Classic Guns: LeFever Shotguns

Classic Guns: LeFever Shotguns

Daniel Myron LeFever might not be a name that many people are familiar with but he is marked in history as a great American inventor. If you have ever fired a modern side-by-side or over-and-under shotgun, you are the beneficiary of his innovation. His hard work allows you to close the breech of the shotgun and fire without having to cock back two cumbersome hammers to fire the shotgun.

He invented the hammerless shotgun in 1878.

LeFever was a gun maker his entire life (August 27, 1835 – October 29, 1906) but throughout his career he was troubled by a series of business partnerships that dissolved and forced him to start over.  While reading about his life, I cannot help but think that he may have accomplished even greater innovations in gun making if his business life was more stable and steady rather than bouncing from one partnership to the next.

He started with his own gunshop making muzzle-loading rifles. Then he formed a partnership with James Ellis forming LeFever & Ellis. Then he hooked up with Francis Dangerfield and created Dangerfield & LeFever. After that, he formed Barber & LeFever with Lorenzo Barber. Then with John Nichols, they partnered as Nichols & LeFever. After this enterprise he went into business alone as LeFever Arms Company but then lost controlling interest of it. Later he formed the D. M. LeFever, Sons & Company with his three sons. LeFever die of stomach ulcer in 1906.

Ithaca bought out the LeFever Arms Company, used the LeFever innovations to make fine shotguns, and used the LeFever name to market a cheap shotgun having nothing to do with the LeFever design.

A tough life but his legacy remains in the shotgunning world.  There is one group that honors LeFever’s accomplishments. The LeFever Arms Collectors Association is “dedicated to the study, collection, and preservation of Lefever firearms.” A noble endeavor, and they host the Uncle Dan LeFever Cup, an annual trap shoot where shooters must use LeFever guns. This year the Uncle Dan Cup will be held June 1-3 at Hausmann's Hidden Hollow in Friendsville, Pennsylvania.

In the 1966 edition of the Gun Digest annual (which can be viewed on a digitized three CD set), author Wallace Libisky describes the history of the technical design of LeFever guns.

“The British have long been recognized for the excellence of their side-by-side scatterguns. Names such as Purdey, Boss, Westley Richards, Greener, Holland & Holland and others are known the world over. From elsewhere in Europe, too, have come some fine examples of twin-tube artistry. But if the American double-gun buff tends to feel apologetic about this, he does so without full justification.

It is quite true, and most unfortunate, that our activity in the province of double-barreled guns has all but gone to complete decay, though there was a time when the race was keen, indeed. Back around the turn of the century, and even well before then, the building of the classic double gun was a flourishing facet of the U.S. arms industry. Moreover, it was about this time that the American-made double gun reached the pinnacle of its design. The products of the top makers were weapons that any shooter, regardless of his walk in life, could point to with pride.

To be certain, not all U.S-made doubles of yesteryear were masterpieces of design and workmanship. There were plenty of cheapies, particularly among the mail-order offerings, and they outnumbered by far the quality pieces. However, there were enough of the high-echelon doubles on hand to strongly emphasize the fact that these shores were not suffering from any lack of talent in the side-by-side field.

It is beyond the scope of this article to dwell on the causes contributing to the decline of the American-built double. Nor is it our intention to engage in verbal battle in respect to the relative merits of the several famous makes. But, by way of introduction, we would like to speculate that if there existed a hall of fame for paying homage to American arms makers, then surely the name of D. M. Lefever would rate high on the roster.

D. M. Lefever, who eventually became known in firearms circles as “Uncle Dan,” took his big step toward prominence in 1878 when he introduced the first hammerless breech-loading double gun built in America.”


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