom-built the most elite John Wick 4 firearms one can buy, including the competition-ready, 2011-based TTI Pit Viper pistol and the TTI J4 Dracarys Gen-12 shotgun—an AR-10-style 12-gauge that was loaded with incendiary “dragon’s breath” shells for extra aesthetic effect in a bonkers house-clearing scene.

However, even TTI’s tacti-cool armaments pale in comparison to the Paris-set film’s pièce de résistance: the pair of ornate Thompson/Center Encore dueling pistols presented at the movie’s tense and twisting climax. These are break-action, single-shot handguns that were designed in the 1960s, yet they command more attention than every other weapon in the film, even distracting from the very stars who wield them. The reason for their commanding presence is almost entirely due to the masterful artistry of their engraver, Melissa McMinn.

One of just 45 Firearms Engravers Guild of America Master Engravers in the country (and one of just three female Master Engravers), McMinn was approached by John Wick franchise armorer Robert “Rock” Galotti, who found her work on Instagram.

The “John Wick: Chapter 4” dueling pistols (Melissa McMinn)

“When I was brought on board, it was in addition to my fully booked commission schedule,” says McMinn, who accepts up to five firearms commissions per year, with prices ranging from low five figures to six figures-plus.

“But I was such a fan of the movie, I couldn’t say no. [Galotti] came up with the idea for the modern twist on an antique dueling set with the Thompson Encores and needed an art designer and engraver.”

What followed were hours of brainstorming sessions, revisions and redesigns—nothing is left to whim when working on a hotly anticipated blockbuster with a $100 million budget.

“Once we settled on a general direction for the aesthetics, they cut me loose to draw and engrave the designs you see on the film guns. All of my artwork was hand-drawn to fit the unique spaces of each canvas, ensuring proper flow—the art should complement, not overwhelm, the piece.”

Even the bullet casings were hand engraved for the “John Wick: Chapter 4” dueling set (Melissa McMinn)

As one can imagine, the engraving process is arduous. All metal surfaces had to be prepped via a combination of bead-blasting and hand-finishing. “Once the preparation was up to quality standards, I sized my hand-drawn artwork to the proper dimensions and printed transfers of the art to apply to the metal,” she says.

Well over 100 hours later, McMinn’s work was ready for the silver screen. The final steel engravings are not identical on both guns—one, entitled “Consequences,” features an inked black background, while the other, “Rules,” is set against a polished metal background that was hammered for texture.

The “John Wick: Chapter 4” dueling pistols (Melissa McMinn)

The designs are beautifully complementary, each donning a fractured skull that appears to be exhaling an astoundingly detailed, baroque scroll breath.

“The fine detail in the skull was done very slowly and painstakingly using a combination of cut lines and dots to create a photorealistic appearance,” McMinn says. “Some of this work was done using a pneumatic handpiece and some of it was done by hand-pushing a burin into the metal.”

Similar breath motifs also appear near the muzzle-end of the barrel, and the grip medallions feature McMinn’s own interpretation of fleurs-de-lis rendered with her unique baroque scroll detailing.

“At this point, I thought I was done and the project was coming to a finish, but then came Rock’s idea for engraving the round [shell] casings… and lots of them,” she says. “Each of those has my simple scrolling and a silhouette of the specific fleur-de-lis detail I designed for the grip medallions.”

The “Quail Nouveau” uniquely engraved Kolar competition-grade shotgun (Melissa McMinn)

The payoff couldn’t have been bigger—those pistols were the lethal tools that shaped arguably the most pivotal development in the John Wick canon. And if you can believe it, it’s not even the most challenging firearms project McMinn has worked on.

“The craziest situation would have to be engraving [Guns N’ Roses guitarist] Gilby Clark’s Henry repeating rifle, on his kitchen table, while he showed me his Zemaitis guitar collection. I don’t normally do on-site engraving, but Gilby had been a longtime client of my work, so I made the exception.”

McMinn’s other custom guns include a “When the Levee Breaks”-inspired 1911 pistol from collector-grade firearms brand Cabot Guns, and a Kolar Arms Sideplate over/under commissioned by upscale shotgun retailer Elite Shotguns that she emblazoned with all six North American quail species.

The engraver’s Masters’ project, her “When the Levee Breaks”-themed Cabot 1911(Melissa McMinn)

Below, McMinn tells Maxim more about the John Wick 4 project, her favorite firearm engravings, and how to secure your own commission—just be prepared to wait 12-18 months. John Wick’s engraver stays about as busy as Wick himself.

Were you a fan of John Wick prior to receiving the commission? 

I was a huge fan of the John Wick franchise!  Who doesn’t like a good story of a man avenging his dog?

Talk us through the design of the John Wick pistols.

Like most engraving projects, the design process is critical and can take as much or more time than the engraving itself.  We went through many months of brainstorming concepts, sketches, and liaisons with the director and other decision makers on the film.

The “John Wick: Chapter 4” dueling pistols (Melissa McMinn)

Once we settled on a general direction for the aesthetics, they cut me loose to draw and engrave the designs you see on the film guns and intaglio prints on my website.  I brought Steve Parker of SAP Fine Furniture into the loop, and he worked his magic on the walnut presentation box and valet trays for the hand engraved rounds, while Bullberry Legacy made the custom barrels.

Were there any challenges presented by the John Wick pistols that you hadn’t encountered before?

Because my schedule is booked far in advance, the timeline was a huge challenge.  When I was brought on board to do the film guns, it was in addition to my fully booked commission schedule…but I was such a fan of the movie, I couldn’t say no!  It meant long hours that year to provide the quality of work and client experience [the John Wick 4 crew] deserved, but it was well worth the efforts.  

Aside from the John Wick pistols, what are some of your favorite firearm engravings?  

Working with Ted Yost on one of his sought-after 1911s was a favorite collaboration. I’m also very fond of several Kolar over/under shotguns that have allowed me to stretch creatively with very non-traditional designs, such as large landscapes void of your typical animal “game scenes,” the colorful “Quail Nouveau” sideplate gun, as well as several whimsical takes on traditional Rose & Scroll gun engraving.  Anything where I get to push the limits of what one traditionally expects to see with engraving is exciting.  I have great respect for traditional engraving, but I’m here to put a twist on it and break some of the rules. 

Do you have a favorite model of firearm you like to work on?  

Shotguns and 1911s are definitely my favorites, but I enjoy every project.

Do you ever engrave firearms from your personal collection?

It can be rare to get time on personal projects, but I do have a Yost 1911 and my own sporting clays gun, a Perazzi over/under,  that I intend to put on the bench in the next year or two.  

Any dream projects? 

As far as benchwork goes, an English side-by-side would be great fun!  Aside from the bench, it’s a dream of mine to bring more visibility to the artform.  I’d love to work with more companies to design engraving-inspired artwork for a wider range of goods.  

Any projects we can look forward to seeing from you in the near future?   

There are several exciting commissioned projects lined up for this year, and in the spring I’ll be releasing two new intaglio prints, one being of the popular “Quail Nouveau” design. I’ll also be engraving some pieces in my personal collection that I plan to make available. This will include rare, art-grade knives from S.R. Johnson, and Warren Osborne, as well as another Rolex engraving.

 Anything else you’d like to add? 

Please reach out with any questions about my services, sign up for my email list on my website and follow my social media pages for available pieces, limited edition intaglio prints, open commission slots, or simply to see how it’s all done and what’s happening daily in the studio!

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Maxim magazine.