Take you a workingman’s lass and polish her bright as brass;
Dress her in such finery as she never hoped to see.
But in truth, oh how it hurts, you’ll find ’neath silken skirts,
She’s plain Judy O’Grady, not the colonel’s fine lady.
— Clement Seagrave
Lefever Nitro Special
When we first met and I picked her up in Reno, I could see that she had had some hard use. She had gone all gray and silver, and she was bruised and scarred here and there and most everywhere. A once shapely thing, now down on her luck and her looks.
But she opened easily without squeak or rattle or sway, and a look down her bores showed she has no pitting or scoring inside, where it counted. She locked up tight with her action release lever still right of center, and her triggers both let off sharply and crisply with no bump or grind.
Her wood was solid and nicely grained, although the finish was gone and she had several scrapes, scratches, and nicks. Her butt plate was chipped and her checkering was worn smooth. Although the barrels were marked modified and full choke, I suspected they were tighter – probably full and extra-full.
I removed the forend, unlatched the barrels, held them up by the barrel hook, and tapped each with a fingernail. They chimed musically; nothing dull or flat about this lady’s tune.
She was sixteen. Gauge. In years, she was probably eighty. I was smitten but was not ready to take her on as a reclamation project. I reassembled her, and as I was snapping the forend back into place I glanced at the serial number. Kismet. Its first four digits were the same as the final four digits of my Social Security number. Mon chéri, we were meant to be together.
She was a Lefever Nitro Special, a side-by-side double gun in 16 gauge. For $550 she was mine. Not an unreasonable price for tying the knot in Reno.
Back in the 1920s and 30s, the Nitro Special was one of a half dozen plain-Jane doubles that could best be described as a working man’s gun. Similar, I suppose, to the universal Remington 870 pump action shotgun of today. Lefever double guns – the true Lefever guns designed and manufactured by D.M. “Dan” Lefever in the late nineteenth century – are truly fine guns, as good as or better than the Parker and L.C. Smith and A.H. Fox doubles that make aficionados of American classic guns swoon.
But the Nitro Special is a Lefever in name only, the brand name having been purchased by the Ithaca firearms company sometime after Dan Lefever died in 1906 and his namesake gun firm went belly up in 1919. The Ithaca-manufactured Lefever Nitro Special is a good, solid gun, but it is not in any sense a first-quality double gun.
Returning home to the North Country, I disassembled the Nitro Special and confirmed that it was mechanically sound. Matching the gun’s serial number to the production dates for Ithaca-manufactured shotguns posted on the Internet, I learned it was made in 1928. That was good, because the 16 gauge guns manufactured that year all had 2 ¾-inch chambers, the standard length for today’s 16 gauge shotshells, so I would not have to buy or load ammunition of 2 9/16 or 2 ½-inch case length.
I will not launch into a lengthy discussion, at least not here and now, of the relative philosophies and merits of restoration vs. modernization of an old double gun. Suffice to say, my goal was more modernization than restoration. To those who gasp and protest that modernization diminishes an old double gun’s value, I remind that the gun’s value was $550.
Double guns produced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have a number of characteristics and dimensions that differ from shotguns of today. Most have excessive drop at the stock’s comb and heel, because shooting style and form was much different in that era. They also have tight choke constrictions, necessary to shoot good patterns with the ammunition of that time. Other features that may trouble shooters include small trigger guards, pistol grips so close to the triggers that they cramp large hands, thick combs, short stocks, non-rebounding firing pins, steep forcing cones at the forward end of the chambers, and slightly over-size chambers. The wear and tear of years and usage also require repair: hammer springs, firing pins, hinge pin, extractors, wood finish, butt plate, checkering, engraving, barrel bluing, and receiver case-hardening – any or all of these may need attention.
All the repair and modernization work on this Lefever 16 was relatively simple. I removed the stock and had a friend who is a skilled woodworker cut it flat on top from comb to heel and then glue on a 1 ½-inch block of walnut that closely matched the old wood. I got to work with grinder, file and sandpaper and reshaped it to my exact dimensions, even including an almost imperceptible hollow at the comb where my cheekbone fits against the stock. The shallow pistol grip was not a problem, since my hands are small as those of the shotgunners a century ago.
Using a wet rag and heated metal bar, I raised some of the bruises and gouges, sanded out others, and left several that give the gun character. Ahlman’s gun shop in Minnesota did the checkering on stock and forend to my specifications. I thought about an oil finish but opted for polyurethane varnish. From Brownell’s in Iowa, I ordered a recoil pad that made the length of pull correct for me.
The necessary metal work was done by a competent gunsmith: chokes opened to improved cylinder and improved modified constriction, forcing cones lengthened, action parts cleaned and tested, trigger pulls lightened to 3 ½ (right barrel) and 4 pounds (left barrel). Bluing barrels and restoring case hardened colors to the receiver have become expensive. The gunsmith applied a less costly black-coat process to both the barrels and receiver. It has held up quite well over five years, and it looks even better after some weathering.
The whole modernization project, since I did much of the woodwork myself, cost less than $500. The market value of the gun may not be the $1,000 spent acquiring and modernizing it, but it is worth that much and more to me. It has taken pheasants, sharp tail grouse, prairie chickens, woodcock, ruffed grouse and a few doves over the past five years.
Although I would like to say I shoot it better than any of my other double guns, that would not be true. But my misses are seldom the fault of the gun. Nor has this Lefever Nitro Special been transformed, Cinderella-like, into a top-quality double gun. She isn’t a princess, but she’s a damned good-looking and well-proportioned working girl. And they are more my type.
If you enjoy reading about double guns, bird hunting, bird dogs, and the hunting companions that make the sport something of value, you may like my novel, Hunting Birds – The Lives and Legends of the Pine County Rod, Gun, Dog and Social Club.