Classic Side-by-Side Shotguns by Field & Stream’s Philip Bourjaily
Teddy Roosevelt owned a Presidential-grade Ithaca and took an A.H. Fox gun on his nine-month African safari. Nash Buckingham plucked...
Teddy Roosevelt owned a Presidential-grade Ithaca and took an A.H. Fox gun on his nine-month African safari. Nash Buckingham plucked ducks from the sky at Beaver Dam with his Super Fox “Bo Whoop.” Carole Lombard gave Clark Gable a Parker DHE. The great homegrown doubles tint our rose-colored view of American sporting life in the first half of the 20th century. We can’t look at them without imagining clouds of ducks, or gentlemen sportsmen. From the advent of hammerless guns and smokeless powder in the 1880s and ’90s until the Depression brought the era to an end in 1929, Foxes, Parkers, Ithacas, and L.C. Smiths earned their lasting reputation as the finest American guns made.
These are five companies that made the classics.
Many American double enthusiasts consider the Fox the best designed, most trouble free of all our doubles. Ansley Fox, a champion trapshooter, patented his first gun at age 21 in 1896. He founded the Fox Gun Co. in Baltimore in 1898, left it, started Philadelphia Arms, quit that, and then founded A.H. Fox in Philadelphia in 1906. The company went into receivership in 1912. Investors came in, but Fox left the gun business for good. His legacy, a brilliantly simple gun, featured a lock consisting of just three parts. Other designers added refinements, including the renowned Kautzky trigger. In 1929, Fox sold out to Savage Arms, which made Fox doubles until 1946.
Lyman Smith dabbled in livestock and lumber before joining with his brother Leroy and gun-maker William Baker to start a gun company in Syracuse, New York, in 1877. W.H. Baker Co. made shotguns and a cleverly designed drilling. However, Leroy and Baker soon sold out to Lyman, who changed the company’s name to L.C. Smith and hired a gifted young tinkerer named Alexander Brown to design guns. In 1883 Brown drew up a sidelock gun, one of the few ever made in America. In 1886, the company introduced a hammerless version, the gun that we know and love as the Sweet Elsie. Meanwhile, Smith sold his gun works and hired Brown to design typewriters, ultimately becoming a household name as half of Smith-Corona. The L.C. Smith Co. became Hunter Arms in 1890. The high-grade Smiths built by the Hunters from 1890 until the imposition of cost-cutting measures in 1913 have some of the finest engraved and most pleasing lines of any American guns. Marlin bought Hunter Arms in 1946 and ceased production of the double in 1949.
After selling out to Lyman Smith, Leroy Smith and William Baker opened their own gun works in Ithaca, New York, in 1885. In its heyday, Ithaca produced some of America’s finest double guns. The first of the great Ithacas, the Flues Model, debuted in 1908, the brainchild of a freelance gun designer named Emile Flues. Its claim to fame was a rock-solid triple-bolt lockup and a lightning-fast lock time of 1/625 second. The New Ithaca Double (NID), introduced in 1926, was simpler, famously strong, and retained the Flues’ lock time. Its reputation for strength was so great that Spencer Olin of Winchester-Western chose Ithaca to build the first gun to chamber a new cartridge introduced in 1932: a massive 3½-inch 10 gauge with a 2-ounce payload.
NIDs remained in production until 1948, when the company discontinued all double guns, concentrating on single-barrel trap models and the Model 37 pump. Ithaca produced the Model 37 until 2005, when the company finally had to shut its doors.
Charles Parker began his career as a coffee-mill manufacturer in 1829. He supplied rifles to the Union during the Civil War and made his first shotguns in 1865 by boring out leftover rifle barrels. The business eventually changed its name to Parker Brothers when his three sons, Dexter, Wilbur, and Charles Jr., took over. Parker guns emerged from the transition to smokeless powder and hammerless actions as the best known of all American doubles. Immediately recognizable by their recessed hingepin screws, Parkers have always stood first in the minds of many as the classic American double, and a powerful aura still surrounds the name today. Parkers were made in a dizzying number of grades, in all gauges, and on several frame sizes. Parker Brothers sold out to Remington in 1934, which produced the last Parker double in 1947.
Winchester earned its lasting name as the maker of the rifles that won the West. By the 1920s, however, the great arms maker was in financial distress. Why exactly the powers-that-were thought a double gun would solve the company’s problems isn’t clear, but in any event, the Model 21 debuted in 1929, just in time for Black Monday. The 21 would have died a quick death during the Depression had it not been for John Olin, who bought the company in 1931. A keen skeet shooter and bird hunter, Olin made the durable 21 his pet project. All the American doubles could take the pounding of heavy loads, but the 21 might have been the most indestructible, besting all competitors in test after test. Although the Model 21 never made any money for Winchester, Olin kept it alive as a production gun until 1960, and it remained available as a custom offering into the 1980s, long after all the other doubles faded into history.