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…
If you’re accustomed to rifles or pistols, or simply a new shooter, you’ll be surprised to know that shotguns generally require both of your eyes to be open while shooting.
The standard skeet gun is an over/under break action that has screw-in chokes. This configuration is available in just about any gauge from the smallest .410 to the largest 12-gauge.
Some shooters prefer to use a semi-automatic for skeet, also with screw-in chokes.
Either configuration works fine. The most important aspect of a good skeet gun is not the number of barrels it has or its action: it’s the balance and feel of the gun that allows you make smooth swings to hit the crossing targets of most skeet stations.