Gun Digest

Gun Collecting: The Rocky History Of The L.C. Smith

Though highly sought, history has not been kind to L.C. Smith shotguns.

What is an L.C. Smith shotgun:

The era of the great American double-barreled shotgun lasted for almost 100 years, from shortly after the Civil War in the late 1860s until the middle of the 20th century. Grand old names like Parker, Fox, Ithaca, Winchester and L.C. Smith topped the list of the better double guns that were made in the United States. Each of these brands had (and has) many advocates, users and collectors. With all the many grades, gauges and options, these are the guns that collector’s dreams are made of.

Specialty Grade 16 gauge, circa 1920. PHOTO: COURTESY PUGLISI GUN EMPORIUM

In the early 1900s, the side-by-side was still the standard shotgun in America. But then progress came along and soon the gun companies were developing pump-action and semi-automatic repeaters. Many shotgunners began to prefer the single-barreled gun. One frequently touted reason — perhaps somewhat of a myth — is that Americans tend to be rifle oriented, and they were more familiar with a single sighting plane. (Over/unders offered a single-barrel view, of course, but were rare in those days. Also, many hunters liked the idea of three or more rounds of ammo.)

Double-barreled shotguns were more expensive to make and to buy, and gun manufacturers could realize more profits with the pumps and semi-autos. The era of the great American doubles gradually came to an end after World War II. By the 1950s, the only quality side-by-side still in production in the United States was the Winchester 21.

As time went on, the great American double became more and more popular as a beloved relic of the past and helped establish the gun collector’s market that we know today.

An Ideal Grade 12 gauge with foliate-style engraving, made shortly after WWI. Automatic ejectors were standard for this and higher grades. Photo: Courtesy Vintage Firearms.

The over/under has become well established in the States, thanks primarily to imported models. These models dominate the clay target sports and are preferred by many hunters. But the classic side-by-side appeals to the most avid shotgun aficionados, both hunters and collectors.

The ‘Elsie’

One name that stands apart from the other great American doubles because of its basic design is the L.C. Smith. The “Elsie,” as the brand is affectionately known, was a sidelock. All the others were built on a box-lock action. Not that there’s anything wrong with a box-lock — the Parker, considered by most experts to be the finest American shotgun ever produced, is a box-lock. So is the Winchester Model 21, the Ithaca, the Fox and the Lefever.

Sidelocks are more complicated and require a higher level of skill to manufacture. Some say they are more delicate than a box-lock, but that’s not always the case. The sidelock’s sideplates are removable and allow easy access into the gun’s mechanism for maintenance or repairs. Sideplates are attractive and lend themselves to just about any level of engraving desired. Some makers of box-lock models add false sideplates to give the guns more eye appeal.

An Ideal Grade 12 gauge with foliate-style engraving, made shortly after WWI. Automatic ejectors were standard for this and higher grades. Photo: Courtesy Case Antiques.

Sidelocks are most often associated with the British, which contributes to what some consider to be snob appeal. The classic Purdey and Holland & Holland “best” guns are examples of the finest shotguns in the world and are built on sidelock actions.

The L.C. Smith Company has a rather complicated history. Lyman Cornelius Smith and his older brother, Leroy, entered the gun business in partnership with William H. Baker in 1877 to manufacture the Baker series of shotguns. These were outside-hammer models with sidelocks, Damascus barrels and in 10- or 12-gauge options. There was also a drilling-type three-barreled model consisting of a side-by-side shotgun over a .44 caliber centerfire rifle barrel.

In 1880, Lyman (L.C.) Smith bought out his brother and William Baker. Leroy Smith, William Baker and some other partners went on to form Ithaca Gun Co. L.C. continued to make the Baker guns, which were marked “L.C. Smith, Maker of the Baker Gun.” The Baker models were phased out beginning in 1884, and by 1886 newly designed hammer and hammerless side-by-sides were being made by “L.C. Smith, Maker.”

The Monogram was one of the three highest grades. A total of 206 were made and only 26 were in 20 gauge, like this example. Photo Courtesy Vintage Firearms

At about this time, L.C. was looking beyond the firearms industry for his next business venture. He was intrigued by the recent invention of a gadget that would eventually have as huge an impact on our culture as the firearm. It was called the typewriter, and Smith made the decision to sell his gun company and go into the typewriter business. In 1888 he sold the company to John Hunter of Fulton, New York, who formed the Hunter Arms Company and continued making the L.C. Smith shotguns in a new factory in Fulton. From 1889 until 1945, L.C. Smith shotguns were made by Hunter Arms Company. Meanwhile, Smith founded the Smith Premier Typewriter Company, which later merged with the Corona Typewriter Co. and became Smith-Corona.

A Winding Road

During the Hunter Arms era, many changes and advancements were made to L.C. Smith models. The 16 gauge was added in 1891, and in 1892, automatic ejectors were offered in some of the higher-grade models, which was the first time an American shotgun maker had done so. The 8 gauge was dropped in 1897, and in 1908 the 20 gauge was added to the line. A non-selective single trigger was offered in 1904. Years later, in 1926, the .410 bore was added. According to some sources, one 28 gauge was made. It was reportedly photographed in the hands of a member of the Hunter family. Apparently, it was a prototype and never went into production.

Hunter Arms ran into financial problems and during WWI, filed for bankruptcy and was bailed out by some Fulton, New York, businessmen. They in turn sold the company to the Simmons family in Massachusetts, who operated L.C. Smith until 1939 when it was put up for sale. After WWII, in 1945, Marlin Firearms Company acquired Hunter Arms. Marlin made the L.C. Smith guns until 1951 when, once again, it appeared that the company might be operating under some kind of curse. This time, the floor in the factory collapsed, destroying a lot of and equipment and inventory, putting an end to production of the L.C. Smith shotguns. But not forever.

Marlin resurrected the name once again in 1967 as a limited production model, making about 2,500 guns until 1971. This was the last of the L.C. Smith sidelock guns; however, the name was brought back again from 2005 to 2009 for a series of box-lock models — though with false sideplates — made exclusively in Italy by Fausti Stefano.

Collector interest is mainly with the earlier models. Attached is a sampling of estimated values for the early hammerless guns made in Fulton, New York, by Hunter Arms from 1913 to 1950. Values shown are for 12-gauge guns. Add 25 to 50 percent for 16 gauge, 50 to 75 percent for 20, 200 percent for .410 bore (field grade), 300 to 600 percent for .410 higher grades. Other premiums are expected for special features such as single selective trigger, non-standard barrel lengths or stock configurations.

The author would like to thank Rick Hacker for his input on this article.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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