Parker. L.C. Smith. Ithaca. Lefever. A.H. Fox. Remington. Winchester. Seven magical names.
To some, those names bring visions of crisp autumn afternoons treading stone-walled fields with a pair of spirited pointers. To others -- individuals with ordered minds and an appreciation for mechanical things that work well -- they represent the pleasure and satisfaction that come from fine machinery beautifully designed: compact, solid works, an artful blending of metal and wood. Other people look upon them simply as investments. A hedge against inflation.
To author Michael McIntosh, the names represent "The Best Shotguns Ever Made in America." In his book so titled, McIntosh takes the reader on a thoroughly engaging trip through the golden age of the American shotgun -- the period from shortly after the Civil War up to World War II.
McIntosh's writing is generally as crisp and well-ordered as his subject. His prefatory section is a concise thumbnail sketch of the origin and development of shotguns through the late 19th century. Following that are chapters on each of the classic double guns, and then sections on collecting them, shooting them (do), the use of steel shot in them (don't) and finally a guide to the serial numbers and other source information.
McIntosh traces each of the guns from its invention, through its development to its ultimate demise. In each case, the guns started out moderately priced. As they were refined and improved, and as each line was expanded, the price range increased, with top models selling for $1,000 and more -- even during the Depression.
In 1899, for example, the Parker doubles ranged in price from $50 to $400. In 1915, Parker introduced its Trojan model, which sold for $27.50. By 1930, the Trojan was selling for $55, and the top of the line was going for nearly $800. Through the '20s, Parker was making around 5,000 or 6,000 guns a year. By the early '30s, the figure dropped to 500 a year. Labor and production costs were up, demand was down and, as with several of the other gunmakers, the choice came to selling out or shutting down. Parker chose to sell.
Today, the Winchester Model 21 is the only one of the seven classics still in production (on a custom-order basis only). According to McIntosh, only about 30 are sold each year, at prices ranging from $6,000 to $15,000 apiece.
McIntosh tells the story of these guns simply. He fleshes out the facts with stories of the guns' inventors, of their eccentricities and innovations, of the design problems they encountered and their revolutionary solutions. Much of the information in the book is technical, but McIntosh manages to present it in terms any interested person can understand (although a glossary would have been helpful to the general reader).
McIntosh never sounds like a "gun nut," but on a few occasions his enthusiasm for his topic pushes him to verbal excess. Writing on the only over/under shotgun in the book: "The 32 is like that. It has a way of exciting a possessive instinct that is almost irresistible." In discussing the popularity of the guns: "My correspondents -- and more than a few of them are women -- speak of the double with a fond tenderness usually reserved for wives (or husbands), children and aging bird dogs." Come now.
The author mentions other gun enthusiasts by name: March king John Philip Sousa was at one time president of the American Trap Shooters Association. Ithaca named a top-of-the-line gun in his honor -- the Sousa Grade. Annie Oakley used an Ithaca in her competition and exhibition shooting. Dwight Eisenhower and George C. Marshall owned Ithacas. Teddy Roosevelt owned an A.H. Fox, of which he once wrote: "No better gun was ever made."
One of McIntosh's friends, in his 80s, told him: "I don't hunt any longer, and I keep the Parker in a vault. It won't be for sale as long as I'm alive." A vault is the right place for many of these guns. A Winchester Model 21 in .410 gauge was bought at auction in 1978 for $31,500. The gun has been sold several times since "and the price has changed, too: to $42,000, to $48,000, to $60,000 to God knows what by now."
As McIntosh writes: "What killed the classic American double is the very thing that, ironically, ensures its survival; when quality becomes too expensive to achieve, it also becomes too precious to be without."