THE PARKER GUN BY RON KIRBY

The story of the Parker gun began well before the American Civil War. This brief history chronicles the development of the Parker shotgun from 1866 to 1942.

Charles Parker started his gun company with his younger brother, but Parker was certainly not new to the manufacturing business. He had apprenticed as a button maker, and had owned a small company that made coffee mills, spoons, eyeglass cases, door knockers, tableware, waffle irons and other household items. By 1832, with a capital outlay of $70.00, he opened his first factory. It was powered by a blind horse hitched to a sweep pole. By 1844 the success of his efforts yielded the factory’s first steam engine, the first such engine in the Connecticut area.

In order to remain competitive, Parker’s company merged several times, and manufactured a wide variety of products ‚ ranging from steam engines, train wheels and printing presses to piano stools. Charles Parker and Snow, Hotchkiss and Company merged in 1854 to create the Meriden Machine Company. They employed 120 men, and operated a foundry and machine shop. At this point the company expanded because of an infusion of capital by Mr. Brooks, and thus became Parker, Snow‚ Brooks and Company. During the Civil War, Parker was not only a stockholder, but the superintendent of the Parker, Snow, Brooks and Company. This company was under Union contracts to produce 10,000 repeating rifles and 15,000 Springfield rifles during the war. This probably sparked Parker’s interest in the firearms industry. By 1869, this jointly owned company was under the sole ownership and control of Charles Parker. This company was called the Meriden Manufacturing Company.

The shotguns produced by this firm were marked “Made by the Meriden Man’f Co. for Charles Parker”. It is estimated that there were only about 700 guns produced. In an early Parker advertisement it was referred to as “The Gun of 1866”. See The Double Gun Journal, Vol. 9, Issue 2 for complete article. It is commonly referred to as the T-latch. The name comes from the T shaped barrel release located on the top tang of the receiver. Pressing the lever at the bottom of the receiver just in front of the trigger guard, released the T-latch causing the barrels to pivot open.

In 1868, Charles and his sons, Wilbur, Charles and Dexter started the company called Parker Brothers. The Parker Brothers Gun Company continued as an independent company until 1934 when it was purchased by the Remington Arms Company. Including the guns made during the Remington Era, just over 242,000 Parker shotguns were produced.

The first Parker Bros. design was called the Lifter action. It used a similar barrel release lever as the T-latch. This was an improvement on the William Miller design. A back-action type lock was first used, but later, it was changed to the front-action type of lock. The back action went into production in 1868 and the front action in 1870. Around 1,000 back actions were produced. Another improvement was made by Wilbur Parker in the lifter action in 1874 and again in 1875. In 1875, a new design for the main barrel/receiver hinge joint called the pintle joint was implemented, as well as the final improvement of the lifter mechanism. This improvement and a forend latch design were made by Charles King, who had recently left Smith and Wesson. By 1878 the gun’s form was such, that major changes would not be made until the top lever design of the early 1880’s. The last major change was the hammerless design which appeared around 1888.

During the time that all of the opening mechanisms were being perfected, the science of barrel production seemed to lag, especially in America. The simplest solution was to purchase barrel tubes from England and Europe. Although the grade of the early Parkers were not marked either in the catalogs or on the guns, the type of barrel steel was the main determining factor. The lowest grade used English Twist steel, and ascended to the highest six-blade Damascus at the top grade. Belgium Damascus is thought to be Parker’s largest supplier, but research is underway to shed light on the importation of barrel steel. French Damascus steel, trade name, Bernard Steel, was used later on one specific grade. English made Whitworth Fluid Steel was an option near the end of the century for Parker’s two highest grades. Experiments were conducted on different types of steel during the period 1868-1878, and some actually made it to market. These were not successful because of both weight and strength. They were designated as plain steel (gun iron), decarbonized steel and laminated steel. All three were discontinued by 1878. So the imported Damascus steel became the barrels of choice of the American sportsman, and the controversy of their strength is being debated even today. In the last years of the 19th Century high quality fluid steel became available from Europe. The American steels dominate within ten years. By the end of World War I, Damascus was no longer available.

The trend of companies during The Gilded Age may have been toward becoming large conglomerates; companies ruthlessly buying-up the competition. Parker Bros., however, remained small. The Charles Parker Company (representing 90% of the total sales) did diversify into many types of goods, like before the war. Parker lamps, clocks and coffee mills were sold throughout the world But, as far as firearms production was concerned, it was decided to produce shotguns only. A part of this “shotguns only” strategy was probably due to the tremendous need for hunting firearms during the peacetime that followed the Civil War. Charles Parker’s experience during the war made him an expert in the mass production of firearms with interchangeable parts. The shotguns only decision caused his mass production worries to be eliminated. To produce the finest shotgun required hand fitting with no room for any built in tolerances. Each part, while cast and milled like their massed produced counterparts, required hand fitting. In 1866, there were only a few makers of good quality shotguns, in the world, and none in America.

Parker Bros. grew with the changes in technology. The availability of electricity to power machinery and lighting cannot be forgotten, changing Parker Bros. into a modern factory. Improvements in the rail system made shipping of raw materials and finished goods cheaper. The advances in communication, the telegraph and the telephone, also would speed up production, ordering and delivery.

The advertising strategy of the company does at times‚take a romantic approach to the world of the outdoors. Early factory promotional literature pictures large factory complexes with smoke rising from massive chimneys in an industrial world. Later, as the company matured and market strategies changed, an appeal was made to the theme of “back to nature, man and his dog!” The appeal of a frosty morning hunting grouse.

The product of the Parker Brothers Company was utilitarian in nature. While other goods produced for the consumer may have reflected some taste for opulent decorations, the Parker shotgun did not. The highest grade had fancy wood in the stock, and engraved scenes on the metal surface. The use of gold inlays was very limited, unlike high grades of other gun companies. The “new rich” may have had their Parkers, but the guns themselves were not adorned with the ostentatious trimmings that were evident in the other facets of their lives. It was the basic grade that earned the name, “The Old reliable”.

Collecting Parker shotguns today is a challenging hobby. There are many variations, but they make up a finite number. The best part is that most of these guns are not only collectible, but shootable. The Parker Gun Collectors Association is made of 770 Parker enthusiasts. Our members are collectors and shooters. We are fortunate to have the Parker Bros. factory records available, thanks to the Remington Arms Company. The PGCA offers a Gun Research Service to document individual guns. We are fortunate to have collectors who will research and write for our twenty plus page newsletter, The Parker Pages. The 51 issues make up a valuable resource. We are delighted to be with the OGCA during the July meeting. Come see our exhibits.

Further reading on Parker Shotguns:

Larry Baer The Parker Gun, An Immortal American Classic
Peter Johnson, Parker, America’s Finest Shotgun
Michael McIntosh, The Best Guns Ever Made in America and Best Guns
Don Zutz, The Double Shotgun

Look for the two newest books about Parker shotguns.

Parker Guns, The Old Reliable by Ed Muderlak
The Parker Story Parker by Bill Mullins, Charlie Price, Louis Parker III and Roy Gunther