They might not be as well-known as some European manufacturers, but there were a number of great American double-barrel shotgun makers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These guns remain highly collectible, and many are also fine shooters.
The All-American double shotguns:
Beyond the fact that old double shotguns are the only handmade shotguns you can buy for less than $5,000, there are other rewards to owning old shotguns: Most vintage American double guns were so well made they’ve survived for close to a hundred years without requiring a repair. Knowing the gun you’re shooting has more history than you do also helps enrich the experience. While it’s rewarding to own such a gun, there are things to be considered before buying one.
The Golden Age
During the golden years of American double guns, there were several primary companies making guns. All originated in New York State except Parker, in Connecticut, and early Foxes originating in Philadelphia, but later made in New York. The Golden age of American shotguns lasted only about 40 years, from about 1890 until the Great Depression. Guns were made after that time, but most collectors agree that quality began to decline after the depression. The only quality American double introduced after the Great Depression was the Model 21 Winchester, showing up in the ’30s. While it was a fine gun and equal in quality to the others, the Model 21 really doesn’t fit with these older guns because of the time frame and because it was a lot more expensive.
All the companies during this period offered guns at different price levels with different levels of adornment and options. Generally, graded guns were a custom-order arrangement with the buyer specifying barrel length, choke and stock configuration, and almost any other option desired. The top grades represented the highest levels of the gun maker’s art and rivaled the finest English shotguns. The lowest grades were affordable to the average working man, though still a considerable investment for the time. All these makers had a field grade level of gun that came in a basic stock configuration with little adornment and different barrel lengths, as well as gauge and choke choices.
Double Gun Considerations
Early guns often had Damascus barrels, and most who plan to use their doubles extensively avoid them. Damascus barrels can be used with low-pressure loads but should be checked for pits, dents and bulges by a competent gunsmith before use. In fact, it’s a good idea to get any gun from this era checked out before shooting it. In quality guns, I don’t worry about Damascus. At the time most of these guns were made, high-quality Damascus barrels cost more than fluid steel barrels.
Guns built in this era had chambers shorter than 2¾ inches. In spite of this, most aficionados of old doubles agree they have no trouble digesting modern ammunition as long as you stay away from high-pressure loads. RST makes 2½-inch shells in case you worry about chamber length, as well as lower-pressure shells for those who worry about 100-year-old wood and metal. Shooting heavy loads in these older guns isn’t a good idea, even for the ones with fluid steel barrels or longer chambers. Metallurgy at the turn of the century wasn’t what it is today, and 100-year-old wood shouldn’t be subjected to the stresses of heavy recoil.
While these guns work well in the field, it should be remembered these older designs didn’t have inertial firing pins or intercepting sears. This makes them a bit less safe than modern guns, so special care should be taken to keep them pointed in a safe direction when they’re closed. On upland birds, I generally hunt with the gun open and only close it when the dog has pointed. Most of these guns had double triggers. Single triggers were available on most models, but the mechanisms were quite complicated, prone to trouble and expensive to repair. Ejectors are an option that adds value, and most systems were reliable, but problems with ejectors can be expensive to rectify.
The American classic shotguns were available both as boxlocks and sidelocks. Boxlocks tend to be stronger and simpler, and most agree sidelocks have a more graceful appearance. Though sidelocks are currently much more expensive to make, they were competitively priced during the classic double gun period because all guns were basically handmade anyway. Today, quality 12-gauge field grade guns from all the American makers during this era can be found and purchased for less than $1,000. Smaller gauges progressively cost more, with 20-gauge guns generally bringing at least twice the price of a 12 gauge. Sixteen-gauge guns generally fall somewhere in between. Guns chambered for .410 and 28 gauge bring a premium.
Decisions, Decisions, Decisions!
Parkers bring the most money of the American classics and are often considered the best of the American classics. Internally, they were more complicated than some other brands, but they were so well made they rarely have mechanical problems. Parkers come in several different frame sizes for different purposes, allowing for light and handy 12-gauge bird guns and substantial 12 gauges for waterfowl hunting. Parker offered more choices of grade and frame size with twelve frame sizes and ten grades, A1 being the highest and “V” being the lowest grade, with a field-grade gun called a Trojan.
A.H. Fox Guns
Foxes are probably next in the lineup, and I believe they were a better design, though I’m sure this will raise the ire of Parker owners. The Fox design was simple with less moving parts and coil springs. The receiver was also much smaller, with a Fox 12-gauge frame smaller than the frame of a 20-gauge Parker. Fox guns were direct competitors, and a Parker sold for about the same price when new. Fox guns were available in only three frame sizes, but there were four different barrel weights. The 12-gauge guns came in two frame sizes, the larger intended specifically for waterfowling. The same frame was used for both 16- and 20-gauge guns. Fox grades begin with A -grade and end with F-grade. The field grade was designated as the Sterlingworth.
Neither a sidelock nor a boxlock, another truly fine American shotgun was the Syracuse Lefever. The Syracuse Lefever is not to be confused with the Lefever Nitro, a cheaper version of an Ithaca made after Ithaca bought out Lefever. The original Lefevers were both well made and innovative of design, and many consider them the pinnacle of American shotguns. They use a unique and innovative hinge system that’s never been replicated, and I believe it was a superior design to anything made since. Instead of a pin on a half circle, the Lefever hinged on a ball and socket and the ball could be adjusted for wear. Extremely well made and graceful in design, they’re currently appreciating in price faster than any other maker. The AA grade was highest, with the G-grade lowest and a field grade designated the DS for Durston Special.
L.C. Smith Guns
L. C. Smith shotguns were true sidelocks. L. C. Smiths are graceful, slender and pleasing to the eye, but the sidelock design compromised the strength of the stock, and many of them have cracked or repaired stocks. They were available in eight grades and in gauges from 10 to .410. While other makers designated their grades using letters, L. C. Smith guns used names from Field to Deluxe, with only 30 Deluxe guns being built. In higher grades, the side plates allowed more room for engraving, and they have a strong following.
Ithaca Gun Company Guns
Similar to the L. C. Smith in value and quality was the Ithaca. There were more different designs of Ithaca guns than any other American classic, including both hammer and hammerless models. The most recent design was the NID or New Ithaca Double. Earlier versions are not as strong as those of the other manufacturers, and, while they can still be used, they shouldn’t be used with modern high-pressure ammunition on a regular basis.
Less known than the other brands, the Baker isn’t as well thought of as the other makers, but they were fine guns. Bakers were also sidelock guns, and they sold for a little less than the other brands, but they were very well finished both inside and out.
Owning old guns like these admittedly isn’t for everyone. They aren’t as versatile as modern guns, they don’t have the same safety features, and they’re limited in ammunition options. They are truly handmade guns, though, and if you do your homework before buying, they are almost certain to escalate in value over time. There’s also an element of pride in their ownership. Every time I take one of my old doubles afield, someone comments on how beautiful it is. The history of these guns captures the imagination.
My favorite gun is a 1917 Fox Sterlingworth in 16-gauge. It has a slim and delicate grip, balances like something alive, and weighs just 6 pounds. I’ve hunted with it all over the country and have taken everything from pheasants and ducks to bobwhite and Gambel’s quail. It’s been restocked with beautiful figured American walnut and functions just like it did 100 years ago when it left the factory in Philadelphia.
Even the field grades of these wonderful old guns were made with real hand craftsmanship, at the hands of men who truly cared about what they produced. They can be used as they are, with the patina of their long years of service, or restored to look like they just came from the factory. Either way, they’re firearms that are a joy to own and be proud of. I often wonder who will be the next owners of my favorite little Sterlingworth after I’m gone. I hope they enjoy this fine old gun as much as I have.
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.