The Great American Double Guns

By Chuck Hawks

Winchester Model 21
Model 21 shotgun. Illustration courtesy of Connecticut Shotgun Mfg. Co.

During the last quarter of the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century some fine side by side, double-barreled shotguns were made in the USA. Most were box lock designs, as that type of action quickly became the American standard, but there was at least one famous side lock gun. The best known of the great American double guns are the Parker, A.H. Fox, Ithaca, Winchester 21, Lefever, and L.C. Smith. The latter was the sole American sidelock gun. Although the famous Lefever Arms gun had side plates it was basically a box lock design, albeit a very inventive one.

Historically, the 20th Century was not kind to the American double gun. The First World War curtailed the production of most civilian firearms, caused a great upheaval in the domestic arms business, and marked the end of several companies. The Great Depression hit the manufacturers of luxury items, like hunting guns in general and deluxe shotguns in particular, very hard. Many gun makers failed and most of those who survived were in desperate financial straits. The Second World War halted the manufacture of almost all sporting guns and the post-war world economy was not conducive to the manufacture of fine double guns. The remaining high quality American doubles basically disappeared from the market after WW II.

An exception was the Winchester Model 21, which soldiered on as a limited production product for many years. By the end of the 1950s it was strictly a Winchester Custom Shop item and cost as much as an automobile. Only about 100 guns could be produced each year. Prior to 1981 the Olin/Winchester Custom Shop turned out a few Model 21s every year.

After Olin licensed the Winchester brand to USRAC in 1981 and that organization continued to build a limited number of Model 21s in the old Winchester plant until their acquisition by the Belgian Herstal Group. At that point the rights to the Model 21 design and all remaining parts were sold to Connecticut Shotgun, who still offers custom built Model 21 shotguns in at least three grades, including the top of the line Grand American. Connecticut Shotgun also manufactures limited numbers of the A.H. Fox gun in several grades. Attempts have been made to revive the Ithaca NID and Parker guns, but these have failed despite the very high quality of the products.

But, in the hey day of the classic American double there were guns galore and many different grades and price points, from plain field grade guns to masterpieces rivaling the best European guns. The Lefever Arms guns, for example, won medals at an International Arms Exhibition for "Best American" and "World's Best" shotgun.

"Uncle" Dan Lefever was one of the greatest gun designers of his, or any, time. Like many great designers and engineers, he was a poor businessman. He founded several companies, all of which eventually fell on hard financial times. The largest and best known of these, Lefever Arms Co., was eventually acquired by the Ithaca Gun Company around the time of the First World War.

Dan Lefever had died a few years previously, and at the time of his death was no longer associated with Lefever Arms Co. Indeed, he had gone on to form D.M. Lefever and Sons several years previously and manufacture a few exquisite (and unique) pure box lock double guns.

Ithaca, having acquired the rights to the Lefever name, assembled a few Lefever guns from parts and then closed out the line. But, in 1921 Ithaca capitalized on the Lefever name by introducing the gun that was basically the forerunner of the NID design as the Lefever Nitro Special. This was an economical field grade gun intended to compete in the marketplace at a price point below that of the Ithaca brand guns. Unlike the Ithaca brand doubles, some of which were available with very showy engraving and checkering, the Lefever Nitro Special was only sold as a basic gun.

The Lefever Nitro Special came with an American walnut stock, a limited three panel (pistol grip sides and splinter forend) checkering pattern, double triggers (although a single trigger could be had at extra cost), and plain extractors. The Nitro Special action was entirely designed by Ithaca and bore no resemblance to any Dan Lefever design. I believe that the original price of a Nitro Special was $27.50. This gun, along with all Ithaca doubles, was discontinued in 1948.

The best Parker, A.H. Fox and L.C. Smith guns were even fancier and more refined than the high grade Ithacas. All of these were available with high-grade European walnut stocks, skeleton butt plates, and lavish engraving and checkering. These guns were usually supplied in fitted presentation cases.

The eventual fate of most of the great American doubles parallels that of Lefever Arms, financial trouble followed by bankruptcy and acquisition of the name and whatever of value was left by some larger gun company. In this manner Remington acquired Parker, Savage acquired Fox, and Marlin acquired L.C. Smith. All three found that double guns could not be manufactured profitably, made a few guns or sold some guns assembled from the parts available, and in a few years closed down the operation.

Remington, for example, acquired Parker in 1934 and produced the guns until the beginning of WW II. After the war Remington did not resume production of Parker guns, although they assembled a few from parts on hand.

Marlin's experience with L.C. Smith was similar. Hunter Arms Co. had manufactured the L.C. Smith double from 1888 until they went broke during WW II and the company was acquired by Marlin. After the war Marlin built a few Smith guns but quickly found that rising labor costs made the gun unprofitable and folded the operation.

During the 1970s Marlin tried to revive the L.C. Smith, but again found that the gun could not be produced at a competitive price and was forced to discontinue the attempt. In 2006 Marlin began importing cheap Turkish doubles stamped with the L.C. Smith name. Needless to say, these bear no actual resemblance to the American L.C. Smith gun.

For many years after the demise of the A.H. Fox gun, Savage used the Fox name on a deluxe version of their Stevens 311 double. This in much the same way as Ithaca used the Lefever name on the Nitro Special.

All of the great American doubles mentioned in this article are fine guns and a delight to own. Even the cheapest, such as the Parker Trojan and Lefever Nitro Special were well made by modern standards. And they have all gone up tremendously in price, at least a tenfold increase. High grade and limited production guns have gone up even more.

Any fine double should be handled with respect. Slamming them closed causes more wear and tear on these fine guns, especially around the hinge pin, than firing thousands of rounds of ammunition. These guns don't shoot loose, they are slammed loose. Always hold the top lever in the open position and gently close the action. Then release the top lever to lock the barrels closed. Open the gun with your off hand after opening the top lever with the shooting hand, not by means of a quick motion that whips the barrels down.

Guns with standard length chambers (2-3/4" shells became standard for 12 gauge guns sometime around 1920) and fluid or nitro steel barrels in good condition are perfectly safe to shoot with modern ammunition. The SAAMI pressure levels for smokeless powder factory loads have not been increased. "HHigh brass," "maximum," and "magnum" loads have been achieved by progressive burning powders and heavier shot charges, not with higher pressure. BUT, none of these guns were designed for steel shot and steel shot shells should not be used. Stick with lead shot.

Most models have separate firing pins and should not be dry fired. It will not harm them to be left cocked. The Model 21 is an exception. It has a one-piece hammer/firing pin and is not harmed by dry firing.

Older guns ordinarily pattern tighter than marked with modern shells. This is a function of improved shell technology. It is not expensive to have a competent gunsmith open up the chokes with a reamer if you want more open chokes. Do not, however, have the barrels shortened. That will remove the chokes entirely and the gun will tend to crossfire. Cutting off the barrels dramatically reduces the gun's value.

These fine guns were made to be used. Take care of them, but enjoy!

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Copyright 2007, 2013 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.