Sporting

Make Mine A Double

A lifelong love affair with classic American side-by-sides, in four parts

photo: Dan Winters

I.

Staff Sergeant Lancelot Burn came upon the gun during the Battle of the Bulge, where he won a Bronze Star. He would have won a Silver Star, too, but a German 88-millimeter shell hit the command car before his captain could file the papers.

The gun was a curious affair, from the nation that produced the panzer tank and the cuckoo clock, a double-barreled 16-gauge shotgun with a rifle barrel beneath, chambered for the
most obscure and cantankerous metric caliber, with a switch to toggle between rifle and shotgun, kugel and schrot. When you threw it to kugel, a marvelous little rifle sight popped up on the rib.

Lance Burn ran a tug for R. J. Reynolds, Jr., the eccentric tobacco magnate holed up on Sapelo Island, fifty miles south of Savannah, and smuggled the gun home after the war. It was extravagantly engraved and ornately appointed. There was a spring-loaded trap in the buttstock for six rifle shells, and the butt plate was genuine Cape buffalo horn. My pappy lusted.

Or maybe coveted. “Yea, and thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s ox nor his ass, nor his wife nor his shotgun.” Or something close. Pappy didn’t truck much with livestock, but he did truck with the rest. He tried to jaw Lance out of that gun for a dozen years, a process consuming much whiskey and wind. Pappy finally got his chance when Lance needed a barge and Pappy had a spare. But still, it wasn’t easy.  Lance wouldn’t trade straight up, but he would loan Pappy the gun if Pappy loaned him the barge, an arrangement standing till the bottom of the barge blew out in the middle of Calibogue Sound with fifty tons of oyster shell aboard. Lance felt the tug stagger and hollered at his deckhands, “Grab that ax and cut her loose, boys, before she pulls us down, too!”

Pappy gave me the gun the Christmas I turned sixteen, and I took my first two deer with it.

But alas, the third season, I was following the hounds on a mule, the gun across my shoulder, when the mule took exception. There was a sickening crack, and blue fire flashed behind my eyes when I hit the ground. It wasn’t my spine, but almost as bad. The stock of the three-barreled gun was broken clean in two.

I took it to the best gunsmith in Savannah. He wore Coke-bottle-thick glasses and a smudged white shop coat and scratched his head and his posterior and sucked his teeth the way gunsmiths and undertakers do when they get ready to slip you the bad news. “Gonna cost you a thousand bucks to restock it, sonny.”

One-third of a new Ford pickup in 1974, or all of a damn fine used one. “What will you give me for it the way it is?”

“A thousand bucks,” he said.

Sold.

Pappy died and then Lance died and I stopped by his home place to pay my respects. I hadn’t seen the widow in twenty-odd years. She took one long look at me and said, “Roger Pinckney, where is that shotgun?”

Lance’s boy wanted to know, too. Except he wasn’t a boy anymore, a half dozen years my senior. “My pappy gave it to me when I turned sixteen,” I replied.

“Hell, my pappy gave it to me when I turned sixteen, too!”

That gun long gone, I did the best I could. I had another, a fine little German bird gun, a 20-bore side-by-side. I fetched it up and put it in his hands. It’s the thought that counts, right?  Surely he won’t accept it. Wrong! 

The moon waxed and waned, tides rose and fell, the river flowed, and storms gathered out at sea. Fire crackling in the stove, we were sampling good whiskey one night when he said, “You remember that bird gun you gave me years ago?”

Indeed, I did.

“I haven’t even shot it, likely never will. Why don’t you take it back and pass it along to one of your boys?”

“I got a boy with a birthday coming up.”

“Yeah? How old he gonna be?”

“Sixteen,” I said.

He laughed and I laughed and then he poured me another dram. The whiskey gloop-gloop-glooped from the jug, the noise a grouse makes when fixing to take wing.

II.

Repeating shotguns have been around since the 1880s, but there is nothing quite like a double gun. You ask me why, and I will mumble off into middle distance, Haven’t you ever shot one?

Weatherproof, waterproof, mudproof, dustproof. Two shells, two chokes, two chambers, two triggers, two sears, two hammers, two firing pins, a redundancy much appreciated if the quarry is of ill humor and intent on revenge.

A double gun is always some inches shorter than a repeater of equal barrel length. It will not jam, indeed, it cannot jam, and the point of balance is always right between your hands where it needs to be. A double gun is inherently safer, too. There’s no “oops factor,” that occasionally overlooked third troublesome shell.

And something else not so easy to qualify. A voodoo of aesthetics, art, and history. The first double guns date from the late Renaissance, muzzleloaders hand made for dukes and barons who would tolerate only the finest, a tradition continuing in “bespoke” British best shotguns today. “Bespoke” meaning they will measure you like a tailor and build it to fit, but only after you bespeak for it in certified funds. Got a hundred grand or two floating around looking for a home? You will be most graciously accommodated.

But more to the point are the American double guns—“the farm-implement grades,” as one Brit recently sniffed—L. C. Smith, A. H. Fox, Ithaca, Parker, et al., a golden age of American gunmaking from the advent of smokeless powder and fluid steel prior to the Great War, all through the Depression until World War II preempted civilian arms manufacturing. There were attempts to bring them back during the late forties, continuing sporadically to the present day, financial failures mostly. Just too much hand fitting by skilled labor, and a computer-controlled milling machine can do only so much. But take heart: The classic old American double guns just don’t seem to wear out and are readily available on the used-gun market. I own and regularly shoot nine, the oldest from my great-grandpappy’s day, the newest from my pappy’s. Maybe I got a screw loose? Maybe. But none of my guns do.

My favorite? Ansley Fox of Philadelphia gifted Teddy Roosevelt a double 12 in 1909, which he took to Africa and pronounced the finest shotgun ever made. But I beg to differ. I’ll put my money on a Parker.

Parker Brothers, of Meriden, Connecticut, dates from the 1830s, when Charles Parker and siblings were making coffee grinders and waffle irons. They got into the gun business during the Civil War, turning out rifled muskets for the Yankee army, and after the war until 1934, they built a couple hundred thousand sporting shotguns. Custom ordered or over the counter, in every gauge and choke, gold-inlayed, engraved, or plain, from twenty-five 1920 dollars to over twenty-five hundred. The innards were impeccable and much the same throughout. Czar Nicholas II ordered a Parker, but the Bolsheviks shot him before he could arrange delivery. Ad copy in 1920 asked, “Have you ever seen a broken Parker?” I have never broken a British best, but I have seen them broken, and I have shot German guns to pieces on two continents. But in sixty years of shooting double guns—in the United States, Canada, Argentina, and Africa—I have never seen a broken Parker.

photo: Dan Winters

Three of the author’s collection of side-by-sides, from top: the “little German bird gun,” a Simson from the 1970s; the Ithaca Flues; and a Parker Trojan 20-gauge, from 1921.

III.

On the run in Texas, for reasons I would rather not disclose, but if you’re camping in Laredo, make sure you don’t leave nothing in your clothes.

If it ain’t a country song, it oughta be.

One eye on the rear-view, the other on the road, east on old US 90, just across the Sabine River, I pulled over at a flea market on the Louisiana side when the old pickup ran hot again. I found scant scrub-oak shade, strolled around perusing the carnival glass, the faded photos of folks nobody remembered, the butter churns and crockery, while waiting for the radiator to stop gagging and gurgling.

And there was a Parker Trojan 12-gauge, the cheapest Parker from 1915, but it was clean and tight. One hundred and fifty bucks.

This was forty years ago, but I knew a little something about Parkers even then.

We all shot doubles when I was coming up in the sixties. There was a Fox and two Parkers in my small circle of boyhood gunners, and I had my pappy’s Crescent, which he bought for eighteen whole dollars in 1928, if memory serves. Pappy only whupped me twice, once for running out in front of a car when I was knee-high and a second time some years later for letting his Crescent rust up after a marsh hen shoot. I never let a shotgun rust up after that. But I digress.

The Crescent was so mechanically indifferent, my friends called it the Crescent Wrench. Indeed, it would close with a postcard in the breech, but neither Parker would close on something so thin as a cigarette paper. I took note and vowed to someday own one.

Now I had that chance. Yes, I was innocent until proven guilty, but I had already crossed a state line to avoid legal entanglements, most likely a violation of something. Being in flight while in possession of a firearm probably ramped it up a notch or three.

And so I passed, and it was nearly thirty years before a Parker crossed my trail again, but it was worth the wait, a lithe and lovely little 20-gauge Trojan, from 1921. One of only about six thousand made, it was priced accordingly. Dove shoots in both Carolinas, quail all over Southwest Georgia, it serves me to this day. And if I ever get back to Argentina, it will be at my side. Five hundred doves a day, shotguns get so hot you dare not touch the metal, even with shooting gloves. You open them and lean them against a thornbush while they cool off. But no worries, I have never seen a broken Parker.

photo: Dan Winters

A close-up of the 1921 Parker Trojan, still the author’s preferred quail and dove gun.

IV.

Miss Beatrice Milley taught in a one-room schoolhouse on Hilton Head Island’s Honey Horn Plantation for thirty-six years and got Pappy through the third grade. Pappy loved her and she loved him. He paid her nursing home bill at the end, and the probate judge gave him her shotgun. It wasn’t much to look at, a field-grade Ithaca Flues from about 1912, the basic model, bluing turned brown and the rainbow swirls of case hardening on the receiver just a fond memory. But it came with an astounding tangle of a backstory. For Honey Horn once belonged to Alfred Lee Loomis, Wall Street tycoon, America’s Cup sailor, amateur electronics wizard, inventor of a device to measure the speed of artillery shells, coinventor of radar, contributor to the Manhattan Project, friend of Einstein’s.

Loomis bought seventeen thousand acres in 1931, twenty-five years before there was ever a bridge to Hilton Head. Quail skittered through the hedgerows in those days, wood ducks bobbed and whistled in flooded timber, big bucks ghosted oak forests, and the creeks were all crackling with shrimp, redfish, and trout. Loomis kept a battalion of guides at his beck, a fleet of hunting skiffs at his call, a stable full of gun horses, a kennel of pointers and hounds, and a battery of house guns so no guest would have an excuse for not joining him afield. And this Ithaca Flues was one of those guns.

The Ithaca was designed by Emil Flues, a gunsmith of German extraction in Bay City, Michigan, laboring under primitive conditions. To minimize all the hammering and filing, Flues devised a firing mechanism that required only three moving parts per barrel. In those days, there was fierce competition between makers of American double guns, where even five dollars became an issue at small farm-town hardware store tills. Ithaca bought Flues’s patent and produced nearly a quarter million units, dominating the market for a dozen years and driving several competitors into bankruptcy.

There is a story, too captivating to dismiss. Flues moved to Buffalo, New York, and became widely known for fine engraving and inlays of gold and silver. Buffalo Bill bought one of his pistols, as did the cowboy actor Tom Mix. In 1922, Haile Selassie, the future emperor of Ethiopia, the Lion of Judah, visited Flues to pick up a gun he had commissioned at a cost of three thousand dollars. This was at a time when a rocky hillside farm sold for a fraction of that amount. It was also a time when blacks, even royalty, could not ride regular coach. Folklore says Selassie arrived in a freight car, riding atop a load of cabbages. As the Lion of Judah is now considered to be Jah (the Son of God, or God Himself) by millions of Rastafarians, this event could be equivalent to Jesus’s birth in a barn.

And my Ithaca Flues, a hundred-odd years young now, is still my go-to gun come deer season. Love it, lube it, swab the bores. It will be in the field a century from now.


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