Randy Wakeman on Shotgun Aesthetics

By Randy Wakeman

Guns and Shooting Online owner, Managing Editor and sometimes fashion editor Chuck Hawks poses this question often, not directed specifically at shotguns, but pertaining to all firearms. This is a meager attempt to address the question, though there is no tidy little answer that will find universal acceptance.

The most popular shotgun type in use in the United States, by an overwhelming margin, is the pump-action shotgun. Rarely has such a contraption gained accolades for wondrous beauty, even going back to the Browning-designed Winchester 1897 which is generally considered the first truly successful repeating shotgun, serving through two world wars, in addition to sporting uses, before finally being retired from production in the 1950s. Generally with plain barrels, no checkering or engraving, a honey-dipper forearm and an exposed hammer it is hardly the type of shotgun that goes well with tea and cucumber sandwiches on the front lawn, but there is no denying its utility, popularity, and longevity.

The most pervasive of today's pump actions are the aesthetically vulgar Mossberg pump-actions, Remington Express 870 versions and new adventures into the homely, such as the Remington M887. Few would find the beauty within these beasts, but the ugly pump is the predominate shotgun of the day.

Many view side-by-side shotguns and O/U shotguns as at least potential works of art. Mr. Hawks appreciates fine English style side-by-side game guns, while the Caesar Guerini Tempio fits my idea of what a quality O/U shotgun should not only look like, but also handle and perform like. Both of these good lookers were recognized in the "Guns and Shooting Online 2009-2010 Shotgun and Wingshooting Awards" in their respective categories. Yet, there is no denying the popularity of Bic-lighter quality shotguns, built strictly to a price point, not a quality point. I suppose the Mossberg-brand Silver Reserve O/U would define that category as well as any other model.

Autoloading shotguns haven't fared much better. Again, the shotgun that made the autoloader a successful platform (and the one that founded Browning Arms Company) is John Browning's most challenging and personally satisfying accomplishment, the Automatic-Five. Defined as ugly by the members of the smart set, it ruled the uplands and the wetlands of the United States while the British brand of snobbery failed. Although I have been ribbed for years about shooting �Old Humpback,� the functionality utility and reliability of the JMB long action has yet to be surpassed. Even though the aesthetics may not entice, the machining and fitting rarely fails to impress.

The specter of the Ljutic �Space Gun� may put off the easily put off, but so will Gracoil and BumpBuster recoil absorbers. The �spec� gun, or utilitarian meat gun, has been with us for many decades. Some may think the H & R Topper single shot is quaint, but in my view, it is unbearably ugly. Ugliness without purpose, ugliness without performance, ugliness without tangible field practicality is the type of ugliness I can do without.

For a hunting gun, performance beats cosmetics for me more often that not. What a shotgun looks like in the goose pit, turkey blind, or in the tall grass chasing pheasants is a fair notch below the qualities of handling, point ability, portability and reliability. (No argument there, but the black and camo plastic autoloaders cited in the paragraph above are not only surpassingly ugly and startlingly expensive, they fall far short of a good double gun in handling, point ability, portability and reliability. Compare any of them to the Grulla Supreme chosen in the aforementioned "Guns and Shooting Online 2009-2010 Shotgun and Wingshooting Awards" and see for yourself, gentle reader. -Ed.)

When I hear of vitriolic aspersions cast against some breathtakingly well-designed shotguns (Browning A-5, Benelli Vinci) often these same people have no problem owning a Glock 19 or a Ruger LCR. I own both a Glock and the Ruger. I can tell you that I also enjoy my Colt Diamondback .22 revolver, but appreciation of one hardly precludes the appreciation of others.

A look at the current Ithaca Gun Company M37 production puts every other slide action shotgun on the market to shame, as good of an example as any that you can have performance and quality along with superb machining and great attention to detail. Highly polished blue and well-figured wood never goes out of style.

In the end, the only vote that counts is the vote that consumers make with the own purchase dollars. The general gun-buying public could not appreciate the Winchester Super-X Model One. Obvious to the cost of producing the Browning A-5, the wood became plainer, the engraving and hand checkering were taken away and the entire project was moved to Miroku in Japan. Still, these steps did not prevent the discontinuation of the A-5, serving only to delay it.

The high cost of handwork and quality furniture being what it is requires that the savvy gun-shopper pay attention to details. As the old axiom states, details make for perfection, but perfection is no detail.

Generally, I just like guns. Pretty is nice, pretty is preferable, but never when it comes at the expense of tangible game getting performance or reliability. I am convinced that walnut and techno-polymer models can peacefully co-exist. The only true ugly shotgun from my point of view is the one that is never used.

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Copyright 2009 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.