A look into the famous American classic, the “Old Reliable” Parker shotguns
Roughly halfway between the coastal town of New Haven, Conn., and the capital of Hartford lies the city of Meriden, the one-time home to the illustrious, fabled and renowned Parker Brothers Manufacturing Company. The state of Connecticut has a storied history of firearms manufacturing and to this day is still home to some of the biggest names in the gun business. Small and large purveyors of the shooting sports, gunsmiths and even some manufacturers still call Connecticut home, though many more have gone the way of the passenger pigeon, as is the case with the subject of this article — the Parker shotgun.
One of a myriad of entrepreneurial endeavors of Charles Parker, the Parker Gun Company began as a wartime effort, manufacturing repeating rifles during the Civil War. After the war, Parker’s entrepreneurial spirit and manufacturing background led him to a vision of a gun with manufactured parts but hand assembled to ensure quality.
Charles and his sons developed and perfected the early Parker shotgun design, and began manufacturing the first guns off their line in 1868. These were not the Parker guns we are most familiar with. They were Damascus steel barreled, pinfire, hammer guns that utilized the transitional cartridges of the late 1800s. Additionally, these guns incorporated a ‘lifter’ mechanism for opening, rather than the top lever that most folks are familiar with.
In 1874 Charles King joined Parker Bros. Formerly of Smith & Wesson, King was largely responsible for the technological advances with the design of the Parker shotgun. Between 1874 and 1902, the forearm latch was developed, hammer gun production slowed in favor of hammerless guns, and the ejector system was developed. The Parker shotgun around the turn of the century would remain essentially the same, except for a notable reworking of the mechanism in 1910, for the remainder of production years.
Production continued in Meridian until 1934. During those years, new features like single triggers, Beavertail forend, and vent ribs were introduced as options on Parker guns. In 1934 Parker Bros. was under significant financial strain as a result of the Great Depression, and pressure from repeating shotguns that were becoming increasingly popular in the market. Parker was acquired by Remington Arms in 1934, though manufacturing continued in the Meridian factory until 1938 when production was fully moved to Ilion, N.Y. Production of the Parker shotgun slowed and eventually stopped in 1947 when the final gun left the Remington factory.
Models, grades and options of the Parker shotguns
Parker shotguns are one of the most easily recognizable American-made boxlock shotguns due to the fact that their hinge pin was not hidden, but rather made prominent by design. The large countersunk depression in the action, with visible screw head, sets Parker shotguns apart from other boxlock guns of the same period. In addition to their unique hinge pin, Parker shotguns also incorporated a square ‘dolls head’ barrel extension that locked the gun’s action closed. Combined with the Purdy style underbite, the lock up on a Parker shotgun was far stronger than needed to contain the relatively mild pressures shot shells produced.
Though the Parker Bros. lifter, external hammer design was widely popular and well regarded in the early days of production, the introduction of the hammerless, top lever actuated design swiftly took over and became the predominant version of the gun. We will focus on the hammerless guns with steel barrels, as there are a number of safety concerns that arise when shooting very old vintage guns. Early Damascus or twist steel guns may be safe to shoot, and there is ample discussion on both sides of that heated debate. Additionally, the advisability of entering the woods with a hammer gun presents its own set of ethical and moral questions that I will not dive into here.
Hammerless Parker shotguns were available across gauge, and from their most basic configurations to the highest and most ornate. Their early start in the shotgun manufacturing arena allowed them access to some of the finest craftsmen in the field, which the Parker Bros. company took full advantage of. The fit and finish on Parker guns is indicative of the level of attention to detail invested by the workers at the factory.
When considering Parker shotgun grades, there are two primary concerns other than gauge. Parker shotguns were made in 8-, 10-, 12-, 14-, 16-gauge, 20-, and 28-gauge with the first .410 introduced in 1927. As for the guns themselves, Parker employed a very popular method of sizing the gun’s action to the gauge of choice, resulting in ‘frame’ of ‘action’ sizes. These were indicated by number, and ranged from No. 3 being the heaviest to No. 00 as the lightest.
Guns of various gauge were made on different frame sizes. Frame size was marked on the barrel lug. The final discriminating factor in gun selection was the ‘grade’ of the gun. Parker gun grades ranged from the most basic Trojan, then V or VH for Vulcan (a reference to the barrel steel), PH, GH, DH, CH, BH, AH and A1 Special. An “E” after the designated grade indicated the gun was fitted with ejectors rather than extractors.
Shotguns were available or made to order with options like grip style, barrel length, and choke bore. As a result there were many combinations of frame, grade, and gauge produced, and even greater when considering the many features a customer could select. Grips could be full pistol, semi-pistol or straight grip. Barrels ranged from 24 inches to a remarkable 40 inches (primarily in trap or specialty guns).
|Model||Grade||First Production Year||Number Produced||Cost at time|
|A-1 Special||Grade 8||1907||79||$500|
|AAH (H indicated harmless)||Grade 7||1895||238 (hammerless)||$400|
|AH||Grade 6||1875||306 (hammerless)||$300|
|BH||Grade 5||1875||1034 (hammerless)||$200|
|CH||Grade 4||1875||1673 (hammerless)||$150|
|DH||Grade 3||1875||16,398 (hammerless)||$100|
|GH||Grade 2||1875||31,788 (hammerless)||$80|
|PH and NH||Grade 1||1882||15,588 (hammerless)||$48.50|
|VH||Grade 0||1869||78,670 (hammerless)||$37.50|
*Find out more at parkerguns.org
The Parker reproductions
The Parker shotgun was resurrected in the 80s no doubt because of the loyal following of very avid Parker shotgun enthusiasts. The gun and its distinguished name were brought back to life by Tom Skeuse, a chemical engineer and owner of several business ventures of note, including White Flier targets (which he purchased from Olin Industries). Shotguns were commissioned from the Olin-Kodensha plant in Japan, which was already producing several of Winchester’s firearms at the time.
The Parker reproduction was made in every way to be an exact replica of the original Parker shotguns, though there is no denying that advances in machining technology had been made since the 1940s when Parker shut down. Reproductions were offered in DHE, BHE and A1 and in addition most of the reproduction guns were made in sub-gauges 16, 20 and 28, with the 20-gauge DHE being the most common.
The project began in 1984, but production ceased in 1989 when the Olin-Kodensha plant closed its doors for all production of firearms. With this short period of production, only just over 12,000 shotguns produced, and all were marked “Parker Reproduction by Winchester” on the rib or barrel. Though not ‘original’ Parkers, the reproduction guns are viewed by many as very high quality firearms, and in some ways potentially superior to their predecessors because of modern machining. They certainly have a place in the story of this legendary shotgun.
Unique and interesting facts of Parker shotguns
Parker shotguns have been in the hands of many storied individuals, appear in literature, films, and the hands of royalty. It is not unsurprising why Parker shoguns are so collectible. Buffalo Bill presented a Parker to Annie Oakley, who regularly shot Parkers in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Some of our favorite authors like Foster, Ford and Spiller toted Parkers in the field and wrote about them frequently. So did Ernest Hemingway and Zane Gray. Gary Cooper and John Phillip Sousa were Parker fans as well. Not to mention the famous clay shooters who performed feats with their Parker guns, presidents, and generals who all owned and shot the famous guns nicknamed “Old Reliable.” Parker guns are synonymous with upland shooting, and will forever be.
The three Parker “Invincible” Grade guns, made to celebrate the production of the 200,000th Parker Gun are in the NRA Museum Collection in Fairfax, Va. The only three in existence, the Invincibles are said to be worth more than $5 million.
Another storied Parker, the famous “Czar Parker,” was purportedly made to order for Czar Nicholas II, but was lost for almost 100 years. An order was placed with Parker for an exceptionally high grade gun, which was supposed to be gifted to the Czar, but did not make the trip because of the outbreak of World War I. The gun recently surfaced at auction and sold for $250,000 to a collector.
Parker gun collectors association
The Parker Gun Collectors Association (PGCA) is among the most comprehensive shotgun clubs in the country, with a mission dedicated to obtaining Parker shotgun records and authenticate originals including a database. For those embarking on vintage side-by-side shotgun buying this is a great place to get first-hand knowledge. They even include an online process for identifying Parkers through steps including serial number, marking identifications, grade, and an online forum for other enthusiast and historians to identify and promote the history of each shotgun.
Membership to the organization cost $40 annually, as well as life membership options ranging from $500 to $5000. There are over 1300 members of the PGCA in the United States, Canada, Australia, and England. Membership comes with a subscription to the famous quarterly publication, the Parker Pages, exclusive access to member forums, discounted rates on Research Letters as well as access to PGCA events.
To find out more check them out here: PGCA
Other notable organizations and Parker reproduction
Although a bit like the “Freemason’s” of the upland hunting world. The Old Pat’s Society is an organization originally founded in New England. “Pats” meaning partridge, aka ruffed grouse. Most members are former employees of Remington and are known for their Parker collecting. It is important to note that the current rights to Parker are owned by Remington and one can still commission a custom replica for a pretty hefty price tag at: http://www.parkergun.com/
You can catch our past interview with Art Wheaton who is a founding member of the Old Pat’s Society and passionate Parker collector.
The Parker Reproduction started in in 1983 with the imprint “Parker Reproduction by Winchester” although Winchester was never involved in the reproduction. The shotgun was manufactured in Japan and many debate that the quality of this shotgun was superior to the original Parker shotguns. Although a fire destroyed the original records credible information points towards just over 12,000 Parker Reproductions being produced.
Joel Penkala is an Upland Bird Hunter and outdoors enthusiast from New Jersey. His love of all things upland has led him to travel and hunt around the United States and fostered his affinity for double guns and bird dogs. He runs English Setters in his home covers chasing Woodcock, Grouse, and Pheasants.