Shooting, Showing, or Both

Classic sporting firearms are works of art and field pieces

Jeff Amberg

What makes classic sporting firearms “classic” is either a matter of opinion based on functionality or largely a quality in the eye of the beholder, according to sporting firearms experts. And defining such sporting weapons is no easy task.

For most South Carolinians, primarily live bird hunters or trap and skeet shooting enthusiasts, sporting firearms are side-by-side and over-and-under shotguns. Perhaps a few fine-grade rifles for deer and other big game might be included in the mix.

Master gunsmith Jim Kelly, owner-operator of Darlington Gun Works in Darlington, says the term “classic” can be applied to almost all categories of weapons, which might include pistols — everything from a Colt .45 Peacemaker, also known as the single-action Army revolver, to the world-famous M1911 .45 automatic pistol — or any number of handguns or long-guns; black-powder weapons, both smoothbore and rifled barrels; and all manner of matchlock, wheel-lock, and flintlock firearms. The list could go on forever.

James G. “Bugsy” Graves, a retired Columbia builder and lifelong shotgun enthusiast, agrees.

“These types of guns may not usually be associated with sporting, but they are classics to be sure.”

The term “sporting” certainly narrows the definition. But, even then, the categories are as wide and varied as would be any list, from a beautiful, hand-engraved family heirloom bird gun, which may or may not have seen a lot of action on dove fields and quail thickets across the Palmetto State, to the ultra-fine big game, large-caliber Weatherby or Rigby rifles used to hunt Cape Buffalo or any of the other “big five” most dangerous animals in Africa or elsewhere around the world.

For the purposes of defining classic sporting firearms, the focus is on shotguns. “That’s what usually comes to mind,” says James. And what makes a gun “classic” to any shooter or collector is not unlike what makes a good gun great.

Phil Bourjaily, writing for Field & Stream magazine, says greatness should be based on five elements: the first being “artistry,” followed by “innovation, reliability, ergonomics, and durability.” Granted, not all of the great shotguns have all five elements, but all of the truly great shotguns should feature at least two, perhaps three.

C.C. Canada, a career forester, lifelong hunter, and a collector of fine guns, has always focused on achieving all of the “greatness” elements in each of his weapons. “I was born into a hunting family, and I’ve also always been fascinated by all things mechanical,” says C.C. “So when I first got out of college and had a little money, instead of putting my money into stocks and bonds, I put it into guns. I tried to invest in guns that were already established. I didn’t go after the guns that might one day be valuable, but rather sought the ones that were already valuable.”

C.C., for instance, today owns a matched pair of Fox Sterlingworth 16-gauge shotguns. “The first of the pair was passed down through our family,” he says. “The other one is in like-new, mint condition that Jim Kelly over in Darlington restored for me some 20 years ago. I gave that gun to my son, and he has never fired it.”

Like C.C., James has always preferred guns that were already valuable. He says his two favorite shotguns, both of which he considers to be “great” and “classic,” are as dissimilar as they are reliable and durable.

“All I ever shoot are shotguns,” he says, “my primary go-to being a 16-gauge Winchester model 12 pump-action, which I use on quail, but the finest weapon I own is a Beretta 687 EELL Diamond Pigeon sporting clay model. To me, both of those guns are greats and classics.”   

Like James’ favorite Winchester Model 12 (so-named because it was first manufactured in 1912), the ever-popular Remington 870 pump-action 12-gauge shotgun, which went into production long after the first Winchester Model 12 was produced, is also considered a great, classic sporting firearm to many shotgun aficionados.

“Perhaps dollar-for-dollar, the Remington 870 is the greatest classic shotgun on the market today,” says John Cantey, a lifelong collector of fine-grade shotguns and a former competitive shooter. “Personally, I don’t really like the 870, but I know you get more gun per dollar out of an 870 than any other shotgun I am aware of.”

John, a World War II Navy veteran who at 90 years old refers to himself as “Cantey the Elder,” has always preferred shooting Purdey shotguns to anything else. He is not unlike other serious shotgunners who shoot only the finest shotguns, whether a Purdey, a Parker, or an L.C. Smith. And that is where true exclusivity comes into play.

A few regional shooting matches and exhibitions regularly take place in and around the Palmetto State with manufacturers, collectors, and competitors alike participating, attending, or exhibiting just about every imaginable make of fine-grade shotguns. The gunmakers at these events often include Atkin, Grant, & Lang, Ltd.; Beretta; Charles Boswell; Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing Company; A.H. Fox; Fratelli Poli Armi; Griffin & Howe; Heritage; Holland & Holland; Ithaca (including the old Lefever shotguns); Parker; Perugini and Visini; Purdey; L.C. Smith; Westley Richards & Company, Ltd.; Antonio Zoli; and other smaller gunmakers.

The competition at these events is often as much between the make of the gun as it is the man or woman shooting it. For instance, events featuring competition shoot-offs between the Parker Gun Collectors Association and the L.C. Smith Collectors Association are held in Georgetown, South Carolina, and Sanford, North Carolina, during the fall and spring of each year.

“They’ll shoot against one another for bragging rights for their particular make of gun,” says James.

And in many of the classic sporting firearms competitions, money can be made. “I shot competitively for a long time, both for pleasure and for money, and I won a lot of money over the years shooting at thrown and boxed birds all over the world,” says John.

Though he has owned everything from a .410 to an 8-gauge, John always uses a 12-gauge for competitions. The reasoning is simple. “When you travel the world, you can almost always find 12-gauge ammunition,” he says.

As mentioned, he prefers Purdeys. “It’s all a matter of personal choice,” John says. “Parkers and Purdeys are both fine guns. A Parker is a boxlock action gun, and a Purdey is a sidelock gun. Both will do the job magnificently. The difference is in the owner’s mind rather than in the practical sense. It’s really about what you are most comfortable with. It’s all about what you most enjoy shooting.”

John says his two favorite weapons, which he has since sold, were both side-by-side 12-gauge Purdeys. “One was a hunting gun designed purely for hunting and made from scratch with two sets of barrels,” he says. “The other was a pigeon gun designed for competitive shooting. The value in today’s market if either of these guns were new would be at least $100,000 apiece.”

It is not unusual to see fine-grade hand-made shotguns selling at prices exceeding $250,000.

Price has much to do with Bourjaily’s aforementioned artistry element as the greatest classic sporting firearms are indeed works of art. But like anything else, aesthetic appeal is subjective.

“I’ve seen engraving, inlay work, and scrollwork that is way overdone; but, again, that’s personal,” says John. “To me the nice flow of lines as the barrel and stock all come together is what makes a gun beautiful. That, along with tastefully done – though not overdone – engraving contribute a great deal to the gun’s appeal.”

Jim says he believes the quality of the shotgun more than the artistic embellishment is what makes the finest shotguns so expensive.

“Yes, there is some very expensive engraving, and the quality of the metal, the fit and finish, and the quality of the wood makes a big difference,” says Jim. “But the expense primarily is because these firearms are handmade. The tolerance is held to zero. There is a big difference between a handmade gun, with the finest materials and completely fitted and finished by a master gunsmith, as opposed to the ones that are stamped out by machine and put together by assemblers.”   

Jim’s favorite two weapons are a custom-made .410 double-barrel and a C-grade Parker side-by-side in 20 gauge. The estimated value of the Parker is about $47,000, he says. The most remarkable weapon he has ever worked on was an old 1550 wheellock musket that he helped “fine-tune” for a museum while he was in France in 1957.

A former U.S. Air Force small-arms “gunsmith specialist” — in fact, one of the first two small-arms gunsmith specialists in the Air Force — Jim was named one of the top 10 master gunsmiths in the nation by Field & Stream magazine in 2006.

“No surprise there,” says C.C., who has owned more than 100 fine guns in his lifetime. “Jim has done all of the work on all my guns over the years.”

Three years ago, C.C. still owned 68 collectible guns and 38 collectible automobiles. “I started selling off all my guns and cars,” he says. “I’m down now to about four cars and maybe two dozen guns.”

C.C. says his favorite classic shotgun was a 20-gauge Parker. His most precious was a custom-made Ferlach (Austria) “drilling,” a three-barrel shotgun-rifle combination. The top two side-by-side barrels are 20 gauge, and the lower barrel is a .308 caliber rifle barrel. This “gamekeeper’s gun” allows the hunter to be ready for whatever type of game may come his way. “That gun was engraved with beautiful Southern scenes and signed by the engraver, Josef Winkler,” he says. The value in 1968 was $30,000. “It is much higher today,” he adds. C.C. has donated this gun, along with many others of his collection, to the Camden Archives & Museum.

“The guns I shoot today are all more than 100 years old,” C.C. says. “I have a Parker that goes back to 1882, and I have one of Annie Oakley’s old .32 rimfires.”

Recently, C.C. sold a beautiful Charles Daly 20-gauge that once belonged to Marion duPont Scott (whose initials are engraved on the bottom of the stock) to Lawrence Taylor, who allows his four girls to shoot it on “special occasion” hunts.  According to C.C., “Harry Kirkover shot this gun in the 1936 Berlin Olympics with Hitler watching in the stands, and ‘medaled’ for the United States.” The stock is a fine Russian walnut, which dates the gun somewhat as it is believed wood was not imported from Russia after the 1930s.

The consensus among all the experts is that all of the guns they prize the most are fine works of fit, durability, function, and art, but most of the pleasure over the course of a lifetime comes from the actual hunting and shooting.