"We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto!" I said to Steve Lamboy as we left the small home that serves as the clubhouse for the Arzaga Drugulo hunting club. Steve and I were guests of Paolo Zoli and his father, Giuseppe Zoli, owners of the preeminent gunmaker Antonio Zoli located in the center of Italy's historic arms producing region, Gardone Val Trompia.
It was one of Montana’s best-kept secrets nestled away in the hill country along the Madison River. The ranch opened to the public back in 2007, but it didn’t hold its grand opening until early 2008 when all the finishing touches were completed. The ranch is a 5000 acre deeded property with about an additional 2000 acres in leased land. Some of the land, only about 1,500 acres, is farmed but the majority of it is in a natural state for wildlife.
I wasn’t doing much of anything with my life, when I met Mark. I was working on the back end of the construction trade, first as a secretary for a plumbing supply wholesaler, then doing customer service for a cabinet supplier. The Washington metro area had been in one of its housing booms, but, in what is now an eerie specter of the housing bust (though certainly for different reasons then), the market collapsed. The cabinet company I was working for fired me—I knew where all the skeletons were—then bounced my final paycheck and filed for bankruptcy the next day.
I was out of a job, but I was in my mid-twenties, had a boyfriend I was kind of sharing most of my days and nights with, and I quickly found a part-time gig. My small number of bills were mostly paid, and I figured something would come along, so I didn’t even worry about the whole out-of-work thing that much. It was actually kind of a relief after the stress of watching the company I’d work for tank underneath me.
Mark had owned and sold a company, and he was doing some consulting work on the side, so we had a lot of time to just knock around. Weekends, though, were reserved for gun shows.
Northern Virginia has a rotating circuit of gun shows, or at least it did at the time. There was one in Leesburg one weekend, followed by another in Hume, one down past
There were always dealers with really, really, nice guns at that show, and I, having at least part of the personality of the crow and liking bright shiny things, appreciated the collections of Browning Hi-Powers laid out on red velvet, or a grouping of pearl-handled Colt Single Action Army’s under a glass case. My personal interests were really leaning toward rifles and shotguns though, and there were two dealers in particular who had my number dialed in.
The first had this unbelievable collection of Colt sporting rifles. Manufactured in a joint effort with Sauer for just a dozen years (1973 to 1985, to be exact), they all had gorgeous wood and a raised cheek piece that I loved to press against my face. In fact, they looked a lot like (no surprise here) the Weatherbys my grandfather Evans kept in his gun rack above his desk in
But it was the bluing on the Colt Sauer rifles that always got to me. No other rifle then or now, at least in my eyes, has ever possessed a bluing job like those guns did. It was deep and colorfull, truly blue, but also black-blue, and blue-purple, and black-green, a melding of all the colors of oil floating on water. To this day the depth of that bluing sticks in my head like a photo, and I’ve never seen another gun, long or short, that carried a bluing job anywhere near as beautiful as those Colt Sauers did. I coveted those rifles, but the dealer had tags on all of them that said $1,200 or $1,500. They were well out of my price range.
(Photo courtesy of Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing Co.)
The second dealer I gravitated toward was an elderly gentleman who specialized in Belgian Browning shotguns. He had quite a few, never less than ten or a dozen at any show, and all were in pristine condition. I admired all of the Browning’s that man brokered, had done a little reading on Browning’s history, and so when the dealer had an A-5 at one show, it caught my attention.
That gun was as unmarred as one could hope. Not a scratch dinged the gun’s lovely rectangular receiver or its light scroll engraving, no wear showed at the pull-back bolt or thumb button or trigger tang or trigger guard. Not even the muzzle had any dulling –
clearly, this gun had been handled with care and laid in a case, not shoved in and out of a slip. The butt pad, too, was original and was still soft and pliable; not a bit of dry rot had begun. The grip of mellow, softly yellow wood was squared at the bottom and fit perfectly in my right hand. The fore-arm, sculpted a bit where it rounded in to meet and grip the barrel, seemed to have been designed to lay my thumb against it on one side and grip lightly on the other with my finger tips. That it was a little long in the stock didn’t bother me at all (though I don’t think I knew enough at the time to realize it didn’t really fit at all). I could look straight down its low-profile vented rib to c
I went home with that 32-inch-barreled, fixed full choke, Belgian Browning A-5.
I shot that gun often the first year I had it. I knew what it was intended for, with that long, tight barrel, and that was waterfowling. Or it least that was what it was designed for before steel shot forced out the use of lead. But I found an alternate use for it. Trap seemed to be that gun’s second calling. Oh, I had a little trouble with the rings and light loads sometimes, but once I had the right combination figured out, I mastered that clay bird game quickly. The 32-inch barrel seemed barely to move, as I pushed the muzzle in front of those going-away birds, and the straight line I had over that famed hump-backed receiver and down the rib to the bead was trap shooters who spend a lot of money customizing a gun yearn for. I was good for strong runs of targets way back in the handicap lines some nights.
The Browning was more or less retired after I owned it for the first year. I’d moved on to skeet, having grown bored with trap, and for this new clay sport, the long, full-choked barrel was sorely disadvantaged. And so it sat in my gun closet, cleaned and polished, for several years. I missed it, for like anything you’ve loved but lost your way with, it had that distinctive and piquant blend of fresh experience and nostalgia. But the truth was, I’d outgrown it.
I took that sweet Browning out one day, looked at its still gleaming metal and wood, took a breath of the Hoppe’s that still remained somewhere in its parts—and then I slipped it back in its case and took it to the local gun store to sell it. I didn’t “need” the gun, hadn’t used it in a long while. I reasoned that cash was better than a gun taking up space in a closet. It wasn’t. I’ve sold a small fraction of the guns I’ve ever owned. That Browning was the first I parted ways with, and the one I regret the most. First loves are like that.Jennifer L.S. Pearsall is a professional outdoor writer, photographer, and editor, who has been a part of the hunting and shooting industries for nearly 20 years. She is an avid clays shooter, hunter and dog trainer. Please visit her blog “Hunting the Truth” at http://huntingthetruth.com.
Georgia Pellegrini stands at the crossroads of the Upper East Side in Manhattan and the Lazy Triple Creek Ranch in the Big Hole Mountains of Idaho.
A Harvard and Wellesley alum, she takes to the fields with a 20-gauge shotgun ready to bag any game bird, as part of her quest to fuse hunting with haute cuisine.
One prong of her culinary mission is to upend the metropolitan revulsion of fresh-killed ingredients taken by thine own hand. Grass-fed buffalo from New York’s Ottomanelli’s Butcher Shoppe is splendid, but if you really want to sit down to some real, honest meat Georgia suggests you start with buying a shotgun and a box of shells.
Of the 13 million American women with the ability to show off a freezer full of elk and venison that they personally harvested, it’s Georgia’s contradictions that make her unique in the tribe of female hunters.
A former cubicle dweller with Lehman Brothers, which was vilified for sparking the mortgage meltdown, Georgia now devotes her life to the little guy – the mavericks who live off the grid hand-crafting artisanal foods.
While strangers expect to find her strutting the runway in Alexander McQueen and Jimmy Choo, you’re more likely to find her shooting over dogs in Filson and Le Chameau.
And her role of chef-as-hunter forges a new media spectrum currently neglected by the likes of The Food Network, the Outdoor Channel and the Today Show.
From her unique cultural junction, we can expect Georgia to rally the next wave in the locavore movement here in the U.S. Started in Europe, the strict interpretation of locavore cuisine demands food culled within earshot of the village church bell. In countries such as Italy and France, the audible perimeter virtually ensures food untouched by the maws of industrial farming and slaughterhouse assembly lines.
You can savor locavore dining today in white-table-cloth restaurants devoted to the daily, backdoor delivery of regional ingredients. Georgia, meanwhile, is adding pride of the pursuit into the locavore movement by hunting the meat herself – and advocating the same sense of duty by fellow carnivores. For hunters who spend half the year in camo, there are no surprises here. But the sudden revelation of this Ivy League stunner slitting the throat of a fresh Tom can render a Jean-Paul Gaultier fashionista wickedly speechless.
Armed with her trusty CZ 20-gauge, Georgia has taken her fair share of quail, dove and turkey in a quest for the freshest fare. Give her a rifle and she’ll track down a hog for a savory repast reminiscent of Sunday suppers at grandma’s.
“So many chefs are focused on food pyrotechnics and the food often suffers as a result,” she said. “Keep it simple and let the ingredients speak for themselves.”
Georgia’s affirmation of simple, flavorful cooking complements the barbequed pheasant hunters proudly serve with a sly grin that dares you identify their secret ingredient. In her own twist on the preparation, Georgia substitutes the slathering of Oscar Mayer bacon strips bought at the supermarket with her recipe for homemade bacon from dry-cured pork belly, sugar and kosher salt.
The bacon recipe was inspired by a boar roast she attended. As she wrote on her blog on ESPNOutdoors.com:
The first time I saw a wild boar smoking slowly under the soot-blackened eaves of a dome-shaped grill I was mesmerized. I was standing 100 yards from the banks of the Mississippi, deep in the beating heart of the Arkansas Delta.
The body of the pig was cloaked in thick slabs of bacon which were coated in thick layers of molasses and the whole thing oozed and dripped onto a tray of cut green apples.
The mere sight of the animal left a permanent imprint on my brain, and the taste set into motion my quest to relive that culinary experience as many more times as I could in one lifetime.
“The reason I started hunting was to use every part of the animal” including the offal such as liver, heart and brains, which she described as “delicious,” during an online radio interview on ESPNOutdoors.com.
When we caught up with Georgia via phone she was in the very non-offal city of Berkeley, California – home to Alice Waters’ restaurant, Chez Panisse – the birthplace of the American locavore sensibility. Berkeley is the third point in her constellation of residences that includes Manhattan and the family farm where she was raised in New York’s Hudson Valley.
From Berkeley it’s a quick drive across the Carquinez Bridge to the finest wine terroirs in the country: Napa, Sonoma and Cry Creek. And America’s most highly acclaimed restaurant is also there, The French Laundry – along with other not-too-shabby eateries including Bistro Jeanty, Dry Creek Kitchen, Tra Vigne and Mustards Grill.
Berkeley was Georgia’s West Coast base of operations for the research on her second project called The Girl Hunter. The agent-brokered package of book and TV show teams Georgia with seasoned hunters in locales where she cooks their quarry hauled back to the lodge kitchen. The Girl Hunter follows on the heels of her first book titled Food Heroes: Tales of 16 Artisans Preserving Tradition slated for publication in the fall of 2010 by H.N. Abrams.
If you haven’t heard of Georgia Pellegrini yet, the trajectory of her rising star seems destined to make her a household name in the kitchens of every American hunter and (hopefully) subway rider.
The gig at ESPNOutdoors, her own award-winning blog, the books and possible TV show, an appearance on Fox TV, all serve as outlets for her message.
“The success of any food culture lies in preserving its artisan foods. These artisan foods are the foundation of a food culture, and upholding them are the small-scale culinary artisans who choose to make their products the traditional way, the slower way, and perhaps the less economical way, because they are passionate about their craft.”
Call it artisanal or simply homemade, her gastronomical journey started as a kid. In a local creek, she caught fresh trout for breakfast. Her great-aunt was an expert gardener. Her father raised honeybees and quince trees. There were always chickens running about. Her mother instilled the importance of healthy food on young growing bodies. And when it comes to her grandmother, Georgia’s blog pays homage with an entry…
She took care of me when I was young. She would pick me up from nursery school and bring me to her house and sit me at the end of her long wooden table so I could watch her cook. She cooked every day. She still does. And every day after nursery school she made me one of two things: pastina with butter, or broccoli with cheese. I can still taste them. The memory still nourishes my soul.
Georgia’s call to food ultimately proved as inescapable as her own DNA. After Lehman Brothers, she enrolled in the French Culinary Institute in New York City – graduating at the top of her class. She worked in two highly acclaimed restaurants, Gramercy Tavern and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, as well as in one of the premier destination restaurants in Provence, France, La Chassagnette. In fact, it was in the back of La Chassagnette that she slit the throat of her first live kill – a turkey – and then butchered it.
“I realized this is what it’s about to be a meat eater,” she told us.
Georgia is the first to admit that she came to hunting late in life. But at the end of the day, does it really matter?
As she writes on her ESPNOutdoors.com blog:
In life, you need few things. Everyone has their list. Mine includes a shotgun, good whiskey or a smooth Cabernet, a butcher and an open flame.
Here is Georgia’s recipe for Braised Pheasant…
|2 cups, diced|
|1/2 cup, chopped|
|1/2 cup, chopped|
|1/4 cup, chopped|
Bacon, cut into 1” cubes
1. Heat the white wine and sauternes and cool.
2. Marinate the pheasant parts in wine and vegetables overnight.
3. In a hot pan, brown the pheasant. Then remove the meat from the pan and add vegetables and bacon.
4. Separately, heat marinade to a boil with chicken stock.
5. Deglaze the pan of vegetables with verjus, return the meat to the pan and cover with the heated braising liquid. Bring to a simmer.
6. Let simmer for 60 - 90 minutes, until meat is tender. Reduce some of the braising liquid by half and serve as a sauce.
Most fantasies are better than the actual experience. Occasionally the opposite is true, a well known fact of hunters around Maryland.
The owner wouldn’t let us reveal his name, but shared with us everything else he knew about the rare Krieghoff Tiflis pigeon gun.
In a way, the Tiflis belies the popular notion of a shotgun classic. Although it is a side-by-side sidelock, it doesn’t date back to the 18th or 19th centuries. It was built in 1986 – but only 20 specimens were produced, all of them in 12 gauge, catapulting the Tiflis into the rarified world of limited-production Krieghoffs.
As with many celebrated turning points in the world of fine shotguns, it all started with a bottle of fine port.
In late September 2000, Mr. Nigel Beaumont, Chairman of English gunmaker, James Purdey & Sons, crossed the Atlantic to attend the Vintage Cup World Side-by-Side Championships at the Orvis Sandanona Shooting Grounds in Millbrook, New York.
Well, here we are on the cusp of March. Another rabbit hunt or two, maybe one more try at bass and perch through the ice, and then it’s on to Spring turkey season – while dreaming of summertime stripers, blues and football tuna!
Every year I say I am going to go load up on Spring flounder in the bay while watching the waterfowl migrate north, and every year something else comes up – like brush burning season. Now there is something a man can really enjoy while mulling over the past and thinking about the future!
Burning brush with my father, an old Yankee of 92 years, is when he has given me some of his most sage advice. On dating: “There are a lot of fish in the sea.” On trusting in God: “Your body dies, but your soul lives on forever.” On the past: “I’m the last one living from my graduating class – the others are all dead. Sometimes, I wonder why I’m still here…” On the work ethic: “Always stay busy, even when you’re not.” And: “Whatever you do, big or small, it’s got to be done a hundred percent.” Dad, I hope you can join me burning brush again this season, and tell me some more of the old-time stories of growing up on a rural, Duxbury, Massachusetts farm…
A few other joys in March include seeing the woodcock return to the swamps and fields to perform their mating dance in the skies at dusk. I know this may sound a little silly, but this is one of the events of Spring that makes my heart soar (other than burning brush with Dad). There’s another: hearing the Spring peepers starting up their chorus in the swamps. Throw in the first bats to start flying and now you really got something. The greatest of the greatest? Sitting out and seeing and hearing all three on the same night while watching the coals burn down after a day of burning brush with Dad.
There’s so much more to March. The howling of the coyotes, the barking of the fox. The crows flying overhead carrying special sticks to special trees, to build a nest to start a new family. The redwing blackbirds arrive in huge numbers in March and it is such a pleasure to see their bright, red-wing patches and hear them singing in the tops of the trees. The mute swans will be nesting, the first great white egrets will arrive, and the woodchucks will be looking over my garden and doing a little dreaming of their own. The herring will start to come in from the ocean and run up the rivers to spawn and the sweet, damp smell of spring will fill our senses with overwhelming delight.
March may be just another month to some, but to me its winter’s dying grip and Spring’s gentle kiss on my cheek. Farewell winter, we’ll see you next year.
I’m often asked how, as a woman, I got involved in hunting and not just as a pastime, but as a career. I myself am not exactly sure how I got started, but I remember when, or at least the first time it came to me that it was, very specifically, something I wanted to do.
I was going through those sometimes typical “finding myself” years. I’d ingloriously flunked out of college in my senior year – I’d never really liked it, and was actually a little surprised I’d hung on as long as I had – and had come back home to Northern Virginia to ride hunters and jumpers for several local stables. I waited tables at the local pub, too, its brass rail and bar stools bearing most of the local horse people at any given time. I wasn’t sure where I was going, but I was happy enough to be riding other people’s expensive steeds without paying the bills for them, and I’d found a little tenant house on a thoroughbred farm in Middleburg, smack in the middle of fox-hunting country. The cottage was a whopping $300 a month, utilities included, and a total bargain, given the symphony that rang out every time rain came down upon the cottage’s tall, tin hip roof. In all, life was easy, charmed, and flush with just enough cash for a thin, pretty, still horse-crazy, 20-nothing girl.
One early fall morning, after I’d lived in my little horse-heaven world a couple years, I woke up and decided I wanted to hunt. To this day I have absolutely no, and I mean no, idea where the impetus came from. Maybe it was one of the barn hands talking about dove hunting. Maybe it was a flight of mallards I’d seen. Could have been something on TV. Or maybe it was nothing at all. I truly don’t know. All I do know is that the idea seemed to just come to me, like some people “get” religion as they’re putting gas in their car one day.
How else could it have been? I did have a grandfather who hunted. Maybe that, at least, could be where the idea got planted. Hard to tell what impressions made on a scrawny, braided-pigtail little girl will take root, but in looking back, I’d not feel right disavowing that at least the exposure then might have been it, might have been what started the swamp peat to smoldering.
My mother’s father and mother were Hereford farmers, when I knew them. They’d always been agricultural and small-town, she a school nurse and the church organist, he an arborist, orchardist, and bee keeper of some renown in
We saw my grandparents, due to the six-hour drive between us and them, mostly on holidays and, when I was a little older, maybe eight or nine, for a glorious whole two weeks in the summer. I never wanted to leave when I was there, prayed for a storm to snow us in at Christmas, cried when the two weeks were up in July. It was an idyllic place for a child who wanted to be outdoors and didn’t know it yet. Then again, we were of that last generation whose parents were always admonishing them, “Go outside and play, it’s too nice to be inside,” even when there was two feet of snow on the ground or a rainstorm had just ended.
When you’re a child in your grandparents’ care on a cattle farm in Pennsylvania’s northwest corner, just shy of the New York State line, there were just four times during the day you were inside. The first three were for meals at the Formica kitchen table, the fourth for watching the evening news through the snow of the one channel that managed to wend its way through the mountainsides to the small black-and-white television that perched on the farm house’s front porch near the front door that was never used as such. Aside from those few hours and regardless the season, we were outside.
There was a pond a hundred yards from the house, kind of good for swimming, but better for mud fights with my brother and cousins. The pond’s bottom had a unique combination of silky smoothness and slight grit that created a perfect ooze factor. The tiny snails in each handful were just a bonus, when the slinging was in full force.
Vacated barns, their angel-winged swallows darting in and out in greeting, called to us, too. We’d been told to stay out, of course. “There are holes in those old barn floors,” grandfather told us. “You’ll plummet to your deaths.” So we were careful, but explored anyhow, loving the memory smell of hay and animals long gone, the discovery of ropes and pulleys and rusty farm implements always oddly medieval. Games and adventure skits were made up on the spot. Our imaginations had free reign.
Maybe the biggest lure of the farm itself, the thing that drew us kids to it every day, was the quick little stream that flowed behind the farm house to the pond. In that stream lived fat, pink-bellied, silver-backed trout. If you didn’t let your shadow cross the deep hole on the left side of the sodded-over culvert that permitted a tractor to cross over the stream to the pasture behind it.
I remember my grandmother and grandfather, spotting, one day, through the living room window that faced that creek, a mink. A mink! I remember thinking to myself, as the glossy creature yanked a trout from the cool waters. And then I immediately thought how lucky I was to have seen such a thing.
The mink wasn’t the only successful angler. My cousins, brother, and I always caught something, usually the small ones, but my cousin Tommy, oh, did he have the touch. A freckle-faced, red-headed firecracker of a boy—a year older than me, we looked like we should have been fraternal twins—he was wicked smart and sure of himself even then, and he was best at catching the big ones on a corn kernel-laden hook he somehow had lowered into that trophy trout hole without scattering a one of them downstream. He’d yank the fish out of the hole when it swallowed the hook, remove the offending metal, and with a distinctive kersplunk, let it slip from his gentle grasp to land in the bucket of water where the rest of our prizes swam, dying slowly.
We’d fillet our catches in the afternoon on a stump in the yard, Tommy leading the way for all of us and saving his big one for last. With the stump now sticky with fish blood and fish guts and shiny with bits of trout skin, Tommy would stick the point of the sharp pocket knife he used into the wood, then reach down into the bucket with two hands to ease the last, barely breathing trout out into the pure air and lay it on the log. We were, as a group of children, singularly quiet, our breaths held waiting for a magician to perform his final trick.
But the magic never came. Inevitably, Tommy’s big fish would be a pregnant female. He’d do something with the knife behind her gill or head to still the big fish, then slit the belly. Always, eggs would pour forth. Then Tommy would curse, softly. We did not swear as children, and so it was shocking for a boy of 10 or 11 in the early 1970s to say something as simple as “Damn,” especially so that his cousins a year or two behind him could hear.
The look of anger and sadness that mixed on his face was unforgettable. It was like he’d been presented with a puzzle that he should have been able to figure out but instead had to have someone older and wiser finish. Then disgust would take over, and he’d discard the fish, unable to look at it any longer. I asked, the first time this happened, for it seemed to happen every summer, why he was so upset, and he looked at me in pain and said, “I didn’t know she was pregnant. I shouldn’t have caught her. Do you know how many fish I just killed?” And then, in true aguish, he’d look down at his kill and say, “I should have known.”
I couldn’t fathom why he felt he should have known such a thing. But the gravity of what he felt I took to my own gut, his sadness became mine. I was so impressed that he felt as he did. We couldn’t have put it into words then, being as young as we were, but what I know now is that Tommy felt he’d wronged something in the scheme of nature’s cogs and wheels.
He’d given clues before. We’d walk down the long dirt road that fronted the farm, and he’d peak into a bird’s nest woven amongst the branches of some tree, making sure it was empty of eggs and weathered enough to be called abandoned before he’d gently pry it loose and hand it to me. We’d pick watercress for the dinner salad from the myriad rivulets that ran through the cow pastures, but just a little here, a little there, so as not to denude one area completely. Yet it wasn’t until those shiny pregnant trout fell to his pocketknife that I realized there was something more to our romping around in the sunshine than just a basic consideration for that which surrounded us, more than just a slightly tangible acknowledgement of being a part of the bigger picture.
I don’t know how such a boy
Jennifer L.S. Pearsall is a professional outdoor writer, photographer, and editor, who has been a part of the hunting and shooting industries for nearly 20 years. She is an avid clays shooter, hunter and dog trainer. Please visit her blog “Hunting the Truth” at http://huntingthetruth.com.
Starting in March 2010, the Ithaca Gun Company will begin shipment of a waterfowl pump gun that’s infused with a weather and scratch resistant treatment believed to be the second application of this formula for a civilian shotgun – the first coming with
I know that if you want to hunt wild and hard to find pheasants in Montana you have one of two choices, either cold weather or very cold weather, and lots of hard hunting which means a bunch of miles on foot.
Another time, I was duck hunting with a good friend on the Massachusetts coast and taking a few pictures at sunrise. It was very cold and I tucked my very expensive camera into my gunning coat. Suddenly, a banded Red Leg came over the decoys and I leaped up and dropped him into the blocks with a single shot. In my zest, my camera flew out of my gunning coat and landed in a tidal pool that was several feet deep. We figured that northern red leg duck cost about $1,800 dollars to bring down, not counting guns and ammunition.
I once shot and killed a hen mallard and drake stone dead with a single round from my 12-gauge Browning Gold. The pair landed belly up on the other side of a small river. I walked up river looking for a place to cross, and fell through an iced-over ditch up to my neck. It was January 17th and I nearly drowned. A do-gooder, watching through his telescope from his trophy home, called the police – not to report a man through the ice, but to complain about a hunter in the marsh that he could see from his property!
Ever get caught in a forty-knot blow while sea duck hunting three miles offshore – in an open skiff – with the anchor lines and decoy lines wrapped around each other and then firmly wrapped around the prop – with your stern to the wind and sea in January with sub-freezing temperatures? I have. The water was over my knees and going over the gunwales. It scared me enough to re-think my idea about "hardcore gunning" for sea ducks. I still go, but I go differently than I did.
On a more pleasant note, when I was ten years old Dad took me rabbit hunting on the Island with my new shotgun I got for Christmas. I looked over a cliff, saw some ducks, and crept back and asked if I could try for them. He said, "Go ahead." I went back and shot my very first duck, an eider drake. Mum took my picture in the kitchen when I got home and Dad had the eider mounted. Thirty-eight years later I still have the mount, Mum's photo and my first shotgun. Thanks Mom and Dad. You have no idea how much that meant to me.
Imagine a game of sporting clays without the hassle of a clipboard and pencil.
As you walk up to the cage, you don’t have to search for a place to rest the clipboard that holds the score sheet. Where should I put it? Lean it against the gun rack? Balance it on the railing? Leave it in the cart and remember the scores to write down later? Hand it off to a friend who hands it to a friend and so on until eventually someone in the squad ends up dealing with the clunky thing?
Jane Brown is one of those rare women who can walk into a room or onto a field and capture the attention of men and women alike. She embodies grace, charity, and humility, and these qualities make her a natural leader.
Common wisdom says one thing, Bobby Fowler Jr.’s trophy case says another.
Since he first started shooting competitively in 1993, Fowler has won about 150 titles in sporting clays and FITASC. He’s dominated the sports so thoroughly, that his middle initials should be HOA. Every gauge, on both sides of the Atlantic, in his home state of Texas – no tournament is safe from Fowler’s monumental skills in achieving the highest overall average.
When I left theFBIAcademyafter sixteen weeks of training in 1986, I was covered in the most beautiful shades of purple, green, and yellow from my face to my collarbone, and down my bicep. The shotgun was too long, and my long neck and high cheekbones made it impossible to mount the gun properly to my shoulder while maintaining a proper sight picture (which is critical to defensive shotgun shooting). I lifted my face off the gun while shooting creating a horrible flinch, and all of the bad habits that ensue when shooting an ill-fitted gun followed suit. I was convinced that no one had ever hated a shotgun like I did in my bruised and frustrated condition.
There are no signs on the factory at 420 North Walpole Street in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, but open the old door and the pungent smell of machine oil is your first hint that the Ithaca shotgun is being re-born.
This rambling building that once housed a rolling rink, an automotive center and mold-making operation has been transformed into the backbone of the Ithaca Gun Company. Hard-working American men and women, like so many discarded in the upheaval of globalization, are now devoting their full measure of sweat and muscle to manufacture a new 100-percent American-built over/under shotgun code-named Phoenix.
“It’s nice to think that we could help our brothers and sisters in America by keeping and creating new jobs,” said Ithaca machinist, Tom Troiano.
Every screw, spring and steel billet is sourced from the U.S. as the company brings to life the stunning new 12-gauge Phoenix. From its inception, the Phoenix was designed to honor the proportions and sturdy sensibility of the classical over/under American shotgun.
Shotgun Life recently enjoyed the privilege of spending a full day at Ithaca talking with nearly everyone in the company. We spoke with the men who made the barrels, the receivers and the stocks. We spent time with management. And we were given the unique opportunity to be the first one outside of the company to shoot a prototype of the forthcoming Phoenix.
We can report unequivocally that design breakthroughs engineered into the Phoenix have made it the softest shooting 12-gauge over-under we have ever pulled a trigger on. The felt recoil on the Phoenix is virtually nonexistent – on par with the benchmark Beretta 391 Target Gold 12-gauge semi-auto – kicking only just enough to reset the inertia trigger.
Better yet, with a starting price of about $2,500 and moving to $10,000 depending on the type of engraving and grade of American walnut, the Phoenix could easily mark a renaissance of the big Ithaca shotguns.
That’s why Ithaca named the Phoenix after the dazzling mythical bird which rose from the ashes to fly once again. But leading Ithaca authority, Walt Snyder, author of the definitive books The Ithaca Company From the Beginning and Ithaca Featherlight Repeaters…The Best Gun Going observed that the new Phoenix also has an historical precedence.
In 1945, Ithaca had built a one-of-a-kind 12-gauge, over/under prototype. As the Model 51, it had serial number EX1, for experimental 1. It now appears that the new Phoenix is a direct descendant of that orphaned masterpiece.
Our first glimpse of the new 12-gauge over/under took place in January 2009 at the expansive Shot Show. There in booth 1736, I was drawn to the allure of an elegantly understated over/under that was all chrome-moly black steel and American walnut. The receiver, devoid of engraving, drew me in and I picked up the gun. I mounted it to my shoulder, my immediate impression one of a tight, well-balanced shotgun. Then I moved the top lever to the right and to my astonishment the barrels slowly fell open as though on hydraulics.
This was the shotgun that Walt would see several months later at a dealer event in Wilmington, North Carolina. Ithaca’s Mike Farrell arrived with it and Walt’s initial impression was that “It looked like a very well made gun. It seemed to mount and balance very well.”
At the time of the Shot Show, the gun remained months away from being in shooting condition and it hadn’t been christened the Phoenix. But after returning to the office, I would occasionally call Mike, the company’s number-two guy (no one at Ithaca has a job title), until he agreed to let me visit the company and actually try the shotgun.
For those of you familiar with Ithaca shotguns, it would be easy to dismiss the Phoenix as another heartfelt effort to salvage this fabled American manufacturer established in 1883.
Taking its namesake from the first factory in Ithaca, New York, the company’s fortunes in later years have been a tortured tale of missteps as one management team after another tried to reclaim the glory years that spanned the late 1800s until Pearl Harbor. That was a triumphant epoch when Ithaca manufactured shotguns such as the Flues side-by-side, the Knick trap gun, the 3½-inch Magnum 10 and the Model 37 pump based on a design by John Browning.
Beginning in the late 1960s, the company changed hands several times until it padlocked the doors in1986. The following year a new investor group took the helm until 1996, when entrepreneur Steven Lamboy acquired the assets and rights to make the Ithaca doubles. He turned out some beautiful shotguns in Italy bearing the Ithaca name but fell into bankruptcy in 2003. By 2004, the Federal government attached the company’s bank accounts for back taxes and a bitter lawsuit ensued in New York state between various stakeholders. In 2005, Ithaca’s assets were surrendered and the company liquidated.
That’s when Craig Marshall entered. Owner of MoldCraft in Upper Sandusky, he converted the family mold-making business into a new iteration of Ithaca. During the transition, the Marshalls assembled the flagship Model 37 pumps from existing inventory with every intention of restoring the marque’s luster. Unfortunately, the Marshalls eventually found themselves under-capitalized for the venture to the extent that they were forced to idle the factory for eight months between 2006 and 2007.
Finally, in June 2007 industrial glass magnate David Dlubak acquired the company's assets and Ithaca name from the Marshalls. He started making fresh plant investments in the nondescript Upper Sandusky facility and brought back the team working on the Model 37.
As Dave explained to us in Ithaca’s distinctly blue-collar conference room, “We want to make a high-quality shotgun, at an affordable price, that will fit in the working man’s hands. The gun is going to be that guy’s pride and joy. The old Ithacas lasted fifty or sixty years. Now we make them to tighter tolerances and with better steel. We don’t want cheaper, we want better.”
Like many luminaries in the industry, Dave did not get his start making shotguns. Just as Harris John Holland began as a tobacconist, and Charles Parker a maker of spoons, curtains and locks, Dave comes from a family that owns and operates one of the largest industrial glass recycling businesses in the U.S., Dlubak Glass.
Dave was in the process of finalizing a new product called “bubble glass” that combined concrete and glass in faux log building material. Replete with grains and knots, bubble glass is resistant to fire and insects but soft enough for an ordinary drill bit. He was looking for a mold maker who could package the bubble-glass logs for affordable and dependable shipment.
He went to MoldCraft and met the Marshalls. Dave was presented with an opportunity to invest in Ithaca. Instead, he bought it.
Although a long-time aficionado of Ithaca shotguns, he acquired the company because of “the quality of the people and their ability.” These tool-and-die makers were the “elite of the elite,” he said.
For example, barrel-maker Roger Larrabee has been a tool-and-die machinist for 47 years. He trained Tom Troiano, who turns out the receivers.
“Roger trained a lot of the guys here,” Tom said.
As a self-described “control freak” with a passion for quality, it was paramount for Dave to build a team with the capabilities to “make all the parts here,” he said. “I’m interested in making it all under one roof.”
He characterizes the Ithaca Gun Company as being in “stage two,” meaning that it has resolved the manufacturing issues with its current popular pump guns: the accurate Deerslayer series, the rugged Model 37 Defense, and the sweethearts of the pump-gun community, the 28-gauge Model 37 and the Model 37 Featherlight and Ultralight.
These shotguns showcased the production capabilities of the company. They demonstrated the team’s ability to craft receivers from a billet of steel or aluminum, to do away with soldering or any other heat-inducing joining, and to machine one-piece barrels with integrated rib stanchions that eliminate any potential warpage from the run-of-the-mill rib soldering.
“Ithaca certainly seems to have manufacturing savvy,” Walt said. “I’ve seen their Model 37 and it’s beautiful and I would assume they would be successful with the new over/under.”
These accomplishments came from “spending many midnights sorting these things through,” Dave said. “We’re not in love with wood, we’re in love with steel.”
The company’s passion for steel is clear when you tour the factory floor. As raw Pittsburgh steel goes from the mill-turn lathes to to grinders to finishing machines to polishers there is an almost monastic sense of duty among the people making parts for the shotguns. All the tooling and fixturing was developed in-house. Custom software was written by the youngest guy on the crew for the tightest possible tolerances. The individual components are funneled into an assembly room where one person hand fits everything together into a single shotgun.
After the factory floor I spent time with Aaron Welch, Ithaca’s designer and engineer. Looking over his shoulder in the cramped office, he rotated the solid-block 3D models of the Phoenix on his computer monitor.
There was the Anson-Deeley boxlock action ready to fire 2¾ inch shells.
I discovered that a secret to the low recoil of the Phoenix are the three capsule-shaped pockets machined into the bottom of the receiver. They are designed to distribute the load of shooting, improve longevity of the components and help absorb the spent gasses. Moreover, the slightly greater mass of the receiver and monobloc combine to give the Phoenix a lower felt recoil. The less-restrictive 1.5 degree forcing cone and somewhat heavier burled stock also helped tame excessive kick.
In examining the monobloc, Aaron talked about how the barrels are held to the breech section by a tubular connector, instead of being soldered, to improve reliability. At the business end of the 30-inch barrels, the muzzles are dovetailed together, rather than soldered, to prevent distortion from thermal expansion.
That sense of a hydraulic assist when opening the shotgun comes from cocking rods that push against the hammer springs when you move the top lever.
The top bolting mechanism was borrowed from the old Ithaca Knick. It sits high in the receiver for a stronger grip on the monobloc.
Next I looked at how the rib slides into the stanchions and is mounted with a single screw. Aaron said that interchangeable ribs would be available to provide different points of impact.
In the end, the Phoenix would weigh about eight pounds.
Now it was time to see how all the parts worked together.
Mike grabbed the prototype of the 12-gauge Phoenix. The shotgun was still in-the-white with a couple thousand test rounds through it.
We drove a few minutes to a piece of property on a lake that had once been a quarry. A house overlooking it was under construction. The house belonged to Dave and was being built from bubble glass in cinder-block form factors.
In addition to the house and lake, the property also had a trap machine set up by the previous owners.
Mike handed me the gun and in fact it did feel very well balanced. I practiced mounting it a few times. The straight stock fit quite well. Dan Aubill, the guy in charge of Ithaca’s custom stock program, had told me that it was measured to fit the “average guy” with a 14¼ inch length of pull, zero cast, drop at comb of 1½ inch and drop at heel of 2¼ inch.
Pushing the top lever, the barrels slowly fell open. I loaded in two 1? ounce shells. Mike took up the controller and when I called “pull” two things immediately took me by surprise. The first was the extremely low recoil, the second is how I completely pulverized the targets.
Mike and I went through a couple of boxes of shells, the two of us taking turns pulling targets. The trigger was light and crisp, the beads lined up perfectly and the tapered forend enabled a wide range of control.
I turned out to be the last one who shot the Phoenix that day and when the time came to return it to Mike I thought “I gotta get one of these.”
Anyone who shoots a 16-gauge shotgun should send Doug Oliver a big cigar.
As founder of the 16 Gauge Society, Doug has been keeper of the flame for a shotgun orphaned by the industry.
Over the years marketing decisions within the shotgun industry have relegated the 16 gauge from the second-most popular shotgun to an icon of perfection among a small band of bird shooters. They marketed the smaller 20-gauge rival, despite the superior ballistics of the 16 gauge. At the same time, the 12 gauge has been gentrified from its bruiser, meat-market heritage to a relatively comfortable, all-purpose shotgun.
The world of tournament shooting has also conspired against the 16 gauge. Simply put, there are no 16-gauge competitions in major clay-shooting events – depriving the 16 gauge of the credibility and high-profile marketing opportunities to sustain a thriving market.
Still, the perseverance of devoted 16-gauge shooters has kept the shotgun alive. And you could easily make the case that Doug has emerged as the voice of the 16-gauge shotgun community.
“If I were trapped on a desert island, I would want the 16 gauge, because it won’t beat you up and it kills birds without killing you,” Doug said.
Maybe it’s a confluence of happy circumstances that Doug, who owns a graphic-design firm in Bell Canyon, California, fell in love with 16-gauge shotguns to the extent that he started the 16 Gauge Society web site.
He fondly recalls shooting 16-gauge shotguns as a kid in Newton, Kansas with his father.
“From the age of 10, I started hitting birds, and I became joined at the hip during bird season with my father. We’d hunt quail, pheasant, doves…,” he said.
During that period, he started out with a .410, and passed through a 16 gauge on his way to a 12 gauge. He remembered liking the 16 gauge, although for the bigger part of his life he shot 12 and 20 gauge.
“The 16 gauge is absolutely the perfect shotgun,” he explains. “It has a perfect load for wingshooting. Plus a 16 gauge will typically be a pound lighter than a 12 gauge if you’re carrying it all day in the field. The 16 gauge shoots like a 12 gauge but carries like a 20 gauge. It’s a great gun.”
When Doug turned 50, for his midlife crisis instead of a Porsche he bought himself a shotgun. It was a 16-gauge F.A.I.R. Rizzini over/under. It was a better gun than he had known at that point.
On a flight from Los Angeles to New York, he had been reading an article in Double Gun Journal about dove hunting in Argentina. Until that point he had every intention of buying a 20 or 28 Beretta, but the article deflected him to the 16-gauge F.A.I.R. Razzing.
Doug found himself smitten by the lovely 16 gauge. In doing his “homework” for that 16-gauge F.A.I.R. Rizini he realized “that 16 gauge was a stepchild,” he explained. “Information at the time was so hard to dig out and that’s where the 16 Gauge Society web site came in. I though I’d just design and throw up 16 gauge web site and maybe sell a couple of hats. The project itself was fun and informative.”
After a few months of hard work, the 16 Gauge Society web site went up in 2002 at http://www.16ga.com.
It now has approximately 1,500 members of the 16 Gauge Society, plus another 2,400 people who frequent the site’s forum which serves as a clearing house of information for everything 16 gauge. Over 60,000 posts have been recorded on the site.
As Doug relates about the forum “You can throw a question out about a gun and 10 guys will answer you – civilly.”
There is a one-time, lifetime $25 membership to the 16 Gauge Society. But for Doug, the organization “is not a moneymaker. It’s a passion.”
Last autumn, one of the members of the 16 Gauge Society organized a pheasant shoot in North Dakota. A dozen or so members met for the first time there. “It was fun, everybody got pheasants,” he said. “A good time was had by all.”
In a way, that was a trip back to the good old days of 16-gauge hunting.
Doug is an active 16-gauge shooter. Of the 10 shotguns he currently owns, four of them are 16 gauge. He still has that F.A.I.R. Rizzini, in addition to a 1959 Beretta Silverhawk and two Browning Sweet 16 A-5s.
He recalled that when he began hunting there were a lot of 16-gauge shotguns on the market. Winchester Model 12s, Ithaca and Remington pumps, and the Browning Sweet 16 A-5s dominated the market, alongside a smattering of Fox, Parker and L.C. Smith doubles.
Although many a young hunter was started in the field with a 16 gauge, by the late 1950s and early 1960s, the 20 gauge, and later the 20-gauge 3-inch magnum, simply buried the 16 gauge shotgun in the U.S.
Doug now thinks that the 16 gauge is experiencing a renaissance. “After a 50-year decline in popularity, the sixteen is making a well-deserved comeback. And in a number of production lines, too.”
Today, although sometimes difficult to find, the industry still offers the standard and high-velocity lead and non-toxic loads from all major manufacturers. “Yet even though this situation has improved in the last few years, most serious 16-gauge shooters custom hand load their own shells. This is true of many shooters regardless of gauge,” Doug observed.
Affordable 16-gauge shotguns are available from a number of manufacturers including Griffin & Howe, Arietta, A. H. Fox, Browning, Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing Company’s Model 21, Cortona, Arietta, Dean, Grulla, Stoeger and a handful of others.
And of course, there are also thousands of used 16-gauge shotguns in search of a new home.
When is too much never enough?
When it comes to a stunning matched trio of McKay Brown 12-gauge upland shotguns.