American shotguns get short shrift when measured against the best of Europe and Great Britain. It’s not a completely fair comparison, though, because our shotguns evolved to meet the unique needs of American hunters and shooters.
Hunting and shooting are small-d democratic sports for everyone here in America. It’s understandable that we have made nothing to match, say, a British “best” sidelock made for a duke or an earl.
Although we have made some beautiful shotguns for presidents and captains of industry, most of our guns were made to be affordable and rugged enough to endure a rough country so full of game that two shots weren’t always enough. Repeaters, both pump and semiautomatic, are American inventions. No one makes pumps like ours, and it’s only recently that the Italians have given us a run for our money in semiautos.
We love smallbore guns more than the shooters of any other country. We hunt with smallbores, and we’re the only nation that shoots four gauges of skeet or holds smallbore sporting-clays events. Likewise, the single-barrel trap gun is a uniquely American invention, as no one else shoots ATA trap.
And so, with that, here are 20 of the best shotguns ever made in the United States.
1. Remington Model 11
John Browning’s Automatic 5 was the first semiauto shotgun. It worked—and worked extremely well—on the long-recoil principle, with the bolt and barrel moving back together the full length of the shell, then unlocking at the end of the stroke, with barrel moving forward first to eject the empty and the bolt following to chamber the next shell. Browning made about 2,000,000 over the course of nearly 100 years. With the exception of a few years during WWII when the gun was made by Remington, Auto 5s were made in Belgium and later, in Japan, disqualifying them from this list. However, Remington produced a licensed version of the gun, the Model 11, from 1911 to 1948 that was not quite as well finished but every bit as great.
2. Winchester Model 12
Sleek and hammerless, the Model 12 pointed, handled, and functioned better than a mass-produced gun should, but Winchester nonetheless made 2 million of them between 1912 and 1964. Herb Parsons, Winchester’s “Showman Shooter,” could throw seven clays in the air and break them all with his Model 12 before they fell to earth. The gun became a favorite of quail hunters, waterfowlers, and target shooters, but it was also tough enough to serve in WWI, WWII, Korea, and Viet Nam. All Model 12s were takedown models and were made in 12, 16, 20 and 28 gauge, including target models and a 3-inch-magnum Heavy Duck 12 gauge.
3. Winchester Model 42
With the popularity of the new game of Skeet, invented in the 1920s, Winchester needed a .410 in Model 12. Scaling down the Model 12 to .410 size required enough internal changes to result in a new gun, the Model 42. Over 164,000 Model 42s were made in all, including standard, Pigeon, Skeet, and even a handful of Trap grades. It was discontinued in 1964 along with the Model 12.
4. Remington 870
According to one way of thinking, the Remington 870 is the greatest shotgun ever made. It’s a reliable, versatile gun that anyone can afford. Over 12 million have been made in every configuration imaginable, and it has excelled in the field, at the range, and in combat.
Born in 1950, the 870 drew upon Remington’s wartime gunmaking experience to incorporate stamped metal parts and mass-production techniques. Part of a “family” of shotguns and rifles that shared common parts, the 870 was intended to be an affordable gun. Built on the receiver of a 16-gauge 11-48 semiauto, the 870 was trimmer, it pointed well, and it always worked. The rest is history.
5. Remington 1100
There had been gas guns before Remington introduced the 1100 in 1963, but they weren’t reliable. The 1100 worked, and it had the gas gun’s advantage of reduced felt recoil. Even today, it’s among the softest shooting of shotguns.
The 1100 also had stock dimensions that seemed to fit almost everyone. It was an immediate success among target shooters and hunters alike, and it still has its fans all these years later. You did have to switch between 2¾ and 3-inch barrels to go from standard to magnum loads, a problem solved 24 years later by the nearly identical 11-87.
6. Kolar Max
Ulm, Germany. Brescia, Italy. Racine, Wisconsin. Racine? Really? Why yes. Racine is home to America’s fine target O/U, the Kolar, which comes in trap, skeet, and sporting-clays models that can go toe to toe with any target O/U in the world. Kolars are not quite as well known as Perazzis, Berettas, and Krieghoffs because the company only makes about 400 guns a year.
A machine shop making frames for racing bicycles among other things, Pioneer Products got into the shotgun business by buying out Kolar skeet tubes. After building the short-lived 90T single-barrel trap gun for Remington in the 90s, Kolar started making O/Us of their own. You can order your Kolar Max almost any way you want it, and a trip to the factory doesn’t require a flight overseas.
7. Ljutic Space Gun
As the rest of the world shoots bunker trap with O/Us, we continue to grind 16-yard singles and handicaps with single-barrels. Trap guns have to endure thousands of rounds and perform consistently, and a few small shops in the United States specialize in precision target-crushing machines, among them Ljutic, Bowen, AIM (makers of the Silver Seitz), and Altermann. Each has its passionate cult following.
Of these, the Ljutic Space Gun stands out as the weirdest. In 1955, engineer Al Ljutic was invited to a gun club. He didn’t have a trap gun so he built one in a day. Looking more like a vent-ribbed 12-gauge pogo stick than a shotgun, the Space Gun had a bottom loading port and a bolt handle that stuck straight down. It was nearly recoil-less, thanks to a massive firing pin and spring that moved forward with enough force to counteract recoil. Only about 200 Space Guns were made, but Ljutic’s more conventional Mono Trap is still built today in Yakima, Washington.
8. Ithaca Model 37
Ithaca waited for the patents on the Remington Model 17 to expire and then built a version of their own. The Model 37, named for its year of introduction, became one of America’s classic repeaters. It was a favorite of upland hunters who liked its light weight and bottom ejection.
The 37 was also made up into a durable riot gun and a great slug gun. The rifled DeerSlayers have an excellent reputation for accuracy. Ithaca has gone in and out of business many times, and in 2005 production was moved from New York to Upper Sandusky, Ohio, where the guns are still made today.
Parker shotguns date to 1867, although Charles Parker got his start making rifles during the Civil War. Parkers were made in Meriden, Connecticut, and their heyday lasted from the late 1800s until 1934, when the company was bought out by Remington. Until then, Parkers, with their distinctive slotted hinge pin, were the most recognizable, glamorous, and best-known American doubles. Made in all gauges, each with a choice of frame size, Parkers could be made for any purpose, and the company made everything from guns for royalty, like the A1 Special made but never delivered to Tsar Nicholas of Russia during the Revolution, to the workingman’s Trojan model.
10. A.H. Fox
Inventor Ansley Fox had all kinds of ideas: He designed both a car and a self-lighting cigarette we don’t remember—and a shotgun that became one of the greatest of American doubles. Made in Philadelphia, Fox shotguns were simple and well-engineered on the inside and elegant on the outside.
Famous Foxes include Nash Buckingham’s Bo-Whoop, a specially bored 3-inch magnum Super Fox, and the H.E. grade gun that Theodore Roosevelt took along on his famous nine-month-long African safari. Foxes were made in Philadelphia from 1905 until 1929, when Savage bought the company and moved production to Utica, New York. In the 1990s, Foxes were reborn at Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing Company, which makes gorgeous high-grade guns every bit as good and probably better than the originals.
11. L.C. Smith
L.C. Smith, one of three founders of the company that first bore his name in 1880, left a few years later to become rich and famous as a maker of typewriters. His namesake shotguns were made by the Hunter Arms Company in upstate New York, in grades from plain field to ornate. They were unique among American doubles in that they were sidelocks, an action type seen primarily on bespoke British “best” guns. Smiths were excellent shotguns, but that didn’t save them from falling out of favor along with all the other American doubles following WWII. Marlin bought the company in 1945, and made guns until 1949, when a floor collapse in the factory put an end to L.C. Smith production forever.
12. Ithaca NID 10
Founded in 1885 in Ithaca, New York, Ithaca Gun made several good doubles, culminating in the New Ithaca Double (NID) of 1925. Such was the gun’s reputation for strength and durability that in 1932 Winchester-Western chose Ithaca to build the first 3.5-inch, 10-gauge magnum. NIDs remained in production until 1948, when the company discontinued it to devote more resources to building the popular Model 37 pump.
13. Remington Model 31
Introduced in 1931 to compete with the Model 12, Remington’s side-ejecting Model 31 pump replaced the bottom ejecting Model 17. There are those who believe the “ball bearing repeater” was the slickest, best pump gun ever made. It came in three grades, in field and target models, and in a 31L model with a lightweight aluminum receiver, a rarity for its time.
Having failed to beat Winchester with quality, Remington opted to undercut them, discontinuing the Model 31 in favor of the lower-priced 870. The 31 does live on to some extent today, as Mossberg was clearly looking at the Model 31 when they designed the enduring Model 500.
14. Ithaca Single Barrel Trap
In 1880, clay targets we would recognize today replaced the glass balls that had replaced live pigeons in the sport of trapshooting. From that time on, the game grew in popularity and that uniquely American arm, the single-barreled trap gun, evolved.
The Ithaca single barrels became the most famous of the American trap guns. Of those Ithacas, the richly decorated Sousa Grade is the most famous, a gun developed at the request of the famous bandleader and March King, John Philip Sousa. A genuine rock star of his era, Sousa was also a keen trapshooter and ardent promoter of the sport.
15. Winchester Model 21
A pet project of Winchester’s John OIin, the Model 21 was graceful and as strong as a double gun could be. To publicize the gun, Olin set up a torture test, firing over-strength proof loads in several of the world’s great doubles until they failed. Only the 21 survived, and it was still in shooting shape after 2,000 proof loads. With its single trigger, and carrying a little extra weight, the Model 21 was distinctly American. It found favor with hunters and target shooters alike, including a quail hunter from Kansas named Dwight Eisenhower.
16. Ruger Gold Label
Can a failure be great? Sure, if the gun is the Ruger Gold Label, a svelte, light bird gun almost anyone could afford. Bill Ruger believed the English round action was the most graceful double gun of all, and he proceeded to bring one to the American market for under $2,000. The Gold Label was introduced in 2002, the same year Ruger died. It cost a lot to make, and without Bill Sr. around to oversee and advocate for his last gun design, the Gold Label withered away by 2006.
17. Remington Model 32
Prompted by the popularity of trap and the then-new game of Skeet, Remington introduced the first American-made O/U in late 1931. The innovative Model 32 had a sliding metal hood that locked the gun and separated barrels that would remain cooler and be easier to swing over hundreds of rounds of competition.
Made in several different grades, the Model 32 lasted until 1947, then became a casualty of the post-war fad for repeaters in the United States. It’s had a long second life, however. German gunmaker Krieghoff recognized the 32′s excellence and bought the design in 1956. The K-32 and the subsequently updated K-80 are among the world’s great target guns.
One of America’s most creative double gun designers, Dan Lefever started out as a rifle maker but found fame with his Automatic Hammerless gun in 1884. Made in Syracuse, Lefever guns included the $1000 grade, a gun with ornately decorated sideplates that was, at the time, the most expensive gun made in America.
Dan Lefever left Lefever Arms in 1901 to form DM Lefever in Ohio with his sons. They made only a few guns, while Lever Arms lasted another 15 years before selling out to Ithaca, which made a field grade Lefever in name only called the Nitro until 1921.
A real oddity, the Tobin is Canada’s high-grade sidelock shotgun, named for founder Major Frank Tobin. Beginning in 1905, he produced guns made on a sidelock action called the Simplex, and for a few years the guns were made in Norwich, Connecticut before Tobin moved the factory to Ontario, making guns until 1921.
Tobins were made in every grade, ranging in price from $30 to $200, the equivalent of $800 to $5000 today. About 18,000 Tobins were made, and the high-grade guns had some beautiful engraving, gold-plated internal parts, and Krupp or Belgian fluid steel barrels.
Slugs aren’t uniquely American, but, as a result of our obsession with whitetails, no one has spent more time trying to make slug guns that shoot. The ultimate, logical solution was to make bolt-action rifles chambered for 12- and 20-gauge slugs. The semi-custom TarHunt, made in the mountains of Pennsylvania, has been the last word in slug gun accuracy since it was introduced in 1990.