by Ed Wall
I bought a new shotgun recently. Well, not actually new, but new to me. It wasn’t that I needed another gun. I have several suitable for hunting anything that runs or flies in this part of the country.
But sometimes you just need to try something different, something that may be a little better somehow or allow you to perform at a higher level. In my case, it was a nice little over-under with beautiful engraving on the receiver and a balance that seems just right.
In finding space in the gun cabinet for my new acquisition, I had to rearrange a few others. As I did that, my eyes fell on an old, well-worn shotgun leaning up in a corner of the cabinet like a somewhat ill-at-ease teen standing off to one side at a dance, glad to be there but reluctant to join his flashier peers.
In this case, though, the old gun is far from its adolescent years. It’s a 16 gauge, single-barrel model with an exposed hammer. Stamped on the left side of the receiver is “Iver Johnson’s Arms and Cycle Works, Fitchburg, Mass., USA.” On the top of the barrel, barely visible, are the words, “Pat’d June 15, 16 Pat’s Pending.” The numbers probably refer to the years 1915 and 1916 since that would correspond to the time period when Iver Johnson firearms were being produced in great quantities.
Iver Johnson immigrated to Worcester, Mass. from Norway in 1863. A gunsmith by trade and an inventor by nature, he and another gunsmith went into business in 1871 and received a number of patents for firearm innovations. Johnson bought his partner out in 1883 and the firm’s name changed to Iver Johnson & Company.
It changed again, to Iver Johnson’s Arms and Cycle Works in 1891 when it moved to Fitchburg and began producing bicycles and motorcycles as well as firearms. The company eventually dropped its cycle operations and focused on firearms manufacturing, primarily pistols, and shotguns.
Although Iver Johnson passed away in 1895, his three sons continued his namesake company and managed to weather the shaky economic times of the Great Depression. It was said that their success was due, at least in part, to the large number of armed robbery crimes, which helped maintain demand for personal firearms during that turbulent period. The company remained strong up to and through World War II and eventually underwent changes in ownership and location. The Iver Johnson corporate name was finally dropped in 1993.
Iver Johnson firearms, especially the pistols, were noted for their safety features. An early advertisement showed a small girl with one of their revolvers and, among other things, maintained that “Accidental Discharge Impossible.”
The guns were not fool-proof, however, when in the hands of lunatics. Both President William McKinley and Sen. Robert Kennedy were assassinated with Iver Johnson revolvers. Interestingly, both guns were small caliber (.32 and .22 respectively) – not the type generally associated with terrorist acts.
My old Iver Johnson Arms & Cycle Works shotgun was never involved in such nefarious deeds, at least as far as I know. It was given to my dad by my grandfather who used it on the farm to dispatch chicken-stealing foxes and the like. When I was growing up, it sat in the back of mom and dad’s closet where it was strictly off-limits to curious kids under the threat of corporal punishment.
The first time I remember seeing the old gun fired was when Dad loaded it and me in his pick-up truck and took us to a turkey shoot being put on by some local civic organization. Even though its open choke was designed to spread a shot pattern over a wide swath, the shotgun put enough pellets in a target that when we got home, I was proudly toting a frozen turkey wrapped in Piggly Wiggly wax paper.
The only hunting Dad ever used the old Iver Johnson for was rabbit hunting with a pack of beagles. We went nearly every Saturday and most holidays during the season and I don’t remember ever coming home empty-handed. That old 16-gauge usually accounted for a good number of those bagged.
When I got to be a teenager and started thinking about keeping up appearances, I asked Dad once why he didn’t retire that beat-up, old shotgun and buy a new one, maybe a nice Remington or Browning. I’ve never forgotten his explanation, “It’s all I need; it shoots when I pull the trigger and it hits what I aim at.”
As I’ve gotten older and (at least I think) a little wiser, I’ve come to understand that is the ultimate standard for any firearm. It also helps if it has some good memories attached to it. The Iver Johnson has plenty, in addition to those halcyon days spent in the rabbit woods with Dad.
There were the times I took a girlfriend (later my wife) dove hunting and impressed her with how I could knock those speedy little birds out of the sky with that old single-shot. (The gun’s open bore would do the job if you let the birds get within range).
There were also countless outings with my best buddy, Jim, along the wooded Neuse River floodplain where we harvested squirrels and woodcock, or kicked rabbits out of brush piles on those rare winter mornings when snow blanketed the ground.
And, there was one memorable occasion when I had a shot at the first fox squirrel I had ever seen. I carefully cocked the hammer and pulled the trigger and all I heard was “click” – nothing more. I cocked it again and got the same result. On about the fourth or fifth try, the shotgun finally fired but, by that time, the squirrel had decided there was something going on and took off for more remote places. My shot hit harmlessly in the top of a sweet gum tree and Jim commenced rolling around on the ground laughing. I didn’t realize the shotgun’s firing pin had gotten so worn that it had developed a “hit or miss” tendency.
As I held that old Iver Johnson recently, all those memories came flooding back. I ran my hand across the scratches in its stock and lifted it to my shoulder a time or two just to make sure it still fits. It does. And, I bet it can still knock down a dove or two. I may take it out one day this season and see. In the meantime, I placed it carefully back in its customary place in the cabinet where it’s much more than just another gun.