By Chuck Hawks
The term "best gun" is used to describe a double-barreled shotgun of the highest quality and finish. A top grade gun from a top manufacturer. One of those few shotguns intended to compete in the marketplace on the basis of quality, design, and workmanship rather than at a price point. A best gun is the finest gun a really good shop can build, and it is intended to be competitive with the best any shop can build. Most best guns are bespoke guns, made to order for a particular customer who is willing to pay a premium price to own the best. Best guns are still built in limited numbers by highly skilled craftsmen in most of the traditional gun making countries of the world. A little later in this article I will mention some of the most famous of these.
The sport of shooting birds on the wing developed in Europe in the 1600's, after the invention (in France) of the flintlock action. Muzzle loading flintlock fowling pieces developed slowly in various parts of Europe, culminating with the superb double-barreled shotguns of Joseph Manton, who set up his shop in London in 1793. Manton's guns were light, trim, well balanced, fast handling, and impeccably fit and finished. Stocks were slender and of fine English walnut with a hand rubbed oil finish. The actions were filed in graceful curves, and made as light as possible; all excess metal was removed. They were tastefully engraved in fine scroll patterns. The overall effect was of restraint, elegance, and perfection. These guns set the tone for, and established the superiority of, British shotguns for wing shooting that has lasted to this day. The guns of Joseph Manton epitomized the emerging concept of the best gun.
Alexander Forsyth, a Scot, patented the percussion lock in 1807. Percussion systems soon replaced the flintlock ignition system. Technical development continued, and by the mid-eighteen hundreds the percussion double had reached its zenith, using the copper percussion cap still used today by most muzzle loading guns.
The breechloader was perfected in the 1860's, and the British game gun as we know it today developed from that point. The early breach loading external hammer guns (often sporting features like underhammers and side levers) rapidly evolved into the fully developed sidelock hammer guns of the late 1800's, with low profile rebounding hammers, underbolts to lock the gun closed, and top lever opening, all British innovations. Fully developed hammer guns were produced until the First World War, and a few are still being made today.
Hammer guns began to be replaced by new hammerless (actually internal hammer) designs from the leading British firms in the last 20 years of the 19th Century. British gun makers used the movement of the barrels to cock the hammers on opening, and developed safety intercepting sears, automatic ejectors, assisted opening, and single selective triggers. The barrels were built on the chopper-lump system, the most difficult and expensive method of attaching two barrels. This method of barrel construction, however, allows the narrowest and lightest possible gun.
British gunmakers developed the hammerless boxlock and sidelock actions still used in almost all double guns to this day. World famous London gun makers like Boss, Holland & Holland and Purdey brought the modern hammerless side-by-side double gun to perfection. Other London makers like E. J. Churchill, John Rigby, James Woodward & Sons, Charles Boswell, William Evans, Atkins Grant & Lang, and John Wilkes also turned out superb best guns. Most of these firms are still in business today. These British gun makers set the standards for best guns; to this day a "London best" is treasured as the epitome of the gun makers' art. A new London best is just about the most expensive shotgun in the world, and their used prices are also very high.
Not all British best guns are made in London, however. David McKay Brown of Scotland, for instance, builds a superb "round action" double in the style of John Dickson, also of Scotland. And from Birmingham came famous names like Westley Richards and William Powell. While the side-by-side double is the most common type of British shotgun, most contemporary shops also offer over/under guns.
The traditional British best gun features fine rose and scroll or leaf and vine engraving, and plenty of fine checkering in simple diamond patterns. The case-colored sidelock action is impeccably and gracefully filed, and the trim, tight grained walnut stock is precisely inletted. The chopper-lump barrels are perfectly struck and deeply blued. The finished gun is made to balance between the hands. These are functional, lightweight, understated and elegant guns, much as they were in Joseph Manton's time.
Fine side-by-side game guns in the British style are made in the Basque country of Spain by the firms of Arrizabalaga, Garbi, Grulla, Arrieta, and AyA. These "Spanish Best" represent the best buy in a top quality sidelock double that is available today. It is most telling that Spanish doubles are very popular in the U.K. I have read, in fact, that the AyA No. 2 is the best selling double gun in Britain.
The Spanish maker who probably has the best reputation at present is Pedro Arrizabalaga. Like the other top-of-the-line Spanish best guns, these exquisite Arrizabalaga guns have the indefinable feel of a London best. They are built on 7-pin, assisted opening Holland & Holland style actions, impeccably fit and finished, with 100% engraving coverage. Like Purdy of London, Arrizabalaga builds only one grade, "the best," and they are the equal of the best in the world.
Grulla Armas ("the Holland & Holland of Spain"), AyA, Armas Garbi and Arrieta y Cia also make Spanish best doubles. These are available in grades ranging from good to outstanding. The Grulla Royal, AyA No. 1, Garbi 103 Royal and the top of the line Arrieta guns can stand in company with any of the world's best guns. These are bespoke guns built in the English game gun tradition on assisted opening, H&H pattern sidelock actions. All of these Spanish best guns represent excellent value for the money. The price is high, but substantially less than a British or Italian best gun.
In Germany before the Second World War Schiller and Lindner, Merkel, Hyem and J.P.Sauer & Sohn built fine double guns of very high quality. The bespoke Sauer “Meisterwerk” shotgun has been made for over 100 years and is about as "best" as a gun can get. In the U.S. Merkel and Kreighoff are probably the best known Geman manufacturers of fine shotguns. Merkel USA is not only the importer and distributor of fine Merkel guns, but also the importer/distributor for Grulla shotguns and Anschutz rifles.
German guns tend to be very strong due to stringent government regulation. This usually makes them somewhat heavier than fine British, Italian, or Spanish guns. (A plus for attenuating recoil if not for carrying.) In this they are somewhat like American best guns. The German style of decoration tends toward deep relief engraved game scenes and stock carving in place of, or along with, conventional checkering. The price of fine German guns is somewhat depressed, perhaps because they deviate from the British/Spanish/Italian model, but this is changing. For anyone who appreciates the Germanic style, a German best is still a fine value.
Today it is probably the top Italian gun makers that represent the greatest challenge to the London Best, and the guns from Abbiatico & Salvinelli (FAMARS), Piotti, and Fabbri are about as close to perfection as it is possible to get. Italian best guns are often decorated with exquisitely detailed engraved game scenes in the lifelike style called bulino. Like the top British guns, they command a premium price, new or used.
Of course, larger firms like Beretta, Bernardelli, and Perazzi are also well known for their high grade guns, both SxS and O/U models, as well as for high quality production guns. All of these guns are made by firms in Northern Italy, centered on the iron rich valley known as Val Trompia.
The city of Liege in Belgium has been associated with the gun trade for centuries. Many of the products from this region are of indifferent quality, or built for military purposes, but fine double guns have also been made there for a long time.
The most popular and well known of these is the Superposed shotgun designed by John Browning and his son Val. It is made by the arms giant Fabrique Nationale (FN) in several grades, as well as to special order. Browning Arms markets the guns in the U.S. The Superposed is one of the best known and most popular O/U guns ever designed.
Another Belgian name worthy of respect is Francotte, an old firm that has been turning out quality doubles since early in the 19th century. Top grade Belgian guns are right up there with the Italian guns in price. In the U.S., a high grade Browning Superposed is one of the more available best guns on the used market.
There were once several quality double guns made in the U.S.A. The best known of these were LeFever, L. C. Smith, Ithaca, Parker, A. H. Fox, and the Winchester Model 21. At one time Remington also built some nice doubles. The first two of these were sideplate or sidelock actions, the rest stout boxlocks.
Lefever, at one time perhaps the best American double, was bought by Ithaca, who folded the operation around 1920. Savage bought Fox, but quit producing the A. H. Fox gun in 1942. For many years afterward they used the Fox name on the Model B, a mass-produced double of Stevens design. Marlin bought L. C. Smith, found that the guns could not be profitably produced, and halted production in 1949. Remington bought Parker, and came to the same conclusion. The Parker operation was quietly folded at the beginning of World War II. Ithaca stopped producing their N.I.D. double in 1948, concentrating their shotgun efforts on producing the Model 37 pump gun. Winchester soldiered on alone through the 1950's, 1960's, 1970's, and 1980's, producing small numbers of Model 21's in their Custom Shop to special order. Sometime in 1990 the last Model 21 was shipped from the Winchester Custom Shop, although the gun was never formally discontinued.
Connecticut Shotgun Mfg. Co. arranged with Winchester to build the Model 21 in limited quantities. At the 1998 SHOT show and again in 2000 I got to inspect a couple of new 21's. They looked perfect. As you probably realize, I am a fan of the Model 21 and I regard it as the finest of the American double guns. Even field grade Model 21's command serious prices on the used market.
Connecticut Shotgun concentrates principally on the A. H. Fox gun, to which they have the rights, and the new Foxes they build are the best that has ever been made under that name. These bespoke guns are exquisite, lightweight boxlocks of very high quality and finish. They are expensive but not outrageous in price and represent a good value in today's market. Follow the link to their website on my Guns and Shooting Links Page, where you can see pictures of these fine guns.
Marlin tried to bring back the field grade L.C. Smith gun in 1967. They built around 2,500 guns, and gave up the struggle in 1972. In 2006 Marlin introduced a cheap Turkish made boxlock with false sideplates under the L.C. Smith name. These guns have absolutely nothing in common with the American made L.C. Smith sidelock shotguns except the name.
A more successful re-introduction was the Parker Reproduction, which debuted in 1984 as a sweet DHE grade 20 gauge. The brainchild of Parker collector Tom Skeuse, president of Reagent Chemical, this perfect Parker clone was built under contract in Japan in the Kodensha plant, which at that time also produced the Winchester Model 101 O/U shotgun. The new Parker was a commercial success, and grades and gauges were expanding when suddenly, at the end of 1988, Kodensha ended the era of the Parker Reproduction by announcing that they were quitting the gun business to build auto parts!
Another attempt to revive the Parker gun, on a very small scale, was begun by Remington in 2006. Remington owns the rights to the Parker gun, so these reintroductions are, by definition, genuine Parkers. A very few of these guns, in 28 gauge and AAHE grade only, are offered by Remington on a special order only basis. They are being made for Remington by the Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing Co. For more information, see www.parkergunmakers.com
Around the turn of the 21st Century there was an attempt to revive the Ithaca N.I.D. double, by a company using the name Ithaca Classic Doubles. Ithaca Gun Co. licensed the use of the Ithaca name and trademarks, and I.C.D. offered some very upscale guns for sale. Unfortunately, the operation lost money and folded in a couple of years.
There has also been a persistent rumor among Lefever collectors that an attempt to revive that fine gun will be made. So far, however, nothing has come to pass.
The American doubles were all very strong and durable, built for powerful American shotshells. For this reason they tend to be heavier than their English, Italian, and Spanish counterparts. In appearance and decoration, American best guns tend to fall somewhere between the British and German guns. The American doubles were designed for factory production, and to be sold "off the shelf," although all of the American makers would build very elaborate guns to special order. Because they were designed for series production, they lack the ultimate refinements of the very best British, Italian, and Spanish guns, all of which are bespoke guns. However, in terms of engraving, checkering, and finish, the top grade American guns take a back seat to none. Probably the finest engraving and checkering I have ever seen was on an AA grade Parker. The care that went into the manufacture of these high-grade American doubles puts them firmly into the ranks of the best guns.
Anyone who is privileged to own and use a best gun is lucky indeed. The indefinable "feel" of a best gun is a joy to the discerning sportsman. Even if the purchase of such a gun is financially impossible (at present), every reasonably experienced gunner owes it to him or herself to at least examine and hold a best gun. Note the exquisite craftsmanship. Marvel at the fit and finish. Feel how smoothly the action operates, and how the gun balances between your hands.
Make it a point to attend an Antique Arms Show or International Sporting Arms Show, where you will be able to examine a selection of best guns in person. I promise that it is a worthwhile experience, one that you will not soon forget.
Copyright 2001, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.