Shotguns: On Buying American (Or Not)

winchester model 23

Go ahead, question my patriotism: “American Made” is not at the top of my list of criteria when I shop for a shotgun. It’s not second or third, either. Balance, fit, finish, aesthetics all come before “Made in the U.S.A.” stamped on the barrel.

It wasn’t always this way.

I was in my early 20s when I finally saved up enough money to buy myself a shotgun. I already had my father’s Browning Auto 5 Light 12 for ducks and deer, so my new gun was going to be a 20 gauge for bird hunting. It would be a break-action, but other than that, it could be anything. I narrowed my choices down to a Ruger Red Label, a Browning Citori or a Winchester Model 23 double.

The gun I wanted was the Model 23. It was a quail gun, with a straight grip, open chokes and 25 ½ inch barrels that made it feel like a wand compared to the Auto 5 (granted, almost any gun feels like a wand compared to the 8-plus pound “Light 12” Auto 5) but still, I really liked it.

The problem was, it said “Made in Japan” on the barrels. Same thing with the Citori. The Ruger was made in New Hampshire. No matter how hard I tried, and no matter how much I liked the other guns, I couldn’t get past the idea of buying Japanese instead of American. I bought the Ruger.

It was a decision I came to regret.

I let my excitement about buying my first shotgun blind me to the Red Label’s obvious flaws: it was grossly overweight, at seven pounds plus in a 20 gauge. The stock had one nicely figured side and one side with all the color, grain and charm of a piece of cardboard. The wood to metal fit was terrible, which has been the case with almost every Red Label I have ever seen or owned, and at one time or another I have had the 20, the 12 and the 28.

And, it went back twice to the factory for ejector problems. When one of the ejectors was originally cast, the mold didn’t fill all the way with steel. The undersized ejector wiggled, and it wouldn’t reliably grab the rim of the shell. It was easy to slide a shell past it into the chamber, at which point, the gun wouldn’t close. The first replacement ejector was just as bad. I sent the gun back again, and this time the part was good, but whoever reassembled the gun put the springs and plungers in backward so it didn’t work. It wasn’t hard for me to take apart and put together correctly, but it shouldn’t have been difficult to do it right at the repair center, either.

Eventually I traded the Red Label in on a (Japanese) 12 gauge SKB 500, with which I shot many pheasants during the few years I owned it. That gun I traded on a (Japanese) Miroku Charles Daly trap gun, a beautifully-made gun, which, after a bunch of stock and choke work, is still my sporting clays gun today. My other Red Labels are long gone, and meanwhile, the Winchester Model 23s are selling for 2-3 times what they cost in 1982.

My modest accumulation of shotguns does include several made in the U.S.A. and if I could ever afford my dream gun, it might very well be a Model 21 from Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing. But, the Axis Powers are all represented in my gun cabinet, too, and it doesn’t bother me any more at all.