Parker Shotguns—and other Classic American Shotguns.
Hunters have been discussing classic American shotguns for as long as wing shooting has existed in our country. They’ll pass around tales of the glory days of hunting around October campfires. Legacies such as L.C. Smith, Ansley H. Fox, Ithaca, Uncle Dan Lefever, and the legendary Parker shotguns evoke black and white images of old time hunters clad in heavy canvas with full game bags. Faithful pointers and setters proudly accompanying them as they venture through musty old orchards and mazes of crumbling stone walls.
Hunters such as W.H.Foster, Aldo Leopold, Burton Spiller, George Bird Evans, Corey Ford, and Nash Buckingham forged the path of American wing shooting lore with these fine old guns. Writers such as Gene Hill spoke of them with as much reverence as the men who shot them.
These days, a quick Google search will unveil a veritable novel’s worth of opinions and arguments over the merits and shortcomings of each classic gun. I’d recommend taking much of it with a grain of salt. In the depths of these often heated debates, you will find grown men reduced to name calling and squabbling over who’s pet brand of gun is the best made, looking, balanced, or most valuable.
In my opinion, these grand old companies are still the pride of many a gunner’s safe. They might even see as much use as they did back in their hay day one hundred years ago. As long as these guns are still in service, I don’t think we can really argue about which one is best. Maybe when all the Parker’s complex mechanisms fail for good, the Fox guys will finally be able to shout, “I told you so!” But I don’t see that happening in my lifetime.
My experience with the guns are pretty limited compared to other people. Yet in over twenty five years of upland hunting and missing clay targets at gun clubs, I have had chances to enjoy most of these classics. And as far as my aesthetic taste goes, I can’t find much to complain about with any of them.
Yet I confess that I’ve been passionate about the Parker Gun specifically from an early age. My lust for the Parker didn’t start when Burton Spiller shot his little VH 20. It didn’t start with the pictures of Corey Ford patiently cleaning his 12 gauge GH alongside his beloved setter, Cider, before a roaring fire at his hunting cabin, Stoneybroke, in Vermont. Neither did the flame ignite while reading William Harnden Foster’s account of his uncle’s 16 gauge hammer gun in The Little Gun. These tales only stoked the fire already burning.
I often spent weekends at my grandparent’s house as a child in the 80s and 90s. My grandpa was an avid bird hunter, then and now. He let me go afield with him at a very young age. I remember him cursing in the grouse woods, shooting an old Remington 870 Wingmaster 12 gauge with a full choked 30″ barrel or a 26″ barreled Harrington and Richards single shot 12 gauge. He shot this gun well and carried it into the grouse woods more than any other. My grandpa grew up during the Great Depression and never thought of spending the money on something more than these perfectly adequate firearms. If he did, he kept it to himself. He would, however, casually mention that a “little Parker 20 gauge” would be the perfect grouse gun.
A few years later, I found myself accompanying my stepfather to various gun clubs, delivering supplies for shooting and reloading. I was getting old enough to begin thinking about owning a shotgun. At the time, you had to be about 12 to hunt small game in the great state of Michigan and I was very excited about the idea of graduating from my cherished Crosman 760 Pumpmaster air rifle. It might have been the bane of many neighborhood sparrows and starlings and squirrels, but it did not have real firepower.
One Sunday morning during a delivery trip, a small crowd gathered around the back of a pick-up truck belonging to a well-known grouse hunter. As I made my way to the front of the pack, I overheard one fellow tell his buddy, “John’s Parker finally came in.” The crowd hushed as John brought out the small canvas-covered case and gingerly placed it on the tailgate like a relic. John carefully removed the fancy new double from its handsome leather trunk. It was the first shotgun I had ever seen stored in such a manner. The little Parker Reproduction 28 revealed that day inspired the envy of all the gathered. The gun remained the topic of much discussion at the club for some time to come.
I started seeing so many advertisements for it showing up in the backs of magazines my grandpa subscribed to: Field and Stream, Outdoor Life, Sports Afield. The advertisements depicted the Parker Reproductions neatly nestled next to an unlucky grouse, or carefully placed on top of a tweed shooting jacket. It didn’t take long for these pictures to start conjuring images in my head of crowds gathering around me at the gun club. There in my mind, I’d be popping the latches on the case containing my new “repro” and would proceed to shoot 25 straight with the little gun. I just knew that if I had one of these doubles, I would be the wingshooter who garnered even my grandpa’s respect. My game bag would be full of grouse, woodcock, and the occasional pheasant during the day’s hunt.
Unfortunately, my dreams of being the toast of the gun club came to an abrupt halt one day. I had finally worked up the courage to ask my stepdad if my first shotgun could be a Parker.
“I don’t think so,” he said. He had the same look in his eyes he had when I asked if I could paint the family van camouflage.
I wasted no time and began trying my luck with Grandpa, but the result was much the same. I offered to mow lawns and help load the heavy bags of shot into the truck to be taken and delivered. When I learned the price of a Reproduction, I realized just how far beyond it was beyond my family’s means. My stepdad soon bought me a little Winchester 20 gauge pump with 26″ barrels. Though it was far from the Parker of my dreams, it was all mine.
And although I was never the toast of the gun club, I did take my first grouse on the wing with the petite pump.
Somewhere around the age of thirty, I finally saved up enough to buy myself a Parker: a little VH 20 gauge. Although I didn’t shoot it as good as I’d hoped, the bug bit me. I started spending more and more time perusing used gun racks and gun shows. I didn’t have a lot of money to work with, but I quickly acquired a modest collection of both vintage and lower end contemporary shotguns of various gauges—all suited to the grouse hunting that I loved.
After amassing some lower end guns, I would trade a few in and get something a little more expensive. Sure, they might not have been Purdey’s or A-1 Parkers, but it was starting to be almost as much of a hobby as grouse hunting itself. I avoided online auctions, because my income forced me to trade other guns in to purchase more expensive ones. It felt like a treasure hunt: scouring used gun racks for the tell-tale forms of the double guns I lusted after.
Then one fateful day at the local shop, tucked away in one of the cabinets, I saw a little gun that caught my eye. It was a little Parker Reproduction 28, just like the one I had dreamt of as a child! Of course, I asked to see the gun and when, after checking the chambers and promptly swinging the gun on an invisible flushing grouse—a quartering away and to the left—I knew I needed to own the gun and I asked to see the price, which had only gone up from when I wanted it as a kid and nonetheless I had them take the gun off the shelf and I returned later. With cash. And a good portion of my collection to trade in on it.
Nowadays, my safe holds a few of the Parkers that I dreamt of as a kid in various gauges and configurations. But I have something that I value more than all of these guns. My two year old daughter, the apple of my eye. I am getting a notion to start exploring some of my options concerning an English or a higher end Spanish side-lock. Should I find one I can’t live without, my current financial status dictates that one of my beloved Parker shotguns may have to make room for it in the form of trade.
One thing is for certain: should my daughter take an interest in the shooting sports (which I am doing everything in my power to ensure) there will be at least one little Parker tucked away deep in my safe for her to cherish.
Jay Dowd is a proud resident of Michigan, where he has pursued grouse, woodcock and other upland game for over 25 years. He is a dedicated member of the Ruffed Grouse Society and believes writing on the subject is as important as anything to keep the future generations interested in our beloved sport. He holds his friends and family very dearly, the latter of which is comprised of his wife Meghan, daughter Juniper, and at least 3 setters. When not afield, he can be found drooling over double guns, trying to draw birds, jotting down incoherent sentences and trying to pass it as writing, informally trying to train setters, and imbibing in the odd libation. He also loves upland and fly fishing literature.