There are shotguns and there are shotguns, and amazingly, those of the last 50 years trump those of the former 50.
Fifty years ago--1960--the Gun Digest devoted fewer than a dozen pages to American-made shotguns. Today, the shotgun section is 40 pages long, and it packs in far more guns per page.
Looking back, the wonder is not how few choices were available in 1960. No, to me, the wonder is that almost all of those guns are dead, gone, and forgotten. With one or two exceptions, such as the Holland & Holland side-by-side in the "imported gun" section, almost everything has changed.
And wonder of wonders, by and large the change has been for the better. We have more, and better, and finer shotguns now than we had in 1960. As a hidebound traditionalist, it is a surprise even to me that I would write that.
Another interesting fact is that almost all of this increased choice today comes from offshore. We still have American-made shotguns, but we have vastly more imported ones than we did then, and you now see these imported guns everywhere from the trap range to the duck blind.
Broadly speaking, the biggest change from then to now is the wide popularity of the over-under, mirrored by decreased interest in pump guns. There were few side-by-sides left in 1960, and there are few now (at least readily affordable ones). The other design that has come on strong is the semiautomatic, and it is fair to say that in 2010, most shotgunners use either over-unders or semiautos, with everything else trailing the pack.
How did we get here? What designs were the most influential? What guns--not thought of in 1960--came along and shaped the way we shoot today?
Given the rise of the over-under and autoloader, it is not surprising that I picked three O-U guns and one autoloader as having a particular impact. The fifth gun is a side-by-side, influential not because of the tidal wave of similar guns it provoked, but because it caused a shift in American attitudes that led to a whole new class of gun.
Browning Citori 625 Field
It is fitting that Browning should claim the first spot because, since the 1920s and continuing to this day, the famous Browning Superposed really defined over-unders for American shooters.
The Superposed was John M. Browning's last design, and it was produced for a half-century at the FN plant in Belgium. The quality was unvarying in its excellence, the workmanship was superb, and it was made in some fabulous high grades. By the early 1970s, however, labor costs in Europe had driven the cost of the Superposed (and all other Belgian-made Browning firearms) out of reach of most shooters.
Seeing the writing on the wall, Browning designed a new, simpler over-under to replace the Superposed--the Citori--and moved production to Japan, where costs were low but quality of machine manufacturing was high. In 1975, the first year it was listed in Gun Digest, a Citori Field grade cost $325, while a Superposed Grade I was $780.
Eventually, the Citori was offered in a wide range of grades and styles, but the basic Field gun became the standard and provided an entire generation of Americans with a solid, affordable over-under at a time when prices of everything were going wild. And, with a taste for over-unders firmly established, the Citori inspired an ever-increasing number of models from other manufacturers.
Ruger Red Label
Ruger Red Label
By 1977 inflation and interest rates had hit stratospheric levels, and it sometimes seemed as if nothing was affordable--not cars, not gasoline, not chewing gum. But we reckoned without Bill Ruger, the savior of American shooters so many times before, and he did not fail us then.
Conventional wisdom said that over-unders required too much hand labor, and that cheap hand labor was only available overseas. So America would produce mechanical guns like semiautos and pumps, while the finer over-unders and side-by-sides would be produced in the craft-conscious but low-cost backwaters of Europe.
Ruger looked at the situation and decided that America could produce an over-under with graceful lines, a genuine walnut stock, a durable action--and an affordable price. No one believed him. They were wrong. The result was the Red Label.
When it appeared in 1977, the Red Label listed at just $480; it was available initially in 20 gauge, with the 12 coming along in 1982.
The wonderful thing about the Red Label was not its low cost, or even its durable construction and reliability.
The great thing was its style. Bill Ruger had an eye for lines in guns, and the Red Label reflected it. It was less blocky than the Browning Citori, and in many ways more aesthetically pleasing even than the Beretta 686 that came along later. The action was rounded, and the stock through the pistol grip was similarly rounded without the usual flat panels in the stock behind the receiver. The fore-end was slimmer than most.
Whether Ruger was consciously seeking the look of the famous Boss over-under, with its slim receiver, I don't know. If he didn't achieve it, though, he came close. The Red Label was not as deep as the Superposed or even the Citori, and so it had elegant and graceful lines its whole length.
All that for $480? Stand back, city folk, and let the country people have a look.
Beretta 686 King Ranch Silver Pigeon.
Then came the Beretta 680 series over-unders, introduced in 1979 and beginning life as trap and skeet guns costing more than $1,100 but quickly expanding to include the 686 Field gun. The 686 Field was $735--eminently more affordable than the competition guns but still a
generous step up from the Citori and Red Label.
With the introduction of the 680 series guns, American shotgunners suddenly had a real choice in good over-unders, with a meaningful price difference among them, but--perhaps more important--the opportunity to start with a cheaper one and later move up in price, quality, and status.
Not that there was a huge difference in quality between the Citori and the 686. Both were good, rugged designs that just kept shooting regardless of conditions. But Italy has a long history of fine-gun manufacturing and a mystique that Japan did not have then, and does not have now. Shooting a European over-under carried cachet. It still does. To a great extent, the Citori replaced the Superposed in the Browning lineup, but the 686 replaced the Superposed in our hearts.
Ultimately, there came a flood of competing over-under designs from Italy, leading to the plethora of variations, names, styles, and grades that we enjoy today. But it really began with the 686.
Benelli Super Black Eagle II.
Through the 1960s, the Browning Auto-5 and similar designs defined the semiautomatic shotgun, but whatever its other virtues, the Auto-5 was not graceful. It felt awkward, and the movement of its long-recoil action was disconcerting when you first shot it.
As with the Superposed, the inflation of the 1970s spelled the effective end of the Auto-5, but by that time, it was a 70-year-old design anyway, and everyone was ready for a change. Several other semiauto shotguns already existed, including a couple from Browning, but it was the arrival of the Benelli from Italy in 1977 that changed our whole perception of the semiauto.
The basic Benelli had two cardinal virtues. One, it was extremely simple, with fewer moving parts than any other semiauto. It could be disassembled and cleaned in minutes, and if you didn't have the necessary minutes to do that, well, you could just keep shooting because the Benelli, it seemed, would shoot forever. It established a reputation for reliability unmatched by any other semiauto.
The Benelli's second virtue was its handling. Somehow, its Italian designers managed to impart the liveliness of a nice over-under with a stock of European walnut carefully fashioned to feel quick and streamlined. Instead of a heavy, clanking machine, the Benelli was well-balanced and responsive.
Through the 1980s and into the '90s, when Americans began to head south of the border in droves to hunt doves in places like Mexico, Colombia, and Argentina, the outfitters would save them the trouble of transporting guns by offering to supply loaners. Almost invariably, in any well-run operation, the guns for loan would be 12-gauge Benelli autoloaders and 20-gauge Beretta over-unders. One Mexican operator told me in 1996 that the Benelli was the only autoloader that stood up to the pounding and kept working.
What's more, with its good balance and swing, clients hit a lot of birds with them. Many, it seemed, bought a Benelli when they got home, and it became the standard by which other semiautomatics were--and are--measured.
The Parker Reproduction was a short-lived experiment that, while it did not produce a continuous-production gun, did inspire similar experiments and ushered in a whole new approach to making a certain type of gun.
The type in question was the high-quality side-by-side double.
By 1960 all the famous American double guns were out of production, victims of a shortage of skilled labor and a public infatuation with firepower. Shooters interested in double guns, either collecting or shooting, began to drive up the price of used specimens of the most admired names, particularly Parker and Fox.
The Parker was the most desirable of all, widely acknowledged as "Old Reliable," the aristocrat of American double guns. Several books were written about them, and by the early 1980s prices were climbing quickly. In the face of this obvious demand, rumors circulated that Remington, which owned the Parker name, might begin production again at some point. But it never happened.
Then a Parker collector named Tom Skeuse made a deal with Olin-Kodensha in Japan, maker of the Winchester 101 over-under, to produce a gun he called the Parker Reproduction. It was a faithful copy, right down to interchangeable parts, of the Parker DHE grade. It was available only in 20 gauge when it was unveiled in 1984, but 28-gauge guns came along later.
At $2,800, the Parker Reproduction was not cheap, but for a gun of that quality, and compared to collector prices for original Parkers, it was not out of line. The guns were well made and very attractive. Alas, they were in production only until 1988, when Olin-Kodensha pulled the plug, leaving the gun business to make car parts instead.
The impact of the new Parker lingered on, though. Entrepreneurs looked at other old double-gun designs and thought about emulating the Parker Reproduction. Eventually, Tony Galazan's Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing began making the A.H. Fox in Connecticut, and the Ithaca double returned briefly in upstate New York. Another approach was to have guns made overseas, and at least one L.C. Smith traveled to Spain in a vain quest to find a maker.
Of the bunch, only Galazan is still operating. He now makes the Winchester 21 under license as well as the Fox, and he even makes double guns of his own design. So, in the Galazan shop, the great American double gun is back, albeit on a small scale.
The arrival of the Parker Reproduction coincided with a real acceleration of interest in all better-quality double guns, and soon shooters were buying custom guns from Spain and Italy, as well as buying used boxlocks, sidelocks, and even hammer guns from the U.K.
Not all of this activity can be laid at the door of the Parker Reproduction, of course, but it seemed to be the catalyst that changed our broad outlook on doubles. The Parker Reproduction's run was short-lived, but its influence was long-lasting.
Where Are We Headed In 2010?
Well, the action among manufacturers interested in selling guns in quantity lies mostly in the realm of semiautos, where there is a race among Browning, Beretta, and Benelli to outdo each other in reliability and versatility.
Moving up into the $3,000 to $5,000 class--a not insubstantial sales stratum, by the way--the activity is almost entirely over-unders. Today's O-U guns are slimmer, better balanced, and more reliable than those of the 1970s by a long way. There are entries from Germany to compete with the dominant Italians, and Browning is still very much in the game as well.
So our five guns continue to influence what we shoot long after their arrival here.
And the quality of what we are shooting? Not only do we have vastly more choices today than we had in 1960, but gun for gun there is simply no comparison.