By Dennis Adler
One might regard the handgun as the easiest and most practical self defense weapon of choice in the Old West, but for a great majority of men, especially ranchers, farmers, and lawmen who often had to face down a rowdy group of liquored up cowboys, a 12 ga. shotgun was the most practical, most intimidating and easiest to handle firearm on the American frontier.
Either for self-defense or hunting, the double barrel shotgun has many purposes that pistols alone could not equal. A simple shotgun in the hands of a farmer, his wife, son, or daughter, defending their property or home, was far more menacing. Even frontier town lawmen and outlaws reached for a shotgun when the numbers were not in their favor. A double hammer gun might not have been as glamorous as a shiny Colt Peacemaker, but it was most certainly the one gun that no one wanted to be on the wrong side of.
There were more than 40 American shotgun makers in business during the 19th century. Among the more prestigious makers was Parker Brothers in Meridian, Connecticut, which built shotguns from the 1860s until 1942. Some of the most beautiful double hammer guns ever produced bore the Parker Brothers name.
Other notable 19th century hammer and hammerless doubles were produced by L. C. Smith, Ithaca, Stevens (known for their famous Three-Trigger shotgun using the forward trigger to release the latch and open the barrel), Lefever, and Winchester (with their double guns imported from Great Britain and sold under the Winchester name).
All of these various models are highly regarded today by collectors, but the shotguns most commonly used by lawmen, ranchers, farmers, businessmen and highway men, were those built by E. Remington & Sons, and the Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Mfg. Co., two manufacturers better known for their handguns.
Both Colt, in Hartford, Connecticut, and its closest competitor, E. Remington & Sons, in Ilion, New York, offered their own brand of shotguns beginning in the 1870s, while Winchester, preferring to concentrate on improving and expanding its line of rifles, continued to import side-by-side shotguns from Great Britain well into the 1880s.
The British-built Winchester Model 1879 shotguns were marked atop the barrel rib, Winchester Repeating Arms Co. New Haven Conn U.S.A. These elegant British double guns bearing a recognized American name still came up short compared to the Colt and Remington, the two most popular and affordable double guns of the 1870s and 1880s.
Remington introduced its first models in 1874, and like many other guns built in Ilion, New York, the shotguns had a hyphenated name as well, Remington-Whitmore, (for A.E. Whitmore’s 1871 patent). The first model was built through 1878 when an improved version, minus the Whitmore hyphen, was introduced. The Model 1878 was also known as the “New Model Heavy Shotgun” and was built through the mid 1880s.
The 1878 double hammer gun earned its nickname as it was only offered in 10 ga. whereas its predecessor had been available in 10 and 12 gauge models. The majority of early Remington doubles were available in two barrel lengths, 28-inched and 30-inches.
The Hartford signature
Colt’s Model 1878 double barrel shotguns were among the most popular of the late 19th century. Regarded as one of the finest American double guns ever built, the 12-gauge models were used by everyone from farmers and lawmen to shop owners and outlaws. A total of 22,683 were manufactured from 1878 until 1889, with guns available in both 12 and 10-gauge, and barrel lengths ranging from 18-inches up to 34-inches.
In addition, Colt’s built a very limited number of double rifles of the same design chambered in .45-70, .45-85 Express, .45-90, and .45-100. The Model 1878 was joined by the Model 1883 Hammerless, which remained in production until 1895. These were available in 8, 10, and 12-gauge models, with a full range of barrel lengths from 18-inches up to 36-inches. The 1883 Model became the king of American doubles with a little over 8,000 Hammerless doubles built. Later this year, E.M.F. and F.lli Pietta will introduce their Hartfordversion of the famous Colt Hammerless double gun. But for now, their new 12 ga. Hammer Gun takes center stage.