Finally, the Ithaca Model 37 Featherlight We Hoped For
My history with the well-recognized name of “Ithaca” goes back as long as I can remember. I used to ask my great-grandfather, George Chamberlain Wakeman, what his favorite gun was. Great-Grandpa invariably replied, “I’d have to say that Ithaca.” It was (and is) an old Damascus-barreled Ithaca Side-by-Side that Great-Grandpa hunted with year-round, as the modern innovation of “seasons” did not exist in Illinois back then. A commercial hunter and farmer, Great-Grandpa’s first tractor replaced horse and plow to work his farm. He never did replace that Ithaca.
Ithaca's famous pump gun started life as the John Browning designed Remington Model 17, which was made only in 20 gauge, and it became the Ithaca Model 37 around 1937. It was intended to be the “Ithaca Model 33 Repeater” of 1933, but although the Browning patent expired in June of 1932, a valid J. D. Pederson patent did not. The project was put on hold until the expiration of the John Pederson patent in October 1936 and then the “Ithaca Model 37” was finally born. Right now, the Ithaca Model 37 has the distinction of being the longest-running pump-action shotgun made. The 37 saw military service in both World War II and Vietnam and its largest single user currently is reported to be the Los Angeles Police Department.
The Ithaca Gun Company itself has changed ownership many times over the years. It shouldn’t be a great surprise, so has Browning, so has Winchester, so has Remington and Savage. Sometimes it seems like you need a racing form to keep up with who owns what gun company. It was Ithaca that introduced the “no-name” SKB shotguns to the American market and Ithaca did the same with the “no-name” Perazzi. Ithaca itself floundered, though, and the Model 37 (renamed the Model 87 for a time) along with it. The quality of the later Ithaca product was “variable,” to put it mildly.
After that, Ithaca came back on the scene, briefly, headquartered in King’s Ferry, N.Y., with production that continued in fits and stutters until about 2005. When the Ithaca Model 37 was reintroduced in 16 gauge, I immediately bought one for myself direct from the factory. With a crummy, heavy trigger, a face-busting amount of wood on the comb and the propensity to instantly unload the contents of its magazine on the ground it was of the most disastrous single-shots I have ever owned. Ithaca, at that time, was cursed with old tooling. Employees reportedly made parts at home in their garages just so a few guns could be shipped. The King’s Ferry, N. Y., Ithaca attempt finally collapsed, likely a good thing. The assets were purchased (I am not sure what they were at that point, other than a brand name) and Ithaca appeared again out of Ohio. The new owners of Ithaca perhaps had more money than brains and with no experience in the firearms industry they quickly failed.
Just over a year ago, the new and current Ithaca Gun Company was established in Upper Sandusky, Ohio. David Dlubak and his investors sought to do things right and to aggressively approach the firearms market. It seems that the new Ithaca Company understands that Model 37’s, no matter how well made, can hardly support continued growth. In addition to the first-ever 28 gauge Model 37, currently being tested by Ithaca and scheduled for a 2009 roll-out, we also have an all-American made Ithaca O/U scheduled for 2009, a Model 37 16 gauge and eventually a made in USA side-by-side to follow. A lot is happening at Ithaca, not as quickly as some would like, of course, but most naysayers have never operated a gun company, either.
Recently, anxious to include the latest incarnation of the Ithaca Model 37 in a 20 gauge pump-action comparison, I found a “perfect storm” of inadequacies. The Model 37 supplied had an overly heavy trigger and failed to shoot to point of aim. The trigger was instantly rectified by Ithaca (apparently just two heavy triggers leaked out; several dozen were caught before shipment), but the stock issue was not quickly addressed, nor could it be. That first Model 37's stock had 1.4" drop at comb and only 1.6" drop at heel, a shape guaranteed to rudely introduce the comb to your cheek with every shot. A good company can learn more from its “uhh-ohhs” than from its successes, while some companies refuse to admit, much less address, their problems. So, while that initial Model 37 was given a candid and unfavorable review, good things were in the works. That brings us to this review, the current production Ithaca Model 37 20 gauge, with a 26 inch barrel.
The tested Ithaca has a clean trigger, breaking crisply at about 5 pounds right out of the box. The stocks have gone back to the “original” Ithaca dimensions, with far more drop. They now have 1.5 inches of drop at the comb and 2.25 inches of drop at the heel and a 14.25" length of pull. The fine-line checkering has been replaced by more standard cut checkering and the pistol grip cap that was pewter now distinctively says “ITHACA” in white lettering on the black oval. The well-fitted Pachmayr Decelerator pad remains. Both 12 and 20 gauge guns are supplied with three inch chambers and the guns are shipped in a hard case. There is light game scene engraving on the right side of the receiver. Overall length is 45.6" and the Featherweight weighs 6.8 pounds in 20 gauge with a 26" barrel.
As soon as I brought this Model 37 to my shoulder, I knew I was going to like it. Looking straight down the rib at the Truglo® red front sight, it has as close to a perfect fit as possible for most upland applications. Top radius of receiver is matte finished for aesthetic appeal and glare reduction. The Ithaca has a five shot capacity, so the next move was to unscrew the barrel and install the (supplied) three shot plug to be “Illinois pheasant legal.” I grabbed Buddy, my impatient German Short-Hair, and headed out. (Buddy is our official Guns and Shooting Online hunting dog. -Ed.)
Concerned about the point of impact because of my previous testing, first there was a quick visit to the patterning board. Using the supplied and installed Ithaca Plus Briley Modified choke, I printed patterns at 40 yards with a variety of pheasant medicine, finding that the Ithaca indeed shot where it was supposed to, right on the money at 40 yards. The Winchester 1-5/16 oz. #5 shot, three inch shells (#STH2035) patterned superbly with the Ithaca modified tube (Full and IC choke tubes plus a choke wrench are also supplied), so they were the shells with which Buddy and I hit the field.
It wasn’t that long until our pointer found a nervous rooster in the center of a thick waterway that hit the air at 40 yards cackling and hollering away, along with a pair of hens. One shot from our Ithaca and we had our first rooster. A couple of hours later, after flushing nothing but hens, our pointer locked up on our second rooster of the day, the one in the picture above, that we dropped at about 35 yards with a single shot. This gun hunts!
I found the recoil from this Ithaca extremely manageable. Though patterning these heavy loads crouched over bag and cradle at the bench delivered quite a jolt, the recoil wasn’t even noticed from a standing position in the field with a cackling rooster taking off. The Model 37 cycled effortlessly and smoothly and I was quickly back on bird for a second shot, which in both cases wasn’t needed. My daily limit filled, it was back to the range for more patterning and function testing. I found the Model 37 to be an exceptionally smooth and slick-cycling repeater. If you are accustomed to pump actions, you will find that the Ithaca practically works itself.
There is room for improvement in the Ithaca Model 37 as supplied, but not much. We are fussy here at Guns and Shooting Online, and don’t like the fact that the Briley choke tubes do not always fit perfectly flush with the muzzle, allowing a sliver of silver to jut out from the muzzle. This is strictly cosmetic, not of functional importance, but it isn’t right. Flush chokes should be flush, or slightly recessed. Either Briley is making them too long, or Ithaca is ordering them too long. It needs to be fixed. We also found the Ithaca owner’s manual, with overly dark pictures and lackadaisical text to be one of the most poorly offered “manuals” we have recently seen. Please dispose of properly. While the basic stock dimensions have been changed to our satisfaction, the buttstock is a bit too thick for our tastes and could use a little slimming overall, particularly in the pistol grip area.
Worthy of note is the Ithaca’s “solderless” barrels. In most shotguns, the barrel lugs that the ventilated rib attaches to are soldered or even glued on. Ithaca Model 37 barrels have integral, machined lugs that are a work of art. While on the subject of barrels, it is also worth noting that the Ithaca Model 37 has a threaded receiver and threaded barrels, just like always. It is more costly to produce, of course, than the slip-in barrels you find on most pumps and semi-autos. However, it is a superior mechanical lock-up that helps account for the exemplary accuracy found in Ithaca Deerslayer models.
You won’t easily find a centerfire rifle with a barrel that isn’t threaded and headspaced and if you want your slug shotgun to shoot as accurately as a rifle, slip-fits can be considered lacking. The Ithaca barrels are positively located by metal against metal, not slip-fit and held together with a loose magazine cap against wood, plastic, or a welded-on barrel ring. This is part of the appeal of the Model 37, along with its “from a solid block of steel” receiver. It is likely far stronger than it strictly needs to be, but that is part of what build quality is about.
One of the benefits of dealing with a moderate-sized company like Ithaca is that the current Ithaca is well-suited to accommodate custom stock dimensions and upgraded wood. I have seen some of the high grade walnut examples from Ithaca and they are breathtaking. The tested gun was Ithaca’s standard grade, still a very nice piece of walnut with distinct mineral streaks, the forearm and buttstock evenly matched in grain, color, and tone. As the importance of shotgun fit is hard to over estimate, it will be a godsend to many shooters to learn that Ithaca is happy to take care of custom work right at the factory.
What we finally have, finally, is the best Ithaca Model 37 ever produced, a shotgun that lives up to its John Browning and John Pederson heritage. With tasteful, traditional-style cut engraving on the receiver, a jeweled breech-block and excellent wood to metal fit and finish, it is the best-made American pump shotgun in the market. For that matter, it may be the best affordable American made repeating shotgun available today.
I believe it is also an extraordinary value. Take a look at most any pump today, add the cost of receiver engraving, a jeweled bolt, a premium ground-to-fit recoil pad, Briley choke tubes, gold plated trigger, highly polished blue, semi-fancy walnut and a grip cap. Suddenly, the new Ithaca starts to look more and more like a tremendous value. Do all that, and you still will not have the Ithaca solderless barrel system, nor will you have a threaded barrel-receiver. You likely will not have a five-shot capacity, either, and you sure won’t have an Ithaca Model 37.
Congratulations to the new Ithaca Company for quickly getting it right, despite only a year or so in business. We need more quality American gun-crafters and Ithaca is on the right track. Maybe my Great-Grandfather was right when he said, “I’d have to say that Ithaca.” Personally, I can hardly wait for the 16 gauge. For more information, see your local dealer or refer to www.ithacagun.com.
Copyright 2008 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.