The first thing I remember is how long the barrel felt when I shouldered the gun. I’m not a big guy now, but at nine, I was small for my age. It was a typical late fall day in Western NY—cold, grey, damp, the kind of weather that resists most efforts to stay warm. But I didn’t feel any atmospheric effects in that moment.
I had pestered my dad for a week to take me hunting. We had recently moved to another part of town, I was missing my friends, and being out in the woods. We spent a lot of time in the woods, and I think I felt more at home there than in my house. That Saturday, we walked through the parking lot of the apartment complex, shotgun in hand—imagine doing that today!—to a small patch of woods we hoped might be home to some rabbits or squirrels.
The hunt was a bust as far as I remember. I don’t think we saw anything at all, let alone brought anything home for the stew pot. But from the moment we left the house until we were nearly back to civilization, I was asking if I could shoot the gun. Possibly against his better judgment, he relented.
I’ve written here before about my fascination with firearms growing up. There was something about the mechanics, the machining, the wood, the smell of burnt powder and oil that was captivating. At nine years old, I really didn’t understand the machining operations it took to produce a pump-action shotgun, but I spent a fair amount of time looking at it, cycling the action, trying to figure out how it worked. And I simply had to know what it felt like to fire it.
I’d seen my dad fire it on several occasions while out in the woods. It may have been loud, I don’t recall. Oddly, I remember more the sound of the action being cycled—the familiar shuck-shuck of a pump action—than the gunshot itself. That day, I knew nothing of Newton’s Third Law of Motion and how it would translate into recoil. But it turns out, a six and a half pound Ithaca Model 37 Featherlight in 16 gauge would have a pretty significant impact on a smallish nine year-old.
The Model 37 was introduced in—wait for it—1937. Gun companies were famous for their highly creative naming conventions back in the day. It was based on a John Browning design that became the basis for the Remington Model 17. By the early 1930s, both Remington and Winchester were selling pump-action shotguns and Ithaca wanted in on the action, so to speak. They started with the Model 17, tweaked it a bit and were set to introduce it in 1933 as the—you guessed it—Model 33. However, it was learned the patents on the Model 17 wouldn’t expire for another four years, so Ithaca held introduction and changed the name to the Model 37.
Of course, 1937 was a terrible time to introduce a new sporting shotgun, and the company struggled to sell them. However, after WWII wrapped up, they re-started production in earnest and the Model 37 became the longest continually produced pump-action shotgun, exceeding even the Winchester Model 12 which was the chief rival/inspiration for the 37. Well over 2,000,000 copies have been made during the various incarnations of Ithaca Gun Company.
A Bargain Table Find
A few weeks ago, my friend Darrius and I were slowly making our way through the aisles of the local gun show. After moving to Tennessee, I originally started frequenting the gun shows to pick up new guns at slightly better prices than in the gun stores. Having acquired what I need in the way of modern polymer guns, I now go with eyes toward the old wood and steel models. I’ve written before about my love for old guns made on manual mills by craftsman and fitted with beautiful walnut furniture. Takes me back to my youth, I suppose.
At any rate, we had covered most of the ground at this particular show when I saw a few shotguns sitting by themselves at the end of a long booth. One caught my eye immediately as there was no side ejection port. It was a Model 37.
My dad was a lefty, and as such, shooting a right-handed gun with a side ejection port—such as my grandfather’s Winchester Model 12—would fling empty shells across his face when cycling the action. There were very few, if any, left-handed side-eject shotguns made in the 1950s, so the best bet for any lefty was a Model 37 (or a Remington Model 17 if one could be found). Both the 37 and 17 are bottom ejecting designs, so they work equally well for right- and left-handed shooters.
As a kid, I was fascinated by the bottom-eject design as everyone else we hunted with had side-ejection 870s, 1100s, 12s, 1200s, and whatnot. Another thing I loved about that gun was the engraved scene of a pheasant flushing in front of a dog on the right side of the receiver and ducks coming into a pond on the left side. With no side-ejection port, both sides of the receiver were a blank canvas, put to good use by the artisans at Ithaca.
That gun on the table was like a magnet to this grown up kid. I’ve seen 37s at gun shows before but they often carry price tags over (sometimes well over) $400. As I don’t really need another shotgun, it’s tough to justify the cost for one. I flipped over the tag and couldn’t believe my eyes.
I picked up the gun, took a quick look at it and cycled the action. I looked at Darrius and said, “You have to feel this action.” It was like it ran on ball bearings. I have vague recollections of Ithaca taking crap for its single operating bar—or maybe it was just marketing hype from Remington promoting their dual bar setup on the 870. Having both an 870 and now a 37, I can tell you the 37 is on a whole different level of slickness.
Turning the gun over and over, I noted much of the bluing on the receiver was worn of; it had obviously been carried in the field—a lot. The stock was a bit beat up and had been refinished, and not terribly well. But, peaking down the barrel, it looked clean, and way out there at the end was one more characteristic I can never forget from my dad’s 37—the bright pink fiber optic bead front sight.
As I said, I don’t really need another shotgun. So I put it down and walked away. For a few minutes. I noticed some other guys looking at the gun while Darrius and I looked at a few handguns across the booth. But the more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t get it out of my head that this gun was there for me. Especially since it was a 16 gauge.
Ahead of Their Time or Just Oddballs
It’s unclear to me today why my father’s side of the family jumped on the 16 gauge bandwagon. They all did, however. I remember my dad telling me that they all shot the same gauge so if one ran out of shells on a hunt, they could share. That makes sense. But why the 16 instead of the 12 (or 20)? That I don’t know.
The most reasonable explanation is that they were largely upland hunters. My grandfather and his brother were pheasant and quail hunters primarily, and as my dad grew up, he fell into bird hunting as well. It was said the 16 gauge was the gun that carried like a 20 and hit like a 12. Doing a little study of the ballistics of the rounds, I believe that to be generally true. There’s not much a 2 3/4” 12 gauge can do that a 16 can’t do just as well, and in a smaller, lighter, faster handling gun. In that context, the choice of 16 gauge makes sense.
Perhaps it’s just nostalgia, or my own inherent odd-ness, but I too am enamored of the 16 gauge. Sure, my first shotgun was a 12 gauge, given to me by my maternal grandfather (he never really enjoyed hunting much), and the first one I bought was an 870 also in 12 gauge.
A few years back, I got my grandfather’s Model 12 and began to appreciate the trim lines and easy swing of the Sweet 16. When I found an old Remington 11-48 in 16 gauge at a gun show for $200, I decided to beat the guy up for another $20 and take it home—well after the mandatory 10-day waiting period in sunny California. That’s an incredibly fun gun to shoot and will be the focus of another article.
Seeing this Model 37, in 16 gauge, all lonesome and unwanted, I decided those in charge of the gun universe had decreed I should take it home—especially since it was priced at a crazy low $275. Arriving home—after Darrius informed my wife that he had nothing to do with my decision to purchase the gun—I did a little research. As best as I can tell, my gun was made in 1951, which is close to when my dad would have purchased his.
The gun is well used, but is mechanically sound. A quick internet search turned up a disassembly guide, which led me into the inner workings of a rather dirty gun. After a few hours, I had it all cleaned up, re-oiled and reassembled. Remember how I said I felt the action was running on ball bearings? Now, it feels like ball bearings running in teflon tracks. It is quite possibly the slickest pump action I’ve ever handled.
On the Skeet Field
The other day, I talked my buddy Ken into shooting some skeet with me. A avid skeet shooter, it doesn’t take much. I love the game of skeet, but I’m not terribly good at it. After a few rounds, though, I was becoming one with the 37. We broke a lot of clays together and the day ended with my first ever experience of breaking both clays at station 8.
For the uninitiated, station 8 is on the center point of the line running between the high and low houses. You face each house for the pull, wait for the bird and one has about 2 seconds to find the bird, get the gun in front of the bird and shoot the bird. I end up with the gun pointed about 70 degree into the air when I shoot. It all happens very, very fast.
I think I may have broken one clay at station 8 on occasion—usually with Ken’s Beretta A400—but never both. And typically, I miss them both. But with the fast swing of the Featherlight, I not only broke both clays, I dusted them. And, since I had one option clay left, I broke another one at Station 8 from the low house, just for fun.
Connections to the Past
I’ve taken quite a shine to my new, old Model 37. Sure, I’m a bit nostalgic, and I know this isn’t my dad’s gun (my brother has that one), but this one helps connect me to my dad.
As I stood there in that cold, damp field, struggling to hold the barrel up, pointing at nothing in particular, I pulled the trigger. In the blink of an eye, I was pushed back two or three steps and the gun was no longer in my hands, but my dad’s. His arms were out, palms up, cradling the gun. I hadn’t noticed him there before I pulled the trigger and I asked him how he knew I was going to drop the gun. “Just had a feeling, son,” he replied. “You alright?” he asked me. “Yes. That was awesome! Can I shoot it again?” “Maybe when you’re just a little older, OK?”
Forty three years later, guns no longer leave my control when I fire them. But when I shoulder the 37, I can’t help thinking of that nine year-old kid, and the love of shooting that began the moment the firing pin struck the primer. Though this Model 37 nearly 70 years old, it shows no signs of slowing down. I’m pretty sure it will outlive me and be dusting clays long after I’m gone.