Great Double Guns
By Ron Spomer
A version of this article first appeared in Ducks Unlimited magazine
Competitive sports produce famous players, icons like Babe Ruth, Red Grange, and Michael Jordan. Hunting, on the other hand, usually undertaken beyond viewing stands and TV cameras, tends to produce famous guns. Big game hunting has its Kentucky Long Rifle, Sharps Buffalo Rifle, and Model 70 Winchester. Waterfowling also lays claim to a collection of great guns, especially those developed after technological advances in the 19th century combined to make possible the mass production of dependable, durable shotguns.
Throughout the 1800s, gun designers worked on a variety of mechanical roadblocks, beginning with the ignition system. An exposed pan of priming powder ignited by a falling block of flint was less than ideal in a wet, windy duck blind. The discovery of the fulminate of mercury explosive cap early in the century alleviated most of that, but shooters still had to pour loose powder and shot down muzzles, rain or shine.
Soon, however, someone tumbled to the idea of a self-contained, brass shell. When a cap (primer) was added to the center base of this shell, the modern shotshell was born. Not surprisingly, hidebound shooters were reluctant to switch from their proven, “safer” muzzleloaders to the suspect breech-loading system. By about 1870, however, the rush to breechloaders was on. About this same time the internal hammer system did away with those distracting “rabbit ear” hammers hanging off either side of gun breeches and the modern double barrel was almost ready for prime time. Another critical cog that fell into place about 1870 was the perfection of choke boring, which doubled effective range from 25 to 50 yards. The Golden Age of shotgunning had begun.
Reign of the Double Barrels
From roughly 1880 to 1920, America was still rural, much of the West wilderness. Wetland ecosystems were largely intact, and ducks, geese, and shorebirds seemingly numberless. The demand for scatterguns was growing, and dozens of American manufacturers rose to meet it, refining side-by-side double barrels as they went. Only a handful would become icons. To this day serious shooters know the Parker, L.C. Smith, A.H. Fox, Lefever and Winchester Model 21 as the great waterfowling guns of a bygone era.
These were great granddad’s working tools—big, solid, long-barreled guns that reached to amazing heights to pull colorful wildfowl from autumn skies. Day after day, year after year they fired, durable as the American wilderness, rarely faltering. Many were employed by professional market hunters in an era when North America’s wetlands were undisturbed and waterfowl seemingly without end. Today used models in good condition sell for as much as or more than modern guns of like quality.
Arguments have been made for each being the best gun made in America. Ever. Teddy Roosevelt credited the Fox, which he used on safari in Africa. Thousands of bankers, lawyers, and businessmen took the Parker to their bosoms, calling it “Jewel” and “Old Reliable.” The L.C. Smith, affectionately nicknamed “Elsie,” was equally admired. Jack O’Connor wrote that a banker friend of his grandfather’s owned a high-grade L.C. Smith and “didn’t think any more of that gun than he did his right arm.” Uncle Dan Lefever’s big gun was one of the smoothest opening doubles of its day. One was used to capture the Olympic trapshooting gold medal in 1912. Winchester’s Model 21 was the baby of the group, whelped, after a protracted labor, in 1930. Given the economics of the time, it should have died aborning, but wealthy investors coddled it and refined it until, by 1959, it remained the only one of the bunch still in production, possibly the best heavy waterfowling double ever built anywhere.
Of the five, the Fox may have been farthest ahead of its time. In 1923 Fox offered a Super Fox 12-gauge duck gun featuring overbored, highly polished barrels and extended forcing cones chambered for the then radical 3-inch shell. Both barrels were thicker than standard, choked to within an inch of their lives and mounted to an oversized frame, the better to absorb the pounding from those oversized shells. The Super Fox weighed about nine pounds and reportedly crunched ducks at 60, even 70 yards.
Yes, the refined, hammerless, side-by-side shotgun was the ultimate fowling gun in the late 1800s, the most durable, solid, trustworthy and fastest to load, but it was to fall from favor faster than anyone could have imagined as the machine-age roared forward.
Sliding into First Place
Firepower was a big concern when bag limits were nonexistent and many a shooter earned his daily bread by selling wildfowl. If breech-loading doubles had made firing at individual flying birds effective, John Moses Browning’s slide-action repeater made it deadly efficient. The first commercially successful pump shotgun was the 1882 Spencer, but it never captured a broad audience. Neither did Browning’s first effort, the Winchester Model 1893, but an improved version, the Winchester Model 97, did. Trim, balanced, fast and reliable, it turned the tide toward repeaters. Its external hammer was comforting to shooters familiar with hammers on single-shot and lever-action rifles.
Its cost was comforting, too. When double guns were selling for $38, a Model 97 could be had for $18. You could push four shells into its tube magazine, secure another in the chamber, and bring down five ducks as fast as you could shoot and pump. It was a marvel of efficiency, so much so that conservative sportsmen railed against it. Not until the drought-induced duck decline of the “dirty thirties” did anyone listen, and Congress passed the three-shelllimit, a compromise that saved the repeater from oblivion.