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.
The shotgun stood upright in a museum-quality case, halogen lamps kindling the mystique of the Prodigal Son.
The Browning Superposed in front of us was a one-of-a-kind called Golden Days. Belgian master engraver Dany Matagne had spent 300 painstaking hours detailing the doves, bobwhite quail and Gamble quail with gold, green gold, copper and palladium - the entire landscape study framed in a floral scroll. If ever there was a rendition of upland heaven, it was here on the receiver of this $80,000 Superposed.
It's an autumn afternoon in southern New Jersey and I'm in a luxurious tent browsing the best shotguns, when something different, beautiful, stunning catches my attention.
First the black lab shows up at the door, then the gunsmith, who escorts me through the utilitarian building into a workshop where the president of shotgun maker Caesar Guerini, Wes Lang, has a file in hand working on a customer's barrel.
It started in a pizza and sandwich shop in South Philadelphia, and eventually led to one of the great finds in the world of big-bore collectors.
Today, Bernie Liberati can legitimately claim he is the only man to own two consecutively numbered L.C. Smith 8-gauge shotguns -- a highly coveted find given that only 35 total were ever made.
The achievement is a far cry from the kid who delivered pizzas and sandwiches in South Philly. Delivering food in that neighborhood may not sound glamorous, but it opened the door into the world of big-bore shotguns for Bernie...
After working there for a while, the shop owner had taken Bernie out hunting one night.
"We didn't get anything, but I had fun," he said.
The Boy's First Shotgun
Afterwards, his boss suggested that Bernie may want to buy a shotgun. Bernie didn't own a shotgun (or any other kind of gun for that matter). The man offered to get one for Bernie, and soon the delivery boy entrusted his boss with the cash to buy his first shotgun.
It turned out to be a 12-gauge Daiwa, made by Singer Nikko in Japan.
"It was beautiful," Bernie recalled.
So beautiful, in fact, the man offered Bernie $175 -- a full $25 more than what the boy paid for it. Did Bernie bite? No way. But it was his first introduction into the value of shotguns -- planting a seed that would grow into a fascination with the thunderous big bores.
Telling Dad About the Shotgun
In the meantime, though, Bernie had to contend with his father. You see, when he came home that night with a shiny new shotgun in a cardboard box, he father reprimanded: "You can't bring that in the house."
I said "I have no place to put it."
Dad: "That's your problem."
As the sun went down, young Bernie was relegated to the porch. Wearing only a t-shirt, it was like sitting in a refrigerator out there -- until his mother intervened.
"My mother was inside, complaining, ‘How could you let my son sit out in the cold?'" Finally, his father let the boy in...along with his brand new shotgun.
Bernie and his friends loved to take his new Daiwa out to a field near the Philadelphia airport. "We'd set up a skeet machine and no one would bother us. The police would come by to make sure we weren't doing anything wrong, that we weren't drinking."
Yes, those were the good old days.
Fast forward to 1992...
Bernie's father, now 78, wanted to retire from the customs house broker company he owned since 1963, Morris Friedman and Co. So rather than sell the business to a stranger, he gave it to Bernie.
A Fateful Meeting With Jim Stahl
One day, Bernie was hard at work in the office, when one of his regular contacts from U.S. Customs stopped by -- a guy named Jim Stahl. He suggested to Bernie they go trap shooting one night. (As fate would have it, Jim would become active in the L.C. Smith Collectors Association.)
They had such a good time they thought it would be a good idea to make it a regular Wednesday night ritual.
After a few times out trap shooting, Jim invited Bernie to go hunting... and they had a great time doing that too.
As their friendship grew, Jim introduced Bernie to side-by-side shotguns. Bernie was bowled over when he discovered that Jim's collection actually reached 25 side-by-sides.
"That's unbelievable," Bernie told Jim, laughing about it today and given the size of his own collection.
Bernie's Shotgun Education
In conjunction with the side-by-side collection, Jim was an avid collector of books related to vintage and big-bore shotguns.
Thanks to Jim, Bernie embarked on his shotgun education.
But Bernie was about to get hooked.
One Saturday afternoon, Jim took Bernie to visit Hollowell's Gun Shop in Connecticut.
"We're walking around and Jim says what kind of gun do you want?"
Bernie's wasn't exactly sure what he wanted, but he knew what he didn't want: a 12-gauge.
"Everybody has a 12 gauge," Bernie remembers telling Jim.
As they wandered the around the store, Bernie thought he would go for a .410.
"But there was this 10-gauge Remington. It was cheap and unique," Bernie said.
Out of the Corner His Eye...
Then lightning struck...
Out of the corner of his eye, Bernie spotted an 8-gauge J.P. Clabrough "in the middle of the table. It was the first 8-gauge I'd ever seen." After negotiating about 90 minutes, Bernie brought home the first two big bores of what would become an extensive collection.
"And that's how I started. I was fortunate in that people were not that enthusiastic about buying them, and the prices were pretty affordable," he said.
After years of collecting 4-, 8- and 10-gauge vintage beauties, Bernie was finally able to put it together: his prized consecutively numbered 8-gauge L.C. Smith Grade 2 shotguns.
The first one he purchased was number 46291. As fate would have it, Bernie bought it on Valentine's Day 2006.
Only three weeks later, another 8-gauge L.C. Smith Grade 2 became available.
As Bernie tells it, "There was a fellow who was member of the L.C. Smith Collector's Association. Unfortunately, he was going through some rough times." The man needed to liquidate his collection, and the dealer who got it immediately gave Bernie a call.
When Bernie got it, he realized it was numbered 46290.
Well, from the kid sitting out on the porch that one chilly night with his first shotgun, Bernie now owns about 50 big bores.
"I like the fact that they're unique, and have a history behind them," Bernie said.
But these stunning shotguns aren't mere museum pieces for him.
"I shoot them at least twice a year."
Bernie Liberati today with his son, Bernie.
A proper fitting shotgun is so important that some folks are willing to spend $90,000 and more to get it. For that $90,000, you can take possession of a bespoke Purdey side-by-side custom fit to you much as the company did to the British landed gentry in the 19th century.
But for shooters who don’t have the money or the time to wait 12 long months for their shotguns, you can fit an off-the-shelf shotgun to your frame in ways that will enable you to hit plenty of targets -- consistently.
Ask the experts about purchasing a shotgun and the first thing they’ll advise is to make sure it fits. In this section you’ll find everything necessary to help you understand the dynamics of a well-fitting shotgun…