Elsie Rides Again, Part 1…

L.C. Smith hammerless 12-gauge, grade No.0

Perusing the Shelves at Pinto’s Guns I came across an L.C. Smith 12-gauge double. It looked pretty bad; it had been liberally slathered with shellac at some point- metalwork, wood, everything, presumably to protect it as a wall-hanger. The bores were obviously somewhat pitted- hard to tell about the right-hand barrel; couldn’t see past the spiderwebs and lint. No, I’m not kidding. The fore-end was broken and the nut had been crudely replaced. It was, in a word, ugly.

On the other hand it locked up like a bank vault, and when I rang the barrels it was like a church bell (this indicates that the barrels are still solidly joined.) The triggers were fantastic, and everything was there and worked as it should. I thought if nothing else it might serve as a donor-gun for a double-rifle project I’ve had in mind. It was also dirt cheap- which didn’t stop me from negotiating a bit. We quickly arrived at a satisfactory price, and we walked out with the shotgun.

No, that’s not lighting. It’s the shellac which has yellowed with age.

L.C. Smith started in the gun trade making the Baker Triple-barrel gun in around 1881, and moved into double-barrel hammer shotguns shortly thereafter. These were fine shotguns; in 1884 prices ranged from $55-$300, which was a hell of a lot of money in those days. They began to make hammerless guns a few years later, which ranged from $80-$450! In 1888 L.C.Smith sold the company to Hunter Arms and went into the typewriter business.

Hunter Arms produced the L.C.Smith shotguns until 1945, when they were bought out by Marlin. The brand survived until 1971- a pretty long and illustrious history for an American brand.

The particular gun I bought is the second lowest grade they produced the year it was made- a Grade No.0., which was listed at $48. For perspective that was significantly more than the average monthly income, which was around $39. In modern terms, adjusted for the current average monthly wage, this would make it the equivalent of a shotgun costing several thousand dollars. These were not by any means an average sportsman’s gun!

The broken fore-stock. This damage is mirrored on the other side. You can see the beautiful damascus pattern through the shellac.

Arriving home I cleaned the barrels- bad, but not too bad; minor pitting pretty much down the length of the barrels. I checked into some tools and consulted a friend in the trade, and it seems likely the bores can be honed into a decent condition; there is more than ample metal remaining. In an emergency I’d have no real qualms about firing it; though I frankly can’t imagine an emergency that would require me to.

Ugly, gloopy shellac. Yuck!

Wait, Tinker… did you say fire it? But it’s damascus! Have you got a death-wish?

OK, we’ve covered this. People in Europe think we’re nuts not to shoot our damascus guns; they do it all the time. Hell, the big proof houses regularly proof damascus guns, and there are folks right here in the U.S. that perform this service privately. Not to mention hundreds of aficionados that hunt and even shoot sporting clays with them. One fellow I am acquainted with puts several thousand rounds a year through his doing this.

Mind you, this is an antique shotgun and needs to be treated as such; you should not fire such a gun without having it looked at by a qualified gunsmith. Also using relatively mild loads is advisable to prolong it’s working life, but within those limitations there’s no reason not to shoot it, and I fully intend to. ‘Nuff said.

Not at all a bad-looking piece of wood despite the shellac. English Walnut, according to the catalog.

My friend in the trade advised me that alcohol would remove the shellac, but I found acetone worked better. I spent a couple of hours this afternoon with rags, 0000 steel wool and a toothbrush and removed it all. Underneath was, well, a pretty decent old shotgun.

From the wear on the checkering, both here and on the fore-stock, this gun had a long working life!
With the shellac removed this is some very pretty wood.
Now that it’s cleaned up the pattern of the damascus really pops.

I’m planning to replace the fore-stock and hone the bores, but what, if anything, will I do on top of that? I don’t know. Certainly I’ll have the side-plates off and clean out the action as needed, and likely I’ll remove the trigger-guard to facilitate cleaning up around the triggers. I could go with straight conservation, light restoration or go whole-hog. Whatever I do eventually, I’ve already started with conservation. Likely I will fully refinish the stock to match the new fore-end, but I have no firm plans past that.

However far I take it, I’m very much looking forward to the process, and the results!

Michael Tinker Pearce, 7 December 2019

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