Old But Not Necessarily Antique Shotguns

There is a remarkable variety and quantity of older shotguns in existence today. Some are masterpieces of design, made with a great deal of skill and good quality materials, others not so much. For those shotguns manufactured in the Century now past, most don't have any great collector value but are interesting nevertheless.

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Before using any of these vintage firearms a few words of caution are in order.

Modern Ammunition in Older Shotguns

In the late 1890's the major American manufacturers started adapting their firearms to use the newly available smokeless powder and after about 1900 most shotguns were designed and built with modern smokeless powder in mind.

That being said, an old shotgun needs to be inspected by a compentent individual before being fired modern ammunition to avoid nasty surprises. Most old guns have been fired with corrosive ammunition, severe rust and pitting can weaken a barrel. Chambers on some older 12 and 20 gauge guns only 2 1/2 inches, firing 2 3/4 inch cartridges can result in dangerously high pressures.

Not every old shotgun is appropriate for all uses.

Shotguns produced before the 1970's were made with lead shot in mind and are not suitable for the use of steel shot. Additionally any shotgun which has a fixed full choke barrel must not be used with steel shot.

Below I review a few of the more famous or infamous American shotgun designs of the 20th Century.

Remington Model 11

Produced from 1911 to 1948, this recoil operated shotgun is based on John Browning's Auto 5 design. These are very reliable shotguns although some people find the recoiling barrel distracting. Personally, I never notice it. A tubular magazine under the barrel holds 4 rounds. The "Sportsman" version of the Remington 11, introduced in 1930 has a 3 shot capacity with 2 rounds in the magazine and one in the chamber. Some of these shotguns were manufactured for the US Army Aircorps to train aerial gunners during World War Two. Those guns were equiped with a Cutts compensators with lyman choke tubes and can be identified by an ordnance mark stamped on the receiver.

Winchester Model 1911 SL

The Winchester 1911 Self-loading shotgun is a recoil operated 12 gauge shotgun with a tubular magazine. Introduced to compete with the Remington model 11, the Model 1911's quirky design limited it sales inspite of some aggresive marketing by Winchester Arms. In order to avoid infringing on the patents for the John Browning designed Auto 5 and Remington 11 shotguns, Winchester engineers were forced to create a novel if somewhat freakish shotgun.

The bolt is opened by placing the buttstock on the hip and grasping the knurled area on the barrel. By pulling back on the barrel, the bolt comes back with it. This requires a fair amount of grip strength and it is very easy to burn ones hand if the barrel is hot. There is a button on the right side of the receiver to hold the bolt open after the last cartridge is ejected.

The Winchester 1911 has sometimes been referred to at the "Widow Maker". This was allegedly due to the actions of some careless individuals who came to grief when the gun accidently discharged while they attempted to cock it by holding the gun vertically with the butt stock on the ground and pushing the barrel down with their body weight. This would of course put their face in the path of the shotshell's payload if the gun fired. The Winchester 1911 was manufactured from 1911 to 1928 with perhaps a 128,000 of these shotguns produced.

Why ? The story behind the Winchester Model 1911 SL

Initially John Browning brought the design for what was to become the Browning Auto Five to Winchester. Rather than selling the design outright, Browning wanted to be paid a royalty for each gun sold. The Management of Winchester balked at the idea, so Browning took his design to Europe where Fabrique Nationale in Belgium manufactured it. When Remington licensed the design, Winchester felt compelled to come up with a semiauto design to compete for the market share.

The Winchester 11 SL was never the commercial success that the Remington Model 11 was. They were however sturdily made so there are still quite a few Winchester 1911's still in existence

Remington Model 31 Pump

The Remington Model 31 is considered by many shotgun afficianodos, to be the finest slide action shotgun ever designed. Chambered for 2 3/4 inch shells in 12, 16 and 20 gauge, over 190,000 were made from 1931 to 1949. Discontinued because it was becoming too expensive to manufacture, the Model 31 was replaced by the Remington 870 in 1950.

The model 31 has a five round tubular magazine. The barrel can be removed by depressing the takedown latch on the barrel bracket and giving the barrel a quarter turn. The weight of the Model 31 in 12 gauge is approximately 7.5 pounds depending on the barrel length.

Ithaca Model 37

Produced from 1937 to 2005, the Model 37 boasted the longest continuous production run of any pump shotgun. Based on the design of Remington Model 17, the introduction of the Ithaca 37 was delayed for seven years because of existing patents.

The model 37 has been used by numerous police departments and government agencies particularly the Los Angeles Police Department.

It was first used by the U.S. Military in World War Two but was not issued widely until Vietnam War.

The safety is a crossbolt button located in the back of the trigger guard. The button on the right front of the trigger guard to open the action. It loads and ejects through the bottom of the receiver, which made it popular with left handed shooters.

With the exception of the Model 37 Ultralite which uses an aluminum alloy reciever all Model 37 have steel receivers.

Chinese copies of the Ithaca model 37 are currently made by Norinco as the M-37.

Damascus Shotguns

Rarely encountered today, damascus barrelled shotguns were made by wrapping alternating strips of steel and soft iron around a form and welding them together. The strength of these barrels depends on the quality of the welds. When they were made, these shotguns worked fine with low-pressure black powder loads but with the introduction of smokeless powder loads many were destroyed by the pressures generated by the modern propellents sometimes injuring the user and bystanders.

Unfortunately Damascus barrels don't seem to get better with age. The combination of two somewhat disimilar metals (steel and iron) can result in corrosion occuring where the metal is welded. Over time this can weaken a barrel so that it will be unsafe to fire with any load.

If you have a centerfire damascus shotgun that is otherwise sound and feel compelled to use it then it may be possible to have full length tube set produced to fit inside the barrel(s) of a shotgun in the next smaller gauge. For example a set of twenty gauge tubes in a twelve gauge should provide enough support to use the shotgun safely as long as the receiver locks up properly.


Page, Walter Hines & Page, Arthur Wilson "The World's work - a history of our time" May to October 1912 , Volume 24 Doubleday Page & Co. Advertising pages Google Books Accessed Aug 4, 2011