1925 – the year this Lefever Nitro Special was manufactured in Ithaca, New York.
2019 – the year the old 12-gauge was still taking pheasants on the wing at 94 years of age.
Maybe the elderly double gun should have been retired from the field and hung on the wall as hunting lodge decoration a few decades ago, but it is still working. This January it is doing duty as my late-season pheasant gun and surprisingly outperforming some much younger guns. Call its nonagenarian entitlement to a few more days of bird hunting the “grandfather clause.”
This side-by-side double is not a true Lefever, fine shotguns which were some of the best quality, turn-of-the-century, American sidelock double guns, designed and produced by Daniel Lefever of the Lefever Arms Company that operated out of Syracuse, New York, from 1883-1916. Ithaca Gun Company acquired the Lefever firm, and the rights to its name, in 1916 and continued to assemble the true Lefever doubles until 1921 when it ceased production of Dan Lefever’s excellent side-by-side. Thereafter, Ithaca stamped the name “Lefever” on thousands of “working man’s” double guns manufactured from the 1920s until 1948. But these were not built on the Lefever pattern; they are box lock action doubles that were precursors of Ithaca’s NID side-by-side guns.
My own Nitro Special is one of those working man’s double guns: strong, sturdy, well-made, dependable, durable – but not a gun of graceful line, artistic engraving, beautifully grained wood with eye-catching checkering, or perfect wood-to-metal fit. You get what you pay for, and this gun sold brand new for about $29, a frugal price but not cheap in those days when a lot of men worked for a dollar or two per day. The Nitro Special was expected to see much hard use in the duck blinds and upland fields, and this one did.
It has a family history, coming into my paternal grandfather’s possession during the Great Depression in Ohio, given to his brother-in-law who took it to Tennessee where it spent many years in the corner of a closet. It was passed down to my father about thirty years ago, and he gave it to me after discovering that it had a nasty vice: it kicked like a mule.
Some family heirlooms are maintained in pristine original condition, but that was not the fate of my Lefever double. It was far from pristine when I acquired it, and my purpose was not to keep it in battered condition as a relic of family members’ hunting histories, or to restore it to its factory-new appearance. I wanted to hunt with it, and that meant modernizing it. Some modern-dimension reconfiguring would reduce the punishment inflicted upon my cheekbone each time I pulled the triggers, too, and that seemed like a good idea.
I bought a piece of aged walnut from a wood worker and cut and shaped a new buttstock – wider and much straighter than the factory stock that had a three-inch drop at heel (the main reason the old Nitro Special comb wickedly whacked the shooter in the face with each shot). I attached a recoil pad, but recently replaced it with a hard plastic buttplate that has a more classic look and fits me better.
The barrels were advertised as having modified and full chokes when the gun was new and paper shotshells had fiber and cardboard wads, but with modern plastic shotcup loads the barrels were “full and fuller,” patterning about 80 and 85 percent. A machinist friend opened up the chokes until the patterns were improved-cylinder in the right barrel and modified in the left. I had a gunsmith lengthen the forcing cones of the chambers, which also reduces recoil (in theory), had the barrels reblued, and sent the receiver off to have its case coloring restored.
The Nitro Special was my sporting clays gun for one summer, but its age was showing. Parts broke: firing pins, hammer springs, sears, extractors. Having new parts made was expensive, and the gun was “shooting loose” – the hinge pin was wearing out from too much use. Regardless of what old timers may tell you, ordinance grade steel in the 1920s was not of better quality than it is today. I solved the loose hinge problem with a paper-thin shim of hammered brass, which will last for more rounds that I will ever put through the old action.
The Lefever was reassigned as a bird gun, but it has not spent many days in the field over the past several years. It weighs 7 ¼ pounds, and I am not getting any younger. My 16-gauge Lefever Nitro Special (which has undergone similar modernization) weighs 6 ¾ pounds, my 20-gauge Browning BSS sporter weighs 6 ½ pounds, and my 28-gauge Ugartechea Upland Classic weighs 5 ½ pounds, and all are better balanced and quicker handling than the beloved but bulky 12-gauge double. So this 12-gauge Nitro Special was always left behind in the gun safe when other bird guns went out to play.
Until late in this pheasant season.
Not sure why I was seized by the desire to take the Nitro Special afield again. Maybe nostalgia after a family Christmas weekend. I removed the recoil pad which had become hardened and discolored over the years, and attached the aforementioned buttplate, filing and sanding it to fit the stock’s profile. I loaded some 12-gauge shotshells with 1 1/8 ounce of No. 5 shot atop a modest charge of powder. The next day a hunting buddy persuaded me to brave the cold and snow and howling wind for a late season hunt. Here was my chance to bag one final pheasant with the grandfather gun.
Near the end of the afternoon I was plowing through a field of chest-high switchgrass, trying to keep track of my French spaniel Abbey who was birdy and kept looking back to tell me, “Hurry! Hurry! The game’s afoot!” As we neared the edge of the field the rooster must have felt he could play the escape-by-running card no longer. He flushed, banked across the 25-mile-per-hour wind, and zoomed past me to the left. I shot behind him with the open-choked barrel but corrected and caught him with the tight barrel. He somersaulted down and Abbey had him before he could burrow under the thick thatch of the switchgrass.
I broke open the action of the Nitro Special and looked it over, muzzle to butt. “Ninety-four years old, and I still got it,” the old gun told me. “And don’t you forget it!”
The grandfather clause: hunt with your grandfather’s bird gun at least a couple days each year. You won’t regret it.
More stories about hunting, fishing, and life in the North Country are published in collections of essays and novels, all available through Amazon.com at Jerry Johnson Author Page