We begin with the Winchester Model 1897 for a couple of reasons. First, it was the first really successful pump shotgun, the action type that eventually became the choice of millions of American shooters—the “everyman’s” gun of the 20th century. Second, it was the first successful shotgun designed by the great John M. Browning, whose name will appear several more times in this gallery of guns.
The Model 1897 was Browning’s improvement on his own earlier Model 1893, incorporating changes to enable the gun to handle the higher pressures of shotshells loaded with smokeless powder. At the turn of the 20th century, black powder ammunition was becoming a thing of the past and the cleaner burning, more efficient smokeless propellant was taking over the ammo world. Like many guns at the turn of the century, the Model 97, as it came to be known, had an exposed hammer, which many shooters preferred. The stock was very well designed and seemed to fit the majority of shooters, making the 97 one of the most naturally pointing shotguns of the day. It quickly became popular with waterfowlers and upland hunters, as well as clay target competitors. The Model 97 also was a favorite for law enforcement work. More than 1 million were made before this American classic went out of production in 1957. These days, you can pick up a standard model for $700 to $800, or one of those cool riot guns for about twice that amount. It would make a fine home-defense gun.
John Browning’s remarkable Auto-5 was another break-through design—the first successful semi-auto shotgun. Its long-recoil action was state-of-the-art in 1903 and the five-shot magazine that gave the gun its name made it a favorite with bird hunters. While the square “humpback” silhouette might not appeal to all shooters, some love it and consider the Auto-5 to be an icon of a time when fine workmanship, hand fitting and finishing still mattered. The Browning company advertised it as the Aristocrat of Automatic Shotguns and indeed it was. Unique features included a magazine cutoff lever that allowed a shell to be loaded directly into the chamber, and a system of friction rings that the shooter could arrange to fire high or low-base loads. Browning first offered the Auto-5 design to Winchester but they couldn’t come to terms. He made an appointment with the president of Remington but the Remington president died while Browning was waiting outside the man’s office to show him the shotgun.
Browning had contracted with FN (Fabrique Nationale) in Belgium to make some of his handguns so he decided to offer the Auto-5 to FN and they quickly accepted. FN made the Browning Auto-5 until 1976, at which time production moved to the Miroku company in Japan. Most collectors want “Made In Belgium” on the barrel but the Miroku guns, which were made until 1998, have excellent workmanship and are gaining respect with some Browning fans.
The Auto-5 has often been referred to as the A-5, but the current A-5 model introduced in 2012 is a totally different design. It is a fine gun but nothing like the original Auto-5, except for the squared action that bears a cosmetic resemblance.
The Auto-5 was made in 12, 16 and 20 gauges and in numerous variations. It would be nice to have a made-in-Belgium Sweet 16, which has had a cult following for years. If you’re only going to have one 16 gauge in your collection, this would be a great choice. Asking prices today start in the $1000 to $1500 range.
This model has an important place in firearms history if for no reason other than it was the gun that introduced the wonderful 20 gauge. As the name would suggest, the Model 12 went into production in 1912 and at first, only in 20 gauge with the 12 and 16 added in 1914. The Model 12 was also Winchester’s first hammerless (or concealed hammer) repeating shotgun. It was an immediate success with hunters and clay target shooters, and soon became the standard to which all other pump guns were compared. By the time the standard production model was discontinued in 1976, more than 2 million had been sold. I’d want a pre-war specimen in 20 gauge with an improved-cylinder choke. In very good or excellent condition you would be looking at $1,000 or more.
This sleek little .410 pump gun holds a special place in the hearts of those of a certain age who grew up in the middle of the 20th century. In production from 1933 to 1963, it was often just out of reach of a young shooter’s pocketbook. Many of these individuals can now afford one and have added the elegant little 42 to their collection. At a glance the Model 42 appears to be just a slimmed-down version of the Model 12 but that is not the case. Cosmetically, the two guns are very similar, but the small 2½ and 3-inch .410 shells required some internal changes. The Model 42 was specifically designed around its ammunition. It was made in several variations including standard, skeet and even trap, with or without a solid or ventilated rib, and a several high grades. Less than 160,000 were made. Some .410 collectors covet a side-by-side Parker or L.C. Smith, but the well-balanced 42 allows for a better follow-through and higher scores on clay targets or birds. Collectors have pushed the values of these guns in good to excellent condition to well over $1000, and more than $2000 of certain models.
The over/under was seldom seen in shotgun circles in America before the elegant Browning Superposed came along. It was one of last guns designed by John Browning and some would say it was his finest. He had been working on the development of the Superposed for several years when he died in 1926. His son, Val, took on the responsibility of finishing the design. The gun was introduced in 1930 but it wasn’t until after WWII that the Superposed’s reputation as one of the world’s finest shotguns was established. Numerous variations were made before the standard model went out of production in 1976. The workmanship and hand-fitting of Belgian Brownings has always been exceptional. Since 1985, some high-grade custom models have been made-to-order, but the subject of this list is the Superposed from the 1948-1976 era. Every shotgunner should have one of these classy over/unders in his or her collection. There were many variations and grades, and some of the high-grade, small-gauge models are very pricey today. But I’ve seen Superposed 12 gauges in good condition priced at less than what you’d have to pay for a new entry-level Browning Citori or Cynergy.
Now for something completely different: This semi-auto was designed by Val Browning specifically to duplicate the handling qualities of a double gun. It doesn’t have the muzzle-heavy feel that other autos have, mainly because it has no magazine tube and like the name implies, it holds only two shells. The Double Auto is loaded by inserting a shell into a slot on the left side of the receiver. That round goes directly into the chamber, leaving a space in the slot for a second shell to be inserted. When the gun is fired, the empty hull is ejected and the round in the loading slot is chambered, allowing another shell to be inserted. It could be loaded as quickly as a break-open double or over/under. A similar loading system was later used for the Model 2000 in the ‘70s.
The Double Auto was promoted when it was introduced in 1955 as “Tomorrow’s Gun Today” and looking back, it seems to have been ahead of its time. The two-round capacity was not well received by shooters who thought that more was better and wanted repeaters that held three or more shells. So the Double Auto was not a huge success and was in production only for about 16 years, until 1971. But it has its fans today and while the model may be a bit hard to find, they are out there. The Double Auto only came in 12 gauge but was made in several weight variations ranging from six-pounds for the “Twentyweight” to 7.7 pounds for the standard model. The lighter guns have an alloy frame and some were finished in anodized colors including silver, blue, green and red. I’d choose a Twentyweight with an improved cylinder choke. These are not expensive guns and can be found for under $1,000.
It could be argued that this gun is so common and popular that it doesn’t belong on a bucket list of shotguns. And if you’ve read this far, the odds are you already have a Remington 1100, or have owned one in the past. Yet, it needs to be included here for the fact that it revolutionized the repeating shotgun when it came on the scene in 1963. An improvement on the Model 58 and 878, Remington’s first gas-operated autoloaders (1958-1963), the 1100 is still in production today, more than 50 years after its introduction. Dozens of variations have been made and it has been chambered in all gauges from 12 to .410, including the 16 and 28. It’s an attractive gun with a comfortable stock that fits most shooters very well. And it works. Of course, the gas operation reduces felt recoil too. A Remington 1100 needs to be in any shotgunner’s gun rack, maybe not forever but at some time along the way. An appropriate choice would be the 50th Anniversary Limited Edition that was made only in 2013. You should be able to find one new in the box for about $1,800.
We’re moving now into the golden age of the American double gun. The Winchester Model 21 was the last of the genre. It was introduced in 1929 and was the last survivor of the upper class of American-made doubles with the standard model remaining in production until 1959. There were only about 28,850 made during the 30-year period of standard production and another 1,100 from the Winchester Custom Shop between 1960 and 1988. One way to start an argument with a group of American shotgun collectors is to suggest that the Winchester is better than the old-school Parkers, Foxes, or L.C. Smiths. There’s no doubt that the 21 is better stocked than the older guns with their big drop at the comb. And beauty (and value) are in the eyes of the beholder. The dean of gunwriters from the 30s through the 60s was Jack O’Connor, who once said he preferred the Model 21 over all other doubles including the fine English guns. It is a sturdy, well-made shotgun, a bit heavier and perhaps not as graceful as some of the other fine American doubles, but one will last for generations and be a joy to own and to shoot. A 20 gauge would be a good investment but expected to ante up $6,000 to $10,000. A 12-gauge standard model would be less, by maybe half.
Another classic American double from the early 20th century was the Fox. The company’s roots go back to the 1890s in Baltimore but the A.H. Fox brand was established in 1905 by Ansley H. Fox in Philadelphia, where a line of guns were made that some say out classes the Parker in quality of workmanship. It has been said that the Parker was the most expensive, but the Fox was the most attractive American shotgun. President Teddy Roosevelt was a very proud owner and was quoted a saying, “I really think it is the most beautiful gun I have ever seen.” His high-grade FE model sold for more than $800,000 at auction in 2010, the highest price ever paid at the time for a shotgun in America. Don’t let that price scare you; today one can find a Fox Sterlingworth model in excellent condition for less than $2,000. By the way, the Fox Model B series of doubles made by Savage from the 1940s through the ‘80s are not related to the A.H. Fox guns in any way other than the name.
Photo by Wendell Cheek, courtesy Northwest Pony Express
And now we come to the Parker, the most prestigious name from the golden age of the great American double-barrel shotgun. The Parker Brothers company was founded by Charles Parker and his three sons in 1868. More than 240,000 guns in many variations and grades from 10 gauge to .410 bore were made over the company’s 72-year history, from with the Damascus-barreled hammer-guns of the 19th century until the beginning of World War II. In the early 1930s the Parker company was sold to Remington, and that company made about 6,000 guns before production ended in 1942. Parker shotguns are some of the most collectible guns ever made in America and can sell for what you would pay for a luxury car. If you shop around however, you can find a Trojan or VH grade model in 12-gauge in “good” condition with extractors and double triggers for under $3000. Other gauges and extras like ejectors and single triggers, and “very good” or “excellent” condition could double the price.
A final note: Be sure to consult a trusted expert before making a purchase of any gun on this list, especially the double guns. — Jerry Lee
What’s on your “bucket list” of shotguns you’d love to own? Here are 10 special shotguns that made significant contributions to firearm history—ones that every shooter should aspire to possess during his or her lifetime. Be sure to consult a trusted expert before making a purchase of any gun on this list, especially the double guns. — Jerry Lee