On Again, Off Again: The American Double Struggles to Return

On Again, Off Again: The American Double Struggles to Return

Wieland, Terry

Many of the same problems that ended the American double of yesteryear still apply today-with some notable exceptions.

The history of the American double shotgun is nothing if not turbulent. It is a story of rags to riches and back to rags, spectacular successes, serial bankruptcies and last-minute rescues. It is a saga peopled by mechanical geniuses, visionaries and eccentrics, would-be businessmen who should have been locked up for their own protection (and that of their investors) and wealthy philanthropists pursuing the dream of an American double to rival Purdey.

In recent years, as the passion for good doubles has flowered in the United States, the great American guns of the past have attained an almost mythical standing. Parker. A.H. Fox. L.C. Smith. Ithaca. Lefever. The names alone set the pulse racing.

With one exception (the Winchester Model 21), these guns died in their original form either because of the Great Depression or as an indirect result of World War II. The individual reasons varied, but the broad cause was always the same: Good doubles are works of art, and hand labor is expensive. Each was done in by an economic tide that could not be turned back.

Winchester’s Model 21 was the exception that proved the rule: Had it not been for the largesse of John Olin, who would not let his expensive pet die, the Model 21 would have followed the others into the grave.

Double guns throughout the world were similarly affected, but for various reasons the gunmaking industries of the European countries managed to weather the storm, survive the doublegun nadir of the 1960s and ’70s, and live to benefit from the renewed interest that began in the early 1980s and has continued to grow to this day.

Seeing Parkers, especially, trading on the used-gun market and among collectors at (sometimes) ridiculous prices, more than one gun-loving entrepreneur let his thoughts turn to the idea of bringing back the great American doubles. It is a noble goal that, so far at least, has resulted (with one notable exception) in a continuation of the commercial turbulence that has always beset them.

Tony Galazan’s Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing Co., home of the new A.H. Fox, and now of the Model 21, stands as the latest proof that the double gun in America cannot live on pas sion alone, and that the laws of economics have not been repealed.

Originally, this was to be an article about the rebirth of the American double, and how Tony Galazan and a few others had succeeded where others had failed. In early May 2003, however, just as we were getting started, news came that Ithaca Classic Doubles was seeking bankruptcy protection rather than going ahead with a reorganization that might have kept it afloat.This sad news forced a complete rethinking, because suddenly the evidence was decidedly negative.

Reduced to its essence, the appeal of a fine double lies in its exquisite balance and handling and generally lighter weight than its mass-produced competitors like the pump or semiautomatic. This balance and handling is a result of skilled hand labor that removes tiny amounts of metal wherever it is not needed, to achieve reduced, but perfectly distributed, weight. Perhaps some day, with advances in computerized machinery, this will be possible on an assembly line, but such is not yet the case.

Machine-made doubles are generally heavy, clunky, and handle like a barge pole. They are also homely. The man who, today, hungers after a double gun wants the grace and handling of a Purdey, but he wants it at an affordable price, and that is the rock upon which so many gunmaking ships have foundered.

From the beginning, when a group of investors decided in the early 1980s to bring back the Parker, passion and idealism have run up against this hard economic fact: Grace requires skill, and skill costs money. The American double gun may return, but the inexpensive American double will never be seen again.

The Parker Reproduction

Difficult as it is now to recall, with Japan mired in a decade-long economic slump, Japan, Inc., of the 1980s symbolized rising industrial might. It was characterized by a genius for advanced production methods that improved quality and reduced cost, and these were the virtues sought by the fathers of the Parker Reproduction when they reached an agreement with the Olin-Kodensha factory to make the guns. The idea was not to make a look-alike, but to actually revive the original Parker, with every facet identical and the parts completely interchangeable.

The founders concentrated on the models that were bringing the highest premium in the collector’s market. The big-money era of the 1980s had brought astronomical valuations for even pedestrian Parkers, and the price of higher grades in 20 or 28 gauge were out of sight. The Parker Reproduction made its debut in these gauges, many in two-barrel, multigauge sets. Prices began around $3,500-a substantial sum for a shotgun in 1985-but low for a fine gun when a new Purdey cost $40,000.

The gun received good reviews from experts, but fell flat. After an initial flurry of sales, the Parker Reproduction languished on the shelves. The remaining stocks were sold off in a final clear-out in the mid-1990s. There were several reasons for the failure of the Parker Reproduction. It lacked the virtues of a fully custom-made gun, with every measurement matched to the individual. At the same time, it had neither the appeal of an antique, nor a low price to put it within reach of those who could not afford an original Parker.

“In order to make it worthwhile tooling up for a project like that, you have to make 15-20,000 guns,” Tony Galazan told me, “And at those prices the market simply did not exist.”

The Parker Reproduction was too expensive for the average guy, and not good enough for the wealthy aficionado. One approach to bringing back the American double had been tried, and failed.

And a bizarre footnote: In 1988, Remington announced it would make “genuine” Parkers on special order, beginning at $ 13,000. To the best of my knowledge, none were ever actually made, and the project was quietly dropped.

The New A.H. Fox

The apparent initial success of the Parker spurred others to look at doing something similar with other famous guns. Tony Galazan is a machinist and toolmaker with a streak of genius. In 1993, he set up a factory to make the A.H. Fox gun (mechanically the equal of the Parker), but he took a different approach. Following the example of European fine gunmakers who were not only surviving, but thriving, he assembled a team of craftsmen in a small shop in Connecticut and started making the higher grades of Fox guns completely to individual order.

Galazan’s original craftsmen came from Austria, and the project took off Prices ranged (in 1993) from $6,000 to $25,000, in grades from CE to Exhibition. Michael McIntosh, author of A.H. Fox-“The Finest Gun in the World,” called the new Fox guns “more carefully fitted, better finished, and made of better materials, gun for gun, than ever before.”

With the Fox project firmly underway, Galazan turned his attention to making an over-under of his own design. Outwardly, the Galazan look exactly like the famous Thomas Boss, but inside it has been completely reengineered. Prices start at $38,000 (engraving not included).

Other Efforts

Seeing the success of Galazan and his new Fox, and inspired by the example of the Parker Reproduction, other entrepreneurs began to investigate the possibility of bringing back the Ithaca and the L.C. Smith. One group approached a gunmaker in Spain with a proposal that the company make a gun on the Ithaca pattern. Spanish gun makers generally regard boxlocks as inferior to sidelocks, and when they do make boxlocks they are the classic Anson & Deeley design perfected in England a century ago. No one was anxious to tool up to make something completely different, especially since it was intended to sell at a low price, and the idea went nowhere.

The L.C. Smith is a sidelock, albeit a crude one by European standards. Another group took an L.C. Smith to Spain and proposed that Ignacio Ugartechea make some up for them. Ignacio took one look at the gun and shook his head. The proposal died, and the owners of the gun never even bothered to reclaim it. The Smith sits, to this day, on a rack in Ugartechea’s shipping room, where Ignacio delights in pointing out the features where his sidelocks are superior.

Ithaca Classic Doubles

It was shortly after this that Steve Lamboy, an Ithaca lover, put together a consortium of investors, obtained the manufacturing rights to the New Ithaca Double from the remains of the original company, rented facilities in Victor, N.Y., and hired craftsmen to do with the Ithaca what Tony Galazan is doing with the Fox.

Ithaca Classic Doubles’ first catalog appeared in 1999, and listed an admirable range of models from the eminently affordable Special Field grade at $3,150 up to the Sousa grade at $10,500. The company took longer than expected to actually get into production. Within a year or two, the less expensive models were dropped, and when the company closed its doors its cheapest gun was a rather hefty $9,000.

Ithaca Classic Doubles also had ambitions to revive the great old Ithaca single-barrel trap gun, and managed to find the raw materials-original action frames and chopper-lump barrels-to make about 100 of them. The first new trap gun had barely rolled out the door when the doors slammed shut. As I write this, there is still a chance Ithaca will find new life with new investors. That would be a delightful outcome, because the company had barely found its feet and reportedly had about 50 orders underway. Obviously, there was significant interest in the old Ithaca.

Which brings us to the gun that is one of the great names in American doubles, and that makes up in strength what it might lack in grace and elegance.

The Model 21

The Winchester Model 21 has been in continuous production since its inception in 1929. Although at one time it was a mass-production gun, since 1959 the Model 21 had been exclusively a custom product, available in a range of models up to the fabulous Grand American. Throughout the travails of the Winchester Repeating Arms Co., its changes in ownership and in name, the 21 survived mainly because of the personal support of John Olin. The gun was his personal pet.

Olin retains the rights to the Winchester name, which were licensed to U.S. Repeating Arms when that company was established. The Model 21-labor-intensive, expensive and requiring highly-skilled craftsmen-has never been a moneymaker. In fact, Michael Mclntosh states flatly that no Model 21 has ever been sold at a profit. Clearly, for such a product to survive, it needs a loving patron with higher ideals than mere money-making.

In 1996, USRAC and Olin saw a way to keep the gun alive without going broke. Tony Galazan in Connecticut was not only making new Foxes, but also running a shop dealing in original parts for all kinds of guns from all over the world, and carrying out extensive work on many different makes. Why not turn the Model 21 over to him as a subcontractor, to make parts, carry out warranty work and even make complete guns? A deal was struck, the remaining stock of parts was shipped to New Britain, and Galazan added the Model 21 to his stable.

Today, Galazan makes guns with the Winchester name when an order comes into U.S. Repeating Arms, but there is only one grade: The Grand Royal, a 20, 28 and .410 combination gun that retails for an astounding $75,000. There have been, needless to say, very few made.

However, the Model 21 is long since out of patent protection, and you cannot copyright a number. So Galazan is free to make guns on the original design, and call it the Connecticut Shotgun Model 21, which is what he is now doing. He began tooling up to make the 21 in 2000, and is now making guns completely from his own parts. Prices start at $9,995, and range up to $30,000.

Having both the Fox and the 21 is not really an overlap. The two guns are quite complementary. The 21’s greatest strength is its strength. Early in its career, John Olin staged a comparative test involving a 21, a Purdey, a BSA double and an unlimited supply of proof loads generating 50 percent more pressure than the heaviest commercial load. The Purdey died after 60 shots, the BSA after 150; the test was halted when the Model 21 had fired 2,000 rounds with no sign of weakening.

Such strength comes at a price, however, and that price is excessive heft. Model 21s are typically heavy, and feel leaden compared to a fine British double. However, this strength can be usefully employed in guns for waterfowl, live-pigeon shooting and even double rifles.

“The 21 is built on a big piece of steel,” Galazan says, “And it is a very well-engineered gun. In fact, it is the best-engineered product I’ve ever been involved with. It has been in a state of continuous improvement since 1929, and it is easy to machine compared to other guns.”

The A.H. Fox, on the other hand, is sleek and dainty, and lends itself to crafting into a light, graceful upland gun in 16 and 20 gauge and lightweight 12s.

And just to round things out, Tony Galazan recently introduced a completely new gun-a sidelock side-by-side of his own design, made completely in Connecticut, that starts at $28,000 (plus the cost of engraving). The Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing Company is on its way to becoming a fullrange gunmaker along the lines of Hollands Holland.

The Future

The renewed market for side-byside doubles that began in the early 1980s and has grown steadily for two decades is focused on a particular type of gun: light, well-balanced, often a smaller gauge, almost exclusively for use on upland game.

This is a stark contrast to the typical American side-by-side of a century ago. The vast majority of old American doubles are 12-gauge, relatively heavy, with a lot of drop at heel, long barrels and tight chokes. In other words, a waterfowl gun. Although Parker and Fox and L. C. Smith had the ability to make guns more to the British ideal, they made very few because there was not much demand. Americans of those years wanted all-around guns, with emphasis on ducks and geese; upland hunting was but a tiny part of the shotgunner’s world.

Most of these existing guns are almost impossible to refurbish into the kind of gun that is in demand today, even if you wanted to sacrifice the collector’s value to do so. And the requirement for non-toxic shot adds a further impediment to using them even for their original purpose.

These facts have not been lost on the brave souls who have sought to resurrect the American double, and the new Parkers, Foxes and Ithacas all concentrate on becoming more like the English, not less.

Alas, a huge portion of this growing market consists of people like you and me who love doubles, would dearly love to own a fine one, but simply cannot afford a gun priced far above the average shotgun.

Maybe someday, with computerized machinery, it will be possible to, make a gun with the handling qualities of a fine double and the price of the average pump. It won’t be easy, but then, it never has been. Not if history is any guide.

Copyright National Rifle Association of America Sep 2004

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