There is something about a stately old shotgun that lures us in and tempts us to pick it up, shoulder it and dream of where it’s been. Worn bluing and scarred walnut gives a hint of the days in a duck blind, grouse woods or a trap and skeet field.
Most of those venerable shotguns started out in factories and on gun shop racks, and hunters and shooters across America chose the ones they thought were best. Eventually, the greatest guns stood out. Here are 10 shotguns that I believe must be considered among the classics.
BROWNING AUTO FIVE Many would consider John Moses Browning a genius, a point to which the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), the Browning .50-caliber machine gun and the Colt 1911 pistol can attest. Browning also designed the Automatic Five shotgun (four in the magazine, one in the chamber) in 1898 and first took his idea to Winchester, a company he had done business with on many other projects.
Things did not work out at Winchester or Remington at the time, and Browning next landed at Fabrique National. Soon after, the Automatic Five shotgun was first made in Belgium in 1902 (hence the moniker “Belgium Browning”).
Browning later secured an agreement with Remington in 1905, and the newly rebranded Remington Model 11 became the first autoloading shotgun made in America. Many will tell you that the A5 is known for kicking like the proverbial mule. To some fans of the A5, it will always be known as the “Humpback” due to its trademark squared receiver. Most who shoot the A5 say that the gun shoulders very nicely and is quick to get on target.
The big, broad receiver gives shooters an instant sighting plane, leading to the ease of aiming.
John Browning reportedly said the A5 shotgun was his greatest achievement. Coming from a man with dozens of firearms to his name, including that little number called the Colt 1911, that says something.
REMINGTON MODEL 31
Remington trotted out an elegant firearm in 1931 that many would consider a gold standard for pump shotguns. The reason for this was the intricate hand fitting of parts that contributed to the smooth action of this pump gun. The Model 31 appeared in August of that year and retailed for $48.50 (roughly $750 in today’s market).
Remington aimed at pushing Winchester out of the pump shotgun market, and the company called upon a couple of in house gun designers, C.C. Loomis and John Pederson, to do it. Both men had learned from John Moses Browning. From the start, the Model 31 pump gun was known for a slick action achieved by hand-fit parts.
This system was neither fast nor cheap. In the end, the wonderful, clock like workings of the Model 31 may have been its downfall. By 1949, the Model 31 was off the market as gun makers sought out a faster and less expensive system.
Val Browning, son of John M. Browning, finished the work on his father’s last firearm. John Browning died while working on his revolutionary concept for a double barrel shotgun in 1926. The elder Browning decided to superimpose the barrels one on top of the other instead of the traditional side by side, and this configuration became known as “superposed.”
This elegant but moderately priced shotgun hit the market in 1931 with a retail price of $107.50. That was a lot of money back then, but a working man could afford one if he scrimped a little. Val Browning perfected his father’s design, and a few years later, the Superposed was equipped with a single selective trigger.
While Superposed shotguns are not known for being light, the benefits of the revolutionary and durable design far outweighed any extra weight.
H. FOX STERLINGWORTH
Recent years have seen a renewed interest in reasonably priced American-made double guns. Shotgun lovers who do not wish to venture into the world of expensive British shotguns feel they can stay domestic and collect the odd Lefever, a Winchester Model 24, maybe an L. C. Smith or a Fox Sterlingworth.
Ansley Herman Fox was well known in the shotgun world of the early 1900s. Known as a hotshot in the live pigeon and trapshooting scene, Fox went through a confusing series of gun manufacturing company ownerships in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
By 1910, Fox was producing a gun he called the Sterlingworth, an entry-level Fox shotgun and the grade most hunters chose. Like most American-made doubles of the day, the Fox Sterlingworth featured a box-lock action and the “lumpthrough” method of connecting the barrels. On a double barrel shotgun, the lump is the projection extending downward from the breech end of the barrels. In the lump-through method, a separate piece of machined steel is fitted and braised onto the barrels.
This is a durable and completely satisfactory way to make a double-barrel shotgun. However, it was just not considered quite as elegant as other more complicated and expensive methods, as it usually resulted in a wider
measurement across the breech. All classic American made doubles were made this way.
Most of these guns featured color case-hardened receivers, and this is usually the first place to show wear. The Sterlingworth was and still is known as a sturdy, dependable (and I think lovely) companion in the field.
ITHACA MODEL 37
The Ithaca Model 37 pumpgun is something of a paradox. On one hand, it has been a nimble and lightweight sporting arm carried by thousands of sportsmen. On the other, this shotgun has been a warrior. Like Winchester’s Models 97 and 12 and the Remington 31, the Ithaca saw military service from World War II through Vietnam.
If that was not enough, this dependable shotgun was adopted by many police departments in the US and abroad. Part of the Model 37’s appeal was the shotgun’s unique feature of loading and ejecting through the port at the
bottom of the receiver, making it an ambidextrous firearm. Ithaca waited until a patent owned by Remington expired in the mid-1930s and borrowed from a design by John Pederson.
Like others of that day, Ithaca sought a competitor for the Winchester Model 12. The company introduced the gun in 1937 in what may have been the worst climate possible for a new sporting arm. War was looming in Europe, and the country was still suffering in the Great Depression. Despite that, the Model 37 remains as the longest pump-action shotgun in production to date.
WINCHESTER MODEL 12
It should come as no surprise that the basis for this iconic pump shotgun came from John Browning. Little-known Winchester engineer T. C. Johnson improved on Browning’s Model 1897 and gave the world the Model 12. Winchester produced this shotgun from 1912 through 1964 with more
than 2 million being made. For many years, the Model 12 set the bar that all other pumpgun makers tried to reach. Oddly, when the first guns were produced in 1912, they were only available in 20 gauge. After a year in production, 12 and 16 gauges became available. A 28-gauge model was also produced later.
This shotgun was the darling of thousands of hunters and trap and skeet shooters for many years. When it debuted in 1912, it was the first shotgun with an internal hammer and a streamlined receiver the American public had seen. The Model 12 also had hand-fitted machined steel internal parts, interchangeable barrels, nice walnut stocks and forearms and beautiful deep bluing. The Model 12 sold strongly until the introduction of the Remington Model 870 in 1961. By then, a new age of shotguns had begun.
REMINGTON MODEL 32
Prophets are never appreciated in their own time. In many ways, the Remington Model 32 over-and-under shotgun was a herald of greater things to come. No doubt part of the incentive for this gun was to give the Browning Superposed some competition. Crawford C. Lewis was an engineer at Remington, and he brought the Model 32 to life.
In 1932, O/U shotguns were not familiar to American shooters, and the country was still clawing its way out of the Great Depression. Loomis gave the country an overand-under that shooters could buy for $75, while the competing Browning Superposed was about $107.
That was a huge factor in Depression-era America. The first machine-made O/U shotgun built in America, the Model 32 had a top-lock system and separated barrels, which allowed for better cooling and added heft and strength. The Model 32 was discontinued in 1944 with around 5,500 having been made. Soon after that, a group of Americans took the design of the Model 32 to the famous double-gun makers at Krieghoff in Germany. The company soon gave the world the Krieghoff 32, based upon Browning’s Model 32.
WINCHESTER MODEL 59 SEMIAUTOMATIC
Anyone who hunts birds knows what a blessing a lightweight shotgun can be. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, quail and grouse hunting was much more popular with American hunters. For wildfowlers, the Winchester Model 59 was a great option.
Very little is heard about this shotgun today, despite the fact that it was so revolutionary. Not only did the Model 59 have an aluminum receiver to help with weight, but Winchester created the barrel by wrapping huge lengths of glass fiber (reportedly over 500 miles) around a thin steel liner. The fiber was then fused and bonded to the liner.
The result was a semiauto shotgun that weighed less than 6 pounds. In addition, the Model 59 had some of the first screw-in chokes available.
Eastern grouse hunters grabbed these guns up with abandon. Critics said the Model 59 kicked too hard, while others said the gun was too light on the muzzle, which made it very fast to point. Most of the hunters who liked the Model 59 just carried it and killed grouse.
“More gun for the money,” Mossberg’s company slogan, pretty well affirms what O. F. Mossberg set out to do for his customers. A Swedish immigrant who found himself unemployed at age 53, Mossberg and his two sons, Iver
and Harold, started a firearms company in 1919. Technical expertise and no-frills innovation carried the company into the early 1960s when Mossberg engineer Carl Benson developed the iconic Model 500 shotgun.
Benson used ideas from the Model 31 Remington, which had roots in earlier J.M. Browning Remington shotguns.
Early versions of the Model 500 had problems with the single-action bar sometimes bending and breaking. When the Remington patent on the twin-action bar expired in 1970, Mossberg added another bar to solve this problem (as found in the Remington 870).
Model 500 variants, including the 590 and the 590A1, have seen active service with the military and in several different branches, Special Forces included. Hunters have always liked the rugged dependability of the Mossberg 500, and the gun continues to be popular with more than 10 million sold.
History tells us that many of the European royal families in various countries were related. It is much the same in the classic shotgun world, especially with pump guns. John M. Browning designed the Remington Model 17, which influenced the Ithaca 37 and the Remington 31. Both of these shotguns swam in the gene pool of possibly the greatest pump shotgun ever made: the Remington 870. Introduced in 1961, the 870 rose from the ashes of the Model 31. Remington sought to deliver a strong, dependable, modern shotgun at a moderate price, and it’s what they did.
The original Wingmaster version of the 870, while tough, was very aesthetically pleasing, having deep bluing and glossy walnut stocks.
In 1987, Remington introduced the 870 Express line.
These shotguns featured black matte finish on the metal and hardwood laminated wood or synthetic stocks and forearms. Sales increased with the Express and, in 2009, Remington sold its 10 millionth 870, making it the bestselling shotgun in history.
Story and Photos by Larry Case