History of the Shotgun for Upland Hunting

Vintage shotgun.

The shotgun has long occupied a place in the history of hunting in the United States.

The earliest shotguns, or “Haile Shotte peics,” as they were called, date back to the 16th century in England, where they were used for hunting by the aristocracy, chief among them Henry VIII. These were multiple shot firearms and were used primarily for hunting birds. The English continued to refine the design of guns over the next three centuries, culminating with the application of percussion ignition in the 19th century, and the introduction of a fully functional hinged breech in the 1830s. Finally, the advantages of a new cartridge that contained the primer, propellant, projectile, and firing pin, heralded the birth of the modern shotgun.

While shotguns of the muzzleloader and musket types were originally imported to America from England and other European countries, it was an American—Daniel Myron Lefever—who is credited with having invented the first hammerless shotgun in 1878. A gunmaker by profession, Lefever was popularly known in his day as “Uncle Dan” and he was a partner in several gun manufacturing companies in New York. His design for a new shotgun featured a cocking lever on the side of the breech, the first of its kind. That year saw Lefever win first prize for the best breech-loading shotgun at the St. Louis Bench Show and Sportsman’s Association. The gunsmith patented the hammerless shotgun in 1880, and even improved upon the design in the three years that followed, by internalizing the cocking mechanism to function only when the breech was closed.

1908 Sears Catalog, tan and brown old page, on shotgun page

The end result of these innovations in shotgun design helped the shotgun find widespread use throughout the American West, as a firearm with a smooth bore designed for firing a shotshell containing a charge of small shot at relatively short ranges. The period of 1880 to 1930 has been called a “golden age” in shotgun production in America.

One of the earliest gunsmithing companies, Parker Brothers, started after the Civil War and produced 240,000 guns by the hand-assembly of machine-made gun parts. The Parker inventory included shotguns ranging from lightweight bird guns to heavier caliber gauges for waterfowl hunting. This approach to manufacturing made guns more plentiful than ever before for the masses.

An upland hunter writing under the pen name “Cervus” described an optimum shotgun for summer shooting of grouse in 1890, typical of the kind available at that time period: “I have always used a 12-gauge, 8 lb. gun, with 4 drs. FG powder, and one ounce of No. 10 shot. I used such a gun because it was what I had, and I could not afford two. If I could afford a gun specifically for grouse, as long as they would lie to the dog, it would be a 16-gauge, 26-inch barrels, 6 to 7 lb. gun, with 3 drs. Powder and three-quarters of an ounce of No. 10 shot. The shooting is the simplest and easiest of all game shooting.”

1908 Sears Catalog, tan and brown old page, on shotgun page
1908 Sears Catalog, tan and brown old page, on shotgun page

By the early 20th century, American-made shotguns were offered as everyday items for purchase through local gun dealers and national chains, such as Sears & Roebuck. In the 1908 catalog produced by that company, the section “Guns and Revolvers” included 23 pages devoted to shotguns alone, such as the line of A.J. Aubrey hammerless double-barrel shotguns produced at the Sears & Roebuck firearms factory in Meriden, CT. Some models, like the company’s New England Hammerless, were sold for as little as $11.95. Catalogs of the day provided a wide assortment of shotguns for purchase, marketing them as the “genuine American gun” with models that were double- and single-barrel; combination shotgun and rifle, or other “side-by-side” barrel combinations; self-loading magazine; repeating shotguns (Marlin and Winchester 1897 models); and automatic shell ejection (Baker and Remington models). Hunters could scarce believe their good fortune with the low cost, 20-year guarantees, and 60-day free trial periods that came with many of these purchases.

For the upland hunter of America’s woods, fields, streams and marshes, the shotgun has become a reliable standby for success. As the American sportsmen replaced the pioneers, these guns needed to be reliable in all kinds of weather, lightweight if possible, able to be carried all day, and affordable in cost. Shotguns could also be versatile to cover a range of uses, whether a hunter was going after ducks and geese at the crack of dawn, quail and pheasant in the evening, or sought larger game by trading out bird shot for lead slugs.

Yet not all hunters wanted such variety. The performance and quality of shotguns have continued to appeal to hunters seeking quail, pheasant, grouse, and other gamebirds. The advent of specialty guns for specific game was a natural evolution of the shotgun, beginning with the HE Grade “Super Fox” designed by A.H. Fox solely as a waterfowl gun in 1922. Its performance boasted an 80 percent of shot pattern at 40 yards, with success matched by the concurrent development of the new “Super X” shotshells that same year.

1908 Sears Catalog, tan and brown old page, on shotgun page
1908 Sears Catalog, tan and brown old page, on shotgun page

Another unique American design using a sidelock-style shotgun was first produced by Lyman Smith and Hunter Arms, called the “Elsie”—the only sidelock-type gun produced in the United States until the 1990s. The Marlin company reissued the popular design for hunters briefly between 1968 and 1971.

Other shotguns have seen little change to their original designs over the years. Production of the Auto-5 model by Browning, first sold in 1903, finally ended in 1997 after 2 million were produced. It had the distinction of offering a recoil-operated ejection and rechambering feature, and over nearly a century of use, garnered a reputation among hunters as being able to perform in mud, rain, and snow without fail. Browning was also the first American gun manufacturer to design an over-/under-barrel configuration in 1931 as an affordable hunter’s option. Browning redesigned his namesake shotgun with a single-selective trigger, as a more reliable option to its original twin-selective trigger.

1908 Sears Catalog, tan and brown old page, on shotgun page
1908 Sears Catalog, tan and brown old page, on shotgun page

In the past century, several American made models offered new advantages in modern material construction, such as the Remington 870 Wingmaster, available in 12-, 20-, 28-gauge and .410. The Wingmaster was based on an earlier Remington shotgun notable for its ball bearing-like pumping stroke, the Model 31 produced between 1931 and 1945. The Wingmaster was first produced following the end of World War II, with over 10 million guns manufactured since that time, making it the most popular American sporting firearm ever produced.

The war’s end also ushered in new technologies into firearms, including shotguns. The Sears’ High-Standard Supermatic was the first to use gas operation to work the action, followed by the Remington 1100 gas-operated shotgun in 1964.

Today, lightweight materials have contributed to a lesser carry weight in other brands as well: the Stevens 555, with its aluminum receiver is a good example. The Mossberg 500 Classic takes a vintage shotgun design as its latest pump action gun, with a 28-inch blued barrel, and options for 12- or 20-gauge in either a wood or synthetic stock.

The history of the American shotgun is one steeped in craftsmanship, dependability, and enjoyment for the hunter, with this tradition continuing to the present day.