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The Classic American Shotgun

Picking the classic American shotgun is a lot like being the judge at a beauty contest: You end up making a few people happy and a lot more unhappy if you don't happen to pick their personal favorites.
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Picking the classic American shotgun is a lot like being the judge at a beauty contest: You end up making a few people happy and a lot more unhappy if you don't happen to pick their personal favorites. The choosingprocess is made all the more tedious by the rather sobering fact that America does not have a great shotgun-making tradition, certainly not compared to the European classics. I can hear gasps and squawks of protest, but the facts speak for themselves. We're a nation of pistoleeros and riflemen and have been ever since the days of Eliphalet Remington, Sam Colt and Oliver Winchester. When it comes to making great revolvers and lever-action rifles, we wrote the book. But where's the great American shotgun-maker? Of course, our native-born John Browning comes to mind, but his smoothbore masterpieces-the superb Superposed and ubiquitous square-backed autoloaders-were made beyond our shores.


To be fair, our shotgun-making industry can be reasonably compared to the American automaking industry, whose vehicles are tough, reliable and generally comfortable in their fashion. But in no way do they compare with, say, the British Rolls Royce or Italy's Ferrari, comparisons that are curiously coincidental when you consider that England and Italy are also the homes of some of the world's truly great shotguns. So, bearing in mind that the only American-made smoothbore that comes close to the elegance and workmanship of the great guns by Boss, Holland & Holland, Purdey, Fabbri and Famars are being made right now in a modest factory called the Connecticut Shotgun Mfg. Co., I've bent the definition of "classic" to conform with the broad-shouldered, rough-and-ready ways we Americans use our shotguns.

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The Doubles

Though we sometimes get blubbery and teary-eyed about our nice old Parkers and L.C. Smiths, such emotions are generally reserved for fireside remembrances and quasi-gentlemanly tomes. The somber fact of the matter is that the stars of American breech-loading-side-by-side doubles-rose and fell within the brief generation that lasted from the introduction of the self-contained shotshell until American hunters turned en masse to guns offering greater firepower. During that era of unrestrained American manufacturing virility, the prince of shotguns was Daniel Lefever. Had "Uncle Dan" been as good a businessman as he was a gun designer, Lefever might very well be the signature brand in American shotgun-making.


Back in 1878, when other gunmakers were still of the old-style, external-hammer mind-set, Lefever introduced the first hammerless break-open shotgun to be made in the U.S. This revolutionary concept was quickly adapted by other gunmakers and it is not unreasonable to say that other Lefever innovations such as the doll's head breech interlock and automatic ejectors made the Parkers, Foxes and Smiths of that era better guns than they would have been without his showing them how.


The classic Lefevers are those made in Syracuse, N.Y., from 1885 to 1916, and though they had a boxlock mechanism, they are often thought to be sidelocks because of their removable side plates. Made in several grades ranging up to the ornate Optimus, the Lefevers were noted for their effortless opening and closing. Work one with your eyes closed and feel the velvety smoothness, and you'll understand why the Syracuse Lefevers represent American shotgun-making at its best.


I dawdled a long while before listing Parker shotguns as American classics because I know many of the smoothbore cognoscenti will challenge the selection. But even if they do tend to be more polish than spit, as their critics claim, few will deny that the name Parker Brothers is at least the symbol of fine American shotgun-making.


During the Civil War, Charles Parker, a Connecticut industrialist, added to his already considerable wealth by manufacturing muskets and other war implements. Aftethe cease-fire, he and his sons formed the Parker Brothers Gun Co., and one has to wonder if perhaps the elder Parker set his boys up in the gun business mainly to give them something to do. None of the Parkers seemed to have any special talent for gun design and during the war had been content to manufacture guns of someone else's
design-a philosophy that was obvious with their first shotguns, a substantial if not exceptional breechloader similar to other guns of the time. Likely, the Parker design would have seen few changes had not the whirlwind genius of Dan Lefever swept across the shooting scene. The Parker boys, even if they were not great designers, knew a good thing when they saw it and had a talent for borrowing an idea and making it even better. Lefever innovations such as the hammerless profile, doll's head breech interlock and automatic ejectors were adapted and refined by the Parkers.


The Parker family also had refined tastes-call it snobbery-and were especially picky about the overall quality of their higher-grade guns, one piece of evidence being that they boldly advertised their use of better-quality steel in the barrels of their higher-grade guns. Another was that they sought out and employed the best engravers, fitters and stockmakers available, but, again, only for the making of their top guns. This
is why, should you examine the fit and finish of, say, the "BH" and higher grades, you'll see that all Parkers were not created equal. That's why the truly classic Parkers are the relative handful of high-grade specimens-the finest of which is said to have been made for the Czar of Russia. The Parkers I like best are those trim little 28s.


The double-barreled shotguns made by Ansley H. Fox in his Philadelphia factory are classics for the simple reason that they are the most beautiful shotguns ever made in America and, for that matter, among the most beautiful boxlock designs ever made anywhere. Whereas the customary practice of gun invention was to design from the inside out, often enclosing the mechanism in a plain outer shell that required engraving or other embellishment to be presentable, the seductive lines of the Fox receiver suggest that it was sculpted by an artist. Like a lush maiden shed of her arrayment, the Fox needed no engraving to accent its sensuous contours and, indeed, the unadorned lowest grades perhaps best showcase their elegance of form. Small wonder that when the Connecticut Shotgun Mfg. Co. set out to recreate an American classic, its choice was the A.H. Fox, making it the only turn-of-the-century American double still being made and, for the record, better than ever.


What about the Model 21 Winchester? Should it be considered an American classic? It's the only side-by-side double still being cataloged by a major U.S. gunmaker, and anyone owning a 21 has reason to be proud. They are, after all, good looking and certainly expensive. But do they fall short of being classics because they have not been true to their roots? When introduced in 1930, the Model 21 was a "working man's" double, engineered to be made by modern manufacturing techniques and sold at a modest price. In 1939, for example, the basic M-21 sold for about $70, which was only half again the price of Winchester's standard Model 12 pump gun. The intent of the M-21 was noble, but somewhere along the way the idea became corrupted and the working man's double became a trinket for the wealthy. Perhaps the powers at Winchester realized that the only way their beloved M-21 could survive would be as an ornate product of their custom shop. For this they deserve credit, because the M-21 is a great American shotgun, even if it lost its roots. Rumors of the M-21's demise have been circulating for years, but it is alive and being made as good as ever in
a small Connecticut shop not far from where it was born 68 years ago.

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Remington's M-32 O/U

Back when the world and I were young, a handful of the town gentry would get together on Saturday afternoons for a few rounds of informal skeet at a cow pasture skeet club. It was a six-mile bicycle ride from the farm where I lived, but I'd be there without fail, cheering every time a shooter hit a target (which occurred about half the time) and pestering everyone with wide-eyed questions about their guns, ammo or any other shooting matter that came to mind.


When I got a bit older and stronger they let me operate the massive hand-cocked traps and paid me with a couple of boxes of shells and two rounds of skeet. Stepping up to a shooting station with a gun under my arm was the closest thing to heaven I could imagine. Of course, I owned no skeet gun but could usually borrow any of the shotguns on the rack, which were mostly an assortment of Model 12 pumps and Remington auto-loaders. Some of the guns I can still recall, right down to the grain patterns of their stocks and how they kicked my scrawny shoulder like thunder. But my most vivid memory was of an always elegantly attired (at least by my farm-boy reckoning) swell who drove a Jaguar sports car and strode the skeet stations with a Model 32 Remington casually dangling over his dapper shoulder.


He let me shoot a few rounds with the trim over/under and it quickly became my favorite. Whereas the pump guns had to be shucked like lightning for the doubles targets (a long reach for my short arms), and the auto-loaders cycled with a double shuffle that rattled my teeth, the M-32 responded so sweetly I wondered why anyone would want any other type of gun.


The other shooters in that group, all possessing shooting wisdom beyond my comprehension, did not seem to be at all impressed by the M-32. After all, that was the 1950s and an over/under was still an oddity in many shooting circles, the prevailing notion being that they were just side-by-side doubles turned edgewise. The barrels of the M-32 weren't even joined by a rib, and back then everyone who knew anything about doubles knew that the barrels were supposed to have a rib between them. How could the guys at Remington have been so dumb? No wonder they quit making them, and good riddance!


Actually, production of the M-32 was suspended because of W.W. II and, like several other fine guns, it did not fit into postwar production methods. With the boom of skeet shooting in the early 1960s, over/unders became the guns of choice, and prices for the few available M-32s (only about 5,000 were made) soared when shooters discovered that their only fault had been being three decades ahead of their time.

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Ithaca's Single-Barrel Trap

Single-barreled shotguns are usually associated with the low end of the market, but when Ithaca introduced its one-barrel, break-open trap gun in 1914 it was one of the finest-and most expensive-shotg and I were young, a handful of the town gentry would get together on Saturday afternoons for a few rounds of informal skeet at a cow pasture skeet club. It was a six-mile bicycle ride from the farm where I lived, but I'd be there without fail, cheering every time a shooter hit a target (which occurred about half the time) and pestering everyone with wide-eyed questions about their guns, ammo or any other shooting matter that came to mind.


When I got a bit older and stronger they let me operate the massive hand-cocked traps and paid me with a couple of boxes of shells and two rounds of skeet. Stepping up to a shooting station with a gun under my arm was the closest thing to heaven I could imagine. Of course, I owned no skeet gun but could usually borrow any of the shotguns on the rack, which were mostly an assortment of Model 12 pumps and Remington auto-loaders. Some of the guns I can still recall, right down to the grain patterns of their stocks and how they kicked my scrawny shoulder like thunder. But my most vivid memory was of an always elegantly attired (at least by my farm-boy reckoning) swell who drove a Jaguar sports car and strode the skeet stations with a Model 32 Remington casually dangling over his dapper shoulder.


He let me shoot a few rounds with the trim over/under and it quickly became my favorite. Whereas the pump guns had to be shucked like lightning for the doubles targets (a long reach for my short arms), and the auto-loaders cycled with a double shuffle that rattled my teeth, the M-32 responded so sweetly I wondered why anyone would want any other type of gun.


The other shooters in that group, all possessing shooting wisdom beyond my comprehension, did not seem to be at all impressed by the M-32. After all, that was the 1950s and an over/under was still an oddity in many shooting circles, the prevailing notion being that they were just side-by-side doubles turned edgewise. The barrels of the M-32 weren't even joined by a rib, and back then everyone who knew anything about doubles knew that the barrels were supposed to have a rib between them. How could the guys at Remington have been so dumb? No wonder they quit making them, and good riddance!


Actually, production of the M-32 was suspended because of W.W. II and, like several other fine guns, it did not fit into postwar production methods. With the boom of skeet shooting in the early 1960s, over/unders became the guns of choice, and prices for the few available M-32s (only about 5,000 were made) soared when shooters discovered that their only fault had been being three decades ahead of their time.

[pagebreak]
Ithaca's Single-Barrel Trap

Single-barreled shotguns are usually associated with the low end of the market, but when Ithaca introduced its one-barrel, break-open trap gun in 1914 it was one of the finest-and most expensive-shotg

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